Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Mississippi State running backs' coach Greg Knox talks about the progress of his young backs.

After hearing glowing reports from the spring and summer practice sessions. Mississippi State fans were eager to see their talented redshirt freshmen running backs Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams in a Saturday contest for some extended action. Last week against Northwestern State, those who cheer for the Maroon and White got their wish.

Williams scored the first touchdown of his college career, while Lee lead all rushers in the game with 57 yards on just five carries. Coach Dan Mullen spoke earlier in the season about younger players earning more game day reps. With the solid showings of last Saturday, conventional wisdom would suggest the Bulldog offensive efforts would like feature more work from Lee and Williams.

"We saw improvement," Mississippi State running backs' coach Greg Knox said. "We wanted to get them in the game and let them get some carries up under their belt. We wanted them to get some experience out there on the field.

"Seeing them out there on the field for the first time for a length of time, getting some reps and getting some carries was good. We hope to do that a lot more this year. It's just really about getting them more involved in the offense."

Most high school backs show up on a college campus as fairly accomplished ball carriers. Knox has worked hard to teach his backs how to play without the ball and to carry out their assignments when the play is not designed for them.

Pass protection is a big part of things for running backs who plan to become every down backs. On one play a week ago, Lee did a great job on blitz pick up. As Dak Prescott's personal protector on the play, Lee engaged and gave Prescott a clean pocket to through from. The result of the play was a 48 yard completion to Fred Brown.

A play later, Lee got a little caught up and missed his assignment. Prescott was sacked and the ball was stripped leading to a Bulldog turnover. 

Knox reports that both experiences are something Lee can learn from and become a more complete back.

"He was a little late getting over to help on the other side," Knox said of Lee. "That was his responsibility to get over there. He just had what we call bad eyes. He just wasn't able to see it all and be able to get over there in time to pick it up.

"A lot of that is just being a freshman. He's getting there and he's getting a lot more looks this week in practice. He's learning and all of this is a learning process for him."

Where Lee really excelled on Saturday was running the football after contact. The Brooklyn, Mississippi native was able to power through would be tacklers and push the ball down the field for some sizable gains.

"He's getting better at all of that," Knox said. "He's beginning to understand the importance of pad level. He's understanding his gap responsibility and knowing what gap we're running at. He did a good job of that on Saturday. His pad level was good and as a result he was able to break a few tackles inside and them come out of the hole."

Starter Ashton Shumpert appears to be one of the biggest fans of the Bulldog tandem of Lee and Williams. Knox reports that Shumpert has the maturity to understand that in order for the team to be successful, it will take the full talents of the entire depth chart.

"He's a motivator," Knox said of Shumpert. "Whenever they're in there, he is cheering them on. He's motivating them. When they come to the sidelines, he's telling them what they did wrong and what they did right. He's telling them what to look for and what to see. He does a great job of motivating the other guys and being a leader."

Brandon Holloway has been a big part of the Mississippi State game plan on offense in the early going, but last week the Florida native had just one carry for four yards. With the emphasis on the younger players last weekend, Holloway was able to save some physical wear and tear for the upcoming SEC slate.

"I think that worked out to be a good thing," Knox said. "He had gotten a little banged up. Hopefully, he'll be 100% for Saturday. He does a good job encouraging those young guys. He knows that they're growing. He helps them out a lot when they come off of the field."

In addition to the redshirt freshmen, the Bulldogs have a pair of newcomers at running back that are redshirting this season. Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy have both done some things to catch their coach's eye on the scout team.

"They are both doing well," Knox said. "We talk to them every week about being great on the scout team. They're both being good ball carriers and gaining the respect of the defense by running hard. I have been pleased with both of them."

The 2016 season will likely be the coming out party for Gibson and Murphy, but Bulldog fans are hopeful to see more of their position mates Lee and Williams this fall as the Bulldogs push ahead in the rugged Southeastern Conference. 

"Hopefully, we can get them in again this week," Knox said of the talented tandem. "They are still learning and growing as young guys. We're trying to work them in on special teams as well as offense. It's about them learning to trust the coaches, trusting their teammates and trusting themselves. It's just about trust all the way around.

"We're about where I figured we would be, with the young guys still learning and progressing and the older guys getting better and better as we go."

Mississippi State will take the show on the road this week as the Bulldogs travel to Auburn to battle with the Tigers. The contest is a huge one for both teams and one that the Bulldogs simply have to have if they plan to stay in the fight for the SEC Western Division crown.


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