They expect to be a better team in 2012. Or put another way, these Dogs intend to achieve what was expected of the 2011 team. Not that 6-6 and a Music City Bowl victory are a bad year by historical State standards, understand…but since Mullen took over standards have been re-set. So much so that junior guard Gabe Jackson, who has only known this coaching regime, calls the past season a ‘setback'.
"And we have to bounce back, work harder this year so we can win more games," Jackson said. "Every year we have to set our expectations higher, we have to get better, win more."
So, how does Mississippi State go about meeting such internal expectations as well as exceeding most outside predictions? There is no shortage of preseason questions as with any ball club, but here is a sampling of some interesting areas to monitor in August. Looking at offense today, and in no particular priority:
Pace and Place: Prior to spring, Coach Les Koenning discussed potential shifts in offensive emphasis. The coordinator did not mean just the preference for plays being called, which obviously is changing to suit the skills of veteran quarterback Tyler Russell. He was talking in terms of whether State would increase the ‘tempo' or huddle everyone up more often.
It is risky drawing conclusions based only on spring scrimmages and practices, much less the for-entertainment-purposes spring game itself when things were moving fast and furious and generally fun. Still even allowing for between-play explanation time in the huddle, it does indeed seem Mississippi State would prefer picking up the 2012 pace. This reflects faith in Russell reading the situation rightly, and quickly too; then adapting the sideline call as he judges best. Sure, he won't know SEC defenses quite as well as he does his own…but then the Bulldog D should be a really, really good one. If Russell consistently makes plays against them this month, that bodes very well for the real season.
A side-story here of course is not just having only two scholarship quarterbacks in camp; it is the differing skills and experiences of Russell and Dak Presscott. Yes, keeping Russell healthy is the utterly obvious ideal. But so is getting Prescott ready to really play. And while the redshirt physically resembles Chris Relf more than Russell, spring scrimmaging affirmed Koenning's impressions. Prescott can run the ball, yes, but his throwing skills and understanding of the air game are far, far ahead of Relf's at the same stage. Put another way, changing quarterbacks mid-game won't automatically imply changing the game's plan a lot, or even very much at all.
One other item. Mullen might have chuckled prior to spring about more ‘wild' plays due to lack of quarterback practice depth. But he wasn't joking. Expect receivers Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis, et.al., to get even more such snaps, as well as more end-around and reverse runs. And senior Bumphis is openly itching to toss the ball again…
Playing Catch: It's taken four years to stock up on receivers, tight and slot and split and all. Now Mullen has the numbers to work with, and thanks to throwing—so to speak—most of them into immediate action as freshmen he also has experience. "There's confidence on the field, the guys know what to do, they know the system" Mullen says.
Excellent so far. Now, does all this translate into bigger-and-better passing plays? Russell undoubtedly has the arm for it, along with a comfort level in reading defense and adjusting at the line which Relf just did not show as much in 2011 for various reasons. So the football should be delivered; will the right receiver be there to catch it? And who is the ‘right' receiver this year?
Fans appear to have the impression that those veterans are entirely known quantities, or have maxed-out the potential. While it is true guys like Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark, and Brandon Heavens might not be the fastest feet in the league, their knowledge and hands and just plain toughness count for a couple-tenths in the sorts of routes State has been running. They are Russell's, or Prescott's security blanket. And something else needs noting: last year Russell's average completion was good for 15.0 yards compared to 10.6 for Relf. It seems safe suggesting a more mature thrower working with proven catchers should up that average further this fall, meaning those three seniors have stuff left to show.
Now that said, April hinted what redshirt Joe Morrow—the ‘tall target' Mullen has wanted for years—brings to the gameplan. Meanwhile Lewis, working from a slot, is closer to top SEC speed standards though quick feet might be his real strength. Those are the younger, faster kids folk want to hear about in August, not to mention newcomer Brandon Holloway.
Malcolm Johnson is no burner but has superb hands, great awareness of his positioning, and now a torn chest muscle that will sideline him into mid-season. This could crimp a few plans because the soph was a hit as hybrid tight end. Fortunately counterpart and classmate Brandon Hill picked up his game in spring…and summer brought unexpected good news that Marcus Green gets a sixth season. A marvelous athlete with unbelievably bad injury luck, "Hopefully we're able to keep him healthy and keep some depth before you're into third and fourth string starters," Mullen said.
Koenning made it clear how State intends to utilize four- and five-receiver sets more, meaning the tight ends aren't stuck just blocking. But the one classic big-body tight end in camp, redshirt Rufus Warren, had a few spring catches that hint he can become a factor as well.
Four of a Kind: Remember the what-will-we-do fretting two falls ago after Anthony Dixon departed with a bag-full of rushing records? Vick Ballard proved a fine answer and set his own standards in two strong seasons. Now, who steps to the forefront at tailback this preseason?
