Running Back Preseason Class Is In Session

Maybe he doesn’t encourage missed steps, blown blocks, wrong IDs, and just plain mental errors. But Coach Greg Knox doesn’t use such gaffes to beat his Bulldogs over their helmets. “We’re learning from the mistakes we make,” he said. “So we’re getting better.”

Meaning, presumably, the mistake count will shrink over the course of Mississippi State training camp, and knowledge will expand. That’s the goal for position coach Knox, who is satisfied so far with his Bulldog running backs.

“They’re shaping up well, working hard. They’re pushing through it and we’re learning. That’s the key.”

Never mind the academic year is about to start. For Bulldog backs class has been in session for nine days, including three dual-session dates. Knox has been keeping score and handing out initial grades of course.

His real syllabus though is more about applying failure’s lessons during preseason so they don’t arise during real season.

“I had a long talk with them, really the entire team,” Knox said. “If you want to get better it starts in the meeting room. You can’t wait ‘til you get to the field to get better.”

Knox does have a fascinating class of backs for instruction this spring. All of them underclassmen, too. It’s the four runners who went through spring training that naturally draw most attention as they are expected to, no pun intended, carry the load in 2015.

Good news on that front: their coach has noticed good retention from the spring semester.

“I really have, a lot of carry-over. A lot more knowledge and understanding of what’s going on.”

Mississippi State’s star student in this group is no surprise. True junior Ashton Shumpert has had two season’s experience as a rotation back already. If he’s never had to fill duty as feature back before, Knox does see a Dog ready to take lead.

First for, simply, “Knowledge. A veteran being in the offense for three years now, just his understanding of it. He goes and he plays at a fast pace.” At the same time Shumpert isn’t hurried, if that makes sense. Knox calls it relaxed, comfortable even.

”Doing more reacting instead of thinking. And that’s a good thing.”

By contrast there’s the pair of talented redshirts who are still thinking before acting. Knox is sure both Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams will find their comfort zone soon…and possibly make Shumpert a little less comfortable with first-team status.

“They’re pushing. But Shump is out in front of the game now.” And out in front is where State’s play-callers would love to get Brandon Holloway. The smallest Bulldog back is also the fastest and just needs a crease to do damage, as Holloway showed in a few ’14 flashes.

“He’s the change of the pace and a little bit of everything now. He can change a game in a heartbeat. He’s definitely involved in our run plays.”

Meanwhile fall freshmen Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy are having to take their turns after the elders. Watching is another way to learn enough to go make their own mistakes, after all. But for now, Knox said the new kids’ heads are spinning.

”They’re thinking a lot so they don’t play very fast right now. But they’re learning.”

There’s another backfield option available. Sure, Malik Dear is listed as a receiver and showed in spring he can have instant impact as a true freshman flying out of the slot. But…Dear was a high school back, and he’s displayed a fine sense of timing and lots of talents when taking handoffs and pitches out of Coach Dan Mullen’s beloved reverses, end-arounds, receiver sweeps, etc.

Even lining up in the backfield is an option, per Knox.

“Yeah, I may put him back there for a little bit! But he’s doing well. Getting here early in the spring has helped his knowledge.”

It mustn’t be forgotten that Knox has more than his title job to take care of in camp. A year ago he was put in overall charge of special teams management, which keeps the coach busy. It also explains the bullhorn he carries around the field and, today, even toted to the media interview room. Fortunately for audio quality Knox didn’t use it at the podium.

While Mullen said Monday he wasn’t happy with how a lot of the new kids handled kicking play situations in their initial tests, apparently the veterans are doing better. “We’re working on it,” Knox said.

“We’re working on it! We just installed punt return yesterday. I’m excited about the techniques I’ve got to use and I think we’ve gotten a lot smarter on our return unit. So I think we’ll be much better at that unit.”

Thursday will provide Knox and staff more data to grade in setting practice plans for the rest of August. The Bulldogs will have their first full scrimmage, and if the past six seasons are any indication every back is going to get his share of carries. And contact.

Knox isn’t concerned with dictating a depth chart just yet. State hasn’t done a lot of back-by-committee in Mullen’s tenure. But if everyone keeps learning, and mistakes disappear…?

“We’ll see,” said Knox. “Right now we’ve still got a little more camp left, got a couple of scrimmages. So we’ll see if there’s separation. Or if we’ll just go into game-one and play it by ear.”

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