Defensively, the picture is not only much more settled. It looks rock-solid across the complete front.
Beginning with the offensive front, since after all that is where everything in football at any level does really begin…no. There is not another Gabe Jackson on the roster. No surprise of course since offensive guards with first-round NFL draft resumes aren't exactly thick on the ground even here in the Southeastern Conference. It took a while for even Mississippi State fans, who've seen some good guards come through campus, to appreciate why as far back as 2009 a position coach—not an offensive staffer, either—commented that the Magnolia, Miss., kid could someday be a pro. Soon, Jackson will be, after starting all 52 games of his college career, most ever by a Bulldog it is believed.
As well as all wish him come draft day though, these next four weeks are about filling Jackson's left guard job. The encouraging news is an obvious candidate is already here and proven in SEC action himself. The fastest fix will be taking Ben Beckwith from right guard and placing him left-of-center, where in fact he has practiced before.
He played all last season at right as, quite possibly, the most important and productive former walk-on in the whole conference. Beckwith also serves as a priceless reminder to never, ever overlook a big high school—or in his case small academy—body with some young skills and lots of drive. Wherever he lines up on opening day there are many regional programs wondering how the heck they missed this one…and a lot of Bulldogs eternally grateful he opted to report here as a volunteer.
Beckwith's breakout though came for a bad reason, when Justin Malone wrecked a foot early in the 2013 opener. It cost the then-soph the rest of the season and gave Beckwith the right guard job for 12 successful starts. Malone's specific spring condition remains to-be-seen because it was a bad injury and to the most vulnerable part of a long, tall blocker's body. If he has to be protected in this camp that is no bad thing because all expect Malone to be full-go in summer.
Plus, it will allow the guard depth that many more snaps in drills and scrimmages. Eyebrows were raised last fall when true frosh Jamaal Clayborn was activated as Beckwith's backup. Maybe it wasn't an ideal situation since linemen almost universally benefit from redshirting. Clayborn though will come into camp with a real edge on others though, having felt the fire for real.
He's been limited to reserve work on offense, and a regular job as special teams blocker. So this senior spring is Archie Muniz's last chance to make a move at larger duty. Having been a backup tackle much of the underclassman career he worked at left guard during Liberty Bowl camp. That will be worth watching since tackle depth might be thinner in spring, though. While Clayborn did play, classmate Kent Flowers had the luxury of redshirting. Now he gets the first serious testing for varsity status, having practiced at guard in bowl camp too.
Speaking of tackle…few really knew what Charles Siddoway coped with as a 2013 senior, playing on a bad back that would have benched a lesser Dog and doing so successfully. Now the two-year starter can rest and right tackle is open. Wide open.
The obvious candidate is his game-backup and practice-alternate Damien Robinson. Now a senior, and finally settled at tackle after bouncing between both right-side positions the first few years, this is his time to show why recruiting writers rated him so highly in high school. The size and experience are certainly there. If the fire is somehow lit at last, Robinson can answer one very big question.
But to be safe, and to be better prepared for the future too, Coach John Hevesy recruited a junior college blocker. Moreover, one who is already enrolled and ready for spring competition. It is assumed—always dangerous admittedly—that Jocquell Johnson was signed for right tackle. He played left tackle at Copiah-Lincoln CC, after all, starting every game in two seasons. So, he steps right in at right tackle, right?
Maybe, maybe not, since coaches don't recruit linemen off resume. Recruiting Coach Tony Hughes in February suggested Johnson could get a look at guard as well. Fortunately he is here right now and can be evaluated in spring rather than waiting for August and the pre-season crunch.
Another option, based on how Hevesy has practiced his tackles before, is moving Blaine Clausell from left end to right. Clausell may have been the real November break-out story for State. Those at the South Carolina game, or watching at a televised distance, saw a much-criticized junior suddenly turn into a force at left tackle, and he kept that pace up through bowl season. Suddenly Clausell goes into his senior season counted on to continue that growth. In a pro-passing sort of system left tackle would be an easy positioning, but in State's spread philosophies having Clausell leading from the right is an interesting idea as well. Again, just something to see on scrimmage days.
Any imagined move though depends on just how far third-year soph Justin Senior—who is still only 19 years old!—has matured at left tackle. Then there is redshirted frosh Jake Thomas already in competition for the same spot, while on the other end 2012 redshirt Cole Carter is ready to make his own case.
