Reviewing The Redshirts

By the time the 2014 Bulldogs leave their Sun Life Stadium locker room, the calendar will have rolled over. But for a number of Mississippi State players, preparations for 2015 have already begun. Or as Coach Dan Mullen calls it “Young guys getting ready to go for the future.”

The future is just about here for Mullen’s ‘young guys’; the fourteen Mississippi State freshmen who watched as redshirts. Well, watched is not entirely accurate. If these Dogs don’t participate in live games, regular or post-season, they have played a significant part in this record-setting 2014 season.

The reward? All academically-eligible redshirts will have the best vantage point for the Capital One Orange Bowl. When #7 Mississippi State plays in the inaugural College Football Playoff bowl cycle, Bulldog redshirts will also have a better appreciation of Georgia Tech than most. They simulated the #12 ranked Yellow Jackets during bowl camp, after all.

But they also started scoring points with the coaching staff for 2015 status when the redshirts come off. When campus camp began Mullen said he wanted to see more than intensity from redshirts.

He expected desperation.

“I want to see them into that ‘I got to start getting ready to play’,” Mullen called it. “I want to see them taking those steps where they’re ready to go be a starter, go get in the rotation.”

Opportunities are right ahead. State’s projected Orange Bowl two-deep shows seven seniors on offense, eight on defense. To be sure there are plenty of returning and tested Bulldogs at most positions who expect spring promotion. But some may find a redshirt muscling into ‘their’ spot if not careful. Or, even if they are.

Because, based on campus bowl camp showings, there are redshirts very ready to play.

As always the highest of profiles belongs to quarterbacks. No pun intended there, but Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley certainly possess a high profile with official heights of 6-5 and 6-6 respectively. Bowl camp observers were openly surprised during position drills when Dak Prescott, fine physical specimen in his own right, had to look up, wayyyy up, at the younger quarterbacks. All the more so for soph Damian Williams.

Both redshirts got plenty of camp snaps with the varsity offense, and it was easy to see how much more advanced Fitzgerald is in running State’s system. No surprise of course; this was his second bowl camp after early arrival last December remember, plus a full spring working off the real playbook and with tutelage from Mullen, Johnson, and Prescott too. Fitzgerald also ran the scout squad, again not a surprise as he’d operated an option-type offense in high school.

“I mean Fitzgerald is a great guy,” wideout De’Runnya Wilson said. “Being a tall quarterback he can see over the defense and it’s kind of crazy. Because he does a lot of stuff different than Dak does. D Williams does a lot of stuff different. We just have great guys. I mean Coach Mullen goes out and recruits.”

Staley’s camp was interrupted by a patella tendon issue, aggravated by practicing basketball with the run-and-jump stress on hardwood. He needed December surgery and even ‘broke’ the story himself on social media, not exactly thrilling his coaches. Mullen called Staley doubtful for spring as far as normal practices, but did suggest throwing is possible even if seated on the same stool used by Tyler Russell in 2011 and Prescott as well a year later when both were recovering from injuries. “But we’ll see that as it moves forward.”

Speaking of moving forward, Bulldog fans hope—and likely pray too—that Prescott holds off moving to professional football until 2016. Whatever the rising senior decides, he’s already lent a hand in preparing his successor. Or successors. “They’re coming along well. Just anything I saw and could help them, I told them, and just tried to keep their confidence going. The most important part of this position is having confidence.”

Should he return, Prescott will have confidence in those who he hands and throws the ball to. That’s even allowing for graduations at receiver. He will miss having Jameon Lewis, Robert and Malcolm Johnson, Brandon Hill around…but all their routes can still be run in 2015 just fine. “We have a lot of talent,” Prescott said.

Young talent in the cases of two 2014 signees, one of whom played and the other who did not. Still so little was seen of activated freshman Jamoral Graham in SEC receiving work that he’s almost like a redshirt. Signing class-mate Jesse Jackson really is. But the redshirt receiver didn’t look the least bit green in campus camp, per an expert opinion.

“I think he’s going to be an awesome receiver,” rising soph Gabe Myles said. “He’s strong, able to go get the ball. And it’s going to take more than one guy to bring him down. I think Jesse has a bright future here.”

There’s temptation to make that future now based on Jackson’s catches in camp in fact, but State will resist. Jackson drew the scout team role of Tech’s top available wideout, Darren Waller, which is why he wore 88 in practices. Whatever the numbers, he looked exactly like the sort of big outside target to put opposite Wilson in 2015.

“Jesse Jackson, that’s my guy!” Wilson said. “I’m in the room with him and on and off the field he has personality. That’s the kind of focus I wish I would have had as a freshman, playing.”

Graham is a slot-man, the same position as Myles and open with Lewis leaving. Myles knows he has competition coming in spring. “I think he’s only going to get better. And he’s real quick. He can make up a route on the fly, he can beat one-on-one coverage. So I see him emerging, too.”

There are new running backs ready to emerge as well. One did in bowl camp when Dontavian Lee ‘repped’ Tech B-back Synjyn Days on the scout squad. He also staked an early bid on rotation work with the ’15 varsity. Looking taller than the listed 6-1 Lee was impressive powering to an edge and turning it to show long, strong stride. Aeris Williams is listed about the same size but was more effective working between tackles and in the throwing game.

So whatever rising senior Josh Robinson decides to do, there is plenty young ability to pair with junior Ashton Shumpert. “And December is when you have to become your best,” Robinson said. “You’re going to work on fundamentals just like Aeris and Lee are working on. I feel that benefitted me when I was a young cat.”

