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April 11, 2008

Varnado an easy choice as top defender

MORE: Rivals.com All-Defensive Team

It's tough to get a group of coaches in any conference to agree on anything. That's what makes Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado all the more impressive.

SEC coaches unanimously voted Varnado as the league's defensive player of the year. He left them little, if any, choice to vote for anyone else.

Varnado, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound sophomore, had 157 blocks this season, matching the SEC single-season record set by former LSU star Shaquille O'Neal in 1991-92. Varnado had more blocks than 305 teams, including nine of the other 11 SEC squads (LSU had 196 and Arkansas 182).

Varnado's 4.6 blocks per game led the nation and were nearly two blocks more per game than any other player in the SEC.

"I've always prided myself on defense," said Varnado, who also ranked sixth in the SEC with 7.8 rebounds a game. "I knew I was going to be a big man. Growing up, I was always the tallest kid in class and I've always had long arms and good instincts."

That staggering amount of blocks, along with the countless number of shots Varnado altered, made the Bulldogs one of the nation's top defensive teams. Opponents shot 37.0 percent from the field, the second-lowest percentage in Division I. All those blocks also made Varnado the easy choice for the Rivals.com's 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year award.

"It's obvious Jarvis was a huge part of us winning a championship (the SEC West title) and holding opponents to such a low field-goal percentage," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "Any time you can control the middle, you are going to have success, and he did that for us. He is special player and very deserving of the honor."

Varnado wasn't even deserving of a starting job last season, when he averaged 13.5 minutes per game. Stansbury wanted more minutes from Varnado a four-star recruit with a 7-foot-4 wingspan but he would get winded quickly and that often would lead to foul trouble. Indeed, Varnado finished last season with more fouls (74) than blocks (67).

But during the offseason, Varnado had that "the light came on" moment; it happened during a pep talk from Bulldogs strength and conditioning coach Richard Akins.

"He told Jarvis, 'Look, Charles Rhodes is going to be gone (after the 2007-08) season and you're the next guy who is going to be the leader of the bigs,' " said Winston Varnado, who coached his son during his senior season at Brownsville (Tenn.) Haywood High. "Jarvis told me he had never thought of it like that. It made him start to focus. It challenged him."

Varnado weighed 195 pounds when he first showed up in Starkville. But a summer of weightlifting added a much-needed 15 pounds of muscle and put him in far better shape.

"Jarvis always was a very good shot-blocker, but he got stronger and increased his stamina," Stansbury said. "He was more experienced, too. There's no substitute for experience. But the endurance and the strength really helped. He wasn't getting bumped around like before. You could just see him getting better and better."

Varnado started the season-opener and blocked six shots in 26 minutes in the Bulldogs' 75-45 rout of Louisiana Tech. He blocked six more shots and grabbed 12 rebounds in the next game, an 84-82 loss to Clemson. Seven games later, Varnado set a school record with 10 blocks in the Bulldogs' 64-58 loss to Miami.

That was one of three 10-block games for Varnado this season; he put together a 10-point, 12-rebound, 10-block performance in the Bulldogs' 69-64 win over Kentucky in a nationally televised game on Jan. 15. That was the third triple-double in school history; current Bulldogs guard Jamont Gordon and former forward Lawrence Roberts have the others. But Varnado's was the first that incorporated blocks. He had seven such triple-doubles as a high school senior.

"I was real focused that game," Varnado said. "I didn't even know I had 10 blocks until someone told me."

Nobody needs to tell Varnado he's one of the nation's top defensive players. That's something on which everyone can agree.

MORE: Rivals.com All-Defensive Team

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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