Spring Football Notebook, Depth Chart Updates

Two weeks and five practices are done. Now Coach Dan Mullen picks up the pace as Mississippi State has three more weeks to fit-in seven practices, a couple of scrimmages, and of course the April 18 Maroon-White Game.

The Bulldogs have three working days this week. Practices are Tuesday at 2:50; Thursday at 2:50 again; and a Friday morning scrimmage at 9:45 on Scott Field. The early scrimmage is to allow players to head home for a short Easter weekend break.

Going through the Dawgs' Bite Notebook from last weeks practices:

MASH UNIT: With two days of full pads and contact still kept under close control so far, injuries have been fortunately few. The only new residents of the rehab zone last week were freshman WR Deddrick Thomas and soph S Jahmere Irvin-Sills, neither situation specified.

Thus far then there are just a handful of Bulldog not participating in any drills or competition. And even they leave rehab for the final periods of 11-on-11 to watch and in the case of CB Taveze Calhoun and S Kendrick Market offer some ‘coaching’ to their cohorts. Mullen has said they and LB Dezmond Harris will not practice at all this spring.

But ‘out’ has proven to mean something less than, well, out. On the first day Mullen said QB Elijah Staley would not practice as he recovers from a right knee procedure. Yet here is Staley, beginning each day in rehab but quickly joining the other quarterbacks for passing drills. Staley has worked in throw-catch periods, then 7-on-7, and now even 11-on-11.

He cannot scramble and certainly not keep to carry; but as Coach Brian Johnson and Mullen both say this is to Staley’s benefit. He must stay in the pocket, read coverage a little longer, then throw instead of tucking-and-running as Staley has always been able to do. The benefit to his passing touch and accuracy is already showing because Staley has thrown some of the prettiest passes of camp, period.

Based on Saturday, he and the other quarterbacks will be able to throw at the team’s top target again. WR De’Runnya Wilson was actually running, or jogging more accurately, a few routes late last week. Wilson wasn’t 100% as a sophomore due to the spring ’14 hip condition caused by basketball, and over the winter a knee needed some clean-up too.

Also not practicing live yet is QB Damian Williams, the only veteran backup. A tear to a pectoral muscle has him on the sidelines at the moment.

*HIT IT: With pads on and contact beginning, Mullen likes to begin post-stretch work with a period of one-on-one. This naturally draws attention to where the biggest boys are going at each other, and it doesn’t get a lot bigger than 6-7, 320-pound OG Justin Malone squaring off with 6-5, 325-pound DT Nick James. Their battle ended in a draw, this time.

Also, with the new-for-’15 program of teaching all-around tackling, this means every defensive Dog at some point has to go on ‘offense’. That is, hold a football and take a step or two so a teammate can hit, wrap, and try to bring him down. This makes for some interesting, ahhh, ball carriers.

Such as when James took the ball and made his move so DE A.J. Jefferson could tackle. Or try to. Jefferson, at a 50-pound deficit, did show excellent form taking James low. But James—the ball tucked high and tight, just like any good running back—shrugged him off to the side and kept going. Hmmmm, could this be a ‘Refrigerator Back’ option?

*RAISE THE RUFF: Any honest writer will admit, judging offensive linemen in drills is best left to the coach. Yet even a media member can see that OT Rufus Warren has made significant strides in his converted position. The former tight end transferred to blocking a year ago in spring and saw about all his fall action as a placekick squad blocker.

Now the time and teaching is showing and Warren is making a real run at finishing spring first-team at left tackle. He’s moved ahead of junior veteran Cole Carter, with redshirt Elgton Jenkins the third tackle on that end so far.

Not surprisingly, junior Justin Senior has held his starting job at right tackle after opening all 13 games there in 2014. His backup? That depends on the type of period being practiced. If no or little contact is involved it’s senior Damien Robinson. But he’s not entirely cleared after last August’s knee surgery.

This allows juco transfer and January enrollee Martinas Rankin to work second-team in contact periods. Much hope is placed in Rankin making an immediate impact at one of the tackle spots, presumable the left end. But Coach John Hevesy isn’t the type to just hand somebody a job. So it will be interesting to see if Rankin stays on Senior’s side all spring or gets rotated. Though too, fans must remember that Robinson’s health will be evaluated all through summer to see if he indeed uses the sixth season the NCAA will allow him.

*AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: There are a lot of receivers, and running backs for that matter, running routes in drills. So many that this spring Mississippi State can’t get enough work using only one or two quarterbacks tossing at a time, the usual drill policy.

So to get everyone enough work, during specific practice periods no less than four quarterbacks throw at the same time, to their four targets headed downfield. And if there is a fifth quarterback on the field, he’s also taking a snap and dropping but without throwing. Even QB Coach Johnson gets to show his arm sometimes to keep the action moving.

What really stands out about this drill isn’t so many balls in the air at one time. It is how four receivers, each running a specific sort of route, all get downfield at the right time and place without colliding or messing up another’s pattern. Fans can excitedly read into this signals of how State’s passing game is expanding, right?

Also, while things will likely change when defenders are allowed to really hit, results of 2-on-3 passing drills also say much for the ’15 gameplans. This has a pair of receivers running routes against a trio of defenders (a linebacker, safety, and corner), yet the completion rate had to be two-thirds at least.

