Though the full schedule is still to be announced, word is Coach Dan Mullen will put his spring roster on the practice fields the first week of March for at least one session with the pace going full-blast once semester break (March 12-20) is over.
Mullen’s eighth spring, with a re-vamped staff too, doesn’t lack for obvious talking points. So, let’s talk…about every offensive and defensive position that is. This four-part outlook begins with the offensive line and tight ends.
What follows is based on both where Dog played, or practiced, during the fall season and Belk Bowl camp. At each position the departing Dogs are listed first with their 2015 starts; then the returning personnel with their 2016 class and number of starts last fall.
TACKLES: Rufus Warren 11 starts LT, Cole Carter, Damien Robinson
Returning: SR Justin Senior 12 starts RT, SO Elgton Jenkins 3 starts LT&RT, rsJR Martinas Rankin, SR Jocquell Johnson
Losing the back-side tackle from an offense built around passing play is an easy and obvious area of focus. In Mississippi State’s current case maybe more than usual since whoever the quarterback he won’t have Dak Prescott’s confidence to keep on progressions and wait for the right receiver.
But…there may just be less, and more, to all this than shows on the depth chart.
First, because the Bulldog running game has to be more productive. That alone ought take some pass-pressure off the left tackle, at least some snaps. Second, it’s likely State will script fewer reads and quicker releases until and if the protection is proven.
And third? The left tackle of 2016 is almost certainly going to be an upgrade. This is no offense to the best-efforts of lovable Rufe Warren, but he was always a converted tight end forced to play tackle. His successor will be a ground-up-trained tackle.
OK, then…which one?
The easy pick is Jenkins, who got more SEC snaps than ever anticipated as a second-year freshman. He also appeared, to public eye, to perform at least as well as his elder left tackle. For that matter, at right tackle too when forced into action on the other side. One of the last and lowest-ranked signees of 2014, Jenkins is proving already to be a recruiting steal with increasing upside. Oh, and a mean streak too, by all accounts.
At the same time Senior has acquitted himself well at right tackle for two full seasons. Moving him out of the lineup will take some doing. It would also say something really encouraging about the Dog who did it, of course, but that’s all speculation at this point.
The most popular pre-spring blocking question of course remains Martinas Rankin. 2015 was a mystery to many; after all wasn’t this the top-ranked juco tackle prospect in the land per some analysts? Well yes, he was. Yet not only did he redshirt as a transfer, something of a mini-trend at State these days, Rankin practiced not at the then-open left tackle spot but at right tackle in spring.
But, in bowl camp, there he was at left tackle after all. Reports from the regular season told of good scout team work and a burst of progress over the final month. If correct this is good news indeed. Because it means State will begin spring with three solid tackles, the baseline for a regular season, and spend camp figuring who are the top two.
As well as look for a #4 ahead of summer, if possible. Bowl camp showed a surprise as oft-moved and ’15 backup center Jocquell Johnson was taking more snaps at right tackle.
GUARDS: Justin Malone 12 starts
Returning: SR Devon Desper 13 starts RG&LG, SO Deion Calhoun 1 start RG, rsFR Michal Story, rsSO Ronald Cochran, rsFR Darryl Williams
It’s true, when outsider media starts scribbling their summer predictions sometime before spring ball ends, they’ll zero in on the loss of a two-year starter. If never a star himself, Justin Malone was solid for his career, a known quantity. Yes, a loss at left guard.
Now that said, and similar to what’s happening at tackles, Mississippi State won’t be replacing from-scratch. It might not even be a real ‘replace’ since after his sound showing in the Belk Bowl it might work out fine leaving Devon Desper on the left side of center. In his dozen starts at right guard Desper was also solid if not spectacular, as would be expected of most guys at his state of development. More can be expected now that he’s a senior whether he lines up right or left.
Why put him at left? Because working in relief Deion Calhoun has been a right guard so far. Of course anyone familiar with how Coach John Hevesy practices and plays his guards, right and left are normally nominal and everyone is supposed to be interchangeable. Still it will be something to watch this spring how Calhoun is practiced, and how this very strong but still-developing blocker has progressed with some real experience to call upon. Oh, and that old talk of moving him to center seems mooted by now, never mind he sure does look the part.
Of more concern isn’t which guard goes where, but who is now the #3? Everybody is young for sure. Signed as a high school tackle, Ronald Cochran has been transitioned inside and took most of his bowl camp snaps at left guard. Meanwhile a pair of redshirted freshmen have jumped right in as guards from day-one; Michael Story at left and Darryl Williams at right.
