Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Freshmen Flashing Pup Potential

Dan Mullen has rarely hesitated to put brand-new players into action at first opportunity. But three true freshmen on opening night? That’s a strong statement about both the individuals and their collective class right from the season-start.

And know what? Mullen is far from done fielding freshmen in 2015. “There’s some other guys, depending on how things go, we have to get ready to go into a game.”

Based on their own individual preseasons—and in a couple of cases, spring seasons—as well as the specific circumstances of this 2015 team, there were a trio of true frosh ready to roll in the opening weekend. One of them even took the field for the first live play of both this season and his Mississippi State tenure.

He was safety Jamal Peters, an undisputed star of Mullen’s seventh recruiting class at State. After home team Southern Mississippi won the coin toss and chose to receive, fans and media alike noticed #12 huddling up with the rest of the kickoff squad. Sure enough, when the ten Dogs lined-up ahead of Devon Bell there was Peters positioned for coverage.

He wasn’t credited with any tackle on the opening boot. Redshirt Gerri Green got that. But later in the evening Peters did muscle his way into making a third-quarter sideline stop of the Eagle return man.

All Peters had to show on the stat sheet for his action was one tackle. To Mullen, the debut showed much more. Most of all about how this prime-time prospect was ready, eager even, to make immediate contributions in a lower-profile role.

Mullen said he saw it all August, in fact. “Jamal really stood out to me in special teams. Here’s an all-American, five-star everything recruit. But understood this is college, this is the SEC, you’ve got to learn to be a special teams player. He bought into that from day-one, and started on two special teams for us.” That included the punting posse for Peters, something he should be excellent at as the freshman flashes defensive back speed with linebacker muscle already.

Much more obvious, both on the field and the statistics, were Justin Johnson’s freshman feats. All the new receiver/slot tight end did was take the field in the second quarter with the Bulldogs down 10-7. And, with Southern Mississippi showing an unexpected defensive scheme which was causing issues in State’s passing plans.

Instead of the coverages scouted off ’14 film, the Eagles were playing ‘quarters’ and focused, even obsessed, with controlling the split ends. Mississippi State adjusted on the run, or on the pass rather, and went increasingly to tight ends. But in the second period it wasn’t so just veteran Gus Walley targeted.

It was Johnson, who’d enrolled as a big receiver only to see a switch anyone familiar with Mullen’s offense could have predicted. “Justin, we made the move right before training camp, moved him to tight end,” said Mullen. “I said you might have a great opportunity if you can learn.”

Clearly Johnson is a fast learner.

He even had a little extra ‘learning’ to do after hitting the field. With State having recovered a blocked punt at the 21-yard line, Dak Prescott didn’t hesitate calling Johnson’s number in the first-down huddle. Only they and the coach know for sure but to all other eyes it looked as if Johnson went one way when Prescott’s pass went the other.

Yet Johnson stayed on-field and two snaps later he and his quarterback hooked-up perfectly on a similar route for 12 yards and first-and-goal. Then after a loss of ground on first down rushing, Prescott again went to the new kid. The roll-out flip was wide-open and Johnson found the end zone for a lead, which State never loss.

Those two catches, for 17 yards and Mississippi State’s first offensive touchdown of the year, were ‘all’ Johnson garnered. But what a debut for this Dog. “He must think holy cow, this college stuff is pretty easy!” Mullen joked. Bigger things are surely in store for Johnson the rest of this college year, especially if defenses continue to focus on De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, and other receivers.

Dear’s debut was not so spectacular. He got a fourth-quarter carry after lining up at slot receiver, his primary position. It gained nothing but did reflect the faith Mississippi State has in this new kid’s potential to haul the ball. His being part of spring camp is no small part in Dear’s immediate availability, of course.

“Malik graduating early obviously changes everything,” Mullen said.

Playing three true freshmen means Mullen has already matched the entire total of activated rookies from 2014 after just one game. And the coach hinted there are more to come.

“I don’t think we’re done. There’s still a chance Mark McLaurin will play at some point a little bit this year, (and) Maurice Smitherman.” Both are defensive backs, McLaurin a safety similar to Peters and Smitherman a cornerback in camp.

Mullen implies they would be activated on special teams. But as with Peters, Dear, and Johnson, when a new Bulldog is special enough there will be ready roles on the rest of the teams, too.

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