All the highs and lows that Mississippi State coach Mike Leach and his "Air Raid" offense experienced last season overshadowed what may have been college football's most persistent player.
Aaron Brule led all linebackers in the Bowl Subdivision last season with a whopping 192 snaps rushing the passer, 39 total quarterback pressures and 27 quarterback hurries, with those numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Yet the 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior from New Orleans tallied only four sacks for Leach and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, making the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow a very rare occurrence.
Coaches often claim the sack is the sport's most overrated stat and that simply affecting the quarterback is much more pertinent, but a sack is what Brule always hopes to accomplish once he arrives in the opposing backfield.
"It can get frustrating when you come up empty, so you have to wipe it off," Brule said at SEC Media Days. "Our coaches always say it's a next-man-up and a next-play-up mentality, so you move on to the next play. You are doing the same thing over and over, but Coach Arnett does a great job of making sure we're letting go of things and getting to the next play."
Mississippi State finished 4-7 in Leach's debut, opening with a stunning 44-34 win at LSU — which was coming off a 15-0 national championship season — before losing four consecutive contests. The Bulldogs were 2-7 after a 24-10 home loss to Auburn, but they closed with a 51-32 surprise whipping of Missouri before topping No. 22 Tulsa 28-26 in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Last season transpired without Leach and Arnett having a spring practice to implement their systems.
"When we came back for the fall, we had to cram in everything in the practices and scrimmages," Brule said. "Even when we were playing in our first game at LSU, we were putting in plays on the sideline and literally running plays off what we had just talked about on the sideline. Obviously in that game we were able to show things that we are capable of, but we had some slumps, which can happen with a new program.
"Toward the end of the season, we were able to implement what our culture really is. We won our last two games, and we wound up playing a lot of true freshmen."
Mississippi State vaulted to a No. 16 national ranking after its win in Baton Rouge, but reality set in the following week when Arkansas ended a 20-game SEC losing streak with a 21-14 win in Starkville.
"I don't think we got a false sense as much as we were an evolving team and so was LSU," Leach said. "I think that we played several other quality teams extremely close. Then I think our inexperience caught up with us.
"In some cases, although everybody dealt with it, you never knew where it would hit or who was available to play from one week to the next, but we got better as the year went on."
Last year: 4-7 (3-7 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana Tech in Starkville (4 p.m. on ESPNU)
Fun fact: This is the 80-year anniversary of Mississippi State’s lone SEC championship.
Up next: Missouri
The Bulldogs look to build off their finish with the sophomore offensive trio of quarterback Will Rogers, running back Jo'quavious Marks and receiver Jaden Walley. Rogers wound up replacing Stanford graduate transfer K.J. Costello, completing 239 of 346 passes (69.1%) for 1,976 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Walley set a school record for freshman receivers with 52 catches for 718 yards (13.8 per reception) and two touchdowns.
Though this could be another year of the Air Raid grabbing headlines whether successful or not, it's Brule and the defense serving as the backbone after finishing among the SEC's top five last season against the run and overall.
"If you look around the NFL and things of that sort, you'll see we have many defensive guys in the league doing great, great things," Brule said. "When I signed to Mississippi State out of high school, I knew what I was coming into. I knew we had to be a blue-collar, hard-working group of players. I always look forward going into games and keeping that chip on our shoulder when we're practicing.
"It's just about proving people wrong, like Mississippi State has always done."
Brule loves the "chill" factor to Starkville that he doesn't have in New Orleans, but he is ready for the chaos that can occur in Davis Wade Stadium once those cowbells are unleashed. He missed that about last season, and he's confident that a 4-7 record can quickly be reversed.
"If you think about the history of Coach Leach's programs, he's won really everywhere," Brule said. "Yet all of his first seasons were not his best seasons, just like we had last year, but eventually his programs will sprout up.
"I also think our baseball team winning the national championship will help pass along a winning culture to the other programs."
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