The Associated Press
Mississippi State's secondary is missing much of the star power that made it so good for three seasons. Safety Jay Hughes says that might not be such a bad thing.
Hughes said cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay — who are both now in the NFL — were terrific players, but the Bulldogs might have become too reliant on their playmaking abilities as the team lost five of six games to end last season.
The new secondary will get a difficult test in the opener against No. 13 Oklahoma State on Aug. 30 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The Cowboys averaged about 45 points and 331 passing yards per game last season.
"Everybody has been saying we're the weakest part of the defense or the team, and we're not trying to hear that," Hughes said.
It remains to be seen if Mississippi State's secondary is indeed a weak link, but there's no denying it's young and inexperienced.
Senior Nickoe Whitley is the lone returning starter after making 88 tackles last season — good for third on the team. But the other three spots will be manned by guys like Hughes, who made 32 tackles last season in a mostly backup role.
Hughes — along with cornerbacks like Cedric Giles and Jamerson Love — will be counted on to handle a much bigger role this season. Hughes says he's relishing the challenge of facing Oklahoma State's accomplished receivers.
"That's all anybody's been talking about," Hughes said. "They say they're better than (former Oklahoma State receivers Justin) Blackmon and Dez Bryant. So if that's true, we're going to have to take care of some business.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Hughes says Mississippi State has the ability to stop Oklahoma State, but must communicate against the up-tempo Cowboys.
The Bulldogs also hope a little extra time in the film room will help spot Oklahoma State's tendencies in the passing game. Hughes said the defense was already studying tape on Tuesday — more than 10 days before the game.
But Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen says it won't be easy to key on one Oklahoma State receiver.
"Their quarterbacks are very accurate and they spread it around to different receivers," Mullen said. "Their offense isn't designed to give one guy the ball."
The big question for the Mississippi State's secondary is who will step up as a big playmaker. Banks, Slay and another departed veteran, Corey Broomfield, combined for 10 of the team's 19 interceptions in 2012.
Banks was especially adept at handling the passing game, using his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame and superior athleticism to often shut down one side of the field for opposing quarterbacks. That's a big reason he won the Thorpe Award last season, which is given to the nation's top cornerback.
There might not be a Thorpe Award winner in this bunch, but Hughes said each player in the secondary is ready to do his part.
And that's exactly what Mullen wants to hear as Mississippi State tries to qualify for a bowl game for a fourth straight season.
"That's what you want in a team," Mullen said. "That's what we tried to build last year. When you look, you want a team that everybody expects to make the play. They're not expecting someone else to do it. Last year you had some guys that when you needed it, they would always make it. But for us, especially with a small senior class as we try to build this team, when your number is called, you have to go make the play."