Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Bulldog Underclassmen Get Advance Look at Spring Matchups

We refer to it as bowl camp. You know better. These initial preparation days for the 2015 Belk Bowl are really the start of 2016 spring practices at Mississippi State.

Coach Dan Mullen and staff put the Bulldogs back on the practice field Friday (times tba) and the focus won’t be on their December 30 date with North Carolina State. It will be winter evaluation of the varsity and redshirt roster for next spring’s camp. Bulldog fans will be just as focused on who moves up, moves around, or maybe even moves back.

Some indications can be drawn from the just-completed regular season of course. Whether for mop-up snaps or injury shuffles the 2016 lineup began to take shape. There was also one October afternoon observers were allowed at an open-date practice. That offered a few clues, too.

Today is a look at how the offense could, even should set up going into spring ball. Tomorrow will be a look at the defensive side.

 

QUARTERBACK: Go ahead, get ready to hear it from now to September. Hear how losing the greatest football player of this and many MSU generations leaves Mississippi State starting from scratch entirely. Oh, and expect to see State predicted 7th in the SEC West. Get ready for it.

Also. Get ready for the next generation of Bulldog quarterbacking. And it should be good.

Probably very, very good.

As great as Dak Prescott has been, much as he will be forever loved in Bulldog Country, he is just the latest and so far greatest of Dan Mullen’s quarterbacks. Look it up. The top-four percentage passers in all MSU history are…Mullen’s four starters. So only uninformed outsiders can predict a collapse here.

We who’ve seen Nick Fitzgerald know better.

True, he served mostly mop-up duty against a few SEC teams, and got most of his snaps in non-conference routs. Fitzgerald still completed almost 79%--read that again, 79%--of his throws this year. And they weren’t dinks and dumps either. His average completion went for 21-plus yards. OK, he just had eleven completions. But 21-plus yards and three touchdowns should open eyes that maybe, just maybe, State’s passing game could become even more vertical in 2016? Oh, and Fitzgerald showed some fine footwork in spring, preseason, and season. He’s not a Prescott-type power runner but can get out of trouble as needed and still make gains.

However. Mullen’s mantra of every job re-opens for every new year holds true here. Being able to finally redshirt a season has done Damian Williams a world of development good. He dressed most games anyway (re: 2013 emergency use), and obviously has more SEC experience than anyone now (re: 2013 again). Besides, with all the underclassman depth at quarterback, Williams isn’t sticking around just to watch younger guys take this open job.

Nick Tiano did redshirt, and needed it. Limited observations showed a nice downfield range and maybe some questions on sideline throws. As said, limited observations; Friday it’s real for this redshirt.

Which leaves the wild card of the crew. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was not known for sure if Elijah Staley will be on the football practice field this weekend or off with Bulldog basketball on their road trip. Goodness knows Coach Ben Howland needs the depth-help and Staley still shows a heart for hardwood.

But if he really wants to be a SEC quarterback, every practice snap is priceless. Staley has amazing physical gifts, an arm stronger than some kickers’ legs, and is gradually becoming a real quarterback rather than a quick-tuck runner. Which, by the way, he can do very well. He just needs development, intensive and extensive. This next week could show just how serious he is about football.

Oh, and related to this: indications are Mississippi State does not plan on signing a quarterback in 2016. That’s a show of faith in the Dogs already here for sure.

 

RUNNING BACK: Here’s an uncomfortable regular-season statistic. State’s leading rusher among the true running backs had 372 yards (Brandon Holloway). That is the lowest such figure since, wait for it, 1984. Even allowing for Prescott’s own prowess on the ground, and a spectacularly effective passing game, this must cause coaching concerns.

Maybe so should the fact that everyone returns. It’s a concern because that means a crowd of backs to share snaps and could crimp carries for the better prospects.

Or, maybe not?

The fact is, whoever is calling cadence in ’16 must, must have a productive running back beside him. Holloway (4.6 yards per carry) certainly has a place with speed and moves, he just is not going to break any tackles or even survive modest contact. That’s proven. By contrast, Ashton Shumpert (3.7 ypc) can take a hit but doesn’t go much farther after it either and has not shown moves in-space. OK, there was rarely much space to move in this season, but the point holds.

So coming days will be intriguing for which backs get the most touches. Maybe not what order, but total chances. Undoubtedly Aeris Williams (4.5 ypc) has the better balance of skills and probably potential in a spread offense. But, ball security clouds the picture. It’s even harder to say now of Dontavian Lee as he missed four games with reportedly-minor injury issues.

Simply, nobody really knows much of anything about these veterans’ status going into camp. Now add in the redshirts who get to leave the scout team at last and compete. That October day, Nick Gibson went first and Alec Murphy second in redshirt drills. Gibson is the lighter of the pair and presumably quicker, but Murphy brings more muscle. None of this means anything ahead of camp, of course.

What does matter is figuring out what State has to work with come spring, and if more recruits are needed.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE: Sure, some slack can be cut for missing one starter and having another not-100%. But…that also implies it was the spring-opening #1 offensive line being abused in the Egg Bowl almost at will. That is not an encouraging thought.

What might be is the opportunity to start plugging-in new blockers now. And, presumably, further and more controlled development of the underclassmen. There’s a bunch of those, too.

Beginning at the open left side, tackle Rufus Warren and guard Justin Malone need replacing. In the past State has shown a tendency to play the oldest or most experience guard on the left side. But it seems more likely senior-to-be Devon Desper will stay at right guard, and his backup Deion Calhoun switch to left. They’re supposed to be interchangeable of course.