The first-ever Kent Hull Trophy fittingly went to a Bulldog, to Jackson. But it would be nice if a center could win an award named after an all-time State great snapper, and Dillon Day ought to enter '14 as the leading candidate in this state. And, a Rimington nominee for the third-straight season. There's just not much to say other than, center is in excellent senior hands. Colorful ones too, and it's worth watching to see if Day is sporting any new ink for his last spring at State.
Devon Desper, a '12 signee, had the luxury of redshirting and then seeing some reserve snaps at center. Now he is the only backup in camp, and obviously being groomed for the future. This actually will be on many a MSU mind in spring, after counting the number of senior starters and top backups. So these practices are as much about developing the blockers for 2015 and beyond.
The future is already here on the defensive front. Only a real coach can evaluate any technical or tactical changes made by new management. But even an ignorant sportswriter could see putting Coach David Turner in charge transformed these Bulldogs' attitudes and energies. Now for his second year, of this MSU tour, Turner has a front that is not only established as a SEC force but ready to be even better.
And deep, too. Only one starter is gone, and there is no lack of candidates to take Denico Autry's open end position. Realistically Turner could promote another end, leave the rest of the December depth chart unchanged, and go practice.
But what fun would that be?
Instead, all the returning starters are going to have to re-prove themselves and all the underclassmen given their opportunities to press their elders. That's the amazing luxury of having not just depth but talented depth deserving snaps.
The end positions also will shake-out depending on how Turner and coordinator Geoff Collins want to use the varied skills. Autry was supposed to be more of a rush-end, and that is also the forte for true senior Preston Smith. The latter has improved as a run-stopper over time, and is pushed to be even better going into the last year. Because true junior Ryan Brown and third-year soph A.J. Jefferson have shown they can stuff the ground game. Turner said in bowl came Brown is just plain reliable at one end, while Jefferson might have more flair but needs a little more maturity to utilize it. This is a key spring for little-used backup end John Harris if the junior intends to make a fall impact. Turner liked what Harris showed during the campus portion of bowl camp.
Of course there's another Dog who openly proclaims his ambition of starting at an end. And goodness knows, Chris Jones looks and plays every atom the part of a NFL-bound big end. Turner laughs at what he calls that "never ending saga!" of arguing with this budding Bulldog superstar lineman about where best to position him. Fortunately Jones has been a team player and accepted the tackle identity…so far. Yet the image of #96 coming off one end, no make that owning one end, is oh-so-appealing. Players of this precocious potential come along maybe once a MSU generation, and the trick for Turner and Collins isn't what to do with Jones; he can do about anything. It is, where exactly can the still-maturing (!) monster be maximized? It's safe to suggest a young defensive lineman will get spring observation from fans on a scale only quarterbacks usually own.
The ‘uncertainty' if that is how this splendid situation can be regarded comes about because State is well-stocked already at the two interior positions. Moving Kaleb Eulls after two years as an OK end made him an excellent tackle, and Turner has praised Eulls' grasp of technical aspects inside. That all began last spring by the way, a reminder of how much gets done this time of year.
It's worth watching just how much work Eulls and senior P.J. Jones get this camp. Jones was a warrior last junior-fall, playing as much and as well as he could on a bad wheel that limited his practice practically from August 3 through December 30. He and Eulls are so well-established as first tackles, they might have a softer senior spring. Maybe, since ‘soft' isn't in Turner's vocabulary as a compliment.
Depth, regardless where C.Jones works, is also strong at tackles. Not many programs have a backup tackle of Curtis Virges' size and strengths. But if size is the recipe, Nick James brings a bag-full of bulk. His '13 travails have been only partly-told and much really should stay secret for the rest of his career, as hopefully it is entirely in the past.
All indications are the uber-gifted big kid handled his unofficial-but-practical suspension well; that his efforts in the weightroom over winter are showing up in a big (albeit lighter) way; and that the attitude has been appropriately adjusted. As Turner said in December, with mental fingers still slightly crossed, "I think Nick is starting mature, which is good." Very, very good because the opportunity to plug James in as a big-push tackle on specific plays is obvious.
He also exemplifies the mix-and-match potential Turner has to work with, and which should be displayed in the upcoming four weeks. Put another way: don't read too much into who plays with whom and where many spring days.
COMING UP: Defensive Skill Players