Five Questions For Spring Football

2014 brought the most successful regular season in over seven Bulldog decades. It saw a record-tying seven wins in a perfect home schedule. It produced the program’s first-ever #1 national ranking, held five full weeks. And it ended, if not victoriously, at least on the big state in the inaugural College Football Playoff bowl session.

Yes, 2014 was one for the books. It also is now in those same books. For Coach Dan Mullen, work on 2015 began almost the very minute New Year rang-in there in the Orange Bowl locker room.

Two major stages in getting ’15 going have been taken care of, with eight weeks of strength work for the current players and a headline-grabbing recruiting class for the future. Or even right now, because some of the December and February signees join the varsity Dogs in the next stage.

Spring football is here.

It all begins Wednesday afternoon with the first of a dozen practices to go with a couple of scrimmages and the annual Maroon-White Game which falls on April 18 (11:00am, Scott Field).

Every spring brings questions; some new, some annual. Rather than an all-encompassing look at Mullen’s seventh Starkville spring, let’s consider a completely arbitrary selection of camp questions. But, only after celebrating the fact there is no question who will both run the offense and lead the entire team. Thank you, Dak Prescott, for bringing your first-team All-SEC skills back for a senior season.

Oh, and what also goes absolutely without question: after those spring break incidents, Mullen is eager to get his team back on the field and to work.

HOW WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE BE RE-BUILT? Not easily. Nobody replaces three multi-season starters on the front line without some degree of concern. Mississippi State rarely gives backups a lot of serious snaps during a season, y’know. So pre-spring spekalatin’ is based almost entirely on bowl camp. Working from inside, out…

Replacing a four-season, 50-game staring center is job-one at the college level. And there’s nobody on the roster with a start to his credit. Devon Desper has practiced plenty there though, and was signed as a high school center too. He’s also started SEC games, albeit at guard, but experience is experience. Besides, in MSU’s interchangeable system guards are honed as centers anyway.

Bowl camp showed State was thinking for the future here. True junior guard Jamaal Clayborn has obviously practiced center and has the experience edge. The December impression though is State really, really wants redshirt guard Deion Calhoun to step over and take this job for 2015…and three more years beyond. Only line coach John Hevesy knows what the ‘depth chart’ at center will be on the first day of spring ball. Nobody knows what it will look like afterwards.

Reading that reminds that how center works out will impact the open guard spot. Technically right guard but that’s not a big deal since again every piece is supposed to interchange. Desper got the two starts and nothing really bad happened—always the first test for a new blocker!—so he should have a let-up. But Clayborn has played some too, as backup to returning left guard Justin Malone. Clayborn would surely have played more if not for the early-season family issues which sidelined him for weeks afterwards.

Obviously Malone can flip to right guard, that’s where he was playing in 2013 before opening-day injury ended the season. Either side and way Malone should be setting-up for a big senior season. Meaning the other guard spot will be impacted by whatever happens with center.

Now, as for left tackle…but first let’s remind that Justin Senior is back at right tackle and should be coming into his own as a college junior. Yes, he could always move to the other end of the line. That doesn’t seem likely. Not if juco transfer Martinas Rankin can do what he obviously was signed for. His mid-year arrival is of vital importance, if he can deliver of course. Why would we dare say ‘if’? Re: Jocquell Johnson. Who admittedly was brought-in at less than full-health and eventually was redshirted.

It was a setback for Johnson at the time but possibly a good break for the Bulldog line longer-term. He practiced at left tackle in December, too, though behind junior-to-be Cole Carter. Redshirt Elgton Jenkins will likely be given more time to fill-out physically.

So the attention is on Rankin and his opportunity to solve a most pressing situation. By the way, I hear you asking: what of Damien Robinson? This: he reportedly is getting the sixth season of eligibility based on last August’s knee injury. However, Robinson won’t be ready to practice in spring, not in contact anyway. This means his situation will not get settled until summer. A full-return would provide a healthy, so to speak, degree of depth at tackles as Jenkins matures and former tight end Rufus Warren tries to complete the transition.

HOW WILL Manny Diaz’S RETURN CHANGE THE DEFENSE? Probably not in any blatantly-obvious way, either philosophy—whatever the heck that is—or scheme. Based on how Diaz operated in 2010, he can be a bit more versatile in specific sets and combinations than his successor.

Memory can get fuzzy but we do seem to recall a little more frequent use of, say, nickel sets if that suited the opponent. And we definitely remember how to get a good matchup Diaz put linebacker K.J. Wright at the line of scrimmage as a de facto end. However, this almost certainly reflects a good coordinator’s use of the talents available than anything ‘philosophical’.

What we can anticipate is letting the Dog defense attack more freely. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Geoff Collins made a name with aggression…but by mid-2014 State had turned sorta static? We’ll never know what if any impact it had on the two losses.

Diaz doesn’t seem a static sort of schemer. And even if he were, the personnel he inherits almost demands aggression, especially at his linebacker positions but also at the line of scrimmage. Diaz has the hosses to take the game to the other team, in other words. A word of caution though: don’t judge only on spring scrimmaging since only a fool would let the defense go after an all-conference quarterback or excellent runners and catchers with reckless abandon.

