Depth......The word symbolizes what went wrong down the stretch last year. After a few key injuries to Pig and Mario, we were in a little trouble. We didn't have a huge drop off in talent, but we lost a lot of experience. Before I get too carried away let me say this, I have no idea who will play where on defense for the Dawgs. I have no clue who will be 1st or 2nd platoon on the D line. Your guess is as good as mine and that's just the way I like it. Part of the fun following Joe Lee Dunn is wondering what he'll do next and with whom. He certainly has the world guessing now. What in the world will Joe Lee do with all this talent? I cannot remember a time when we have been so loaded on defense. The leading publications talk about how few starters we have back on D. These same people wondered how in the world would we replace Greg Favors, Eric Brown and Ashley Cooper. It seems no matter who leaves, Joe Lee just finds or should I say introduces another Dog defender. It's almost as if he lives in a higher realm of knowledge from the rest of us. He never looks worried, but I can guarantee you, privately the rest of the conference is wondering how in the world will we compete with this? Believe me it's happening.
Jackie Sherrill has brought our program to a level that many of us only dreamed of. I remember when we just hoped to make it to a bowl game. That was a good year by our standards. If we happened to have a winning record and beat Ole Miss it was a great year! Jackie said a few years back we must learn to compete on a national level and not just a state one. I think over the years we had given up hope of competing in the upper echelon of the nation. We had lowered our expectations to just beating Ole Miss and everything else was a bonus. Every blue moon we would beat a top notch team. That was enough to keep the State fans coming back. There were a lot of "what ifs" in those days. There are still some these days, but folks Jackie's vision is becoming a reality. We have a lot of youth on this team and a lot of talent. For the 1st time that I can remember we aren't just a senior-laden team on a one to two year run. We are set up to competitive in the West for years to come. I cannot see us falling out of the bowl ranks for years to come, if ever. Hey, Nebraska started somewhere.
The 2001 Bulldog football team has more expectations on it than probably any team in our history. Never in the modern era of SEC play has MSU been considered such a force. Our 1999 team accomplished a lot, but the experts picked that team near the bottom of the conference because we had lost J.J. and had questions in our secondary. Enter Fred Smoot. The rest is Bulldog, uh excuse me, American history. A lot of us said publicly last year, "If we had the 2000 offense and the 1999 defense we'd be conference champs!". This year could be the closest thing to that wish. This could be our year!
The most balanced offense in the nation a year ago returns 8 starters. You could argue for 9 since Porkchop was out most of the stretch run. The captain of the squad is 4 year starter Wayne Madkin. The much maligned lanky QB from Alabama has become one of the league's biggest playmakers. Wayne is not flashy. He doesn't wow you with arm strength. He doesn't always play it safe. He just wins! He has received no credit from the media and all he has done is take the Bulldogs to the SECCG, three straight bowl games, and become the school's all-time leading passer. What more can we ask the kid to do? Wayne has quietly become the SEC's most underrated player. He gets no respect from anyone. The book on MSU is stop the run and make Madkin beat you. He has done just that 26 times mind you. I hope for our sake that the same tired bunch of coaches use that same tired line all year this year. Wayne is our guy and I know his progress has been slow at times, but he has blossomed into what we all hoped he would be. I never get tired of "The Drive" against Arkansas in 1998. I watch it often and you could see then what Wayne had.
I heard a reporter ask Wayne if he was upset about not being named to anyone's all conference team. Wayne smiled and said, " Those things don't bother me. I just want the team to win. I just run the offense and try to do my part.". You know, I believe him, I don't think he cares. Just imagine the smile on #9's face when he raises that SEC championship trophy in early December. That will be his pay-off for all the lack of respect and accolades. Imagine how stupid the media will look then. I always want us to win for us, but a big part of me wants us to win for Wayne. I want him to prove them all wrong. He personifies our whole program. Lack of respect. Dismissed as a non-talent who couldn't play in this league. Folks, Wayne Madkin has become Mississippi State football. In some ways he carries the torch for all those who never got to play at this level or never had this type of success. Go buy a #9 jersey and wear it everywhere. Twenty years from now when we are honoring the 2001 team at halftime of the Ole Miss game, Wayne will be there smiling that same old small town grin. He deserves our support. We are witnessing a legend in our school's history. Don't miss a chance to show Wayne how much we appreciate him.
