"Because we go against those guys," Jones said. "We don't go against the ones-on-ones all week during practice, we go against them. And they make us better by going hard."
Speaking of hard, this was Coach Dan Mullen's most interesting season for redshirting decisions. When the last such item was ‘burned' there were no less than nine of the true freshmen enrolled in August played, to varying degrees. A couple became front-liners; defensive tackle Jones and receiver De'Runnya Wilson, both of whom made huge plays down the season stretch. And none came up bigger in the final two weeks than QB Damian Williams, the unlikeliest activation of all when the season started. Yet there the rookie was starting the Egg Bowl, after his game-winning touchdown against Arkansas.
Others like RB Ashton Shumpert and TE Artimas Samuel became rotation players for specific duties; while OG Jamaal Clayborn, WR Fred Ross and defensive backs Kivon Coman and Tolando Cleveland served as backups at need or in special teams.
It needs noting Mullen's fifth recruiting class has proven exceptional in ways even the coach would not have forecast in February. And injuries that rippled-through the lineup forced playing some kids ahead of schedule…which now some Rebels bitterly rue. Because had veteran Tyler Russell not gotten concussed on opening day young Williams would never have been ready for Egg Bowl night.
At the same time, "We don't put them on the field until they're ready to play, and they're ready to contribute significantly," Mullen said. Those nine were; nine more Bulldog freshmen weren't in the coach's judgment, or at least the need wasn't there in 2013. So, they redshirted. "Because we don't want to waste a young man's year just being on the kickoff team," Mullen said. "Not that we don't need those guys on the kickoff team! But we don't want to waste a year just doing that."
Today as Jones points out, the redshirts did not waste their first fall at all. While developing their own futures, these frosh had real jobs to do. "They're just working with us, working real hard on scout team," offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. "We bring them up for pass/skel and stuff like that. But they're learning the system, getting through it and they're doing a good job."
It's obvious some freshmen develop faster than others, enough to be available in season-one at positions of particular need. This makes for an easier coaching call, says defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. "Skill positions, or a kid like a Chris Jones who is so far ahead physically, you go ahead and play them." The rest, redshirt…as long as the head coach and coordinators can resist in-season temptations.
"It's a tough dynamic that kids get put into and coaches get put into," Collins said. "And you try hindsight; oh, I should have saved him or we should have just played him. That balancing act is always there with the rules."
Mississippi State's 2013 decisions truly became a balancing act. Half the class played, even more true frosh activated than in Mullen's first State season though of course 2009 was an exceptional case as much as class. "Now we've played a lot of freshmen, and we've redshirted a bunch of kids. We've done everything," said Mullen. "There is no perfect answer.
"I'm looking at development. There's a lot of different things you look for that make sure guys are developing the right way. And we as coaches try to do a lot of different things. We might play a little ‘Monday (or Sunday) Night Football' with a lot of the guys that either aren't getting many reps in the games or are redshirting. During bowl prep you get a lot of the development of the future of guys. So there's a lot of guys that we monitor to make sure they're developing the right way."
These nine redshirts will be on display during Bulldog bowl camp, once the practice dates are set. Some might seem ‘ahead' of others in how much they're doing during drills, but perspective is needed. The old ‘redshirt them all' attitude of many fans is negated by the, no pun intended, spread of offensive systems that allow younger talents to make plays in practices. Games, even. Koenning agreed that spread-based systems aren't necessarily simpler but do play to individual skills sooner.
"When you bring kids in, your receiver position, your running back position usually have chances to play earlier," Koenning said. "Your quarterback? He has to be something special to really step in, and you've got to limit what you can do. And, your offensive line. Those are two positions that you've really got to mold and have a lot in the closet. You can't be thin, and those kids take time to learn." As for the other side of the ball, spread offenses have actually raised the level of learned skills needed from the guys trying to stop them. Regardless of scheme, "Defense is still defense," said Collins.
