Preseason Lineup Look: Part 2

Remember the collective breath-holding of last January? You know, when Bulldog Country fretted over Dak Prescott’s pending professional decision? All ended well of course.

Now with August ahead and the season looming, Bulldog breathing might again become a little tense. For a different reason. Can, will Dak Prescott achieve something almost unprecedented in this program? That is, follow up a great junior year with an even greater senior season in both scoreboard and statistics?

The answer is not entirely up to Mississippi State’s most-recognized quarterback in three decades and for that matter a man on track to be the greatest ever here at his position. Everyone in the college game knows Prescott is the real deal. He also tops every scouting report and will be the obsessive focus for defenders every weekend.

2014 proved Prescott can handle this attention. It also reminded that while great quarterbacks will win games, winning a championship depends on the complementary cast.

That is today’s topic.

It also is cause for 2015 excitement. Because despite losing a 1,200-yard rusher, one explosive and two reliable receivers, the cast surrounding Prescott earned their own compliments in spring ball. Not everyone is ‘proven’ in conventional terms…but the collective skills and styles show potential to be the best overall group of runners and receivers here in many a season. Maybe, ever?

QUARTERBACK: Certainly they have the right triggerman to distribute the football to best effect. Not to mention the quarterback qualified best to put Coach Dan Mullen’s offense into action. We won’t recount all Prescott’s numbers and records and honors. All that really needs saying for now is any Dog who really hits the green-shirted quarterback in August had better go pack his bags immediately. If he gets off the field at all. And yes, collective Bulldog breath will be held every time Prescott makes live contact this fall. Steel your souls.

Along that line, Mullen and for that matter Prescott have invested time last fall, spring, and over the summer having a capable backup ready. And, grooming the heir.

So preseason will be interesting for true junior Damian Williams as he is challenged by a couple of redshirts with big skills…and for that matter bigger bodies. It’s been remarked more than once that all Williams lacks is the height nature failed to provide. Plus, he missed real spring activity with a pectoral tear.

Still all expect Williams to begin camp as #2. He’s got real experience, has won real SEC games, and is a really better passer than most appreciate. Maybe it is only impression but one possible critique is Williams didn’t seem as aggressive in clean-up duty last fall as when he was a reckless ’13 rookie. More likely it was simple maturing and trying to run the fuller offense.

Regardless, the spring injury let redshirts Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley surge into second team contention. Not surprisingly Fitzgerald is more polished of the two. Remember, he had the advantage of Liberty Bowl and ’14 spring practicing. For that alone he would be ahead of Staley. Then the latter was limited in ’15 spring recovering from winter surgery…which might have proven a great bad break long-term as we’ll explain later.

Fitzgerald throws a lovely pass from a 6-5 vantage point, with touch at both short and long ranges. He’s also a sneaky runner escaping the pocket and heading for sideline safety after a gain, showing that he ran a veer offense in high school and knows when and where to go afoot. We won’t list him #2 at this point…but we won’t rule it out either if Williams is still not 100%.

Staley’s setback should become a step forward. Because, he was forced to stay put, read coverage, and throw a pass in spring rather than defaulting quickly to scrambles. The results were impressive. His deep balls suddenly became smoother, real passes more than just throws. And does he ever have a big arm, big enough that Staley served as ‘punter’ in return drills by heaving the ball high and far. The shorter-range recognitions and reads weren’t up to Fitzgerald’s level, or at least that’s what it looked like. But the ability is absolutely there.

Nearly four decades in the business and we have yet to hear a discouraging word about how new quarterbacks throw a football. Still, summer freshman Nick Tiano got good reviews from interviewed receivers. Take that for what it’s worth since redshirting is certain on this depth chart.

Which relates to Mullen’s parallel-track preseason quarterback work: developing Prescott’s successor. The ‘Sunday Night Football’ for backups and redshirts should be entertaining stuff.

RUNNING BACK: Much as SEC media, or most of them, like the quarterback, they could not look past Josh Robinson’s absence in predicting State’s fate. On paper it makes sense. Robinson took those 1,200 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, and a big-play threat.

Let’s be fair to our peers though. They can’t know who and what is ready to run in ’15. Or that the collective skills are probably greater in two veteran and two redshirt backs who can make the ground and short-receiving games even more versatile.

Then again, somebody at the Doak Walker Award group knows something. Because they’ve included Ashton Shumpert on their watch list. This after just 47 carries and a couple of sophomore season touchdowns, not exactly stats to draw attention. His 5.8 yards-per carry should, as well as the mix of pure power and enough moves to gain ground in traffic.

Whether he starts or not, Shumpert isn’t likely to get as many touches as Robinson…and not just because Prescott will likely haul the ball often. There’s just too much talent in the rest of the roster runners.

Coming out of spring Brandon Holloway was nominal #2. Going back to his high school backfield job is a good move, and when he could break something last fall Holloway netted 6.5 yards-per. It’s breaking into the open that can be a challenge as the 160-pounder needs a crease. And he did have a few fumble issues in spring.

The future looks in good hands between Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams. It’s a comment on sideline perception that Lee is regarded as the ‘big’ runner and Williams the ‘quick’ guy…because they are the same listed height and only five pounds apart. Barring pre-season correction, anyway. The point is Coach Greg Knox has a gifted rookie combo to meet every spread scheme. Lee seems (repeat, seems) more the classic back turning the corner, while Williams appears (ditto) quicker in traffic running or catching-and-running.

The truth is each is almost equally adept inside or outside based on spring scrimmaging. It would again be worth watching just one practice to see which takes his turn in drills before the other, though it really may not matter come kickoff. Both will play and make plays.

