Coach Dan Mullen and staff have spent five days focusing mostly on development of the younger Bulldogs, evaluation for 2016 plans, and brushing-up on everyone’s technique regardless of class and age. All that was open to public view, too. Today practice field is closed off so Mississippi State can start installing sets and schemes for a Belk Bowl date with North Carolina State (December 30, 3:30et).
Wednesday practice was moved up an hour to beat the oncoming weather. Campus practices continue through Saturday morning before the Bulldogs enjoy a quick Christmas holiday break. Mississippi State reports to Charlotte on the 26th. Practices there will be closed.
*Mississippi State was able to get through the non- or limited-contact days with only one observed injury. H-receiver Malik Dear came up gimpy after a misstep in a one-on-one drill Monday, and had his right upper-leg wrapped and iced. He did not practice Tuesday but the injury did not seem serious.
Starting right guard Devon Desper had not practiced at all through five days, but was dressed out every day with a brace on the left knee. His bowl status is unknown.
Starting defensive tackle Nick James did return to some heavier practice action Tuesday, having sat out four days with a pectoral muscle issue. He participated in a couple of 11-on-11 series at right tackle with the first defense and seemed on-track to play in the bowl.
Getting James in action was probably needed to burn-off some energies. At one point while the field speakers were playing ‘Billie Jean’ there was James in the end zone demonstrating some dance moves for the amusement of linebacker Richie Brown.
*With Desper not able to practice, his right guard spot was taken by regular backup Deion Calhoun. The second-year freshman has used those snaps with the first team very well, positioning himself for a starting job in 2016. Left guard Justin Malone graduates and the rest of the returning guard group is as young or younger than Calhoun. Sixth-year senior Damien Robinson has worked as a guard in bowl camp for numbers with Desper’s absence.
The future competition comes from second-year freshman Ronald Cochran, who has been running #2 left guard ahead of true freshman Michael Story; with true freshman Darryl Williams behind Calhoun.
*Most offensive line interest of course has turned to juco redshirt Martinas Rankin. Having practiced last spring as a right tackle, a surprise at the time, Rankin has moved to left tackle for bowl camp which was where most projected him all along. By all accounts Rankin made a major move during November practicing and is now positioned properly to take the job Rufus Warren is leaving open.
What hasn’t drawn as much attention, but might should, is right tackle. Justin Senior has started 24 times there in two seasons and should have it under control. Or does he? Because Tuesday after just four snaps of 11-on-11 work, with the defensive line blowing around the right side to ‘sack’ Nick Fitzgerald, line coach John Hevesy yanked Senior from the #1 line and replaced him with Elgton Jenkins.
Senior did not return to practice the rest of the day, leaving Jenkins to run first-team. And as noted Sunday, the next right tackle is a surprise: much-moved juco lineman Jocquell Johnson has become the backup there.
*Johnson has still taken some turns as a backup center. But now it is clear true freshman Harrison Moon is being groomed for this position. It is not an easy transition for the tackle-sized rookie so far. For a couple of days almost all his snaps were high, very high when it was Damian Williams or Nick Tiano at quarterback. Fitzgerald’s height helped him pull the ball down better.
Then Monday, Moon over-corrected and was just about ‘rolling’ most of his hikes back to the shorter quarterbacks. But on Tuesday there wasn’t any bad snaps seen. Moon’s delivery wasn’t quick or crisp this time but neither did he put them high nor low.
*It isn’t any change in full-time defensive front philosophy. Still it was interesting to watch Mississippi State try a three-down set for an extended period of pass defense only. Also, while the ‘first’ group in this scheme showed three corners and two safeties, the second such group was three safeties and two corners.
The #1 odd front had ends Jonathan Calvin and Will Coleman on the ends and Nelson Adams at nose. The second was nose man Braxton Hoyette with Cory Thomas and Torrey Dale on the ends. Dale also got moved inside to the nose for a few sets.
That odd-front set worked well initially as Fitzgerald and the first offense were beaten for two deflections at the line and a near interception. Then on third down Fitzgerald got a moment to look, found De’Runnya Wilson making an in-and-out move in front of Deontay Evans, and hit him for a 20-yard gain. Fitzgerald then ripped off a stretch of four more completions, three to Fred Ross and the other to tight end Darrion Hutcherson.
The other most productive tandem was Williams and Gabe Myles, repeatedly working the left sideline for 10-yard catches that turned into breakaway gains. How much of that yards-after-catch was due to a no-tackle period, well…
*Defensive tackle Chris Jones was given a few snaps to knock a little rust off in advance of bowl prep. But end A.J. Jefferson has had the easiest week of the entire team, doing nothing but a few drills and lots of watching.
This has allowed Coleman to continue his own development at one end; while Calvin steps up into the other end where senior Ryan Brown is out for the Belk Bowl after surgery for a stress fracture. Jones and Adams were the first pair of tackles, then Thomas and Hoyette second, and Grant Harris and Nelson Adams third pair.
*Starting safety Brandon Bryant will return to practices after being excused four days for the death of his father in an accident. In his place Deontay Evans worked with the first defense alongside starter Kivon Coman. The two true freshman safeties alternated which safety spot they worked at, but in general Jamal Peters was behind Coman and Mark McLaurin taking turns with Evans. The third pair has been a couple of walk-ons, both second-year freshmen, Zac Neary and Hayes Walker.
*Bowl prep means the first two running backs return to work after some easy days. Nothing seems changing for the bowl game with Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert. Spring might be another matter as Aeris Williams has had a good week and seems ready to make a better bid.
As development days ended it was classmate Dontavian Lee taking the first turn more often, ahead of Williams. Lee has been working to fix some fumbling issues and didn’t lose the handle the last two days. It’s too soon to say which redshirting back will have an edge in spring, though Nick Gibson has shown a stronger style in limited looks.