Between them, Ballard and Relf accounted for 3,245 rushing yards in 2010 and ‘11, not to mention almost 70% of State's rushing gains last season. Senior reserve Robert Elliott has also graduated. And with Tyler Russell taking charge of the offense rushing from the quarterback position won't be as emphasized.
So why is Knox so unconcerned this summer? Because the Bulldog backfield is far, far from bare. "Coming out of the spring I was really pleased with our four tailbacks," he said.
That's right, four. As one of those, and the lead Dog in this preseason pack, agreed, "We're going to have more depth," said junior LaDarius Perkins.
Not that Mississippi State was entirely devoid of '11 depth of course. Perkins operated in a two-for-one carry rotation with Ballard for example. But this summer's backfield chart extends farther down the page…and will only grow again in August when more young talent joins the practice roster for real.
For now, Knox is content with the quality quartet he has for preseason planning.
"LaDarius Perkins, Nick Griffin, Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton gives us good depth, which we have been building up over the last couple of years," the coach said. "I have really been pleased with those four guys."
Perkins, the fourth-year junior, would get first mention anyway based on both tenure and production. Last year he provided 422 net yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also averaged 4.9 yards each attempt, showing a knack for making gains when working between-the-tackles. Perkins fools folk who look at the physique and think ‘scatback'. He can and does run right into traffic and makes it count.
What Knox really likes though is how Perkins fits into all aspects of a spread-type offense. "He played a lot behind Vick and we used him in a variety of ways. He is very productive not just as a running back but as a receiver out of the backfield as well. He had a great spring, worked hard and really built his body up." Really he did, muscling up closer to 200 pounds but looking even bigger…or bulkier, with biceps and thighs befitting a fullback.
Without losing a bit of quickness, either. No wonder then "We are really excited about him," said Knox.
At the same time excitement is spiking over another Bulldog back. In fact, in spring 2011 the talk of that camp was freshman Nick Griffin. Then a fluke knee injury on a passing drill set the then-redshirt back six months. He did make a return in October and got into five games with limited work; 16 carries, 108 yards, and his first college touchdown.
It is not exaggerating facts to claim had Griffin's career not been interrupted by injury, Ballard and Perkins would have yielded some of their carries to the new kid. Griffin just looks like a classic Bulldog runner who could haul the ball with equal effect whether working as a wishbone halfback, or a power-I tailback, or now in a spread-set. Quickness to get to the assigned lane, strength to beat tackles, and top-end speed to go the distance. Griffin has it all.
Now Knox hopes he has it all together physically for a ‘real' first year with the varsity. "It was really good to get Nick through an entire spring healthy. That was one of my goals with him. We did that so that was a plus. I believe he feels good about himself right now." If a one-two punch like Perkins and Griffin is good, how much better is a foursome to play with? "The two freshmen, Derrick Milton and Josh Robinson, performed very well this spring," said Knox. "They were what we thought they were coming out of high school."
And, both had the benefit of sitting a season to learn Mississippi State's system. It showed in spring as the redshirts put on impressive displays. In fact Knox gave Perkins and to a lesser extent Griffin some days-off, sort of, to get the kids more carries. Robinson and Milton seized opportunity; so well that they might just seize the ball away from their elders this fall.
Robinson in particular earned attention, rightly so per his coach. "Josh is an exciting package, very small, very compact with power, quickness and speed. He has all the tools to be a great player." The physical comparisons to Perkins are inevitable. Yet if anything Robinson might—might—have a bit more top-end speed. The trick then is teaching him how and when to use it, as in getting steps down-pat when taking the ball and timing arrival at the line to (hopefully) coincide with his planned blocking.
And since in football at any level execution isn't always there, great players bring a little bit of an added element. Knox sees some of this in Milton. "Derrick is a guy who can make you miss in space. He has quickness, balance, good vision." He is also healthy again after tweaking a knee the first week of August 2011 camp.
Each has a lot left to learn, in particular pass-protection skills which few young runners arrive on campus with any clue about. In high school they were the ones being blocked for after all. And college route-running is far, far more technical than anything they'd seen before. But Knox likes their tools and their work to-date. "Both of those players are going to be good players for us."
Speaking of blocking… if there is one thing Bulldog football has boasted time out of mind it is quality blocking fullbacks. Big, small, quick, steady, whatever, Mississippi State has had a selfless Dog loving contact and clearing room for teammates. But as coordinator Les Koenning said back in February, the increased emphasis on multiple receivers and single-back sets has reduced the snaps for true fullbacks.
Per Knox, "We have a limited package for them. But they are really sharp with that package." Which reflects the leadership and experience this group brings, led by a pair of walk-ons who have earned their grants with years of hard work.
"Sylvester Hemphill is coming back, he is a very productive fullback who is one of the leaders on our squad. He has good hands, is a good blocker and does everything right. Behind Hemphill is Adrian Marcus. He, along with Sylvester, are two of the leaders in our (meeting) room. Both of them do really good things on the field, including on the special teams."
"Behind them is William Shumpert. He is a very powerful guy who is a bulldozer at fullback. He has a very good, low pad level." All those abilities, mental as much as physical, mean Mississippi State has as many fullback options as at the other, higher-profile backfield job.
Perkins does check-up when asked if this is the best depth he's seen in his own tenure. "I don't know, my first year we had Dixon, Ducre, Stallworth, Elliott," he reminded. But he does agree the pure potential in this quartet is there to be at least as productive, and possibly even more versatile in an expanded gameplan. If it means there is no one top Dog in the backfield a la Dixon or Ballard, well…
"As long as we win, that's all that matters! We're all working hard, trying to learn, trying to help each other. As long as we help each other and make sure we know what we're doing on the field."