Two true running backs were signed for, presumably, redshirting this first fall in Nick Gibson and Alex Murphy. But we can’t overlook what another true frosh can bring to the backfield.

Yes, Malik Dear is listed as a wideout and will be a factor in the slot-spot. But know how Mullen and Knox like to use receivers as sweep- and reverse-runners? This kid was born to do it. He just needs time and chances, and also hopefully used summer conditioning to trim a little freshman fat.

We won’t forget Josh Robinson. Maybe though we won’t miss him, either. And maybe only the Walker Award folk noticed something that slipped past most media attention: Mullen’s and Knox’s trend of sending a running back to the NFL.

RECEIVERS: Mississippi State has had some elite receivers over the years. A few times more than one on the same roster. And more recently Mullen’s teams have put multiple quality targets on the field together.

But this 2015 crew…could be special. Should be even.

Again there is much here outsiders can’t know, beyond two of the top four receivers of ’14 are gone along with about 1/3 of the club’s catches and eight touchdowns. We don’t discount what left with Jameon Lewis, Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Robinson as well. We do say with confidence there is no lack of good targets for tossing to.

Put another way, moving Fred Ross to the slot wasn’t a move from desperation. It was a way to put his talents to better use than even split end. Running out of one slot will give him many more chances to surpass his 30 catches and five touchdowns of last season. A strong spring establishes him first on this depth chart going into next week, and a great fall could send him on to the NFL early.

Second place is more interesting. Soph Gabe Myles was Lewis’ backup last year and had 22 catches, with good hands and a physical style that actually reminds more of Malcolm Johnson than the standard slot guy. He wants to net more than 8 yards a catch, but then there’s great value in being a ‘possession’ type guy.

The summer departure of twice-injured Shelby Christy was disappointing considering the work he’d put in to get back into action. Then again, it clears space for the aforementioned Dear to not just get in a rotation but challenge for #2 status. Hmmm, is there room in this scheme for a H-back kind of guy?

Johnson rarely got the respect merited by his senior season with 28 balls and three scores. Not to mention blocking (re: LSU game for just one example). Probably, because he wasn’t a true deep threat from the tight end’s slot. Only real games will show if Gus Walley can provide that.

But spring ball did show this taller and longer-armed target can add an aspect to the passing game working down and around the hashes. Plus, as last week’s feature told, Walley seems to suit what Mullen and Coach Scott Sallach like in this type of tight end.

Darrion Hutcherson is the other type. 6-7 tall and 260 pounds, he would have been a Jackie Sherrill tight end for sure as an extra tackle sometimes slipping out on a route. Hutcherson got playing time as a transfer and filled that blocking role. But he didn’t catch a single ball all fall. In spring more chances did show more results, but there’s still uncertainty on this aspect.

This could be a decisive preseason for soph B.J. Hammond, who did show a few spring flashes working behind Walley. Meanwhile Rashun Dixon re-learns football and maybe year-two in college can find ways to use his abilities. His age, too.

As this is published, it is still wait-and-see on signee Farrod Green’s eligibility. Getting him in now might not be key to 2015, but will be crucial to having him ready in ’16.

Moving outside… De’Runnya Wilson is not State’s top wideout target just because he’s tall. He’s very, very good. He also ought be healthy for the first time since coming to college. Maybe Wilson will never love practice. But he loves games and dominated the spring scrimmage.

So that split end spot is in good hands, so to speak, as Wilson tries to improve on a 47-catch, nine-TD year and maybe throw his name in the early-entry pool. Now, who is his alternate?

If we go by spring rotations, and honestly that’s all we can at this point, Fred Brown is second split end-up. And he had a very good junior camp, too, enough that there wasn’t a noticeable drop-off in practices when Wilson decided he’d done enough for that day. Thing is, can State afford not to have them both working opposite sidelines in real games now?

It isn’t an obvious answer, either. Coach Billy Gonzales and Mullen liked having R.Johnson at one split end (usually the tight end side) in the game for possession plays and their reliable blocking. Joe Morrow seems the natural heir, not just as a rare senior in this squadroom but for his big Orange Bowl showing that could be his long-awaited turning point.

Further complicating things in the best possible way are younger hotshots. A year in juco did not set Donald Gray back much if any, though he did take a couple of spring weeks to find his stride. He generally worked the slot-split end side behind Wilson and Brown. Meanwhile redshirt Jesse Jackson just plain showed-off in bowl and spring work on the other side of the field. Jackson looks bigger than his listed weight, plays as physical as he looks, but can beat coverage on speed too. If a new receiver is to have a 2015 breakout, this should be he.

But let’s not overlook spring enrollee Deddrick Thomas either. When he was healthy, like in the spring game, the new kid had some big days. Maybe the numbers don’t bode well for activation this first fall, but then Mullen has never hesitated to put a true frosh on the field if he could help.

On top of all these, or rather in reserve, walk-ons Javous Nicks and Kareem Vance are no slouches themselves. Back in 2009-10 they’d have been in the rotation in fact, an apt comment on how this roster has been upgraded over seven long recruiting seasons. Speaking of such, if Justin Johnson’s signing size of 6-4, 224 is accurate maybe this is a tight end option? Jonnas Spivey is more out of the usual wideout mold, while Keith Mixon has got to be a burner at his listed 5-8, 175.

Maybe we are raving too much over so many not-entirely-proven runners and catchers. But maybe we aren’t. We’ll all know soon enough if Prescott really does have a deep, broad, and gifted group of guys to get the ball to. For preseason, optimism is the right pick.

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