Part II: Re-Placing, Re-Filling, Reloading

Yesterday began a look at the Mississippi State seniors and draft-eligible juniors from 2014 who must be replaced, and the leading candidates—varsity, redshirt, in a few cases newcomers—to take those open jobs in spring camp.

Part I listed the offensive skill positions and a couple of offensive line jobs. Today completes that side of the ball before turning to defense and specialists.

LEFT TACKLE: Blaine Clausell 49 games, 38 starts

If re-loading the center and right guard positions is intriguing, maybe the larger question is what is going to happen at tackles this spring. Yes, tackles plural. Right tackle Justin Senior does return, and is only just now coming into his full maturity as a 2015 junior. Remember, he arrived in 2012 spring not only a year younger than usual for far less-experienced in American football. Senior might not have starred in 2014 but neither did he draw many criticisms. And for linemen, not getting noticed for mistakes is indeed a development benchmark.

He also had right tackle to himself when fifth-year senior Damien Robinson went down with an August knee injury. Most insiders say Senior would have won the job anyway. But if Robinson’s appeal for a sixth year is granted soon as expected—Robinson is working out this pre-spring as usual--the competition resumes. Meanwhile converted tight end Rufus Warren is a wild card at right tackle, under pressure to produce going into his senior season after making the move a year ago.

Now, back over to the open left end. Clausell showed why linemen so often are late bloomers, becoming a respectable back-side tackle his last year-and-a-half and something of a pro prospect now after playing in the Senior Bowl. His exit leaves the spot utterly open with no natural successor on the ’14 roster. Junior-to-be Cole Carter took most bowl camp snaps there, while redshirt Elgton Jenkins rotated. Jenkins was a very late pick-up in the ’14 signing class on presumed potential, and flashed signs of why State took a chance on a very young and very raw (sound familiar?) kid with a body to fill-out over time.

However, that time probably isn’t 2015. State has to have a left tackle by September. Barring a move of Senior or Robinson, always a possibility, a newcomer hopefully takes over by April. The mid-year signing and spring arrival of Martinas Rankin can’t be over-emphasized. Jucos are signed to play, almost always (one exception to be discussed in a moment) and Rankin was recruited to play left tackle. Now.

Yes, you surely have noticed the missing name in these o-line speculations. That is because even after a whole calendar year on campus, Jocquell Johnson can’t quite be pigeon-holed for a position just yet. It isn’t his fault; health disrupted his first spring as a transfer and he fell too far behind to be a fall factor. He also began practicing as a guard last March.

Bowl camp found him back at tackle, which is where recruitniks projected him in the first place. Usually right tackle to be sure, but if Robinson’s appeal is granted this spot gets crowded. For that matter there are more options than before at either tackle. Depth is always good…but in State’s system only the top-eight blockers are counted on. So coming out of spring first is, literally, the first step towards playing in fall.

DEFENSIVE END: Preston Smith 48 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 15.0 TFL

Other than immediate stardom as a rookie, rare at any position, this was a near-ideal college career track. From limited playing as a true freshman he became a sophomore regular, junior starter, and senior star as well as elite pro prospect. For those who surely grump this year about ‘if only he’d redshirted’ it’s likely Smith would have been turning pro this year anyway, we can now see.

Seeing his replacement? Well there is one easy choice. A.J. Jefferson is good. He even had State’s only Orange Bowl sack, not Smith, and quite a few impressive plays in the regular season in rotation roles. Jefferson also answered spring questions about handling the running game in the real season.

Only time will tell if new or re-newed coordinator Manny Diaz follows the 1A/1B approach used last year. He didn’t have anything like this sort of depth in 2010, after all, least of all at defensive end. Boy does Diaz have bodies to work with now though. Juco Will Coleman had to redshirt for eligibility and while it was frustrating the extra development time showed in bowl camp. Freshman redshirt Grant Harris worked at left end in bowl prep behind returning senior Ryan Brown and junior to be Torrey Dale, but obviously all can swap ends without trouble.