"You still have to learn the system and learn techniques or fundamentals that you might not have had to use in high school. Using your hands to get off blocks and those kinds of things. Which a lot of times in high school you're just running around and are the best player. Here, you'd better know how to get off a block and use angles and run to the ball with proper leverage."
Collins has had four months with his five freshmen redshirts to teach them such stuff, and he's pleased with the results overall. Some even stand out, most of all linebacker Dezmond Harris. "When we signed him he was 6-3, 207 and ran a 4.37 at camp," Collins said. "He's weighing about 232 right now, and at times he is the fastest person on the field, at any given time. So I think the future is bright for him."
Gabe Myles is a defensive back but spent some weeks as scout team quarterback, most notably impersonating Johnny Manziel prior to the A&M game. "He was a dynamic kid, a force that week and really helped us get ready for that quarterback. But I think he's going to be really good." Another defensive back, "Jahmere Irvin-Sills we have Monday night football, he played really well for us.
"Brandon Wells at safety, a tremendously fast, he just hasn't played a lot of football. He's really raw. But the natural ability is there. Trent Simpson is a tough, physical kid, played defensive end in high school and plays defensive end for us now. But I think he's the kind of kid that could play wherever you need, he's a blue collar kid; 4.0 GPA student so whatever role he needs play he's going to be able to play for us."
Koenning had an even shorter list of redshirts, partly because wideout Donald Gray didn't qualify for fall enrollment and quarterback Cord Sandberg signed a baseball contract. Still there were rookies for scout team use and post-practice honing during the season, two blockers and two receivers.
For the big pups, "Kent Flowers is doing a good job," said Koenning. "On the pass protections and stuff he's trying to get versed in that and doing a better job, working hard at it. Jake Thomas is the same way. Those offensive linemen are working, working, working, trying to get better to learn their assignments."
Maybe so, but count defensive lineman Jones as impressed with those two of his redshirting classmates. "Jake Thomas is moving along, Coach (John) Hevesy working hard with him. And Kent Flowers, that guys is going to be great too."
As for the pass-catchers, "B.J. Hammond is doing really well," said Koenning. "He got in a little bit late so the plays were new for him. But he's doing better. He does have some busts in some pass/skel stuff, but he's learning what to do. Shelby Christy is doing outstanding, too. He's come back from the shoulder injury and doing a really nice job. He's showing up, I've seen him out there and he's still made some plays for us. But, still learning."
There is one other ‘redshirt' who isn't often referred to as such because he didn't follow the classic course. Defensive tackle Nick James played as a true freshman in '12, then sat out this entire season for unspecified but understood reasons. Should James meet all program expectations the rest of this school and sports year, he'll count as a sophomore in 2014 as if he'd originally redshirted anyway.
Another aspect to activations, or not, this season is the potential impact on future recruiting classes. Fans demanding ‘everyone redshirt' tend to forget the immutable NCAA numbers of 25/85 after all, and programs that redshirt too many freshmen end up with overloaded rosters three and four winters later. The calculus can get complicated.
And so can emotions when position coaches and coordinators present their annual lists for recruiting ‘musts'. As Collins said, "It's a tough dynamic, kind of a head coach question. Just what the needs are and trying to balance your roster.
"And I think that's something Coach Mullen does a great job of. It's always making sure your position is balanced within the classes. Because you never want to have a year where I've got four linebackers graduating and nobody there. You always want to have the dynamic where you might lose two, you bring in two; you might lose two, you bring in two. Never want to be in a position where you're losing a great deal and have to replace a bunch. I think he does a great job of managing those numbers for us."
Mullen and staff have certainly done well in restocking Mississippi State in recent winters. The senior group of 2013 is smaller than ideal, but the juniors and sophomore and yes freshmen, true or second-year, have done their development. So well that results showed down the stretch, in competitive losses to Texas A&M and Alabama and overtime wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Now this club can look forward to mixing-in their redshirted rookies…as well as what is shaping up as a February recruiting class ideal for development in their turns.
"There's always times you think you should have played some guys, especially during the season," Mullen summarized. "But for us, I don't know if it helps them or hurts them. We'll find out as their careers go on."