Lining Up The Summer Football Squads

Yes, receivers and tight ends together. Because nothing better reflects the way both roster and offense have changed here since 2008. Nothing but the record and results, that is. While this is not only due to Mississippi State building a genuine passing attack…Bulldog football wouldn’t be where it is without quality pass catchers.

Lots of them, too. As seasons go by and success adds up fans can forget just how thin Mississippi State was at wideout when Dan Mullen arrived. Surely they do remember watching the 2014 show when records were set for passing—and thus receiving—yardage, completions, touchdowns, and percentage.

Now for better news. Though a half-dozen Dogs, receivers and runners, who accounted for 108 catches and five touchdowns are gone and another young talent moved to defense, no drop-off is expected. Based on spring practice in fact Dak Prescott will have maybe an even more exciting crew to throw to.

Starting closest to the ball, outside experts will read the stat sheet, notice Jameon Lewis is done, and immediately call slot wide receiver a big offensive question mark. That’s because no outside experts attended spring practices and few will enquire of us who did. Should any do so, they will hear rave reports of Fred Ross.

Not that Ross is unknown. He caught 30 balls for 16.3 yards on average with five touchdowns. Ross also stayed healthy and got stronger to go with the speed. By the end of ’14 he was moving all around the field anyway so going full-time to the slot in spring wasn’t surprising. Inevitable, that’s the word, and Ross immediately established himself as top target for camp. Period.

This might seem a setback for, say, Gabe Myles. Moved back to offense after redshirting on defense Myles got a nice split of snaps backing Lewis last year; 22 balls, 178 yard, excellent hands, an idea about blocking, simply a reliable receiver.

But his slot requires a big-hit threat too and this is where Myles needs more time to develop. Now he won’t be rushed or pushed beyond still-maturing potential. And while nobody said nothing about this in spring, watching the way Myles moves reminds of how Malcolm Johnson looked as a young pup. Just saying…

Besides there are others here of same or younger years. If any Dog would have been allowed to celebrate a spring practice catch, it should be Shelby Christy. The gifted and sizable (6-3, 210) receiver has lost two entire years to injuries. He still wasn’t 100% by spring yet showed signs of a serious pre-season contender. But keep that injury bug away.

Then there’s the early-enrolled phenom discussed already as a running back in package plays. Because Malik Dear’s primary role will be running pass routes where an amazing combination of true freshman gifts can be utilized. Early, and often. The simplest way to say it is, Dear was born to play interior receiver or some variation of H-back in a spread offense. And positions didn’t already exist, something would be schemed-up.

Now, already the reading response can be heard. How will Mississippi State get enough of these big-play threats on the field at the same time? Remember our mention of Malcolm Johnson? His graduation to the NFL opens up what is still labeled ‘tight end’. That angle is emphasize because as Bulldog folk know by now this end isn’t tight to the line very often.

Oh, there certainly are some strong bodies to put a paw on the ground. Darrion Hutcherson fascinates with his 6-7, 260 size and speed for sure. It is catching a pass where things get iffy fast. There were signs of senior-season progress in spring fortunately, and in red zone plays State worked him along the goal line or into a corner for high throws that got pulled down just often enough for hope.

Really old (age not tenure) Dog Rashun Dixon looked lots more comfortable as a physical tight end during spring, as the coaches figure out ways to make use of his own gifts. But the offense’s priorities are clear by Gus Walley’s status as #1 on this depth chart. Bouncing back from early career injuries Walley did get enough snaps as a soph to score a touchdown, which seems to have inspired him even more in spring camp. Tall, sneaky fast, and good hands in traffic, he meshes with Mullen’s playbook for the position.

For that matter B.J. Hammond merited some spring looks of his own, also as a ‘slot’ tight end in the four-receiver sets. It’s using a quartet that allows mixing and matching, not just of different tight end types but having a pair of wideouts working from both slots. Lots of this was practiced all spring, indicating that Prescott’s selection of plays and targets is longer than ever.

Speaking of a richer roster, March and April showed just how deep the Dogs are these days. Whether a result of season and winter procedures, or going down in camp, the rehab bit daily held at least one and usually more receivers. Not so long ago this would have crippled practicing, especially in spring ball where play calls are overwhelmingly passes.

Not now. Quarterbacks had no shortage of targets for tossing at. In fact by April the practice position periods had literally four and sometimes fives balls in the air at the same time, just to get everyone enough snaps.

Plus, by the final weeks De’Runnya Wilson was more or less back to work. Bouncing back strong from a winter fix for that nagging 2014 groin condition, Wilson dominated the spring game with five catches for a touchdown and 92 yards. In the longer run the less-stressful spring could keep Wilson fresher of body and mind for the junior year ahead. He’ll be trying to top a 47-catch, 680-yard, nine-score soph season. He should.

The biggest challenge won’t be defenders. Wilson just has to share the ball more with fellow split ends than in ’14. Maybe even at his own position, because as good as ‘Bear’ is a healthy Fred Brown and juco transfer Donald Gray have to play too. There were a few days Brown looked like the best split end on the field, and none where he looked bad.

Gray arrived to great expectations and at times met them, though at split end instead of slot as had been projected. Re: Ross. Really all that slowed Gray down was getting into a really developed college offense after one juco season. The talents are present; in fact he might turn out to be something special on special teams as a kick cover or return man and even going for blocks on punt plays.

Because statistics are all most want to see, Robert Johnson rarely got due respect as a sure-handed possession target and a stout downfield blocker. The latter skill is something every Bulldog receiver gets hammered into their helmets and Johnson’s video could serve well for meeting room reminders.

Still State can use a little more explosiveness on the side opposite Wilson, and only the coaches know if Gray and Brown get practiced there too. There is a veteran available though in senior Joe Morrow, coming off a big Orange Bowl with increased confidence. Depending on day, he was either 1 or 2 in his side’s split end rotation.

Other days, Jesse Jackson jumped line. Until a late-spring leg injury, which shouldn’t slow him in August, the redshirt looked ready to do more than just rotate in. Playing bigger than his listed size Jackson looks faster than advertised, too. Just a freshman, remember…and dream.

If there was a spring receiver surprise, it was how ready Deddrick Thomas was as a January enrollee to practice. He too had some health setbacks, nothing major but enough to cost snaps mid-camp. Then he caught five spring game throws.

Does Thomas, just to pick a name, redshirt this fall? The question actually isn’t raised here to get an answer; besides Mullen has shown before if a new kid can help he plays. The real answer is in the question itself; that at a position once so thin any signee was already on the depth chart Mississippi State now has the luxury of considering sitting talented new kids.

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