"So we're still getting in the process of a lot of different things," Johnson said. "But for our second day I think we're looking good."
They really are. Johnson is naturally setting the group's pace so far, which makes sense given his status as the ranking member. Though he was only utilized in the second half of the 2011 season, then missed five games of '12 with injury, Johnson goes into the junior year with 23 career catches and 377 yards with five total touchdowns. No wonder now that he is both healthy, and proven, the offensive staff is figuring more and different ways to get Johnson out in routes.
But not just him. Classmate Brandon Hill ought to be coming into his own after a couple of seasons in the rotation. He and Johnson fit the ‘hybrid' tight end title Mississippi State has emphasized for the spread schemes, as both are converted wide receivers. Meanwhile sophomore Rufus Warren, redshirt Gus Walley, and spring-enrolled prep school product Artimas Samuel are much more traditional ‘tight' end body types.
Just rolling through that checklist shows the sort of depth State has assembled for 2013…and beyond since everyone is an underclassman. And this hasn't even counted converted linebacker Christian Holmes, now operating on offense. No wonder Mullen is emphasizing the opportunities all these tight ends have in the expanded offensive schemes for 2013. Or that the head coach talks about them so much already.
"I take that as a compliment, that he trusts us as well," Johnson said. "We've just got to play our part, and whatever he has us do to play it to perfection. And work on our craft to get better overall."
When Johnson talks about working on the craft, it isn't just chatter. He is very serious as proven by what he and his cohorts have been doing even before practices began. These tight ends came back from Jacksonville with an idea of what could be in store for them. And it showed.
"I mean, we took this spring and this off-season very serious. Even before the first day of the spring we've been going through the offense in our minds, so when we come out here we hit the ground running. It's paying off." The early practices have proved it.
The tight ends aren't running just the standard routes, working underneath coverage or sliding out into the flats. Those routes remain to be sure, but the bigger catches Johnson & company are making are farther downfield, on our outside the hashmarks. Their athleticism is also showing with a number of go-up-and-get grabs, something Johnson specializes in as fans well remember.
In fact calling Johnson, Hill, and Holmes tight ends is a little misleading…probably by intent. They start a whole lot more plays in the slot than crouching beside a tackle. Through two public practices the four-receiver system has, often as not, put a true slot-man on one side of the line and Johnson or another in the other side.
And even a Bulldog defense that knows something about the system has been a step behind, at least so far. Though, they do remind the offense that things can change once the pads are pulled on. Regardless Johnson is enthusiastic about this four-wides scheme.
"That's the overall purpose, to give the defense a miss-match. To give the defense a disadvantage somewhere that we can find on the field. And we're going to take advantage of it and exploit it."
The real exploiter, so to speak, has been Tyler Russell. He has clearly been looking for his tight ends and H-backs and such in these opening camp days. Johnson most of all, it seems. "And that's a good thing!" the tight end grins. "Yeah, he really is, and I appreciate that. He has a trust in me and supports me, and I want to keep taking that."
This is not to downgrade plans or expectations of the true wide receivers. The obvious spring fact is that graduations of Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, and Chris Smith mean these positions are being re-stocked and to an extent re-vamped. There is some quality experience here, and Robert Johnson has had two impressive practices in his quest to earn one starting job. Joe Morrow is reprising his own strong '12 spring feats, though now his opportunities are clearly much more open.
Johnson has had more time with younger pass-catchers in the informal sessions leading up to team practices, so his opinion is worth hearing.
"We've got a lot of new receivers. Jeremey Chappelle has been showing a lot of things, Brandon Holloway, Fred Brown…we've got a lot of good receivers and a lot of potential next year. And the sky is the limit for all of us. So we take it a day at a time and try to get better each day."
A healthy and happy Malcolm Johnson is better news for State, too. He certainly shows the results of three years in the strength program, though his weight has stabilized. "I'm about the same thing I was last year, about 232. So I'm used to it now and moving a little better."
The interview was done in the shadow of Mississippi State's shiny new Seal Football Complex, near the weightroom windows in fact. That facility is a symbol to Johnson of college commitment to Bulldog football, and a reminder of responsibilities for present players.
"I love it. A lot of guys that came before us in '08, '09, '10, they built this program. I mean they put a stepping-stone and we just keep going on. I really love it, honestly."
Mississippi State returns to the practice field Tuesday around 4:00, with clear but chill weather expected. Mullen has scheduled Thursday and Friday sessions as well, in advance of the Easter Weekend. All are open to the public.