There’s also a new face in the group with mid-year juco Jonathan Calvin. Oh yeah, there are numbers on the end of the line to play with this spring.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Kaleb Eulls 34 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 3.0 TFL; P.J. Jones 31 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1.0 TFL

At tackle(s), though? There are still sufficient bodies for a two-deep, just not the ludicrous depth of fall. Nor the absolutely reliable presence of Eulls and Jones. And when we say reliable, in Eulls’s case that means starting every one of his 52 college games, tying Gabe Jackson’s 2010-13 record. Jones had 27 starts in 45 games and only nagging ankle issues interrupted a comparable run.

This is where the 1A/1B does give some cues to the future. And, why Chris Jones has remained as a primary tackle, even if his heart is at rush-end. The younger Jones wasn’t as productive last fall as a true ’13 freshman, nor as happy. But this at least partly reflected him becoming a true tackle, learning to use a system and not just raw skills, which bode for much better as he rises to starting stature at last. Barring injury, a beast is about to be unleashed. He's also trying to stay under 300 pounds again, but not toooooo far.

Such should also be the case for Nick James. The wisdom of sitting him as a true ’13 soph showed in a more mature young man for ’14 and a better technician. He’s far from a finished product to be sure and a few fingers remain crossed with keeping a personality as large as the body under control. What matters is James has his chance to really blossom this season.

But starting? Probably not, because Nelson Adams was the under-appreciated standout maybe in the entire defensive rotation. Yet look at so many short-yardage and goal-line stops State made last season; more often than not #94 blew up the blocking and a few times made the tackle too. Only time will tell but if bowl camp is a good gauge Jones and Adams will take first turns, combining their pass-rush and run-stop gifts. Then James can take turns alongside…

…somebody(s) new. Or at least new to the varsity. It’s a measure of d-line depth that where in previous years one or both would have had to play immediately, both Braxton Hoyette and Cory Thomas were able to work, watch, and wait. The staff obviously has faith in the redshirts because recruiting true tackle prospects was not a ’15 priority compared to signing ends. Then again, Jones and Adams began as ends before moving inside, as did Eulls too for that matter. Development program, indeed.

And by the is far, far, FAR from a done-deal and many a hurdle must yet be cleared with school and department and coaching staff. But, there are at least preliminary twitches that a certain dismissed defensive tackle of two years ago could, based on happy change in behavior, be back in good graces by the new school-calendar year. That's all that needs saying for now.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Benardrick McKinney 71 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 8.0 TFL

Here’s another fine argument against redshirting. Yeah, McKinney might not have earned a top job as a true freshman. But he would surely have worked special teams and got some late-relief snaps then before getting on the fast track to early NFL entry after 244 career tackles and two whole seasons as starting middle-man.

Then again, had he returned it would only have delayed promotion of Richie Brown, who was born to play mike ‘backer. He had 50 sophomore tackles in the rotation and some games arguably out-played starter McKinney. There’s more to this than heir-apparent too; his potential impact as a starter has to be combined with the presence of outside man Beniquez Brown. Because there can’t be two smarter, sharper linebackers in the same lineup than the Brown Brothers.

So, no need to rotate in ’15, right? Leave the best veterans on the field all the time, correct? Mmmmm…no. Because on most any other team Gerri Green would have been activated already. His physique had more than just this writer thinking, even saying aloud ‘K.J. Wright’ watching bowl camp. But Green took his snaps in the middle, not outside…though that has to be a tempting concept for Diaz to try in spring just to get everyone on the field somehow.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Matthew Wells 45 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 8.5 TFL

Well, his career wasn’t full-appreciated until the end of it. So maybe Wells wasn’t disappointed at missing all-star selection too badly. Surely some franchise noticed his all-around abilities and athletic gifts and gives him a shot.

State certainly knows what has to be replaced, as Wells was equally adept at run support and pass coverage. So the door is wide-open and J.T. Gray already standing in it. Perhaps already stepped inside for that matter. Gray was supposed to redshirt, like Green; mid-season injuries threw him on the field for special teams work. That ought give him an edge in spring ball now.

