Tight End Preseason Gets Involving

Naturally every coach gets a bit tunnel-visioned about his group in preseason. Scott Sallach does acknowledge there are others on the football field with the Bulldog tight ends. “It’s not the only position that could have a big impact. But it could have a big impact on being successful.”

There. Fans who perennially see tight end involvement as a sure secret to offensive success can relax. Mississippi State’s tight ends are entirely involved in 2015 game plays, just the same as 2014, 2013, 2012, and all the way back to Dan Mullen’s debut year.

The involvement, now, isn’t always or even often obvious. To civilians, that is.

Coach Scott Sallach sees it in complete clarity. Look at all the yards and touchdowns and records set last fall by those Bulldog throwers, runners, catchers. “We had a great offense. Malcolm was kind of the glue that held it all together.”

As in Malcolm Johnson, the tight end who was just about as key to offensive operations as Dak Prescott. And did so without necessarily catching a pass or for that matter running a route.

“He didn’t have great numbers for it but the offense is much more dangerous with a guy who can do all those things,” Sallach said. “There’s a lot of ways to be successful but that’s the best one and hopefully we can keep that rolling with Gus and the other guys.”

That would be Gus Walley, the junior pacesetter at 2015 tight end. After sitting out two complete seasons with injuries, Walley played a dozen games as Johnson’s slot-alternate. Four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, that coming in the win over UAB, wasn’t a lot of numbers either but did show Walley is finally up to college speed.

This preseason it’s been full-speed ahead as #1 tight end.

“Gus is doing a real nice job,” Sallach said. “He’s stepped into a leadership role, performed at a high level.” Just as the coach expects, given Walley’s experience at last. “Relatively speaking where Gus is come from to where he’s at now is not even close.”

Speaking of moving… Scrimmage results aren’t reported but something has clicked in recent days with senior Darion Hutcherson. The huge (6-7, 260) target didn’t have the transfer season forecast upon signing out of junior college, going without a catch all fall.

Then in spring ball Hutcherson suddenly began hauling in throws, especially red zone and goal line plays. Apparently the preseason pace is acceptable to Sallach, too.

“Gus is still clearly the guy. But Hutch from when we scrimmaged to now he’s probably made the most improvement of anybody.” The key is Hutcherson continuing to progress up to opening day and afterwards.

“Because that’s going to be good not only for him but for Gus, good for everybody on the offense.”

At this preseason point the real concern among tight ends is lack of depth. B.J. Hammond did get into two games as a second-year freshman and was taking third-turn when August began, as expected. There’s a new facemask in the group though. Sallach tries to mute his enthusiasm…but it shows anyway.

“It’s disrespectful to Malcolm and it’s disrespectful to the kid. But he could be an upgraded version of Malcolm Johnson if—if, if, if, if—he keeps progressing. If he has those same intangibles.”

Considering just how greatly Sallach valued Johnson’s contributions as a blocker, both at the line and downfield especially, as well as the receiving threat and just plain smarts, that is quite a comment. But wait, it gets stronger.

“He has God-given ability not everyone in that room has,” said Sallach. “There are things he can do that not everybody physically can do. You just hope the mental aspect he’s able to grasp and do those things on Saturday evening.”

This early impression is all the more important because fellow freshman Farrod Green will struggle to get ready by September. Late qualifying kept Green from summer enrollment, as well as workouts and informal drills.

“He’s in a tough spot,” Sallach said. “He’s two months behind everybody and already going from high school to the Southeastern Conference and that’s hard enough. He’s a guy people are going to be excited about in the future.”

For the present Walley, Hutcherson, and increasingly Johnson appear to be the tight ends involved in State’s scheming. Sallach still cautions that comparing them to an extra-seasoned graduate like Malcolm Johnson is wrong.

Yet, once upon a time that Johnson was learning the ropes and trying to succeed Marcus Green. This is just the cycle. “It’s a work in progress,” Sallach said.

“Every day is game day for us. Because you have to prove your worth to Coach Mullen, to Coach Hevesy, to Coach Gonzales, to Coach Knox, to Coach Johnson. To other guys on the offense and defense.”

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