Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Offensive Skill Positions Going into Spring Practices

Our really, really early look at Mississippi State spring football continues with today’s Part II, the offensive skill positions as they appear to line-up based on where Dogs either played or practiced during the 2015 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.

WIDE RECEIVERS: De’Runnya Wilson 13 starts, Joe Morrow

Returning: SR Fred Ross 13 starts, SR Fred Brown, JR Donald Gray, JR Gabe Myles, SO Malik Dear, SO Jesse Jackson, rsFR Keith Mixon, rsFR Deddrick Thomas, rsFR Jonnas Spivey

Turning pro a year early was expected from De’Runnya Wilson, which makes losing his 133 catches, 1,949 yards, and 22 touchdowns no less painful. It also takes away one of the really ‘clutch’ receivers in program annals from whoever ends up throwing balls this fall.

Still the ‘X’ receiver job isn’t bare of experience or ability. Donald Gray didn’t have a huge soph-transfer season…largely because of who he was playing behind, duh. He also reputedly had some practice focus  issues with drops. Yet in real games the harder the play the better Gray seemed to be, with 21 balls caught and 486 yards, two scores. Oh, and more to the point, he and Nick Fitzgerald seemed to have some sort of instant chemistry for making big plays. Just making an observation…

In bowl camp it was redshirt Deddrick Thomas working behind Gray at the X rotation. His advantage as a spring ’15 enrollee was somewhat-negated by minor injuries, but practice snaps add-up and Thomas seems to have a bit more physical presence than his listed size hints.

The best non-news of January for State’s offense was Fred Ross opting for a senior season. Funny to recall concerns of a year ago this time about replacing Jameon Lewis’ numbers at slot receiver. All Ross did was surpass them in catches and yards, in fact his 88 receptions are the new MSU season record. His 1,007 yards are second-most ever.

To be sure some of his stats were a by-product of Wilson’s outside presence. And, his touchdowns were down from ’14 likely as a result. Still there’s no doubting who will be lead Dog in this receiver unit come fall, and ‘fall’ more records surely will; barring injury Ross will have the most career catches and yards in MSU history.

This, even if he doesn’t stay in the slot. It’s a real consideration Ross would move outside where he began his career. That’s partly because the ‘H’ position is over-loaded with play-makers. Gabe Myles might not have the top-end of others but is moving full-speed off the snap and knows how to handle traffic. Coach Dan Mullen is expecting a big season from a healthy Myles.

And redshirt Keith Mixon caught more than a few eyes, and balls, during bowl camp himself. Yes, things are getting crowded here.

So having gone through the still-young and to-be-developed tight end unit yesterday, it’s worth wondering how State will practice these opposite slots in spring ball. Stay with the big (more or less) guy in one side and speed receiver in the other? Use a pair of wideouts at the same time to get the best threats on the field? That will be well-worth-watching during upcoming spring scrimmages.

Oh, wait. You noticed the un-mentioned name? Fear not. Nobody is forgetting Malik Dear. Just the opposite, as odds are the gifted soph will draw more individual attention from spring fans than even the quarterback battle. Everyone wants to know if Dear stays at ‘H’ receiver, moves to running back, or takes on even more of a hybrid role than showed in 2015. Remember that ‘H’ in most offensive systems means a runner/receiver. Once in 100% shape and pounds properly placed Dear will be adept at all of it.

All the justified attention given Wilson and Ross meant Fred Brown spent his junior season somewhat overlooked. 27 catches and 412 yards with three touchdowns resulted, and now Brown’s cover is blown. Coverage, that he will try to blow-open with senior year improvement and the pressure to be State’s top outside target now. He’ll handle the load fine.

The rotation at ‘Z’ opens up as well. Jesse Jackson has his chance to make a spring statement, after not getting a catch in eleven games and admittedly limited snaps. He did seem to run sharper routes in bowl camp and would be a welcome physical presence on the outside. By the same token he has a redshirt pushing him in Jonnas Spivey, who made some December downfield plays blocking and running after grabs.

More than most other units, it needs repeating that the positions these receivers are listed with come entirely from bowl practice rotations and alignments. Which is another way of saying, keep an eye out for spring practice shuffles between X, Z, H, and anything else the offensive staff schemes up. Fun, huh? And that’s while awaiting the arrival of the February-signed receivers as well. Hard to believe that when Mullen arrived this was the shortest-stocked area of the squad. Now, it is over-stocked.

 

RUNNING BACK: no losses

Returning: SR Brandon Holloway 8 starts, SR Ashton Shumpert 5 starts, SO Aeris Williams, SO Dontavian Lee, rsFR Nick Gibson, rsFR Alec Murphy

It is true that everyone who rushed the ball as a true running back in 2015 returns. Given the results though, it is far from certain what this really means in a 2016 context. Unlike a receiving corps that redefined records, the full-time backs…didn’t.

In fact, the 413 yards by Brandon Holloway was the lowest output by a leading running back at State since 1999. And since ’99 was when Dontae Walker (384 yards) was part of a three-headed monster backfield sharing yards, that’s not a really good comparison anyway. It also needs to be admitted that the blocking wasn’t ideal for ground pounding either but biased to keeping Dak Prescott clean.

