Re-Placing, Re-Filling, Re-Loading: Part I

Fans enjoyed watching the 2014 standouts wearing Mississippi State helmets for the last time during January all-star action. Or we did, until remembering this WAS their last time…and that those players require replacing and positions need re-filling for 2015.

With this in Mississippi State minds, let’s list who departs from the 10-3 team which re-wrote so many records and made so many memories. Then, consider who has the first and best chances of taking those spots during spring training. Or pre-season practices. Or eventually during the season itself for that matter.

In several cases the answers look simple. Just promote the past year’s alternate or backup, which is always the ideal in a matured program. At a couple of spots it is not so simple but again for good reason: quality recruiting by Coach Dan Mullen and staff has stocked the roster well over recent years. There are lightly-seasoned players in their second or third spring ready to step in, or redshirts looking to jump the line.

And in a couple of positions, brand-new Bulldogs are arriving and not prepared to be patient. So, much as we will miss the newest alumni…there is maybe more excitement about seeing who moves up, over, in, and around by September.

One fact is certainly worth cheering. Bulldog fans gladly wait until next January to see Dak Prescott wear his helmet in all-star play.

Beginning on offense though not completing that side until tomorrow along with the defense:

RUNNING BACK: Josh Robinson 1,203 yards, 11 rush touchdowns; Nick Griffin 157 yards, 1 rush touchdown

His announcement’s timing left lots to be desired in teammate terms. But Robinson’s choice is correct. Odd as it will sound for a back who had the third-most season yards in program history, Robinson would almost certainly not have duplicated his stats as a senior.

That’s no critique either; it is a comment on the young backs ready to roll in 2015. Ashton Shumpert was activated as a true freshman and has spent two seasons now mostly as a situation runner, lead blocker, or pass protector. When allowed to run it himself Shumpert netted 5.8 yards each carry. He might not have shown breakaway burst yet, then again he hasn’t had many chances to. Spring, he gets them.

Brandon Holloway, now, his speed is settled. If he hits the crease and breaks clear, big gains are a given. Holloway’s issue is simply size, or lack thereof, and while he ran inside regularly in high school SEC defenses just beat most little guys down. Spring will see if ways are schemed to get him the ball in space where the acceleration can be applied.

More likely though, why not go with a bigger body who has good speed and a knack for finding the edge on his own? That’s what redshirt Dontavian Lee showed in bowl camp. When he turned a corner in full-team drills he harked back to classic tailback types. Meanwhile classmate Aeris Williams has similar size but appears to thrive between the tackles…or better, beyond them. He is a back to toss the ball to in short patterns for potential big gains, a bigger LaDarius Perkins if you will.

Remember the ‘diamond’ set seen in late 2013 from State? It wasn’t much in evidence this past fall, but with this collection of backs and their combinations of size and speed it seems a good idea. Heck, bring back the wishbone! Emory Bellard would have loved a trio of Shumpert at fullback, Lee and Williams halfbacks, and Prescott pitching or keeping.

With these returning and redshirted backs, snaps for a true freshmen not arriving until summer would seem slim. But Mullen has shown he’ll play anyone on offense that can contribute, or on special teams for that matter. So let’s not entirely rule-out newcomers until August works this out. Especially not when we have early-enrolled prepster Malik Dear here for spring camp. Signing day listed him as a receiver but his credits as a back and his 220-pound size make this a truly tantalizing young talent to find a fit for, running and catching alike. Like maybe at…

SLOT RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Jameon Lewis 32 catches, 380 yards, 2 TD; Malcolm Johnson 28 catches, 380 yards, 3 TD; Brandon Hill 3 catches, 57 yards, 1 TD

One can always wonder how November—the Egg Bowl in particular--might have otherwise played out if not for a September injury to Lewis. The cracked bone below his knee cost the offense an explosive threat out of one slot. But this, and defensive focus on Johnson from the other side, had a beneficial effect for the split ends that will carry over into the new season.

Still, Mullen’s offense relies on a play-breaking threat here and State has no lack for ’15. The group may even be better on the whole in fact. Gabe Myles may not have had any huge plays or been able to show breakaway burst, but he’s got the right physical and mental make-up for the position. Maybe more so the latter, Myles is a just plain smart ball player and knows what to do out in the open.

Plus, and this is pure speculation for now, Myles’ style might be more a replacement for Johnson, if not his size, as a sure-hands guy to get yards after catches in traffic. Gus Walley is a whole ‘nother proposition, a truly tall target coming off the end of the line and easy to spot in traffic between the hashes. He also seems to have a step on Johnson in the open field after the catch.