Tandem tailbacks has been very successful for Jackie over the years, but never as successful as last year. MSU returns two of the conference's top three returning rushers. Only Derek Watson had more yards than our two. MSU lead the league in rushing by a large margin last year. Not since Clark and Palmeiro has MSU athletics had a more formidable 1-2 punch. The only thing I can promise you this year is more of the same, and why not? Dontae and Dicenzo tore defenses apart last year. #12 was the slasher and #3 was the bruiser. Just when defenses got used to one back they got a fresh one off the sidelines. The running game made the passing game better. If you go back and look at the tapes of the Florida game they were whipped. It looked like a herd of cattle out there. We ran left, we ran right, we ran up the middle. They simply could not stop us. Dontae was in football shape for the 1st time since he came to State in 2000. He was slowed by ankle injuries most of 1999. Sparky Woods called Dontae the most improved player of the spring! Is that scary or what? Dontae better than last year? Dicenzo has made a full recovery from a year ago and seems challenged by Walker's progress. The two roommates are constantly trying to out-do each other. I guess the only question this year is who will make it to 1,000 yards first.
Jackie stole another future star right out of the state of Florida. Fred Reid, who was one of the best backs in the state of Florida, is ready to go. He will provide a nice change of pace for the offense. He has blazing speed and is more of a scat-back type. He looks to be a good receiver which will give him more chances in the offense. Reid will be a good one before he is done.
Justin Griffith is our hybrid back. Justin has the speed to play tailback and the toughness to play fullback. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He had 19 catches a year ago and two TDs. Griffith gives the Bulldogs a lot of versatility and I expect him to be a huge part of the offense. Darnell Jones will also play some fullback and he is more of the traditional fullbacks. He can be a devastating blocker. The Bulldogs need Jones to step up and help fill the void left by Kenny Williamson.
Where does one start to discuss wide receivers but Terrell Grindle? Grindle was almost an after-thought to the signing of Keshan Fudge out of high school. Terrell has turned into the go-to guy. He led the team in receiving and had a long catch of 82 yards a year ago. Grindle has the moves to be an all-star. I expect him to be the leader of the corps. He has been through the wars and will set a nice example for all the young burners on the team.
Justin Jenkins is considered by many as the second coming of Eric Moulds. He has the tools and the speed, he just needs the experience. There is a legendary story about Jenkins from his high school days in Pearl. Apparently, Jenkins threw a long pass and got down field to make the block to spring the WR for the touchdown. Folks, that's Forrest Gump type speed. If he is half as good as everyone expects, we are in for a treat.
Clarence Parker made several big catches last year and I expect a big year from him assuming there are enough passes to go around. Harold Lindsey has continued to improve and has great hands.
Antonio Hargro promises to be a big part of the MSU juggernaut. Considered by many the top WR in the south out of high school, Hargro has raised expectations of the receiving corps. With a guy like this, who can you double cover? He may break every receiving record we have before he is done. I know he hasn't played a full year yet, but he is that good. He gave Fred all he wanted last year from the scout team. Fred said Hargro will be an All-American before he is through at MSU.
Ray Ray Bivines is so fast he can turn out the lights and be in bed before it gets dark. Tony James may have been the best return man in the history of college football. He holds a few records. Folks are saying that Ray Ray will break them. That's high praise for a red-shirt freshman, but I believe he is up to it. I am anxious to see him settle under a punt for the 1st time. We could use a little more fireworks in the return game. Bivines has made great strides as a receiver and should see some action on the deep ball.