Count starting linebacker Beniquez Brown impressed after seeing the redshirt runners this month. “Oh, they do a great job. Dontavian runs hard, Aeris runs hard. All those guys come to practice every day and give us a great look. So we really appreciate them, coming out to practice every day and giving us a good look.”

Maybe whatever they scout-team-show in December won’t be needed in March, much less August. Make no mistake though; every snap of any sort is a chance for young offensive line Dogs to impress and improve. And with three starting jobs to re-fill the motivation is obvious. So is the need.

At least fans can get a guess where redshirted or reserve blockers are projected for 2015 practicing. The scout team line had junior Jocquell Johnson at right tackle; rising soph Jake Thomas right guard; redshirt Deion Calhoun center; soph Kent Flowers left guard; and either redshirt Ronald Cochran or Elgton Jenkins taking turns at left tackle. Camp-fans had to be confused though as all were wearing Tech numbers, not their own MSU roster numbers.

Johnson is a very different sort of redshirt case of course. He enrolled last January as a junior college transfer and practiced briefly at guard and tackle before nagging health issues sidelined him. His second spring will show if Johnson really is in-line for tackle competition with former tight end Rufus Warren and junior Cole Carter. Experts came away giving Cochran and Jenkins better reviews than their recruiting ratings.

The larger impression came from Calhoun though, who could prove the under-rated prize of Mullen’s sixth signing class. He arrived as a guard prospect but came out of bowl camp a contender for center which would keep veterans like Devon Desper and Jamaal Clayborn at guard(s). And should State suddenly decide to turn triple-option on offense, well, the younger linemen have an edge on their elders!

It will be well into spring before anyone sees how much the defensive scheme will change under new coordination. Or, not since Mullen insists on the same general script whoever is calling the plays. And with all the proven personnel returning there’s no reason to shake up this system.

In fact the only ‘shaking up’ in store will come from kids who’ve served their redshirt season and are impatient to play. All of them should based on bowl camp.

Certainly the defensive line will fit their redshirts into the next rotation. Though, one is another different redshirt; junior transfer Will Coleman enrolled for fall but wasn’t eligible to play. It wasn’t a fun semester or bowl camp for that matter yet Coleman can turn it to a positive. He goes into spring a year older and matured and with lots more practice at defensive end.

Grant Harris is the typical redshirt, as well as a defensive end where he got regular snaps on left end with the second and third units in campus bowl drills. Classmates Braxton Hoyett and Cory Thomas got their turns as tackles, typically right and left though this will be interchangeable come spring. Combine them with rising underclassmen already seasoned, and State can graduate two starting tackles and a star rush-end with more poise than panic.

It’s the same story at linebacker. True, no program wants to say goodbye to an all-arounder like Matt Wells or (it is assumed) middle-man Benardrick McKinney. Mississippi State can wish them well in the NFL though and yell Next! since there is already a proven corps of ‘backers. Now add another in redshirt Gerri Green.

Even during the season informal practice reports raved about his work on scout team. Bowl camp affirmed the talk. In fact during some drills Green ran middle in the second team rotation alongside varsity linebackers, even though the kid won’t play in the Orange Bowl. It was quite a comment on expectations for Green to reinforce rising junior Richie Brown in the middle. And why losing junior McKinney early is so easily accepted.

“I mean that guy is great,” receiver Wilson said. “Great size, and I like the person he is on and off the field.”

Green redshirted; classmate J.T. Gray did not, after injuries forced his mid-season activation. Gray even earned Freshman All-SEC though entirely on his special teams feats. He’ll go into spring contending for one of the outside jobs, i.e. Wells’ opened position.

Rising junior Beniquez Brown is confident there will be no drop-off in the rotations having watched the two younger ‘backers in camp. “They do a great job. And it’s good to have guys older that have played in SEC games. They get under our wings, they practice hard, they do everything Coach asks them to do. And if we tell them to do something, they do it.” As they should, learning from some of the SEC’s best.

The secondary loses just two regulars, cornerback Jamerson Love and safety Jay Hughes. Even if late-season injury means veteran Kendrick Market misses spring, there are plenty of safeties on the ’15 roster already. But room must be made anyway. Redshirt Brandon Bryant should force his way up the chart soon with fresh speed and strength.

Ask Wilson about it. “Brandon Bryant, man that guy comes down hard. I want to say a Tyrann Mathieu-type, but I can look at him as being better!”

Because campus bowl work featured lots, lots more passing than running, cornerback Chris Rayford had more chances than his classmate safety to show off. He did. Rayford covered the split ends very well and brings something State wants to the downfield defense in this spread-offense era. “A big, physical corner,” Coach Deshea Townsend said. “And that’s going to be his strong suit, being physical. You have to have that in this league, guys that have some size and strength and can go out there and play.”

Rayford and redshirts still have to wait until next season to play. One Bulldog, who did not have the luxury of sitting out a rookie year, is convinced the kids will be ready.

“The young guys, they came to work man,” Wilson said. “They go out and make the plays and execute. This is like a mini-camp getting us ready for spring so the younger guys have to get in the mindset that it’s game time.”

So, while they watch one Mississippi State team conclude a historic season in the Orange Bowl, a bunch of Bulldogs can't wait for midnight to strike, 2015 to begin, and count-down to game time begin.

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