MSU Media Day, Open Practice Notebook

Mississippi State held the annual pre-season campus Media Day, and for the only time this camp opened up a practice for press corps observation. A selection of notes and quotes from Saturday follows, beginning with the two- and three-deep at Saturday's practice.

STEPPING IN: Or over actually, as the search for Gabe Jackson’s replacement at left guard has seen—not surprisingly—Ben Beckwith go from the right guard job he started 12 games last season to the left side of center. The return of Justin Malone, who Beckwith replaced after opening-game injury, to right guard gives State a three-guard rotation which is the minimal number Coach John Hevesy wants. Because Jamaal Clayborn, the #1 left guard in spring, is now running with the second team early in drills but has live game experience and is sure to work with the ones some in camp too.

So to begin contact days the first-offensive line is RT Damian Robinson, RG Malone, C Dillon Day, LG Beckwith, LT Blaine Clausell. The second line has in those positions Justin Senior, Devon Desper, Archie Muniz, Clayborn, and Cole Carter; while the third unit today was RT Rufus Warren, RG Jake Thomas, Beckwith also working at center, LG Kent Flowers and LT Elgton Jenkins.

The first three-receiver rotation was unchanged from spring ball with Jameon Lewis in the slot while Robert Johnson and De’Runnya Wilson were the split ends. Gabe Myles, Fred Ross, and Fred Brown were their backups, and the third group was Jamoral Graham, Shelby Christy, and Joe Morrow.

The first defensive line, right to left, was Preston Smith, P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Ryan Brown; with the second group A.J. Jefferson, Chris Jones, Curtis Virges or Nick James, and Nelson Adams who has shifted from tackle to end.

At linebacker, middle-man Benardrick McKinney is flanked by Beniquez Brown and Matt Wells; with second unit Richie Brown, Dezmond Harris, and Zach Jackson. The left cornerbacks were Jamerson Love and Will Redmond backed by Jahmere Irvin-Sills; with Taveze Calhoun, Cedric Jiles, and Tolando Cleveland the right corners. At safety, Jay Hughes has returned from injury to fight for his first-team job with Kendrick Market at strong safety backed by Deontay Evans; while free safety has Justin Cox ahead of Kivon Coman.

A bunch of candidates want to return punts, topped by Jameon Lewis and Will Redmond with Gabe Myles and freshman Jamoral Graham taking some turns too.

CATCHING UP: An un-noted name in the offensive line grouping is spring transfer Jocquell Johnson, and since junior college linemen are usually signed to play quickly his development has been a question. Coach Hevesy reminded that Johnson was slowed in spring by December labrum surgery. “We didn’t ask him to do much, so we’ve only seen two days of him,” Hevesy said today. “And that is without pads. But in the first two practices he has done some good things.”

A juco tackle, Johnson did take spring snaps as a guard when available. That wasn’t necessarily a decision though. “We’ll see more, he’s going to be one of those kids who in a sense is a true freshman,” said Hevesy. “I haven’t seen what he can do, so really the next 25 days is a big thing.”

DIFFERENT DAK ATTACK: In his press conference Coach Dan Mullen referred to Dak Prescott as arriving to college an “average passer” and is now “pretty good.” The junior quarterback wasn’t going to disagree publicly. “I mean he’s the coach, he said it, so it’s right!”

More seriously, Prescott agreed his passing skills have come a long way since the freshman year and that he’s comfortable with the air game. The key now is continuing the progress to, hopefully, greatness as a passer. But this requires Prescott being, you know, on the field able to throw a pass.

And that means staying healthy enough over a long season not to miss many such situations. Prescott learned the hard way what one big hit can do, when a late lick at Texas A&M on the blind-side arm left a nerve damaged and he had to miss two whole games and most of the Egg Bowl. His triumphant, literally, return in that game is now MSU legend…but Mississippi State would prefer the offensive leader avoid similar challenges.

This is not an easy adjustment. Remember, despite the missed games Prescott set the MSU record for quarterback rushing yards surpassing legends like Felker and Bond and Smith. His ability to tuck the ball, lower the hat, and gain ground is an offensive strength. At the same time…

”It’s just being smart, realizing I’m a passer I have to protect myself, protect my shoulders. So I can’t just be a down-nose nasty runner. It’s knowing when to get out of bounds, when to get down. Durability is more important than ability, Coach (Brian) Johnson speaks to that.”

