Still nothing gets a team and fans thinking season like the preseason. And there is a whole lot to think about during this coming month. Mississippi State hopes are high again, not merely the annual August optimism but genuine ambitions for bigger things. To be fair the same outlook was seen last preseason following the 9-4 breakout of 2010. A variety of factors, such as offensive line injuries and ensuing uncertainty on that side of the ball, saw State slip to 7-6.
Though, to Mullen the move was more lateral than backwards and thus to him an encouraging sign that the program remains on his track. And as related in yesterday's Part 1, returning Bulldogs bring a renewed urgency to this preseason. Along with some of that ‘relentless effort' that was Mullen's standard the first two seasons.
Or put in a player's words, "We've got our dog back," says senior cornerback Johnthan Banks. "We got a little laid-back after we won the Gator Bowl (and) had a good season. Everybody got a little relaxed. Now this year we've got a big chip on our shoulders. We've got back hungry and we want to go get it."
So, what stands between these Bulldogs and the ‘it' they want to go get? Yesterday focused on offensive questions for preseason, such as what is the best pace to play with this pair quarterbacks; can all the senior receivers blend with a couple of younger targets to produce more and bigger plays in the passing game; which of the four returning running backs steps to the forefront in camp; and most of all will Tobias Smith be able to put in a complete camp and then season at guard, thus solidifying a line which holds the key to everything this fall.
Defense takes its turn today, and not because it is of lesser importance. Not at all. In fact this could be a very short review because there just are not many anxious questions on this side of the ball. And even those few areas have clearer answers. Go ahead and say it: this 2012 Bulldog defense is stout after spring's results and only getting stronger.
Still there are some items of speculative August interest, such as:
Playing it Safety: Yep, when the first topic coming to mind is on the back-end, the unit is in pretty good overall shape. Though none understates what was lost when Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner graduated, two four-year stalwarts practically taken for-granted. How does the song go, about not knowing what you have ‘til it is gone?
Fortunately recruiting while those two were playing had successors working their way up already for 2012. In the case of Nickoe Whitley, working into the lineup with 18 starts the last two seasons at free safety (title strictly for convenience as free and safe are often interchangeable). Then a muscle snapped in November on one of Whitley's trademark headhunting hits and he missed wins in the Egg and Music City bowls. Will the junior be 100% this season and keep his experience, not to mention vicious tackling, in the lineup?
Spring signs were positive for an injury that often requires a complete year's recovery. Whitley didn't practice a single snap to be sure, but nor was he confined to the rehab Pit. He was allowed to practically assist in coaching younger safeties and looked far-ahead of the normal schedule. Still the proof is in the practicing and not until the pads go on August 7 can his status become clear. Of course there are some young offensive guys who might not mind Whitley missing snaps as they won't hurt so much after scrimmaging.
There are backup options. Jay Hughes has gotten a taste of action, redshirt Kendrick Market looks a fine young athlete, and senior Louis Watson can go either safety position. Speaking of which, as spring progressed soph Dee Arrington moved ahead of Watson at strong. Fans and media wondered last fall why the prep star was thrown into limited reserve and special teams duty without redshirting. Arrington's rapid rise in '12 is the answer.
Of course in a pinch there are two excellent defensive backs available. The defense has just two corners to cover and State has three of the SEC's best, individually and collectively. Banks obviously has shown he can handle safety after his 2009 exploits there…but coordinator Chris Wilson is loathe to give up an all-American caliber cornerback. Besides, expectations are for much more use of nickel- and dime-sets using all three of the cornerbacks concurrently.
Seriously, the only real concern about the '12 secondary is that those three corner-men are all seniors and have to be replaced in '13. That's OK. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun would already be starting at some SEC programs, and will do so for State next year. By the way, as of Tuesday there was still no certain resolution to touted rookie Kivon Coman's eligibility for fall. Stay tuned.
Big Boyd: No, we have no fears at all for the interior defensive line after the first-round NFL departure of Fletcher Cox. Oh it would have been marvelous had he returned for a senior season and made a really good defense potentially brilliant. Just don't look for any drop-off up front. Josh Boyd took a step over from his (usual) over-the-ball slot into a gap in spring and it was Bulldog business as usual.
"I embrace it," said Boyd, an Outland Trophy nominee. "I was a pretty good player last year when me and Fletcher were together. So now I've kind of got to step up and be a role model for these guys, encourage them and keep them going."