Though B.Brown is obviously back for the junior season, this is one place depth has to be discussed. It seemed clear-cut until freakish athlete Dezmond Harris went down with a knee injury. Recovery is impossible to predict so there has to be some spring and summer concern here. Deandre Ward can make a claim in camp, for one, and converted safety Quadry Antoine is another option as he learns linebacking.

Or State can recruit juco help here, which is certainly the goal as everyone waits to see if Travor Jung does indeed sign on in February. Fingers crossed…

STRONG SAFETY: Jay Hughes 26 tackles, 2 interceptions

His return from devastating ’13 injury was a good story. And his coming career, likely in law, will be a credit to the alma mater. Thing is though, Hughes is leaving at the right time, and after a senior season that wasn’t as successful as expected. That was equally true for the entire safety situation actually, an area that was competent in run support but had breakdowns in the air game.

So improvement here is a must. State might have shifted Kendrick Market to strong safety if experience was prioritized, but the free safety won’t be a spring factor now after November knee injury. The two positions are supposed to be interchangeable of course.

And Deontay Evans has worked both spots, in games. He started at free in the Orange Bowl and tallied ten tackles, which would seem to suit him for the strong spot as a run-stuffer. Coverage remains his challenge. Kivon Coman was a rotation regular all season and at the Bowl was listed second at both safety spots. It’s the new kid who had bowl camp buzzing though. After redshirting, Brandon Bryant is ready to get on the field for-real and a starting job is very much within his spring grasp now.

Oh, speaking of buzz… It isn’t fair to put so much hope in a (hopefully) incoming recruit. But everyone who has seen prospect Jamal Peters play high school ball says this is an exceptional case. Johnthan Banks played as a true freshman out of necessity; Peters could do it on sheer ability.

LEFT CORNERBACK: Jamerson Love 34 tackles, 8 PBU

Yes, we can hear your immediate response. Will Redmond has a clear path to the starting lineup at last with reliable Love moving on. The talents are unquestioned. It is that ‘reliable’ bit which keeps an edge of concern with a coaching staff that loves the ability but worries about consistency.

The Egg Bowl examples were just too glaring, as Redmond tried to strip rather than tackles and got neither; and bit on a fake that produced the clinching touchdown. So what might help Redmond most is enough camp competition to force improvement and attention to details. Tolando Cleveland can provide that obviously, and worked at left corner in bowl practices.

For that matter returning starter Taveze Calhoun can always use pressure to improve, which Cedric Jiles assuredly brings. Jiles as well can get looks on the other corner because he ought be reaching his prime playing years.

But a kid practicing on the right corner needs his chance too. Chris Rayford brings a bit more size to the cover-club and had some interesting moments in December drills. Nor can still-developing Jahmere Irvin-Sills be discounted at all.

Whoever eventually starts on the corners, they will have been well-practiced. Mullen’s tendency to throw a lot more passes in camp and scrimmages than runs gives the receivers that many more chances to show off. Same with the guys covering them, obviously.

PLACEKICKER: Evan Sobiesk 12-of-14 field goals, 56-of-59 PAT

Say this for Sobiesk: he saved his best for last. The oft-questioned specialist hit a 45-yarder in the Egg Bowl for a career-long, and booted through both his Orange Bowl opportunities. Then in a long-term career move hard to argue with, he took his foot off to dental school with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Maybe the most curious and interesting signing day comment made by Mullen was that State signed no kickers because “everyone” was coming back. There are three specialists on the spring roster who have kicked out of a hold before. Of course one, Devon Bell, gave up placekicking to focus on 2014 and averaged 43 solid yards with excellent hang time and placement. A good move, in other words, and State would rather not mess with success by making him go back to booting for points.

But this depends on Logan Cooke making a spring statement here. The leg strength is no question, his 54 kickoffs (Bell had 29) proved that. He even got assigned to try a ‘long’ field goal in the Kentucky game, though only at State these days is 42 yards called long. It missed but not for lack of distance, so there’s hope here. And walk-on Westin Graves, who actually had first ’14 shot at field goaling, ought have chances to take some more swings this spring.

Barring some new walk-on, then, it appears State is placing all kicking-chips on Cooke’s continued development.

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