Still, this will be a case where Prescott’s every competitive instinct shouts GO FOR IT, and the maturing quarterback’s mind must overrule. “It depends on the situation. Just being smart, knowing the down-and-distance and where the first down is. So a 4th-and-1 I’m willing to sacrifice and go get that. First downs, a long way, or I’ve already got the first down? I just need to get down or get out of bounds.”

With potential placekicking issues there might be greater State tendency to try for those fourth downs this year. Fortunately says Mullen, Prescott’s DNA is “built for 4th-and-1”, a comment that left the quarterback amused. “I didn’t know that was in my DNA really, I guess they ran the tests!”

GONE, NOT FORGOTTEN: Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins’ DNA obviously includes a lot of whatever the “Juice” helix requires. His unit rolls into preseason with by Collins’ count 20 of the 22 rotation players from the Liberty Bowl romp, where Mississippi State held high-flying Rice to just seven points.

”That’s a lot of good players,” Collins said. “Then we have Jay Hughes coming back, he didn’t play last year. We’re excited about some of the young kids who redshirted, some of the freshmen have really stepped up and done some good things in the two practices we’ve had.”

What is worth noting is that for the Liberty Bowl, the Dog defense was without one regular. Safety Nickoe Whitley missed the game to take care of some season-long health issues. Fortunately he lasted out the whole regular schedule, because it was his two heroic strip-turnovers that saved one game in regulation (Arkansas) and won another in overtime (Egg Bowl). Maybe Whitley’s coverage wasn’t always excellent, and he certainly drew his share of late-hit penalties over the years.

But his pure clutch-ness at the end of the senior regular season makes his name one to remember. And the Dog defense does as part of Collins’ practice sequences.

”We do turnover circuits, we do five zone circuits and blitz circuits. Today we’ll do a turnover circuit, we have four different turnover stations. I have the pleasure of (coaching) the ‘Nickoe Drill’. We have a drill that’s actually called the ‘Nickoe Whitley Drill’, it’s teaching them how to rip a ball out of somebody’s hands.”

No better title could have been taken. Even if his coverage had some issues Whitley did after all end up second in MSU career interceptions. But it was his rip-and-strips of 2013 that will always be celebrated. Not just by fans, Collins said.

”All of the kids, they’ve seen what Nickoe did by basically winning two games for us in a season at the end of contests. When we get to the ‘Nickoe Drill’ they want to do that, they want to replicate that.”

LEAD DOG: Based on tenure the ‘lead back’ for 2014 would presumably be junior Josh Robinson, who not only alternated with La’Darius Perkins last season but started when the then-senior wasn’t healthy. Robinson was indeed spring #1, but this doesn’t mean he will get an inordinate share of snaps Mullen said.

“Every year is a committee type thing. Josh had a lot of yards rushing last year. And when Vick Ballard was here Perkins had a lot as well. So usually one guy steps out a little bit ahead of everybody else but at the end of the game we like to look at the rotations and reps guys have and have them be somewhat comparable. And with the depth we have; with Nick Griffin being back healthy, Brandon Holloway which gives you a whole different dimension with speed back there, and Ashton Shumpert is the power back. So I think there’s a lot of different weapons just to roll those guys through and see who has the hot hand.”

Add another weapon to the running back arsenal, too, with touted rookie Aeris Williams. Not that Mullen is jumping the kid ahead in the line just yet. “Once he puts the pads on we’ll see if he figure out which way to go. We know he’s a talented player, being Mr. Mississippi Football last year. We just have to see how he picks things up.”

TRIGGER MEN TANDEM: As for who is handing them the ball, Prescott obviously will be running the show with soph Damian Williams the backup or, if possible, alternate. Mullen likes having the #1 quarterback take a turn or two off in games for sideline conversations while another operates the offense, if the game allows of course. Still last season showed the need to have more than two quarterbacks ready.

And with a couple of touted newcomers like Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, there’s all the more emphasis on developing the kids early as possible. Mullen is cautious. “It’s still really early to see, they’re just getting used to being here. Elijah being two days into the playbook right now we have to see how he picks it up. Nick had the spring so he has a little advantage at this point of his career.”