I wonder how many times opposing teams will call a time out when we run about 5 of these guys on the field at once? We've got the personnel to spread them out now and the speed to beat them deep. Wayne hasn't had a crop of talented targets like this since he has been at MSU. The talent is there now, so here's hoping our passing game is just as explosive as our running game. If so, we'll be awfully difficult to defend.
Four starters who played down the stretch return on the offensive line. Derrick Thompson and Donald Tucker gained valuable playing time in the wake of PorkChop's stress fracture. These two look ready to start this year. Tommy Watson will move to center and reports are he is doing well with the adjustment. Courtney Lee and Kenric Fairchild also return. There is a lot of talented depth behind the starters. Michael Allen should challenge for playing time once he gets a few practices under his belt. Allen was a 2nd team All-American in Juco. Brad Weathers and Kyle Wallace could probably start anywhere else in the league, but, with the wealth of talent the Dogs have right now, expect them to see time as reserves. We shouldn't lose much, if anything, when any of the 2nd teamers come in. Depth is in abundance on the offensive line. This group will determine the season and I certainly like their chances to be one of the league's best units.
The funny thing about this year's squad is that the offense may have to carry the defense for a few games. It's been the opposite the past few years. I don't think anyone will have to carry Joe Lee's boys for long for any reason. The tools are in place to be as good as anyone in the league. The line is solid. The backfield is loaded. The WR's are as deep as anyone. We just need a few games for this team to develop an identity. You know more passes will be in the air with this much depth at WR. Sparky will tinker some with the offense, but the offense gets a tough challenge on Labor day with the always stubborn Memphis Tigers. If we can roll up some points on the Tiger's D, then the SEC better watch out. It's not always pretty, but these guys find away to outscore the other team more time than not. This may finally be the year that we dominate teams offensively as well as we do defensively. All I know is we have never had this many weapons on this side of the ball. It's been a long time coming and our boys may finally get their due.
A recent poster on another SEC board wrote, " I love playing teams the week after they play MSU. They are all broke up because the Bulldogs bring the wood every week." I am sure most teams in the conference love playing opponents after we do. Who wouldn't? There is not a more physical defense in the conference, if not the nation. Jared Lorenzen said his game against MSU last year was the most nerve-wrecking experience of his life. I know three more QB's that probably said the same thing privately. Those three would be Jesse Palmer, Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin. Our D showed out against Florida. If I were the Gators, I'd be a little more careful about what I said in the media.
For those of you who don't know, the University of Florida has a lot to do with the new schedule rotation in conference. After we won the West and did not have to play UF, UT or UGA, the folks at Florida cried foul and won support to change the rotation. I'm sure in some ways that fired up our Dawgs even more.
I guess Florida wanted to put us in our place. Jackie made a great comment that year on TV. He said, "They don't have to play us either. I'm sure if you ask them if they'd rather play us or someone else, they'd say someone else." After losing three straight in Starkville, the Florida folks may decide to change back to the old rotation. They may want to avoid the cowbells.
Joe Lee Dunn is the best defensive mind in college football! He has a very simple concept. We've got 11 and they've got 11. One of their 11 is the QB. We can send more people than they can block. This causes sacks, rushed passes and takes away a lot of the deep threat. Our D has been awesome against the run. Just ask Rudi Johnson.
We missed the depth we had in 1999. The two platoons of D-linemen was an overwhelming benefit to the nation's best defense. Thanks to the influx of Juco talent the two platoon system is back. This will offset the losses of six starters more than anything else. With the depth we have up front you won't see the 4th quarter collapses you saw last year @ LSU and @ Ole Miss. I can't begin to imagine who will play where, but with so much talent Joe Lee has a nice problem. He can give more looks than ever and he will win every battle through attrition. He can keep sending in waves of fresh D-linemen. This will dampen the morale of a tired offensive line. Just when Dorsett needs a drink of gatorade, here comes Juco All-American Khalil Nash. Uh, oh Ivan Billie's shaken up on the play, don't worry, here comes Tommy Kelly. I could go on and on and on.