For the first three practices, WR Joe Morrow was working first team at split end (same side at the tight end). Whether it was a few drops on Friday, or that newer talents are coming on, Saturday saw some shuffles. Juco WR Donald Gray—projected as a slot candidate when signed—got lots of first-team snaps at split end. So did redshirt WR Jesse Jackson, easily one of the most impressive youngsters in camp so far.

The slot-wide receiver job looks plenty strong already despite graduating Jameon Lewis. WR Fred Ross has jumped ahead of ’14 backup WR Gabe Myles, not that the latter is any slouch himself. And as he gets healthier after two major injuries, WR Shelby Christy will make his own bid there. Christy still doesn’t look 100% just yet but he has time. But he does have to watch for a new kid making a bid, who will be discussed in just a bit…

*NO BACKING OFF: If all that isn’t enough, the emphasis on passing practice has fully-involved the running backs. Mullen’s offense has done this before of course but this group of runners might be his best-yet at running routes. On one sideline play RB Ashton Shumpert caught a ball in full-stride downfield, no hitch or hesitation, and pity the cornerback or safety who gets caught in that matchup.

More impressive as receivers are the two redshirt backs. Everyone who scouted RB Aeris Williams predicted he would be a factor in the passing game. RB Dontavian Lee is a bit surprising to some, though, showing good hands and awareness running a route. His running, nobody is surprised by.

But shoving Shumpert aside won’t be easy. When it came to straight-running drills, he turned one handoff into ten yards up the middle before any defender knew what had blown by them.

*SWEET SWEEP: The wide receiver sweep, or straight reverse and even double-reverse, are all well-known parts of the Bulldog offense. Now, there’s a new twist of sorts.

Rather than secure the snap entirely, the quarterback essentially lets the ball hit both hands before ‘tapping’ it forward to the onrushing receiver. No handoff or pitch is involved, the receiver just catches the ball in-flight without losing any momentum.

Obviously the timing has to be flawless, not to mention the snap as the potential for disaster is abundant. But when it works, it really works in practice. Especially with the slot receiver taking the ball with a head of steam and cutting inside a tight end’s block. Ross, Myles both do it well as expected.

It is watching true freshman and January enrollee Malik Dear taking the tap and turning upfield that really catches the eye. As mentioned, there is good depth and proven talent at the slot positions. Dear though is the kind of new kid who can take snaps from all of them come September.

*TRANSITION: The main ‘move’ of spring has been switching 2014 true freshman receiver Jamoral Graham to defense. Going from catching passes to defending them is not nearly so simple as it might seem, and Graham has had the inevitable growing pains.

Such as during a Friday drills when WR Jesse Jackson showed his former cohort a thing or two about how to muscle aside a defender and make the catch. Graham bounced back fine though.

Not long after he got inside position on WR Fred Brown, jumped and made the falling-back interception, a prettier catch than anything Graham did on offense maybe. He had another pick later in the day, then came back Saturday to intercept Fitzgerald in 2s-on-2s.

With CB Cedric Jiles coming back from pre-season injury, Coach Deshea Townsend has shuffled his crew from side to side. So it means little to label anyone a specific ‘left’ or ‘right’ corner as the depth chart lists. In full-pads and 11-on-11, CB Will Redmond began as the right corner before moving to left so Jiles could be #1 right for a period. CB Tolando Cleveland has played both corners as well. So take that depth chart with a sack ‘o salt.

QUARTERBACK: Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley, Nate Gieb (Damian Williams sidelined)

RUNNING BACK: Ashton Shumpert, Brandon Holloway, Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee

RIGHT TACKLE: Justin Senior, Damian Robinson (in non-contact), Martinas Rankin, Ronald Cochran

RIGHT GUARD: Devon Desper, Deion Calhoun, Jake Thomas

CENTER: Jamaal Clayborn, Jocquell Johnson, Nick Proby

LEFT GUARD: Justin Malone, Kent Flowers, Michael Story

LEFT TACKLE: Rufus Warren, Cole Carter, Elgton Jenkins

SPLIT END (slot side) Fred Brown, Donald Gray, Javous Nicks

SLOT WIDE RECEIVER: Fred Ross, Gabe Myles, Malik Dear, Shelby Christy

TIGHT END: Gus Walley, Darrion Hutcherson, B.J. Hammond, Aaron Hammaker

WIDE RECEIVER: Joe Morrow, Jesse Jackson, Donald Gray, Kareem Vance (Deddrick Thomas sidelined)

LEFT DEFENSIVE END: Ryan Brown, Will Coleman, Grant Harris

LEFT TACKLE: Chris Jones, Nick James, Lawrence Brown

RIGHT TACKLE: Nelson Adams, Cory Thomas, Braxton Hoyette

RIGHT END: A.J. Jefferson, Torrey Dale, Jonathan Calvin, #92 Houston

MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Richie Brown, Gerri Green, Kelan Chairs

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Zach Jackson, J.T. Gray, Cory Qualls

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Beniquez Brown, Deandre Ward, Quadry Antoine, Josiah Phillips

LEFT CORNERBACK: Will Redmond, Tolando Cleveland, Chris Rayford, Boderick Oliver

RIGHT CORNERBACK: Cedric Jiles, Tolando Cleveland, Jamoral Graham (sidelined Taveze Calhoun)

SAFETY: Deontay Evans, Zac Neary (Jahmere Irvin-Sills sidelined)

SAFETY: Kivon Coman, Brandon Bryant, #36

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