So when Mississippi State hits the practice field next Tuesday afternoon to open spring training no ‘rebuild' slack will be allowed. No, not even with a restructured offensive staff (see Tuesday story). Coach Dan Mullen's adjustments to this side of the staff room weren't made to dramatically change anything, it appears; it was to maximize what is already on-hand for further refining. Which is a mightily encouraging place to be in March 2014.
Certainly the quarterbacking position is in impressive shape. Maybe, again, not based on straight statistics. For all the interruptions and issues of the senior season Tyler Russell must be given his Dog-due for re-writing so many passing records. How many years, decades, even whole eras did Mississippi State fans groan and gripe ‘if only we had real a pro-style passer'? Well, no sooner did we have a great one than the same fans groaned and griped about going back to run-first quarterbacks. Some folk just can't be satisfied.
And yet…there is a degree of unintended truth involved. Not only is Mississippi State historically best when directed by quarterback who can run at any point, any play; but college football has trended that same way for years now. How much longer the ‘spread' dominated the game is debatable; for the moment it is the best way for Bulldogs to go. And thanks to a head coach who saw the ‘it' factor four years ago in an otherwise modestly-recruited quarterback, State has a great one in Dak Prescott.
Never mind he won't be the Media Days selection for All-SEC quarterback. A certain peer from the BCS runners-up almost certainly will get that attention. So Bulldog fans can save themselves much summer angst on the issue and instead focus on the more meaningful matter of how Prescott develops further now that he is THE undisputed leader of the offense? Or team for that matter?
The numbers last year were good; 829 rush yards, over six each attempt and a touchdown about ever tenth tote. In the air Prescott tossed ten more scores for 1,940 yards and over a dozen per-caught ball, which isn't far-off what ‘pure' passers around the league netted actually. Yes, his completions rate was a little down and interceptions up from 2012. But this was inevitable since Prescott was working in all situations rather than short-yardage/goal-line as he did the first varsity season. A better way to gauge his accuracy, and acumen too, was just seven picked passes out of 267 tried.
Oh, and for historical comparison, Prescott rushed for more yards in his 11 games—realistically more like ten when missed quarters are counted—than any Bulldog quarterback. Ever. Yes, more than Bond and Smith and Robinson and Madkin. The fact is, as much as Mullen tried to utilize the pocket-passing gifts of Russell, his own instincts and inclination run to exactly what Prescott does well. Very well, even potentially great. Now, for the first time since 2010 when Chris Relf was blossoming, there will be no divergence of gameplans for disparate quarterbacks.
All the more so because both contenders for the #2 position also suit the sort of spread Mullen and line coach John Hevesy favor. He didn't win the Egg Bowl, though what a story that would have made for a first-time and true-freshman starter. But Damian Williams did the job of a solid starting pitcher, laboring long enough and keeping the all-important game close enough for Prescott to enter and save/win. Besides, the rookie did get a decision the week earlier with that first overtime play dash for the winning touchdown over Arkansas. In the process Mullen's decision to burn the redshirt back in September was entirely affirmed, not that those bashing the coach back then had the honor to ‘fess up.
It isn't fair to judge the kid's skills off the limited appearances, positive nor negative. It is safe to say that those who'd seen Williams struggle throwing college-type passes in early August were impressed with the progress made by November. Running the ball was, as expected based on high school work, his forte. Williams certainly fits that side of the spread equation. What matters more is that under amazing pressure he showed the intangibles that attracted Mullen to Prescott years before. Now, having been seasoned ahead of schedule, Williams goes into spring with an awareness no redshirt can have about what does and doesn't work in a SEC game. If he makes the same strides this camp as he did last fall, even Prescott will have to raise his own game just to keep a healthy lead on the younger quarterback.
And speaking of limited exposure…Nick Fitzgerald may have ‘cursed' himself in some sense by showing up for bowl camp after early high school graduation, and displaying his own skills so well for the public to rave about. Suddenly the more impressionable fans are counting the newest kid into the 2014 mix as a result!
The fact is, Fitzgerald really was impressive in that short stretch of campus camp (he could not participate in bowl-site work the same way). At 6-5 tall he's not just long-armed but strong-armed as some downfield throws showed, with touch too. But this by no means is a pocket passer; he ran a high school option and gained more ground with feet than arm. So taking contact ought not be any question. What really gained comment from his coaches was how quickly Fitzgerald grasped the principles of this offense and put them into practice. Literally. Now that he's had almost three months to study that playbook, his spring horizons ought expand further.
One other fascinating fact about Bulldog quarterbacking for 2014: everyone is an underclassman. Add in fall frosh Elijah Staley and suddenly Coach Brian Johnson faces a problem his predecessor did not have: keeping everyone content with their roles and opportunities. A good problem.
Much like Russell, running back LaDarius Perkins' senior year was three months of frustrations as he never entirely recovered from early ankle issues. His pro day work with weights and drills reminded what Perkins had been capable of in 2012 at full-speed and agility, and that his departure is more of a loss than most admit.
At the same time there is no shortage of backfield tools for Prescott to work with in spring and more is coming on board in August. Full-speed is Josh Robinson's forte, in fact. He netted 5.9 yards per rush last year and when blocking and his own reads went right had breakaway burst. His spring key is refining that timing with the blockers, to not arrive too early or late at the line. There were just enough of those ‘almost' plays in 2013 for him to study and see what a tiny bit of timing can allow in the big-play picture. Also look for Robinson to work further on improving his pass-route skills since that was what made Perkins such an all-around threat.