And after two years Ronald Cochran is supposed to be ready to move into at least backup status at either guard spot. What is worth watching though are the two redshirt frosh, Michael Story and Darryl Williams. Maybe they don’t make any depth-chart jumps in bowl camp, but come March the game is on at guard.

Center seems settled with Jamaal Clayborn going into a true-senior season. Then again 2013 winter enrollee Jocquell Johnson will also be a senior, after redshirting one year and limited action this season. Is he content with backup status, or is there a choice? Maybe, because in fall tackle-sized true frosh Harrison Moon was taking snaps as the #3 center himself. He also did some deep-snapping on the sideline.

Before assigning Moon to center, there are obvious and serious concerns at tackle. As in, just three of them are underclassmen in camp with Warren, Damien Robinson, and Cole Carter leaving. Justin Senior has started 24 of the last 25 games and isn’t likely to move from right tackle as a ’16 senior. The bigger question is left tackle. Elgton Jenkins played about as well as could be asked of a redshirt freshman against the completion he was forced into. His development looks to be on the right track just fine.

And maybe this weekend begins answering the great line question of 2015: what was the deal with redshirting Martinas Rankin? For that matter why was the spring enrollee always practicing at right tackle anyway? It tells the entire story about ‘16’s great concern that when everyone lines-up Friday, it won’t be quarterback or running back everyone looks to see who is taking what turn.

It will be the tackles. Left tackle in particular.

Along this line, the wash-out of so much of State’s offensive line signings from 2012-14 already has recruiting reportedly hitting the juco ranks harder right now. That doesn’t automatically mean more mid-year signings, and none could enroll in time for bowl camp anyway with December 16 the first day. It does show that suddenly an area of the team which not so long ago was a strength has become the determining factor of what 2016 could become.

With this qualifier: a really good running back can make an offensive line a lot better, fast.

 

RECEIVERS: He hasn’t said so publicly and entry deadline is January 15. It is still presumed that the Belk Bowl will take both ends of State’s most productive touchdown-tandem ever with Prescott graduating and De’Runnya Wilson turning professional. None resent him leaving early as ‘Bear’ has done his Dog duty in full.

Nor should Fred Ross be surprised if he’s asked early and often about his own 2016 ambitions. The H-receiver hasn’t tipped his hand either way and Bulldogs do hope he returns for a senior season to improve on a record-setting junior year with 81 (and counting) catches and 933 yards. This decision is even more key in terms of how the slot spot is currently set and what might be done with its most tantalizing young talent.

Gabe Myles isn’t young any more as a third-year soph. He also wasn’t healthy much of the season second-half after an ankle injury at Texas A&M. Playing behind Ross and being hurt limited him to a dozen catches and two touchdowns, but he’s capable of more and better and bigger in time.

That said, Malik Dear is capable of even greater things. Yes, they were meaningless in the game’s outcome. But catching two touchdowns in the Egg Bowl hopefully is seen in the future as his big breakout at receiver. He already had it as a runner on a 52-yard touchdown at Aggieland.

Which raises the camp and spring question of what exactly is Dear? Should he stay a full-time receiver and occasional runner, or move to the backfield regularly, or what? Most figure he stays in this do-it-all mode biased to running routes…but if the current backfield bunch doesn’t impress soon, why not consider this plain old playmaker? It would be an even easier call maybe if Ross guarantees a return in ’16.

Replacing Wilson is in no way easy or automatic right now. Not only is State losing the biggest-play-maker of the receiving corps since, who, Justin Jenkins? Eric Moulds? His backup Joe Morrow is also a senior. So either somebody moves over from the other split end, or somebody moves up.

Fred Brown certainly will have a starting job as a senior, and in fact his 25-catch, three-TD year was overshadowed undeservingly. His own alternate, Donald Gray, ought be an easy switch and certainly had his share of impressive catches in rotation. In fact he and Fitzgerald seemed to have something going on as a tandem in their own right. However, practice reports are Gray’s lingering issue is consistency in the not-big plays, the simpler stuff where he at times relaxes or just drops catchable balls. Maybe the chance to step up into starting status improves the concentration?

After these veterans the drop-off is total. No other split end has caught a live ball. So now is the time for three redshirts to show their stuff. Deddrick Thomas’ spring enrollment wasn’t as much a head-start as usual due to minor injuries but he should be healthy now. He also plays a bit bigger than his listed size based on limited practice looks.

Not a big guy either, Keith Mixon was working in the slot by the way in October, and doing it very well. Jonnas Spivey, now, he’s the bigger receiver of the redshirts and was practicing at split end.

State actually came out of the regular season in reasonably good health at all offensive positions. The exception was tight end with Gus Walley adding two more injuries to his already-long list. When healthy, he can make plays…though ball security is always a question given how he holds it untucked too often.

His one big moment came on opening night. In fact true freshman Justin Johnson scored State’s first offensive touchdown of the whole season, then caught four more balls all year. Still he has plenty time to really develop now. It was classmate Farrod Green who drew the redshirt card, meaning his down-time is officially over.

As Mullen often noted, it was a shame Darrion Hutcherson was forced into 2014 action. He was just coming into his own as the senior season ended, and now leaves a complete void at ‘big’ tight end. Walk-on Aaron Hamaker looks to have this job to himself heading into spring.


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