Or the more accurate question: who will be first among four relative equals? While LaDarius Perkins has practically all the returning rushing on this team, 2012 doesn't look like a year where one feature back carries the load. Though, if 100% healthy and confident, soph Nick Griffin could. Before the April '11 knee injury he showed the complete package of speed, strength, vision, all of it, like the classic tailbacks. He didn't have chances to catch passes much but there's no reason not to expect Griffin has hands too.
Yet many spring days redshirt Josh Robinson raised the most eyebrows, and fellow redshirt Derrick Milton made the most of his #4 turns. So, the question this camp is who takes what turns by, say, week three? Not that anyone will be able to watch the rotation and carries-splits for themselves with closed practices, of course. Second-hand reports will be sought of coaches and players for such clues as they are allowed to offer.
Spring did offer evidence of one definite shift, as the fullback position wasn't utilized as much as in '11 and nowhere nearly as much as in Mullen's first year or two. That confirms trends towards getting more pass-route runners on the field as well as using the backs as receivers.
Line-ing Up: It also could represent something of a gamble, that Russell is going to be able to get rid of the ball on time and ahead of pressure without need for a blocking back. And, that Mississippi State's most glaring offensive concerns are being answered successfully. That being an offensive line very much in transition. Perhaps the best statistical summary of this 2012 situation is that Jackson's 26 starts at left guard, over the past two complete seasons, far outnumber the 17 total starts by the rest of the entire offensive line group. Nine of those starts belong to center Dillon Day, by the way, with four-each for guard Tobias Smith and tackle Blaine Clausell.
Day, by the way, was one of the under-appreciated stories of '11. After an often-brutal first spring at State with snaps flying over quarterback's heads, the redshirt rookie was able to survive suddenly taking over as a '12 starter by the end of September. Mullen wasn't surprised at Day's toughness in the unexpected early transition, but says the load only gets heavier now. "Now he's got to become a great leader of that offensive line as a whole."
Having Jackson to his left side surely helps that process. But as all know, the greatest question on the line and for that matter on the offense as a whole is still Smith. He has only managed one complete college season, and did so by playing only half—or less—of any game's snaps. By no coincidence that was 2010 when State won nine times. His game-three knee injury last fall, a change after two serious and separate ankle injuries his first two seasons, rippled through the entire offense the rest of the way.
Nor did Smith do a single spring snap, though he jogged and worked out with no obvious gimping. In fact he was more upbeat than most anyone else on the team in anticipation of playing a senior season. Jackson, among others, insists Smith would be ready for preseason work. Odd as it would normally seem, on the one practice day open to observation it's safe to expect more intense attention not on the quarterback or runners or catchers or any touch-the-ball position. It will be on right guard, as Smith could hold the key to the entire offense's success in 2012. The official MSU depth chart even lists him first.
For that matter his backup situation is just about as interesting. In time second-fall freshman Justin Malone ought to be a great guard, a sign of MSU's future given his size and reach and athleticism. For now, walk-on Ben Beckwith opens as #2 right guard showing how thin things get experience-wise behind Smith. And by the way, Beckwith is practically the backup center too, as juco transfer Dylan Holley gets up to speed.
Obsessing about the offensive line is only natural this year, given how disruptions there left Relf and Russell under too much '11 pressure to produce consistently. And the only real experience is left tackle Clausell's four starts last season. The good news is Clausell, a third-year sophomore now like Day, is also ahead of the normal maturing schedule out of necessity. He's also physically matured at a listed 305 pounds, not the skinny-looking freshman tackle of not so long ago. But is he assured of starting?
The preseason fact is, three tackles are contending for the two starting spots. Coaches promised two years ago when he signed Damien Robinson would take a while to develop and be a good one when he did. He backed it up in spring by holding off signed-to-play juco tackle Charles Siddoway at right tackle. Can he stay ahead in August, though? Or will Siddoway flip to the left as originally forecast? There were spring days Coach John Hevesy exchanged ends on everyone, and he isn't obsesses with ideas of ‘right' and ‘left' anyway. There is also a prospective wild card; Archie Muniz missed spring recovering from a November injury. His return really can make it a four-man fight at tackle(s).
Whoever wins or whatever the rotation, it is one other intriguing fact that Muniz at officially 6-5 is the SHORTEST of the quartet. Make that two intriguing facts, as all are back in 2013. The future of Bulldog blocking is bright indeed…
…but it is their present which counts this camp. Mississippi State has the throwers and runners and catchers to achieve excellent things in 2012 and make a move in the SEC Western Division. If, always if, they get the blocking to make use of all the collective skills.
Tuesday: camp questions for the defense and specialists.