Meaning, Bulldog tight ends will be route-runners and pass-catchers first and foremost this fall. This was very evident in spring training when Sallach more often than not lined his personnel up in the slot or flanked them out entirely. With, he reported, encouraging results.
"I thought we got a lot better as the spring went on," Sallach said.
In reality this transition got underway last fall, though out of sheer necessity and often as not because of injury. Not, for a change, to Marcus Green as he was able to put in a complete season after a career full of physical setbacks. Green caught eleven balls for a 17.1-yard average and one touchdown, nothing like his big 2009 numbers but still a nice finish. But Green was the only veteran ‘big' tight end on the '11 roster, and now he is graduated.
Leaving behind a collection of titled tight ends with neither the age nor size of their predecessors. As Sallach immediately noted during his first official pre-spring meeting with the guys.
"I knew coming into the spring we had a really long way to go because we lost a lot of guys at tight end," Sallach said. "All we had in my room were young guys and a redshirt freshmen. "The only guy who got true snaps last year was Malcolm Johnson. And he didn't really get a lot of snaps. He played some snaps at tight end but got a lot more snaps in special teams."
Upon such a green base, though, Sallach and coordinator Les Koenning expect to grow something good this season. Something different, too, based on how the top two '12 tight ends have been developed. Both came to campus in 2010 as wide receivers, after all. Bigger than the usual wideout, true, but still guys used to running downfield and not especially experienced in battling defensive linemen. Make no mistake, Johnson and Hill will have their share of such scuffles in store since every Dog has blocking duties somewhere.
Yet they add a dimension ideal to plans by Mullen and Koenning to go four- and even five-wide on offense this fall. If neither is bound to the traditional role of lining up beside a tackle and staying in to protect, they also are matchup problems for defenses that have to cover a couple of guys with nice height and good speed. They are bigger, yes, but still have the old receiver speed, per Sallach.
And it showed in spring scrimmaging, Sallach said. "That is part of developing young guys. They take steps then start taking leaps. With those two guys, Malcolm and Brandon, I think you are looking at two guys who can bring a lot to the table."
The coach actually downplays Johnson's '11 contributions a bit. He finished with eleven catches and 206 yards, a stout 18.7-average, and scored three touchdowns. Put in perspective, it took 27 catches by Green in 2009 to produce his three touchdowns. And Johnson really only became a factor the second half of the season. So expectations of the third-year sophomore are spiking now.
"It was good to see Malcolm build on some of the successes that he had last season," Sallach said. "And Brandon is starting to show leaps in improvement that we have been looking for." Hill caught one ball for three yards in 2011, doing most of his duty on kicking plays. He exceeded his fall season totals almost any day of practice in spring, in fact Hill looked more like a ‘tight end' than even Johnson did in the types of patterns run and balls snagged.
"He has been taking steps but toward the end of the spring I thought he took his first real leap," Sallach said.
So, Mississippi State has two tested and talented receiver types as tight, or tighter at least, ends. And there is another one recruited for that sort of role, if Sallach can keep incoming freshman Adarrius Perkins away from his defensive coaching counterparts. "Adarrius is the hybrid guy who is good at a lot of different positions. He is a jack of all trades which is what you need in Coach Mullen's offense."
Excellent. But this is Mississippi State where big blocking tight ends are a tradition. If they can catch coverage sleeping and get open for a well-timed toss, so much the better. This should be the forte of redshirt Rufus Warren, at 6-5 size bringing some 250 or so pounds to the interior brawling.
"Rufus has a ways to go but he made some improvements this spring," Sallach said. "He's different than Malcolm and Brandon. Rufus is better suited to lining up closer to the tackle. But there is a role for that type player. You have to have him in certain situations." It's easy and even obvious to read that last bit as ‘extra blocker' but this downplays some skills Warren flashed in spring. Such as a few catches in goal line scrimmaging, when #82 found open ground and the quarterback quickly located that tall target.
Warren might not be the next Reggie Kelly, and he's certainly not the speedster Green was (when healthy). But as the coach reminded, there is a place for him in 2012 schemes.
"When you talk about Rufus, he is still taking steps," Sallach said. "Brandon took a leap in the spring, well Rufus is still taking those steps, which is OK. You have to remind yourself that he is still a freshman."
A redshirt freshman, he means. There will be one more true freshman joining the meetings now in Gus Walley, a rookie who ‘splits' the differences between converted wideouts like Johnson and Hill and bigger blocking bodies like Warren. "Gus is a big guy who has long arms and is a good route-runner," Sallach said. "He did a great job at Big Dawg camp last summer, he just has to grow into his body." Overall, then, "We have two guys coming in who are players Coach Mullen wants at that position, Gus and Adarrius."
Now it is merely a matter of getting everyone seasoned. It's just an illusion that Mississippi State's tight end corps only keeps getting younger, not older. "Now they are redshirt sophomores and a redshirt freshman," Sallach bragged.