”But I told everybody, this time last year of training camp nobody expected Damian to start the Egg Bowl. He started, and got a win as a starter. When you look at that and how a season is going to play out our job is to make sure we’ve got guys ready for those situations. And we try to do that throughout the course of the season. You never know when one huge moment is upon us that we need to make a play.”

CONTACT CLUB: With Saturday’s third working session the Bulldogs got to wear shells, as in helmet and shoulder padding. That is the script for Sunday as well before Monday, when practice shifts to the Farm field where the Dogs don full armor for the first time.

Curiously, Mullen doesn’t stress over injuries during contact days nearly so much as when his team is running around un-armored. Especially the opening of fall camp in shorts. “I know the first couple of days without pads you just pray nobody gets hurt,” Mullen said of the NCAA-mandated schedule for contact dates.

“I know that’s designed for safety reasons to not have pads the first two days; to me they’re two of the most generous days because you don’t have the pads on! Unfortunately we didn’t have any problems with that. Everybody is ready and we’ll go start playing football this afternoon.”

GOT THE BAND BACK TOGETHER: After a few seasons with multiple staff changes, Mississippi State’s 2014 coaching crew is almost the same as ’13. The lone addition is quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, who may be new to Starkville but is a really familiar face to most of his cohorts here. Johnson was recruited by Mullen at Utah, after all, where a few other current MSU coaches were also working.

Mullen used this addition as opportunity to revamp some of the offensive assignments, as the head coach now acknowledges his authority as overall offensive coordinator. But within that context John Hevesy will run the running game, Billy Gonzales will direct the passing plans as co-coordinators. It might have been a challenging change with any other group, but these coaches have no problem within their combined tenures.

“It’s working great,” Mullen said. “I guess John and I have been together straight through now for what, 14 years? I knew him before I knew my wife! Billy and I were together for all but a four-year span in those 14 years. Greg Knox has been here with us from the beginning, Scott Sallach from the beginning. And Brian kind of knows all of us. So it’s a very easy adjustment.”

”And the great thing is everybody knows what we want to get done and what we need to get done so it is an easy adjustment for those guys to take it and run.”

POLLING POINTS: Mississippi State did not receive enough votes for a place in the pre-season Coaches Poll released this week. Mullen wasn’t really bothered by this, but something about these advance rankings did catch his coaching eye.

”That there’s five teams in the West in the top 20. No other conference has five teams in the top 20, we have five in our Division. In our conference you could have a good enough team to go win most other conferences, and you’re not even going to finish in the top half of the Division here. But that’s the challenge, and the goal of our guys, to find a way to win.”

Don’t try telling some veteran Bulldogs that they won’t be in the polls by season’s end though. Not that a mere ranking is the highest ambition, though. WR Jameon Lewis is shooting higher for his senior year.

”This is the team. It’s the road to Atlanta, and it started two days ago. Atlanta is our goal and we’re on a steady grind towards it.”

HOW SPECIAL? Training camp begins with at least two parts of special teams in excellent hands. Or foot rather, with Devon Bell established as the punter and kickoff man while Winston Chapman is a standard of efficiency snapping. Prescott is the presumptive holder for placekicks although others will be groomed for this role as well.

Placekicking? Well, Mullen came out of spring praising Evan Sobiesk who did make good on the must-have field goal to force Egg Bowl overtime. But he was 3-of-6 for the season as a whole, including one which would have won the Egg Bowl in regulation.

Still if the game were played this week it would surely be Sobiesk doing the duty. With Bell’s kickoff four weeks yet, there’s time for some real competition from walk-on Westin Graves and summer Michigan transfer J.J. McGrath. And, “That’s where it’s at, for us to see who wins there,” Mullen said. “And we can only judge it off practice.”

With Devon Bell focusing on punts and kickoffs we feel great about him, he’s played and had pressure put on him. But those other guys, all of them are still extremely inexperienced at the placekicking position. So we’ll see how it plays out during training camp. Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do that can simulate the pressure you’re going to feel on a Saturday in the stadium. You can try as hard as you want but there’s no simulate. So we have to see how they do in training camp but then in the season…I don’t know that we’ll have a starter week-one. Because that’s our first opportunity to put J.J. and Graves out in situations where they’re playing live in a stadium.”

DUCK: Mullen had barely got to the podium when his phone rang. Or rather, quacked, the ring-tone set to a duck’s call. As he hastily muted the phone “My son put that on,” Mullen explained. “I don’t know how to turn that off.”

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