No, it was not a productive or even efficient ground game last fall. Thus the spring question becomes how will State get this back on track. Or more pointedly, who?

Answer: who knows?

Actually the personnel question is secondary to schematics. To what Dan Mullen and staff want the backfield to do, that is. Back to power, emphasis on speed, a mix-and-match approach? This should cue everyone in on who would have a literal leg-up in 2016.

But let’s be clear there remains a place for Holloway. Even a prime place as his quickness and top-gear are still helpful skills. It is though useful to note that Holloway didn’t score a touchdown in 2015. Ashton Shumpert did—one of them. Rattle that idea around, how in 141 combined carries the top two backs got to the end zone just once.

Shumpert’s values are blocking, something he does better than any other varsity back, and good hands on short passes. What he has to show in this spring is better field vision and at least one good move if the senior season is to be more than role play.

Maybe if State’s staff had it all to do over, and an idea how things would play out, they would have committed to Aeris Williams in September. Not that he was a dominant back yet by any measure, but was a better all-around package for what turned out to be the circumstances. He did get 40 carries and a 5.2 average with three touchdowns, and hopefully figured out the priority of ball security too.

If so, Williams has the best chance to emerge as lead backfield Dog. The chief competition should come from classmate Dontavian Lee, whose first varsity season was limited by injuries, fumble issues also, and all the above uncertainty. This is a rather key spring for him though, especially if Williams really shows off.

And, if a couple of redshirts build on bowl camp work. Between the two Nick Gibson got the most comment for physical approach and taking on tacklers as needed. Alec Murphy rounded-out the rotation of scholarship backs and looked a little more shifty, but like Gibson almost all of this was against second- and third-team defenses.

Then again maybe it isn’t all that urgent any Bulldog back or two emerge in April as a clear #1, though State might like it. Maybe the real emphasis will be settling the lead contenders for August snaps. As already said, who knows?

 

QUARTERBACK: Dak Prescott, 13 starts

Returning: SO Nick Fitzgerald, rsJR Damian Williams, SO Elijah Staley, rsFR Nick Tiano

Let’s say the obvious. Nobody ‘replaces’ Dak Prescott. And for the foreseeable future nobody will bump him out of first-place in alllll those season and career records, either.

Now with that out of the way, let the spring fun begin as a quartet of candidates begin battling for who takes the first snap of September 2016.

As far as first snap of March, well by all ordinary rights Nick Fitzgerald would be, should be the obvious successor. Why, when Prescott took his Belk Bowl bow at 0:30, it was Fitzgerald he hugged first as the younger quarterback took over to end the evening. Fitzgerald also handled all meaningful backup duty last fall, completing nearly 79% of his passes (Prescott was a 66% passer for comparison).

More to the ’16 point is how the third-spring soph has looked running an offense which though built around Prescott can easily adapt to a taller, more downfield-looking passer who is a sneaky-quick runner as needed. Think Tyler Russell with a quicker trigger both of arm and of foot, and a better receiver corps to throw at. Plus, a minor January procedure has cleaned-up a potential elbow issue in time for spring ball.

So how could there be any question about opening-day number one? Well, Damian Williams is back on the active list. Redshirting as a true junior isn’t the normal career path but State gambled on Prescott staying healthy and gave Williams a year to focus on development more than gameplanning.

It seemed to have paid off during bowl camp with more patience in the pocket and sharper throws…and Williams’ arm strength is not a question. He’s a better passer than his 53% work in backup duty reflects. Of course he can tuck and go. Which means that Mullen wouldn’t have to alter the offense much for either of these veterans. At the same time, height is height and Fitzgerald has that trump card.

Then again Elijah Staley has a bit more of it. He also is healthy for this spring and has proclaimed commitment to football. Good move, because it is now or never for the physically outstanding but still very unpolished quarterback.

It’s ironic that while he was gimpy last year, unable to default to running the ball as before, Staley made his greatest progress as a college quarterback. He seemed more comfortable looking, looking, and looking again before firing with that rocket arm. An arm which on days he didn’t practice quarterback was used to mimic punts, with better distance and hang-time than many a kicker.

Staley did get some non-conference snaps last season and completed three of five throws including a 37-yard touchdown. No one doubts the sheer ability is there. The concern is whether his flirtations with basketball and perceived lack of competitiveness in camps—when he knew he wasn’t battling for a job yet—have put him behind the career curve too far. Coaches will always, always believe they can take a physical phenom and make a player of him of course.

If there was a surprise in the freshman class, it had to be Nick Tiano. He was a middling-rated recruit, and played at the 2A level in Tennessee without a lot of attention. However, much like a certain stout young quarterback signed out of Louisiana in 2011, Tiano appears to be a real find for Mullen. He is taller than Prescott already, about the same weight…and by bowl camp he was a sideline buzz not just among fans but State staff, too.

Maybe the first-spring freshman is still a year away from really contending for starting. But if Mullen’s December assertion that there are no ‘starters’ back come spring ball and all jobs are up for grabs, #1 quarterback will feature enough competition with Fitzgerald, Williams, and Staley. And none will be asked to become the next Prescott; just being the next Mississippi State starter is goal enough.


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