In the case of spring 2012 there are lots of changes in store for Mississippi State. Head Coach Dan Mullen and staff have been busy practically since returning from the Music City Bowl, saving of course all that time invested in the equally successful Signing Day. Come Thursday afternoon everyone can see the initial notions as spring camp opens.
For offensive coordinator and quarterbacks Coach Koenning this really is a new year. Maybe not in terms of sheer numbers with just five starters gone. But a lot of quality is lost. Gone are the two-year starting quarterback, the record-setting tailback, the two ranking offensive linemen.
So 2012 marks a transition in personnel…and thus in style, Koenning said. "Do we become a tempo offense? Do we become a huddle offense? Do we become an offense that utilizes more tight ends, more wideouts? Those are the critical, critical issues.
"We have to utilize our personnel the way that we can manufacture points and move the football. Because it changes each year, you don't have the same people. Tyler Russell is obviously different than Chris Relf; Dak Prescott is different than Tyler. And Vick Ballard is different than the backs we have now. We've got to change."
It is not a complete change at quarterback. Junior Tyler Russell started four games alternated a lot in five other contests. He was a 54% passer with eight touchdowns and four interceptions, and a better ‘rating' than graduated senior Chris Relf. One good measure, Russell's average completion went for 15.0 yards to 10.6 for Relf.
But that was with a different team and thus a different offensive approach. "Tyler can throw the football," agreed Koenning. "Now we need to work on some other qualities." Which obviously cannot include running the ball much in spring; a pre-bowl knee injury and procedure mean the red jersey Russell wears in camp is hands-off serious. For that matter redshirt freshman Dak Prescott can't be risked now either.
Mullen admitted in February that both varsity quarterbacks will be protected more than normal. A shame in Prescott's case because the kid can scoot. "I think he's a better runner than Chris and more physical," Koenning says. "I think he's a better thrower than Chris but he needs to really work on that area. We'll strive to work on that in spring." As for the contrasts in these two current quarterbacks, Koenning has been through this drill already with Tyson Lee and Relf, then Relf and Russell. "And we've had success working both of them."
Over-working them is another matter. Mullen downplays concerns about spring work wearing his two Dogs down but offers a potential twist. "Honestly, everybody has been wondering for the last couple of years when are we going to snap it to Chad Bumphis or to Jameon Lewis! I think this might give us the opportunity to really force us to have to develop that package that we want to develop."
Coach Angelo Mirando have no shortage of people to run routes. Lots and lots of routes. Even better, says Koenning, "Our wide receivers are probably the older bunch, now they're seniors on the team. So we try to look at all those different areas and try to put our kids in the best position to win."
Bulldog wideouts are indeed older with seniors Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark, and Brandon Heavens. This quartet accounted for exactly 100 of the 146 passes caught by true slot- and wide-receivers last fall, and their varied skills are well-understood by this point. Whether that means they are guaranteed starting jobs, now, might become another matter. All are going to be pushed for greater efforts and executions both to hold off younger and in a couple of cases potentially faster talents as well as inspire them to faster development.
Heavens and junior Ricco Sanders may be under particular pressures from, say, Lewis; or a returned-from-mid-fall-excused Michael Carr. By the same token second-spring sophs like Robert Johnson now need to make major steps forward as younger redshirts showed their stuff in bowl camp. Slot-man Devin Fosselman and split end Joe Morrow get their chance to climb the depth chart now and somebody is about to get passed up.
Speaking of depth, there isn't much at tight end. Or any traditional size either. But converted wideout Malcolm Johnson ended the season with three touchdowns, as well as a 18.7 average gain better than any regular wide receiver. Good things are also expected as classmate Brandon Hill, also a former split end, matures as a tight receiver. But they are all the scholarship tight ends on roster for now, a reason why Koenning indicates a trend towards four-wide sets which include these physical route-runners for matchup purposes.
Replacing Vick Ballard and his career 2,157 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns isn't automatic, but then again Ballard took over from Anthony Dixon quite nicely two years ago. Coach Greg Knox has some ground-grooming ahead starting and LaDarius Perkins is ready for the primary role. He goes into the junior season with 988 career yards and five rushing touchdowns. Perkins actually didn't have quite the same stats in 2011 as he did the year before but nobody else did either.
There is another Perkins-type on the spring roster, and Josh Robinson carries a dozen or so more pounds with comparable speed. He had a fine bowl camp and scrimmage that left fans buzzing. They aren't exactly the same mold, Koenning says.