Bowl practice observations were limited at best, but if forced to project Story might have been a tiny bit more advanced in the process. But only the coach really knows and he isn’t saying. What he doesn’t have to say is, out of these three a #3 needs to emerge ASAP and the competition ought to be intense.
It will also be worth watching if the aforementioned Jocquell Johnson goes back to guard at any point of spring, for sheer security of numbers.
CENTER: Justin Malone 1 start
Returning: SR Jamaal Clayborn 12 starts, rsFR Harrison Moon, SR Jocquell Johnson
Give Malone credit. His one and only turn as a college center, actually his only ever, was worth waiting for. Malone did a fine job in the Belk Bowl victory, forced into action over-the-ball by a Charlotte practice ankle injury to Jamaal Clayborn.
Clayborn is fine for the spring semester fortunately, to prepare for his senior season (remember, he did not have the luxury of redshirting as a 2013 freshman). There is still lots left to refine for the upperclassman, such as getting little smoother and more flexible coming out of his stance. Oh, and it can’t be over-stated how important it will be for old Dog Clayborn to get really comfortable with a new starting quarterback. Considering that the guys he’s hiking to with the first offense will stand half-a-foot different in height with comparable ranges in arm-reach, that could be interesting. Even entertaining.
Johnson’s move to tackle and/or guard during bowl camp should signal a commitment to making Harrison Moon the next center. Having a tall, long-armed fellow bent over the ball might look odd at first, but then Malone showed in Charlotte it can work fine with practice and confidence. Moon is getting lots of practice.
The confidence, that will take more time. During the early days of December’s scrimmaging the true frosh was often high on his snaps, really high for Damian Williams and Nick Tiano and sometimes forcing even Nick Fitzgerald to reach upwards. Then suddenly, it was over-correction as following days he was literally rolling some snaps back to his quarterback…which for what it is worth Williams handled better. No comment on why so…
But much like Goldilocks’ supper samplings, by phase three Moon was getting his snaps just right on target to any and every quarterback. Maybe that seems a small success, but remember the rookie is being converted from tackle where he played most of his high school career. His other work? As a tight end, a comment on Moon’s athleticism and likely his potential, too.
TIGHT END: Darrion Hutcherson 6 starts, Gus Walley 7 starts
Returning: SO Justin Johnson, rsFR Farrod Green, SO Aaron Hamaker
As 2015 wound-down Mullen bemoaned the necessity of playing Darrion Hutcherson in ’14 since the then-transfer wasn’t ready. In fact he really didn’t reach that point until mid-’15, but when he did Hutcherson was a force…and then was done just as he hit his prime.
His graduation looms even larger now that the other regular tight end, Gus Walley, is all-but-officially finished and going on medical scholarship after a series of concussions. The long-term risk is just too great, everyone agrees, though no formal statement has been made and for now Walley continues to count on the 85-grant limit.
So. Rebuilding time begins.
The position is not bare. It’s just short on experience, every varsity bit of it belonging to Justin Johnson. He has a unique claim to career fame already as his very first college catch, and in his very first game, was for a touchdown at Southern Mississippi. The rest of the year saw only four move catches with 41 total yards as Walley and Hutcherson got the snaps and wide receivers got the passes.
Regardless of that, Johnson goes into his first college spring as the veteran and obvious #1. He also ought to come in carrying more than his 235 or so freshman pounds. Bulking-up is a goal as well for redshirted Farrod Green, only 215 when he arrived last summer as a wide receiver but already booked for the tight end transition. Bowl camp was his first real chance to run State’s offense since August and he has potential there.
We’ll never know if Dontea Jones would have gotten the freshman-year nod over Johnson had he been eligible. As things played out the top-15 national tight end prospect had to sit the season working on eligibility, which he achieved for spring. It wasn’t the same as a real redshirt year since he couldn’t practice but Jones still has an edge to build on. The frame for it, too, having played at 6-4, 235 in high school.
Speaking of which, early-enrollee Christian Roberson of Powder Springs, Ga., is listed an inch taller and about the same weight. Though of course only once on a MSU scale will everyone’s size be confirmed, or adjusted. Either way, State has more big bodies to work with at tight end than usual for a spring, including second-year walk-on Aaron Hamaker at 253 pounds.