Here is the closest I can come to a starting D-line, Conner Stephens RE, Tommy Kelly RT, Lennie Day NG, Dorsett Davis LT, Mario Haggan LE. You could make all types of arguments about that lineup. Jake Hambrick will be in the mix, not to mention Dewayne Robertson, Demotto Youngblood, Ivan Billie, Robert Spivey, Tarus Morgan, Steele Davis, Ifem Ezekwe, or Will Rogers. And that's just returning players. Fields, Nash, Snyder, and Oyefesobi didn't transfer to ride the pine. I guess Joe Lee could play a different line every quarter or every play . Who knows? Only Joe Lee, I guess. We will miss Willie, Ellis, and Toby but we have a host of talented replacements. To me, this is the most interesting story of our team. Who will play where on the D line? With all this talent, does it really matter? This line will be our strength and will cause a lot of three and outs. Expect the sack production to go up because nobody, and I mean nobody, will run on the Bulldogs with any prolonged success.
Mario Haggan was a third-team linebacker in 1999 and a special teams player. In 2000, he led the SEC in tackles. This is just an example of the talent that Joe Lee has developed in StarkVegas. Will Haggan play LB in 2001? I don't think so. I may be wrong, but I think we'll see him playing end. We have a host of talented linebackers. We'll may see Haggan there some, but with All-SEC freshman Jason Clark and Juco All-American Kamau Jackson on campus, we can move super Mario around so offenses can't isolate on him. Jackson is a punishing hitter and fits our system well. Clark may be the next great linebacker at MSU. I think we'll see a lot of people in a lot of different places this year. With the wealth of athleticism we should stay fresh most of the year. I like Clark a lot, but Jackson will be the starter if Haggan makes the move to end. Corey Brown will make a push; he wasn't Juco All-American for nothing.
Walt Harris, Izell McGill, Robert Bean and Fred Smoot. Who will be the next name added to that list? My pick is Korey Banks. The new #2 has the cover skills of Smoot without the mouth. He was selected to everyone's All-American team. He runs a 4.3 40 and he will hit you. Expect to see Demetric "Hollywood" Wright on the other corner. That gives MSU two new corners, but could we ask for two better transfers. Everybody wanted Banks, and Wright had a multitude of choices as well. Wright was near the top in the country in interceptions throughout his Juco career. Another talented CB is Richard Ball. Ball is extremely fast and has great closing speed. Ball could play DOG safety; he is big enough at 5-11, 185. You'll see him somewhere.
Shawn Byrdsong may be the most improved player on defense. He has worked hard in the off-season and improved his speed and strength. He will start at DOG safety opposite the Pig. Speaking of the Pig, Edward "Pig" Prather has been named to everybody's All-American team and deserves all the recognition he can muster. Pig is an emotional leader on this team and he hits with bad intentions. He should be a finalist for the Jim Thorpe award and receive all conference and national honors. QB's will find #29 before barking out the signals. Not too shabby for a former back up tailback! Josh Morgan was kind of an accident. He was forced into the lineup in the Egg Bowl as a freshman and stole the show on defense. They can't get him out of there now. He has developed into a heavy hitter and has a nose for the ball. He may never be All-Conference, but he plays at that level.
There are a host of bona fide players fighting for time. Gabe Wallace and Jonathan Bell are potential stars in the making. Bryan Shumaker was one of the highest rated prospects at his position out of high school. Marco Minor was the hero of the Snow Bowl and the Griffith cousins will have a hand in who plays as well. Expect to see a lot of these guys on special teams and on nickel coverages. Walter Burdett was born to play DOG safety and he loves to hit people. He has the nasty disposition that Joe Lee loves.
