"On the sideline there, they are wanting that football," Hudspeth said. "And rightly so. They've caught the ball pretty well, except for the other night when we had a couple on the ground."
Yes, about the other night, in Tuscaloosa. An evening when as the game developed through three quarters there was an increased need to make plays via passing. Opportunity was even there, sometimes, but whether it was not getting the ball delivered or the targets not completing catches those chances weren't seized. Hudspeth counted three clear drops, all of which would have kept drives going. It was something not expected, or rather not by this November point.
"We had some drops against Auburn, we haven't had any since then. Our guys have caught the ball extremely well, until the other night. Then we had those three drops. But they'd been catching the ball I felt pretty good."
By which the coach meant catching what chances were thrown their way(s). As all know, during their six-victory streak the Bulldog offense was almost disproportionately dependant on rushing. Of offensive snaps in the streak over 70% were runs, called either from the sideline or on the fly. In Division I games it was 73% by the way.
All quite understandable given how Coach Mullen regards his 2010 offense. "We're a running, play-action team," he repeated Monday, since the current squad's strengths are the offensive line, a quarterback with size and speed, and a stable of tailbacks. So Mississippi State has, no pun intended, run things this way offensively most of the season.
This doesn't mean the air aspect is ignored; simply that this is where much more development is required. And as Hudspeth reminds, "You know, we don't have anybody on the field over a sophomore at this point. No juniors, no seniors. So we're very young and immature." It was already going to be a greenish group even before lone senior Leon Berry was lost to a broken ankle. Hudspeth by the way hopes to get the upperclassman back in time for a bowl game. "The later, the better!" he grinned.
What is not a joke at the moment is how much growing his squad still needs. Not just in age, either, but physically. This is not the biggest bunch in either height nor bulk, though for evidence of progress Hudspeth notes how soph Brandon Heavens has gone from a 155-pound (generously) rookie to 175 this second season. Making them taller, well, that's beyond even Coach Matt Balis' abilities…probably?
Mention of muscle is not a coincidence because with a run-first offense Hudspeth has had to pound a fact with his pups.
"One thing they don't understand, it's a 60-play game for the most part and great receivers may catch four passes a game. That leaves the other 56 plays you have to contribute in other ways. Young guys have to understand that. Once they mature and realize there's more to my job than just catching passes, then they have a chance to be good players."
Besides, getting more physical is as much a key to beating the increased man-to-man coverage SEC opponents stick on State. So many first- and even second-year State receivers are still learning the finer points of out-smarting a third- or fourth-year SEC veteran. That will come in time, but for now these Dogs have to do it the harder way when as Hudspeth said, "Teams try to lock us down."
"So we're going to have to try to beat man coverage and hopefully improve in our perimeter blocking. You have to get a little tougher. Our guys have just got to get in there and fight more." And, he said, clean up those dropped balls. Now. "Even week-ten in practice, once you stop trying to improve fundamentally you go backwards."
What MSU fans clamoring for more throw-and-catch also overlook is how the split receivers have been hurt by a September injury to a tight target. The game-two loss of TE Marcus Green has allowed defenses to, for the most part, not be concerned with covering some areas of the middle field; or devoting a linebacker to track this one threat which leaves one more defender around the box against the rush.
"Obviously we haven't had our tight end game as big a part of our game as it would have been if Green was still healthy," said Hudspeth. "And Brandon Henderson wasn't healthy for a while, too. So you have to rely more on two-back offense, instead of one back and a tight end. But I think it's been good. Obviously Les and Dan have done a great job adapting to our personnel we have at this time. And our guys have stepped up in some other positions and done well."
Well enough to win six-straight games, that is. At the same time Alabama showed how fragile this revised approach remains, and just how much MSU will surely need more and bigger passing plays in the two upcoming SEC West showdowns. Maybe State can still succeed with 70-plus-percent ground pounding…but hitting the occasional downfield strike would certainly simplify things.
"But they want to contribute," Hudspeth said. "The thing that Coach Mullen is trying to get across to them is you can still do a lot for your team in other ways than catching passes. That's being a great downfield blocker and springing those runs into big runs. That's where our guys come into play."
For this year, at least. In the future? The room for individual and collective maturing is obvious and Hudspeth sees potential to meet the opportunity. Take freshman Michael Carr as an example of what the 2010 passing game is not but what it can be in '11 and beyond. Specifically, the true rookie has not caught a pass so far…but he has rushed the ball four times with 42 yards gained and is being worked into kickoff return duty here late in the year.
A player capable of those roles can definitely make things happen in his titled position, in time. Which Hudspeth reminds is what Carr did not get because he didn't qualify for summer enrollment. Playing him now is a little unfair, but necessary.
"He is the whole summer behind, and even when he started in fall camp he didn't get the reps he would have had he been in great shape. So he missed out on a lot of fall camp reps, these other guys had been running with Coach Balis for two months. But he's made up a lot of ground, though. You can see he's got a chance to be special when he's got the ball in his hands."
The same holds for the entire wideout group. They aren't getting the ball in their hands as often as they wish this fall, nor as much as the coaching staff originally planned for that matter. At the MSU moment it comes down to using the proven tools available to plan and play with. Hudspeth understands.
"But if this group will stay together, with the freshmen we have coming in or that are redshirting, this group has a chance to be an outstanding group."