The backfield isn't too crowded this spring after Perkins' graduation and transfer by Derrick Milton. This actually ought help push the other backs on a faster practice track with more snaps. Nick ‘the Grifferis' Griffin welcomes every chance to carry and show he's returned from that pair of devastating knee injuries. One can almost weep for what this true big-play runner might have achieved without the setbacks, but to Griffin's credit he keeps battling back and putting himself in the camp conversation. He'll have fans pulling hard for him this spring for sure.
At the same time the one everyone wants to watch is Ashton Shumpert. A classic ‘big' back who looks larger than his listed 6-2, 210 size Shumpert brings the power in a big way. Some scratched heads when he was activated as a true freshman a la Williams, but again the wisdom was borne-out later in the season when Shumpert meshed perfectly in a ‘diamond' set as either a lead blocker or line-blaster himself. Remember, Mississippi State has essentially abandoned the fullback role. A physical runner like Shumpert who can make his own holes is quite the balancing-factor for a run-oriented spread.
State didn't redshirt any running back recruits, so spring practice fodder for the defense will be provided by walk-ons. Lucky them. Though it will be interesting to see what happens with slot receiver Brandon Holloway. The smallish speedster got a lot of Gator Bowl snaps and more last spring as a running back, offering another ‘burner' option to the backfield. He's not being written-off as a receiver at all and will work as a split end based on bowl camp, though if his hands don't develop there might be more incentive to change identities.
Certainly the slot is in excellent hands. The biggest breakout of 2014 on offense was Jameon Lewis, who didn't just take over Chad Bumphis' old job. Lewis may have surpassed what his predecessor did as a senior, in his own junior season with 64 catches, 923 yards (fourth-most in school history) and five touchdowns. As important as the pure numbers was how Lewis emerged as a go-to guy in pressure situations, and delivered more often than not.
Mullen often comments how fast the ‘clock' ticks for junior college players. Jeremy Chappelle can certainly hear it. The transfer didn't make a huge impact in 2013 with four catches and 45 yards. But since everything was new last fall and there wasn't lots of time to fit in, spring is Chappelle's chance to show why he was such a sought juco prospect. He practiced at slot in December mostly; where he works in March is worth watching. The depth here came from walk-on Michael Hodges, who played in three games (including the Liberty Bowl) without a catch though he'd shown up well last spring and in scrimmages.
A key to what State wants to do with the backup slot-men of '13 was the bowl camp move of Gabe Myles from cornerback to receiver. Slot receiver, specifically. He is much more in the mold of Bumphis and Lewis anyway, a high school quarterback good enough to play defense at a SEC level but even more productive on offense. ‘Gabe Football' as defensive coordinator Geoff Collins labeled him, Myles ought fit right in as a slot man able to run reverses and end-arounds as well as, maybe, throw a few passes? That too is what spring scrimmaging is for.
Losing the fullback allows for more receiver positions and save when in a diamond backfield State wants to have four of ‘em flooding coverages. Early in his MSU tenure Mullen didn't have the bodies or abilities to do this; now receiver is as well-stocked as any area on the roster.
He didn't have a touchdown and rarely made highlights, but Robert Johnson was Mr. Reliable. Well, did you remember he had 34 catches for 389 yards last year? That was second-most on the entire squad and showed Johnson's sheer consistency working one side of the field. His closest counterpart on the other was Joe Morrow (18, 211) who did score once. Not to many seasons ago these would have been the team's top targets.
Now, they have to share snaps and may even lose starting status to younger wideouts. Much more is projected of them than proven to be fair, since '13 snaps were limited by youth or injury or redshirting. At the same time De'Runnya Wilson showed enough to qualify as a star-in-the-making. He caught seven balls in the two bowls and his clutch sideline grabs against Ole Miss were simply brilliant. And remember, he is still so very raw as a football player having spent too much time on high school basketball. Hopefully a minor groin issue doesn't set him back this camp.
Fred Brown ought be ready for his own breakout as well, after taking backup turns as a second-year frosh. He needs to because of all that aforementioned depth. Fred Ross was activated as a true freshman only because classmate Shelby Christy got hurt in August. Ross suffered a separated shoulder at Arkansas but hopes to be ready enough for spring and his chance to really compete. Christy, coaches agree, would have been the rookie to play last year if not for the preseason injury. Now he can, and will.
If the wideout jobs have depth, tight end takes that term into new dimensions. Though this does reflect how the eligible receiver/blocker role has expanded under Mullen. Malcolm Johnson is Exhibit A after a 30-catch, 391-yard, and healthy season with two touchdowns. He exemplifies how this four-wides set works as Lewis' counterpart on the other side of the line. And even if he only had two catches last year, Brandon Hill netted 27 yards on them as Johnson's capable alternate.
Now more of the route-running-first tight ends join the spring party. Before an August injury Gus Walley was putting on a preseason show with between-the-numbers catches and excellent hands. He's a redshirt soph this coming season, while B.J. Hammond is a second-year freshman. Football is still relatively new but the frame and talents match Walley's as tall targets in traffic. With rising senior Johnson such a proven quantity it makes sense to give these youngsters that many more practice snaps.
Meanwhile Rufus Warren and Artimas Samuel look more like the classic SEC sort of tight end, with big blocking muscle at the end of the line. Yet both showed agility as well at times and are genuine receiver options. While spring fans will want to see Prescott & Co. firing the ball downfield for all those slot and split ends, it might serve a better indicator what direction this offense is headed by watching how all these various and versatile tight ends are utilized.
NEXT: Lines of Scrimmage