Joe Lee has some difficult decisions to make. he has never had the luxury of this much talent on his squad. This has the makings of another #1 in the nation type units. There is quality depth at every position. Our 3rd string defense could probably start at Ole Miss. Everyone can't start at MSU, but I'm sure we'll find a place for everybody. After we win the SEC, no one will mind that they didn't see a lot of playing time.
Special teams is of concern to the Bulldog faithful. Jared Cook will do the punting. John Michael Marlin has had a year in the program and I think he will be fine. Jackie says he'll have them ready and I believe him. What's important for both of these young kickers is to get some success early in the year. That will give them confidence down the stretch. Hey, BAMA won the SEC in 1999 and Ryan Pflugner was horrible. Marlin will be better, but it may be a year or so before he develops like a Westerfield or Hazlewood.
Seven home games certainly works in to the Bulldogs favor. Considering we don't lose in the Dawg Pound, I expect a sweep of the home games. A split on the road should send the Bulldogs back to Atlanta. Most folks are already assuming we will lose in Gainesville. I like that. Our kids will play as if they have nothing to lose which should make them more dangerous. Florida lost their top defensive lineman in Gerard Warren. That doesn't bode well for a team that gave up over 500 yards to essentially the same offense that returns this year. I like our chances in Gainesville.
We have never won at Arkansas. I'm sure the Dogs don't need to be reminded of that. Since the hogs spoiled our season a year ago I look for the Dogs to still be hungry for payback this year. We probably overlooked them a little. We had our chances down the stretch, but couldn't get it done. In our last visit to PigVille the refs sure helped the Hogs stay in the game. A Kelvin Love TD was called back on a phantom penalty and most of a big interception return by Smoot was wiped out by a questionable block in the back penalty. We may have to beat the Zebras again this year, but I think we can. If they can't score, they cant win. If Arkansas scores more than 10 I'll be surprised. Look for the Dogs to pull away late in spite of John Thompson's strong defense.
Much is being made over the October 20th game against LSU. LSU is basically sandwiched in between two off weeks. We get Troy State on Oct. 13th. This should give us a chance to rest our starters. Oct. 27th is a true off week. We are game #7 for LSU in a stretch of 9 games in 9 consecutive weeks. LSU will be hurting from the lack of a week off and after losing to UT and UF may feel that all is lost. If Rohan Davey survives to week #7, look for an early exit against the vaunted Bulldog D. He is too big a target to get a way from the Pig Prather's of the world. I look for MSU to win this one by 10 or more. If Davey isn't healthy it may be worse.
The game that I expect the most problems out of besides Florida is Alabama. I know we have won 4 of the last 5, but this team is hungry and would love to play a part in determining the winner of the West. If we can win this one, we should win the west by 2 games.
There is one young man that I saved for last; Donald Lee. This player has matured rapidly and may be the most athletic tight end we've had at State. I think he is a special player and for some reason I just have a feeling about Donald. I don't know what I expect him to do, but just humor me and remember that I said this before the season started. He will make a play that will make the season.
I believe this is the year we have all been waiting on. We are dominating on both sides of the ball. Our offense is one of the best in the nation and is the most balanced. With the depth at WR, our passing game will improve. We have the leadership and experience on offense. We have more talent on D than we have had in years and probably ever. The West is ours to lose. When you look at our schedule you can't say there are any games that we will lose without a doubt. After the butt whipping we put on Florida, every game looks like we have a chance. Ok, I'll say it since everyone else is scared to......13-0. It's possible. More than likely we will be 12-1, but I can't say with any real honesty who we'll lose to. It just seems awkward to say we have a shot at the national title, but we do. If we can stay healthy and hungry we can win them all. There are a few guys on campus that have some rings that have MSU engraved in the stone. After this year, there will be a lot of guys with rings with three letters engraved in them too. Those three letters? Why SEC of course.
How long is it to Labor Day?
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is email@example.com.