It’s harder getting a gauge on big tight end Darrion Hutcherson and burner slot-man Jamoral Graham after their debut year. For his part Hutcherson didn’t catch a ball nor have many sent his way, so none can truly tell right now if he is a real offensive threat. Even if not, his size is handy for extra blocking, but the big guy can move so none should write him off prematurely. Graham’s calling card is speed and that is always valuable. His challenge is really learning not just the routes but the role, all of it, in a precise system. Settle that, and this is a sophomore not only to throw the ball to but use in Mullen’s beloved receiver-sweeps carries.

But the most tantalizing talent is from a Dog yet to take a snap, practice or real. Expectations for Donald Gray are off-the-charts coming out of a necessary season in junior college that helpfully honed his gifts to go with explosive speed. Even better, Gray is enrolled for spring and bound to compete for the slot job. The starting slot job.

WIDE RECEIVER: Robert Johnson 14 catches, 237 yards, 1 TD

Tip the cap if you will to Johnson, Mr. Reliable at split end with good hands and better blocking. Thanks. Now, try not shivering in anticipation about what even with losses of both Johnsons and Lewis looks like the most overall gifted receiver corps at State in…well, maybe ever?

A roster which ‘grew’ in one sense in the last game of 2014. Joe Morrow had become almost an after-thought in this group, then in the Orange Bowl he caught six balls for 117 yards and if the first pass thrown his general direction had been on target it would have been a touchdown. Morrow most closely mimics what R.Johnson brought to the game, in terms of body and hands and style, and there is a place for this for sure.

But…it is the other, faster, more explosive names which come to mind first. It’s shocking to consider just how raw De’Runnya Wilson was upon arrival two years ago; how far he’s come; and just what his ceiling in college could be. He of course will have one of the split end jobs again. Morrow’s spring competition on the other side of the field comes now from both the Freds, Ross (30, 493, 5 TD) and Brown (18, 299, 2). Even full-time four-wides schemes can’t accommodate everyone, so the battle will realistically be for who gets first and most turns in a guaranteed rotation.

Oh, and Johnson’s graduation also opens up a place in the kickoff return pair. Though there has never been a really convincing explanation how he got the job the past two years in the first place other than maybe sure hands and no turnovers. It’d be even better to have that with play-breaking gifts though and surely candidates are on hand with that?

All this depth doesn’t appear to offer lots of room for rookies. Then again Deddrick Thomas is already on campus along with Dear and Gray. So he can make an earlier impression for sure than the fall enrollees.

CENTER: Dillon Day 51 games, 50 starts

Replacing a four-season starter, who almost certainly has the career record for starts at center, is the obvious first concern in an offense so built upon reliable blocking. And if Day’s senior season did not result in many awards his selection to two all-star events speaks to his pro perception.

So…next? This spring is more interesting than the situation may have seemed in fall. Devon Desper would seem the easy call; he was signed as a center after all and while he worked most at guard (with a start) in 2014 he has got plenty practicing over the ball. Besides, guards and centers are expected to be inter-changeable in State’s system anyway.

Bowl camp however indicated that others snapping in drills and team settings weren’t just practicing for depth. These were real tests and two listed guards are very much trying to take center’s stage. Of the two, insiders think Deion Calhoun has the, well, inside track over Jamaal Clayborn.

Redshirt freshman Calhoun assumed a larger share of the snapping snaps during December’s public work. If he can hold serve in spring, this would set the stage for another four-year tenure over the ball. Whether Calhoun cares for tattoos is another subject entirely. This doesn’t rule out Desper though since he’s had a little longer in the system and has two years’ age advantage too.

Clayborn of course is regarded more as a guard, to be mentioned in a moment. But for the first few days of bowl camp there he was hiking the ball with not only the second unit but at times on the first team as Day and Archie Muniz watched. Hey, you can never have too many qualified snappers.

RIGHT GUARD: Ben Beckwith 49 games, 25 starts

Or game-ready guards either. Clayborn is that. Forced into alternate action as a true 2013 freshman, his sophomore season was disrupted early and thoroughly by family issues. Clayborn’s belated return to the roster cost him dearly on the depth chart, though, and in the absence Desper seized opportunity to back-up Beckwith and even start in his place the day Day was suspended.

By the way it can’t be overlooked what a story Beckwith wrote at State. The one-time walk-on from a tiny academy team shone on college football’s premier conference stage and ended as all-conference and playing in all-star games. He more than comrade Day was the heart of Bulldog blocking in 2014.

Replacing those intangibles is a to-be-seen issue. Filling right guard is a necessity, ASAP. Veteran left guard Justin Malone is always an option; the positions are supposed to be reversible remember. Then Clayborn would take over the left slot. More likely, Desper will duel in drills with a true junior of the same age, while sophomores Jake Thomas and Kent Flowers work to stay on the usual State development schedule. And all of them will be keeping an eye on newcomers.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish the offensive line at left tackle; and move on to defense and specialists.

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