Meet Mississippi State's odd couple
Co-defensive coordinators Manny Diaz, Chris Wilson roomed together after hiring
Stint as roommates solidified their bond, helped them develop MSU's new scheme
Pair is tasked with improving a defense that allowed 26.8 points per game in 2009
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen had to get creative when he hired his new co-defensive coordinators. With the housing market flat, limited funds available to spend on temporary lodgings and as many as six months before Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson could move their families to Starkville, Miss., Mullen had an idea.
Would the new coordinators mind being roommates?
So Diaz, who came from Middle Tennessee State, and Wilson, who came from Oklahoma, moved in together. They bounced from a corporate apartment to a golf community condo, but the stint solidified their bond and helped them develop the Bulldogs' new defensive scheme.
One night this spring, Mullen enjoyed a quiet dinner with his wife, Megan. After dinner, the Mullens decided to drop in on their favorite coordinator odd couple. "Manny's cooking, and Chris is cleaning," Mullen said, smiling at the memory. "I thought, 'OK, my guys are on the same page.'"
Wilson said he and Diaz struck a deal when they became roommates. The coach who cooked didn't have to clean. "Like an old married couple," Wilson said.
The arrangement allowed Wilson and Diaz to build the defense Mullen envisioned when he hired the pair. "Take Chris, and you have him putting in all the soundness of Oklahoma's defense," Mullen said. "Mix with Manny, who is a very outside-the-box thinker. If you watched Middle Tennessee, they come from every different direction."
Wilson and Diaz were hired to improve a unit that ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense in 2009, allowing 26.8 points per game. The Bulldogs will have to get better, because the departure of tailback Anthony Dixon -- the school's all-time leading rusher -- could mean the offense will need time to find its legs.
Wilson inherited an athletic defensive line that features sophomores Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox at tackle and senior Pernell McPhee at one end. Wilson also has a possible X-factor in junior college transfer James Carmon. The 6-foot-7, 345-pound Carmon played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the same school that produced former Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody. Carmon is taller and leaner than Cody, but if he can learn to keep his pad level down -- something Wilson kept drilling into Carmon's head during spring practice -- he could command two blockers on running plays and open up opportunities for everyone else.
Diaz, meanwhile, inherited a linebacker corps led by senior K.J. Wright, a 6-4, 245-pound playmaker who should enjoy executing Diaz's blitzes. At Middle Tennessee State, Diaz was one of the toughest coordinators in the nation to scheme against because he sent rushers from so many different places.
Diaz may have a slightly different point of view because he didn't originally intend to become a coach. After graduating from Florida State in 1995, Diaz, whose father, also named Manny, is the former mayor of Miami, went to work at ESPN as a production assistant for NFL Live. In January 1997, Diaz was assigned to a crew that would interview Bill Parcells leading up to the Patriots-Packers Super Bowl. "I just wanted to meet him," Diaz said. But as he sat in the room with Parcells, Diaz began to question his career choice. "I said to myself, 'Which one would you rather do?'" he said.
Diaz chose coaching, and he went back to Tallahassee as a graduate assistant. When Seminoles assistant Chuck Amato left to become the head coach at North Carolina State, Diaz went to Raleigh as a graduate assistant. After two years, he became a full-time assistant. While at NC State, Diaz began developing the foundation of his scheme. In most defenses, players who aren't blitzing have loose assignments that depend on what the offense does. Diaz gives his players extremely specific assignments -- almost like an offensive coach would. "They were better when we told them where to go," Diaz said. "We run an offensive defense. We don't even need an offense there to run it. It helps, though." At Middle Tennessee State in 2009, Diaz's offensive defense finished second in the nation in tackles for loss, sixth in sacks, eighth in turnovers gained and 12th in interceptions.
Diaz has brought that same style to Starkville. During one spring practice, he threw linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks at Bulldogs' blockers. They rarely came from the same place twice, and Diaz rarely used the same combination of players.
"Today," Diaz said with a sly grin after the practice, "we were vanilla."
Mississippi State's players love the change. Cox, a former high school sprinter who has bulked up to 300 pounds, relishes the idea of attacking on every play. "I get to move around a lot," Cox said. "I get to get after the quarterback." Wilson will try to ensure Cox gets after the quarterback as quickly as possible. In the spring, he showed his players a drill they've continued to practice on their own throughout the summer. Cox and his fellow defensive linemen have spent plenty of scorching days crouched in their stance inside low metal chutes designed to punish the lazy lineman who allows himself to rise too high while firing out of his stance. Cox says that after a season spent waiting for blockers to make their moves, he and his teammates had to develop quicker first steps. "It's all about stepping straight," Cox said. "Instead of reading and reacting, we're an attacking front."
As roommates, Diaz and Wilson traded notes and devised a scheme they think will best utilize the Bulldogs' athletes. They've since brought their families to Starkville and moved into their own homes, but they hope the time they spent together allowed them to create a defense that will make Mississippi State a player in the SEC. "We work so much together," Wilson said. "The great thing is we're friends, and we're married to the same concepts defensively. That makes things really fun."
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