Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Mississippi State tight ends coach Scott Sallach talks about his personnel group

Mississippi State had some big shoes to fill when former tight end Malcolm Johnson departed Starkville for the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Despite the loss of the experienced Johnson, the Bulldog tight ends are making a profound impact on Saturdays.

"Personally, I think they have done an excellent job," Mississippi State tight ends coach Scott Sallach said. "Unfortunately, when you play football in the SEC your personal goals are nowhere near the top ten things that are important. 

"Personally, I am really happy for Gus Walley and all of the things that he has overcome. Personally, I am really happy for Justin Johnson to be a true freshman and come in and play in the SEC opener and score a touchdown in your first game, but that really doesn't mean much right now. 

"I am ecstatic for Gus, seven catches and he did everything he could to help us. In the grander scheme of things, I was up until 4:30 sitting on my porch, because we came up two points short."

Sallach believes in the direction of the Mississippi State program and reports that he sees the Bulldogs as a team that is capable of some big things.

"I am like everybody else, I signed on with Coach (Dan) Mullen to try to bring an SEC West championship," Sallach said. "It stings, but that's the coach in me. Just plain on Scott Sallach couldn't be happier for Gus or for Justin."

Johnson is beginning to emerge as a real weapon for the Bulldogs. One of only four true freshmen to see action on the season thus far, the Hoover, Alabama product has three catches through two games. 

"It's a position where you graduated two seniors and the back-up, Gus, unfortunately for him had been injury prone his first two and a half years on campus," Sallach said. "Darrion came in without a spring opprtunity to really showcase himself, so the door was wide open. 

"The move (to tight end) was one that (Johnson) wanted to make to try and contribute early. He got some opportunities and he proved his value to me, to Coach Hevesy, to Coach Gonzales, to Coach Mullen, the offense, the defense that he deserved an opportunity to get out there. 

"Coach Mullen has proved over time that if you deserve the opportunity, you're going to get it. He got it and shoot for him it couldn't have worked out any better. His first college football play they threw him a pass and his fourth college football play he caught a touchdown. It's not going to get much better and he earned it just like anybody else that steps out on the field they earn it."

Johnson comes from a winning tradition at Hoover High School in Alabama. That winning pedigree certainly helped groom the talented tight end for life in the SEC, but he still had a lot to work on as he adjusted to a college roster.

"I am sure it helped him," Sallach said. "A program like Hoover has played a couple of big ball games in their history if I am not mistaken. I am sure he hadn't played in front of 65,000 screaming fans in primetime on ESPN against a top 15 program in the country.

"I have to prepare him a little different than I would Malcolm Johnson. Before that game, we met on that Monday and I said you're going to play in front of a crowd that's twice as big and four times as loud. His eyes like a true freshman would went up like silver dollars. 

"I believe his direct quote was 'Whaaaaaaaat?'. 

"I explained to him that it's going to take ten or fifteen minutes to get through the Dawg Walk. I have to remind myself, because I was spoiled my Malcolm, Justin has been in college for a month." 

Through some solid recruiting and player development, the Bulldogs have amassed a very talented roster. The competition to see game reps is intense. Through the influx of talent and a change in culture in Starkville, no player is given anything. 

"There are a lot of great football players down in that locker room," Sallach said. "That's why they play in the SEC and that's why they play at Mississippi State. The ones that get out there ultimately earn it through performance.  Everybody wants to."

The Bulldogs have a pretty versatile group of tight ends who all possess some different skills. Sallach reports that some players fit certain situations better than others.

"I try to do my best to protect Justin right now," Sallach said. "He has to know the full play book, but you really just try to focus on what he has to do. The worst thing you can do is put a guy out there who is not ready to perform at that level.

"You ask any athlete, women's soccer player, baseball player, track and field athlete that once you lose your confidence it's starving dogs to the meat wagon. Watch out, you're in trouble. You have to taper things down a little bit for him, but ultimately he is the back up to Gus. You try to make sure he's in situations that he is confident in. Sometimes in meetings, I spend more time explaining things than I used to."

The Bulldog tight ends have had some success through two game, but Sallach reports that the Bulldog offensive staff is not forcing the issue. 

"In the pass game, everybody wants to say target this player or that player this many times or that many times," Sallach explained. "The reality of it is the defense is telling Dak where to throw the ball. You know what? Fred Ross is a great football player. De'Runnya Wilson is a great football player. A lot of people have been concentrating on them. That's given the tight ends some opportunities to help the team be successful. 

"They have taken advantage of their opportunities. I have no idea how the rest of the year will shake out, but through two games when the defenses have put it to Dak to throw the ball to the tight ends, they've produced. 

"That's all I can ask from them, because who knows? There is no guarantee who is getting the ball unless you turn around and hand it to somebody. In the pass game, you think you know, but until it actually plays out the defense tells Dak where to throw the ball. "

In the second half of the Bulldogs' game against LSU, the offense went to more of an attached tight end formation with Gus Walley lining up alongside left tackle Rufus Warren. Sallach reports that the Bulldogs are going to simply go with what works and what helps the team move the chains.

"There is always going to be some game plan stuff where he lines up next to the tackle," Sallach said. "It's just not his strength right now. He can do it, but if you ask him to do it fifty times a game, then he's going to lose a lot of them.

"That would be bad coaching by me. There will be some things we do that puts him down there to do some other stuff to help the tackles and some other stuff. You aren't going to see a lot of 2009-2010-2011 Marcus Green down on the line of scrimmage a lot."

When the Bulldogs elect to go attached at the tight end position, it should provide some opportunities for senior Darrion Hutcherson.

"He's a little bit better at that," Sallach said of Hutcherson. "There are some things week to week that you have in the game plan where that's his role. Last week, that part of the game plan didn't factor in as the game played out. It did factor in a little bit against Southern Miss. Hutch is better at that than Gus or Justin.

"Week to week depends on how big that package is to attack your opponent."

Mississippi State takes on Northwestern State this weekend in the second home game of the 2015 schedule. Kickoff is set for 3 PM and tickets remain available. 

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