The third or scrub offense? Guys, you’re on your own…

WHERE WILL THE LINE’S PASS RUSH COME FROM? Related to the above, keep a eye on interaction of Diaz and line coach David Turner. The latter is a four-front man after all, and he left after 2009 before Diaz arrived for ’10. How their ideas mesh will be reflected in who lines up where and how.

You just know Diaz wishes Preston Brown had redshirted, though, and were bringing back his nine sacks and lots of hurries off the edge. Then again after his ’14 play Smith would have likely turned pro anyway.

Happily, fears over re-filling are exaggerated. A.J. Jefferson is good. He even had the only Orange Bowl sack, and quite a few impressive plays in the regular season in rotation roles. Not as appreciated but equally key was Jefferson’s maturing as a run-stopper. Stuffing the run is Ryan Brown’s specialty on the other end, by the way.

We make no predictions on whether the 1A/1B defense approach remains in effect. (Remember how we all loved it for eight weeks, then hated it in November?) Diaz and Turner do have the bodies to rotate at ends though. Redshirting transfer Will Coleman means two whole years left to build on obvious bowl-camp development. Redshirted freshman Grant Harris also worked at end behind Brown and junior Torrey Dale, though initial impressions (risky, yes) were they are better against the ground game.

A wilder card is the newest face here, mid-year transfer Jonathan Calvin. Numbers like this mean it’s unlikely any Dog gets Smith’s individual numbers this fall…but the combined production could be higher. We’ll see.

By the way, while the primary rush comes off the end(s), we recall how Diaz wanted his interior tackles to do more than just tie-up blocking. Back then he was working with young but talented tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. Now, he has veterans in Chris Jones and Nelson Adams of seemingly equal potential. If there’s a tackle who can beat blocking to rush passers, it is junior Jones.

And one more by-the-way. This is NOT settled by any means, he will NOT be practicing in spring, so do NOT go writing the name down in your own depth chart. NOT yet. But if all hurdles and hoops are cleared successfully, we could see Quay Evans in a Bulldog uniform again come the 2015-16 school year. Which would answer the corollary d-line question, about depth in the interior. Stay tuned.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN AT SAFETIES? OK, let’s be more blunt about it. Could Mississippi State go into 2015 with two entirely-new faces at free and strong safeties? The answer is a qualified yes.

Qualified, because one of if not eventually the leading candidate for a job won’t get to campus until summer. Yes, this is putting a lot, a whole lot of hope placed upon a kid straight-out of high school. But that’s a fair reflection of how gifted Jamal Peters is supposed to be. And hey, hope comes for free.

Now. As for spring candidates at-hand. That number is also qualified and more to the point limited as three-game starter and rotation regular Kendrick Market is still coming back from November knee injury. With Justin Cox graduated, only Deontay Evans has started. That includes the Orange Bowl where to his credit he got in on ten tackles, showing his run-support strong point.

Coverage, that’s another issue entirely, though he is listed at both free and strong. So was Kivon Coman, now a junior and reasonably seasoned. You just get the idea that everything at either spot is entirely open for spring.

Or maybe not. December was the first chance to watch 2014 redshirts practice and a kid who had bowl camp buzzing was Brandon Bryant. For that matter as far back as last July, when asked who among the new summer kids impressed him most, old Dog Jay Hughes immediately answered Bryant. That sort of peer-opinion has to count for something, right?

This is not a long list for a competitive spring, meaning lots of walk-ons will be taking lots of snaps in the secondary. So keep a roster handy. Not just of the spring varsity either, but the February recruiting list. Maybe it is not fair to store such faith in a kid straight out of high school to crack a SEC roster in August. Then again, it worked out pretty well for Johnthan Banks…

WILL SPRING PRODUCE A CLEAR-CUT PLACEKICKER? I respond with a resounding ‘maybe’.

And before delving into possibilities, let’s pause a moment to remind this amazing 2014 fact. Placekicking did not cost the Bulldogs any games. None. It might be the most under-appreciated aspect to the season that was, considering just how erratic—if that is the kind word—things were.

With Evan Sobiesk leaving early for dental school, a career-call that shouldn’t be questioned, the job is open again. Though, we still recall that completely-curious comment Mullen made on signing day, how no specialists were recruited because “everyone” was coming back. Anyway, there are three Bulldogs on the spring roster who have indeed booted balls out of a hold in real games.

One of the, Devon Bell, gave up placekicking a year ago to focus on punting, which was a completely successful choice with his 43-yard average as well as consistent hang times and placements. Some expect Bell to take, or be told to take, another swing at placekicking in spring. To which others argue why mess with success? Not unless the senior wants to try it all over again, that is.

The more obvious option is staying the course with Logan Cooke. His leg strength, shown on 54 kickoffs, is no question. Accuracy? Who knows, really? As a true freshman he tried only one field goal, missing a 42-yarder at Kentucky wide (but with plenty distance). So the potential is there to be developed.

We haven’t seen an official roster yet but presume walk-on Westin Graves, who actually took the first placekick of ’14, is returning. We also expect eager transfers and walk-ons to ask for spring chances. As of the weekend a kicker who tried walking-on at Tennessee first, and a Mississippi juco specialist, were reportedly looking into trying out. Of course one must be actually, you know, enrolled in college for the spring semester to practice spring football. So again, stay tuned.

But also stay aware that no other position invokes such inflated expectations as a transfer kicker. Is it too rude to recall the great J.J. McGrath Hype?

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