Of course the lead Dog of this preseason pack is familiar. Fans have had two seasons watching LaDarius Perkins making plays, a wider variety of them even than Ballard. His skills as a route-runner and gaining yards after catches make Perkins a popular pick. The lone caution would be his ‘feature' back physicality, which concerns Knox not a bit.
"I have no doubt at all he can get it done. Perkins is a big-play guy, he can make all the plays. Then you've got the other guys that can step right in and they have their strengths and weaknesses also."
One of Perkins' strengths is simply his vastly superior experience. While sophomore Nick Griffin did get a taste of late-game action last fall, the fact is Perkins brings just about all the statistics and seasoning this four-man unit possesses. Is it at all odd to find himself the ‘old' guy in the gang?
"Not really," Perkins said. "I feel like I can take control and make sure I regulate everything that is going on around me with the backs." While, at the same time, maintaining his lead-Dog status in camp. Setting an example is well and good but Perkins wants to set the pace, too. And that isn't easy with the talented trio snapping at his heels.
"I mean, it's more competition," Perkins said. "Them guys push me every day. I helped them a lot this past summer. I was being more of a leader the whole summer and I helped them get in shape and everything. We came out and did extra things like catch the ball. So I feel like we're going to come out pretty good this year."
Very good in fact. Perkins has had to stay sharp in August because there is a younger back who has most or even all the same skills and maybe a bit more physical power to boot. Josh Robinson has, rightly, been the talk of camp among the running backs. Coach Dan Mullen boasts about the combination of speed and strength in a package—"He's like a bowling ball!"--that defenses will find very hard to get a handle on. Robinson is in fact the inspiration for the ‘tackling surface' talk lately because, as everyone agrees, there isn't much there for the grabbing.
There is a lot here for gabbing about though, and Perkins has gotten used to queries about his counterpart. Likes them, in fact. "We're pretty similar. I mean he's bigger than me. But we've both got some similarities or whatever." Just the same Perkins insists he has more than the experience edge, the understanding of all the offense. He still has a step on Robinson, Perkins insists.
"I'm faster. Yeah, I'm faster! He will admit that, I'm pretty sure he will, that's the truth!"
Actually the true speedster in this meeting room is, or so he claims, the coach. "I don't think he's faster than me!" says Knox of Perkins. "He's pretty swift but I think I can catch him. I'm the fastest out there, I'm the fastest in our group!" Yeah, but is the running backs boss faster than coordinator Les Koenning, the former college wideout who still prides himself on out-legging current players? "I think I can beat Les," says Knox.
But then nobody is coming to Scott Field in three weeks to watch coaches race. Or even call plays really. Fans want to see this anticipated offense in action, not least how the running backs rotate and perform. Knox has great faith in Robinson already, because the kid is showing it in himself now.
"You said the key word, confidence. That's that we like, a guy running with confidence. We don't want a guy running the ball without confidence in his ability. That's what they all have to have."
Before his April 2011 knee injury then-frosh Griffin was practicing like a confident kid. Careful recovery limited him to 16 carries in five games, though an average 6.8-yard gain on those totes showed why Griffin was such a springtime buzz. He insists all is well in this preseason.
"It feels great. I don't want to be a step behind anybody because of a little pain or something like that. So it feels good." And by all accounts Griffin looks good, too, other than some ball-protection issues. Knox is not worried about the knee, just about the confidence.
"I think he's almost there. I saw some things in one practice that I needed to see. But I think he's almost there." When the mind gets there, Griffin can be the complete tailback package. Knox certainly has his own ideal image for #29 this season, as the power back of this bunch.
"We try to get him to think that way. He's got a big body, a big frame, and that's how we try to get him to use it, to see that that is his strength. So we want him to use that size and ability as a power runner. He understands what we expect from him, and I think he'll be better this fall."
Griffin—known now as by the ‘Grifferis' social networking tag given him by cornerback Jamerson Love--is buying into that idea, though he likes a more rounded approach…as in go around the end and take off whenever possible. Still he understands it starts between the tackles for him, right now.
"I'm just trying to be a runner. I mean, if I got to run somebody over, I'll run somebody over." Yeah, but give him a chance to head for the edge?... "Wherever it's open that's where I'm going to go. Wherever the play is that's where I'm going. I'm like that one cut and go guy. A north-south runner, that's where I think my strength is."
Less is said about the fourth MSU-keteer here, but folk familiar with Derrick Milton might end up the real all-around runner. A year in prep school, then redshirting a season with State, has Milton a little more mature than the typical second-fall frosh.
So Mississippi State has four quality ball-haulers to pick-and-choose from, each capable of doing most anything this 2012 gameplan calls for. But what if anything separates them, and what sorts of big plays are they specifically best suited for in Knox's mind?
"Nick, his power. And that's the mentality we want him to have. Be a power runner, be a punisher. Josh can punish you, and he can beat you with his speed. He's a double, he has that ability to do both.
"LaDarius can make you miss. He can put a foot in the ground and be over there in a hiccup, he can go. Perkins and Milton can put a foot in the ground and make you miss." Meaning that Knox and coordinator Les Koenning need not miss a trick when waving these varied runners onto the field. "It gives me options," said Knox.
Could this become a case of too many options? As in a coach pausing too long figuring the perfect pick, or getting a little too smart for the play-calling good trying to maximize everyone's abilities. It can happen, Knox agrees, but not to a staff that sticks to the goal of gaining ground, scoring points, and winning the game. That, he said, is how the right back gets the right carry at the right time.
"We let our gameplan do that. We let our gameplan focus on how we're going to use our players. So we develop the gameplan around our players and let them use their abilities."
With serious scrimmaging about to begin Bulldog backs have their chances to prove those abilities against a SEC-class defense. Their own. If they can make scrimmage gains, real games ought to be as productive per Perkins.
"Yeah, I feel like we've got one of the best defenses in the country. They correlate together pretty well. They've got their stuff together right now, we just have to make sure the offense gets their stuff together too."
And while contesting with their own defense, Bulldog backs are contending for a place in the overall pecking order. They don't actually talk this way, says Griffin.
"It's more like an unspoken competition because we don't really see it like that. Of course you want to go in day-one and be that guy, be that starter. But we don't see it as that. We just try to come out and get our reps, do the best we can and push each other. Try to make each other better."
And forget about their lack of sheer statistics, adds Griffin. "Coach Knox tells us everybody in the room is a vet now since they've been here a year, and everybody most likely understands the playbook. I mean we've got a lot of vets in our room, we just have to go out and execute every day."