"Josh showed us some explosiveness. He's showed us some really, really good stuff. I wouldn't say he is faster than LaDarius, but he has been productive in what he's done." Meanwhile it is frustrating to remember what happened in April '11 when freshman Nick Griffin tore a knee ligament. He managed to return to active status in October and in five games rushed for 108 yards with a touchdown. So much more could have been seen if not for the interruption because this is the classic tailback with speed, size, and power.
"I think for Nick it's going to be a big spring," Koenning says. "Because he has to step up. We've been saying it's time for you to grow up because he is one of our bigger backs." The mental part will be one of Koenning's spring obsessions. Perkins can serve as a template to the two younger runners, as well as redshirt Derek Milton, about spring-season priorities. Blocking, first and foremost.
"And again you go through learning stages," says Koenning. "The hardest part for backs is not running the ball. It's protection, it's getting out in routes. All of a sudden you've got to run a route against a linebacker, or protect against a linebacker, that is the sore spot that sticks out."
Related to that, all the fullbacks of last season were underclassmen and back for more. But Koenning has factored this into revised-for-'12 planning. Check the recruiting results for this year, and note the mix of fast and big receivers signed. "As you can see we're getting away from our fullback position with more tight ends so we can go four-wides."
The real blocking is done by the five big Dogs up front. And this is the area of most off-season interest. Mullen pursued and signed two juco offensive linemen and a prep school prospect able to enroll immediately and compete for jobs…immediately.
"Obviously we've lost a lot of folks there," Koenning says. "We've got to get it to where we're moving in the same direction in that area." Though, he adds encouragingly, "I think the neat issue is for the first time we actually have some competition at some positions."
Some? Try three positions at least, and for practical spring purposes four. That one is semi-open pending the status of guard Tobias Smith. "A really, really good football player," Koenning says. "The thing with Tobias is he hasn't played a year yet without being hurt, it's really been sad." His loss last September rippled through the rest of the year and kept State from achieving similar results.
"He's a guy we really miss inside, you know he's been a mainstay since we've been here and he's started and been there for us," says Koenning. "Obviously he creates a lot of flexibility for us if he's healthy. And I don't think we'll see much of him in spring. Because we'll be in the development of all those young guys. To me that's a critical, critical area for us."
It is safe enough saying senior Gabe Jackson is secure as one guard, since he can play either side of center. Let the scrambling for alternate and backup jobs begin then, with senior Templeton Hardy heading the initial checklist. "Templeton is a guy who has played both guard and tackle for us, he can fit in. He's a senior and he needs to get to a point where he can compete."
Redshirt Nick Redmond was working at guard last fall, and now gets into real competition. Guard and center are almost interchangeable for Coach John Hevesy—"That's the flexibility we have," Koenning says—and a 2011 center might move there again. "It depends on how (juco transfer) Dylan Holley comes along," Koenning says. Holley jumps right into competition with soph Dillon Day, who himself became a starter last fall because of Smith's injury and resulting moves.
Besides, "The one position you don't want to be too light at is center. You start shuffling around and it's never a pretty issue to match up size-wise. So that's some of the things in spring we'll find out. With Dillon and Dylan at center you're going to have some competition there." Ditto at left tackle which much-sought juco Charles Siddoway was inked for. "Obviously he's a more mature kid and been through a lot more than others. We've got him penciled in at left tackle," Koenning says.
"He or Blaine Clausell can move to right tackle but with them we have two athletic tackles who can really move." Clausell was thrust into four starts last fall when James Carmon was sidelined with predictable results for a redshirt freshman at left tackle. Koenning liked the run-blocking well enough. "But pass protection you need to be very fundamentally sound and ready to play. Especially in this league."
Right tackle is open from graduation of Addison Lawrence as well. Damien Robinson, who spent a year at reserve guard, is back at the projected position. "We made that move late last year in bowl practice and it really paid off. He played better as a tackle and I thought that was a big issue for us. Because he's so big it takes a lot to get around him!"
Siddoway is all the more vital now at either end as promising soph Archie Muniz hurt a knee in November practice and will probably miss contact after surgery. Joey Trapp's versatility will be needed for spring drills that much more, as redshirts Daniel Knox and Justin Malone get their first real tests to find their own best positions.
"It's time for those younger kids to step up," says Koenning. "And we've added some numbers to it, too. To me it's critical, critical that that part of our game steps up."
Come the spring game, a committee made of many thousand State fans can issue their report on what progress has been made towards the new-for-2012 Bulldog offense.
Tuesday: Coach Chris Wilson on the spring defense.