Dan Mullen expects so. Demands so, in fact. “We threw some guys in the last game as you saw. And I’m on our coaches to do that.”
Week-three should offer excellent opportunities for the Mississippi State staff to send true rookies onto Scott Field. Mullen says the right things about preparing for Northwestern State. Certainly there are post-LSU issues with the varsity to address.
But objectively this is a game the Bulldogs should seize sufficient control of for assistant coaches to start shuttling freshmen on-field. Just as Mullen has done in the past in games exactly like this one.
“I think we’ve done a great job in our program through the years playing a lot of players. And with our player development. And to do that you have to play in games to develop, not just practice.”
A quartet from Mullen’s most recent and maybe most-celebrated recruiting class have begun that development stage. On opening night in Hattiesburg, S Jamal Peters played the very first snap of this season and his career on kickoff coverage. Before the half was done tight end Justin Johnson had not only played, but caught two passes including the first Bulldog touchdown of the year.
Slot receiver Malik Dear, who wowed everyone in spring camp as an early enrollee, also got snaps and a touch, too, with a short carry. All three were again in-action for game-two, where they were joined by safety Mark McLaurin who worked special teams.
That foursome exceeds the trio of true frosh who played in 2014; kicker Logan Cooke, receiver/returner Jamoral Graham, and out of injury-necessity linebacker J.T. Gray.
Now. Does Mississippi State stop at four? Not if Mullen gets his wish. Being head coach that would seem to be simple, right?
Not exactly. Even as Mullen offers the other 18 scholarship freshmen every opportunity to get in the games, there is one all-important condition.
“We explain to guys it’s not your right to play in a game, you earn playing in the game with what you do at practice.”
A contradiction? Not at all. Though fans already frustrated with some aspects of the September team have naturally begin attaching higher hopes to yet-unseen kids, coaches are more pragmatic. They also see those practices and have an accurate idea just what a particular freshman can bring to a gameplan. And what he cannot. Those signing day bios aren’t automatic indicators of rookie impact.
What big-picture Bulldog fans do understand is where freshmen typically can earn their way onto the varsity. Peters is the most recent example, followed by McLaurin. Impress enough assistants during special teams drills and a spot will be found. A week ago Mullen practically predicted McLaurin would be playing soon. He was. The coach also brought up cornerback Maurice Smitherman’s name, though this kid has yet to participate.
As far as offense or defense duty, chances aren’t as easy. State certainly doesn’t need another activated quarterback at this point. The receiver spots are in excellent shape though it is conceivable another tight end might be needed if extra blocking becomes an issue.
Related to that, while State has put true freshman linemen into action—starting center Jamaal Clayborn did not redshirt in 2012 remember—that seems most unlikely this year. The mysterious status of junior college tackle Martina Rankin is a whole different story that nobody save his coaches know at this point.
Defensively, the staff doesn’t seem in a hurry with the four freshmen linemen. If another linebacker is needed juco Traver Jung would seem the easiest pick. Touted freshman Leo Lewis may yet play though, on a kicking team first. Now with Peters and McLaurin active their ambitions increase from just getting in a game to working at their primary safety spots. And perhaps soon shaking that pecking order.
Mullen mentioned something he’s seen from fellows fresh to the program but observers of previous State squads. Especially last year with the 1A/1B defensive approach.
“With some young guys, they look at last year and ‘hey coach we rotated all those players’ so I automatically deserve to be rotated in’.” Mullen has to correct them.
“They’re learning it isn’t that way. You earn that rotation in practice.” On defense and offense alike, he means.
Still it figures Mullen would only discuss this topic at such length if he was serious. That he truly intends to burn more redshirts, if those were ever issued in the first place. Previous examples prove that up until about mid-October every rookie is working for varsity snaps. And as Gray found out last season, a place in the depth chart can abruptly open when a regular goes out with injury.
That is also why Mullen has in the past made curious-at-the-time insertions…which proved critical later on. Remember Damian Williams in November 2013? But even at a position needing fresh depth, nothing is charity.
“So I want to play more players. I’m really on our coaches to make sure we’re pushing guys to earn that right to get more snaps in the course of the game. And we’ve got to force-feed it. I want to ‘hey we’re going to give you five plays this week, go show me you deserve six, not that you deserve less with how hard you play."