That settled, the preseason attention—not to be confused with concern—are the other three slots. Or maybe rather, exactly which slot does Kaleb Eulls claim? In spring Coach Wilson used the gifted sophomore, now packing 280 pounds, at both his '11 starting position of end and often as a true tackle in either odd- or even-sets. Eulls is good and big enough to handle either assignment, and it is tempting to see him staying inside with the addition of juco Denico Autry on one end and long-sought blooming of Shane McCardell on the other. They are both tall (6-5) and fast rushers off the ends, after all, where Eulls is the bigger body but not at all slow himself.
Again, this is more speculation than questioning. And its fun. Because despite losing Cox the defensive line as a whole stacks up maybe even stronger what with alllll the depth and versatility. Put another way, there was a time a prep phenom like Quay Evans would automatically take a spring place in the two-deep. Now? The big, talented kid is having to battle just to crack the second squad. Quite a conveyor belt Mullen and Wilson have running on the defensive front these days, eh?
Man in the Middle: Maybe he doesn't look like a modern middle linebacker. But going into August the 6-5 Benardrick McKinney tops the list there. A middle-man with defensive end size, reach, and as seen in spring range? Quite an interesting combination as the redshirt keeps developing. Not that McKinney has a free ride through camp. Ferlando Bohanna was signed to play middle ‘backer two years ago and got a bit of seasoning last fall. This shapes up as maybe the most competitive camp position on defense.
Or is it one of the outside slots? Not because State prefers playing Deonte Skinner over Matthew Wells, or vice-versa, necessarily. But because based on spring work and summer talk the presumed plan is using 245-pound Skinner in base sets for his run-stopping strength; and mixing 215-pound and former safety Wells in for coverage situations. Yet Skinner has shown decent range at times along with strong tackling, while Wells hits above his weight. So it isn't as clear-cut maybe as the bodies indicate…and that is a good thing. After all, as much as we talk about mixing-and-matching personnel it is always nice to have confidence in the core unit to handle all sorts of situations without subbing.
The only question on the other OLB slot is how often Cameron Lawrence is called on to speak for the defense in weekly and post-game interviews. Answer: almost every time.
What Can Browns Do?: OK, we're really reaching for topics now. Then again Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown aren't exactly normal newcomers. And despite a fair degree of depth already at all linebacker positions, here come two kids with resumes that shout ‘playing time!'. So the real question is probably do they get it in September?
And the probable answer can be found not in scrimmaging, but in whether the Brown boys are with the first units on kicking plays. Re: Dee Arrington 2011. Fans get a little too hung-up with redshirting for a five-year cycle. It's nice and even preferable…but at Mississippi State the need to win is now and if it means using freshman talent on opening day, they'll play. And you will cheer.
Specialties: Having brought up kicking plays, who will emerge after August as the guy kicking out of the hold, off the tee, or both? Punting of course is in good hands, or foot, with Baker Swedenburg booting the ball and wowing the ladies (sorry guy, you claimed last week you're "special" that way after all). Brian Egan was a more effective kickoff man last year than fans believed; sure he had just six touchbacks but the 64.0-yard average was consistent. And with tees spotting on the 35-yard line now that only improves positioning for State's aggressive coverage team.
Still he has competition now in signee Devon Bell, who had 28 touchbacks in 32 senior year kickoffs (yes, high school is different). Mullen doesn't toss specialist scholarships around casually and Bell was obviously picked to kick here. Placekicking comes first obviously as that job is wide-open and Egan had mixed spring results, so Bell gets immediate opportunity along with newer walk-ons. It will be instructive who takes what turns in camp kicking, and from what spots. Too bad we won't be allowed to watch it in-person, but be sure the post-practice question will come up regularly.
As will queries on who is fielding kicks. There is a wealth of talent available to choose from between, and this is just a sampling, LaDarius Perkins, John Banks, Josh Robinson, Darius Slay, old hand Chad Bumphis of course, and quicksilver Jameon Lewis. And surely more, with incoming speed such as Brandon Holloway and Xavier Grindle and so on.
This should be entertaining watching for coaches in camp, picking the very best from a bunch of very good options. Especially because Mullen really, really likes fast points out of the return games. State got a pair of touchdowns (Bumphis, Banks) off punts last year, but the kickoff squad was shut out. Expect August emphasis on this area.
Fans and media have their one chance to observe first-hand some of these situations this Saturday, in split sessions at 9:00 am and 7:00 pm.