Looking At The Summer Football Lineups

Monday began our end-of-semester, going-into-summer look at Bulldog football. Specifically, how the position groups appear to line-up and individuals seem to stack-up after the spring semester. Part 1 published yesterday looked at the quarterbacks. Today, is a review and preview of Mississippi State running backs.

No doubt, Josh Robinson will be missed. Maybe as much for his persona as for his play. Not to mention the variety of nicknames at writer disposal to spice up stories; Touchdown, Bowling Ball, and of course J-Rob.

So yes, he’ll be missed. And Mississippi State’s running game won’t reflect it a bit.

If that sounds rude, well, consider this blunt fact. As productive as Robinson could be in the Bulldog offense, and as memorable as his 1,203-yard junior season (third-best in MSU history) was…the numbers were going to go down in 2015. Carries, yards, touchdowns, all of it. Jumping to the NFL a year early was definitely the right time for J-Rob.

Because there are rising Bulldog backs who need the ball this fall. Watching spring camp confirmed winter speculation that the ball-hauling is going to involve more people because Ashton Shumpert, Brandon Holloway, Aeris Williams, and Dontavian Lee have skills which must be utilized. Often. All of ‘em. And that isn’t even accounting for a tantalizing new kid in camp we’ll get to later.

In fact there’s more than a few who wish Shumpert had received more 2014 touches. Not just on his six-yard average on only four chances in the Orange Bowl, but for a 5.8 net gain overall. Maybe the ‘surprise’ factor contributed to that high number; Shumpert only had 47 rushes all season. Or maybe he’s just that good.

He’s certainly more of a physical load than any Bulldog back since Boobie Dixon and can lay a mean block to boot, something Dak Prescott can make good use of. The best sign Mississippi State has more in mind for Shumpert as a junior was a selection of pass plays practiced in spring. It’s an interesting thought, too, that with Mullen’s offense not using a true tight end lots of plays…a big back can be sent out on those routes quite smoothly. Hmmmm…

Catching passes was Holloway’s first college assignment. Mixed results there, and more obviously an influx of bigger, better, and versatile receivers allowed Holloway to go back to his high school backfield job last fall. He showed some fine flashes with a 6.5-yard average on 45 runs including a 51-yard play.

But spring also showed Holloway has to elevate everything to hold his place in the pecking order. And, keep a better grip on the ball in interior traffic. His speed is excellent in open space; getting there on his own is the challenge.

Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. The challenge comes from challengers who appear to suit the State schemes even better. And certainly bigger. It’s bold to say so yet modern memory isn’t coming up with a comparable pair of redshirted runners/receivers to what Williams and Lee looked like in spring training.

Or is it Lee and Williams? Only their coach—and kudos to Greg Knox who just sent his fourth Bulldog starting back to the NFL—could say which comes first in any unofficial depth chart. More likely he’d ask if it really mattered. Both are about to crash onto the varsity scene and possibilities are fascinating.

To grossly over-simplify based on practices and scrimmages: Lee has the more classic tailback look and Williams fits the description of an all-purpose back in a spread system. But this isn’t really true either because Lee can and does go inside where moves matter as much as muscle. And Williams can turn a corner on the sweep quite capably himself.

Oh, and for impressions that one is the ‘big’ back and the other the ‘quick’ back? They are listed at the same height and only five pounds apart! Maybe, and this is purely off observation in bowl camp and spring, maybe Williams is a shade quicker working the interior and more experienced in passing plays. Maybe Lee is a touch smoother getting to the edge behind blocking before turning upfield.

And maybe Mullen and the ground-game staff will spend their summers figuring ways to make best use(s) of both.

Then there’s the new pup in the pound. It’s true Malik Dear is listed as a wide receiver and he will absolutely be a fast factor there, operating out of the slot position. Thanks to his early-enrolled status Dear was able to make an immediate impression during spring ball running routes, catching passes, making gains after catches, all of it. His downfield blocking? T.B.D. as they say.

These same skills though make Dear an irresistible addition to the ground game. Especially so with Mullen’s fondness for not just throwing to wideouts but handing off directly on reverses, sweeps, whatever way a guy with speed, moves and just plain instincts can get the ball in his grip and go do something special. It’s very early, and very presumptive to say this so soon about a kid who hasn’t been hit by a SEC defender yet.

But with no disrespect to Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis, et.al., Dear ought to be the best yet at this sort of play. He’s got that kind of talent, enough that were he to move to full-time backfield duty some day nobody ought be surprised.

Nor should we be surprised if sometime early in September, somewhere in the Davis Wade Stadium grandstands, a Bulldog fan turns to another and asks ‘hey, what was the name of that funny guy who ran both his ball and his mouth so well last season?’


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