Maybe re-starts is the better word for it. Coach Dan Mullen has taken an interesting approach to this, his eighth spring camp at Mississippi State. He put the spring roster through a single day of team practicing prior to the University break.
Or, as Mullen called it, shaking the squad out of their winter routine. “So it’s good to kind of just wake them all up and prepare them for that transition,” the coach said.
There is sound thinking behind this odd script of course. For one thing, the 2016 spring calendar is kinda cramped. The University’s week-off comes right before the Easter Weekend for one thing. Keeping this coming Saturday and Sunday free for worship and family leaves 22 available days between March 21 and the April 16 spring game to have 14 practices including a couple of scrimmages.
Make that 13 now, with one done and down. That offers just a bit of wiggle room for the coaches in these four weeks to work around weather for one thing. And based on the forecast weather could be an issue in Thursday’s scheduled practice.
More important to Mullen is the practice and scrimmage schedule is not so crammed as to wear Dogs down and increase injury risk. A comment the coach made after that one work day hints that he has a physical camp planned. Mullen mentioned that the first two practices are non-pads and he must get them out of the way before getting down to hitting.
“So when we come back they’re kind of rocking and rolling, ready to get into football mode.”
For one non-contact day, there were intriguing clues to the 2016 team. There also were some stars of the ’15 squad present and watching, most notably a draft-bound quarterback. A fixture since spring 2011 as an early-enrollee, it’s strange not having Dak Prescott in a practice uniform.
The same can be said for others in a smallish graduated class of ’15 seniors, and more so for early-leaving juniors Chris Jones, Beniquez Brown, and De’Runnya Wilson. That’s a lot of sheer star power to replace in any program. It’s also opportunity, to Mullen.
“It’s next guys’ chance, next group of guys to step up and try to surpass what (they) accomplished here.”
As for quarterbacking there was an instant twist shown. Rather than anoint anyone a spring ‘number one’ Mullen said grade point averages were used to set the snap-order. So junior Damian Williams, a ’15 redshirt, had the first offense on the very first snap; then sophomore Nick Fitzgerald and redshirt Nick Tiano in turn.
Then a period later the order was Fitzgerald, Tiano, and Williams running the one, two, and three offenses in hurry-up. When Mullen says the job is open in spring, he means it. A week away should help sophomore Elijah Staley get over a hamstring that limited him pre-break.
“I thought all of them felt pretty comfortable out there on the field,” Mullen said. Then again quarterbacks should be comfortable in non-contact days. When the pads come on the pressure increases on them, and on their protectors. This is an area of great spring interest.
It also showed a move from bowl camp. Redshirted juco tackle Martinas Rankin has been switched from left to right tackle. Not only that, he was on the first team, ahead of three-game starter Elgton Jenkins who also is now on the right end. 25-game starter at right tackle Justin Senior began this camp at left tackle, ahead of oft-moved Jocquell Johnson. And ’15 backup right guard Deion Calhoun has, as expected, moved to first-team left guard.
The quarterbacks don’t have a spring luxury of throwing to All-SEC slot receiver Fred Ross. He had surgery a week ago to fix a groin issue. Ross could have put the procedure off to summer, or not had it at all; but it was agreed best for his professional future to do it right now.
Besides, everyone knows what Ross can do. This is a fine chance for others to get more spring snaps with the new lead quarterbacks. But Mullen didn’t just promote other slot-men. Veteran Gabe Myles has moved to split end where Mullen figures the junior is primed for a big junior year.
That will mean only more routes to run for the younger rising star of the group. No, there is no sign (so far) that Malik Dear will become a running back or H-back or whatever. Not yet. Working him out of the slot is fine for now and he is spring #1. Depth oughtn’t be a concern either because redshirt Keith Mixon is coming off an impressive bowl camp himself.
Just to keep us depth chart-designers guessing, the tight ends are already being used as de facto wide receivers from the other slot again. That suits Justin Johnson’s style, and should those of redshirt Farrod Green as well. The fun now is fitting in spring enrollees Dontea Jones and maybe more so the lighter but taller Christian Roberson.
Much as observers gravitate to throwers and catchers—and that was about all the Dogs did in their one day, so running backs will have to wait for contact work to give a realistic look—2016 is a spring to re-set the defense. Literally, it seems.
That’s not a shock given the entirely-new staff Mullen hired. New coordinator Peter Sirmon’s background in NFL and college alike shows lots of experience in odd-front systems. So does the track record with new defensive line coach Brian Baker.
To be sure, Mullen insisted State is not changing whole-Dog from the 4-3 of his seven seasons to a 3-4 or variant. “We’re going to be multiple on defense, just like we were last year,” the head coach said. Yet it did not look like the 2015 scheme during periods of 11-on-11 passing plays. And as it was all passing plays, Mullen has a point. Sirmon’s base for first-downs or short-yardage will be displayed later.
All that said, the 3-4-4 and variations are awfully interesting. Defensive tackle Nick James certainly looks the part of a nose tackle for one thing, as did Nelson Adams taking his turns. Baker was mixing in Dogs who played either end or tackle in last year’s four-front as the tackles though usually it was the proven ends, pass-rush expert A.J. Jefferson and old hand Torrey Dale flanking the nose man on day-one. The larger takeaway was that cutting the interior line to three instantly means more depth for spring and the coming season.
This also has allowed moving senior end Will Coleman to a new position. Call it a separated fourth lineman or a classic outside linebacker, or whatever. The viper-Dog sets up way off the offensive tackle and tears away after the quarterback. The 250-pound Coleman fits this role, as does either of a couple of redshirted linebackers in junior Trevor Jung or redshirt Tim Washington. Redshirt end Anfernee Mullins has also been moved to the linebacker group here.
Mullen is being a bit coy about what the Bulldog base will eventually become. “We’re going to play both fronts,” he insisted. What is clear, is the defensive Dogs interviewed last week are excited by these expanded schemes.
Still there is so, so much to install in the next 11 practices and to apply in a pair of scrimmages (April 2 and 9). Maybe more important than how the Bulldogs do these things is how the all-new staff functions together. Even without Prescott or Wilson, and with Ross on a sideline, the defense is going to get tested by an offense with proven big-play potential.
Mullen believes the defensive staff will operate just fine. That, too, was why the head coach wanted to have one practice to evaluate while the players were away.
“It was just kind of like an intro practice, you know? And when you come back from spring break I think everybody is going to be more comfortable going fast.”
The pace speeds up immediately. State will practice Tuesday at 3:30, Thursday at 3:45, and Friday at 2:30.
A completely-unofficial depth chart from the first practice follows. A * means an injury or the player was limited. And there are a handful of Dogs not listed on the roster yet.
LEFT TACKLE: Justin Senior, Jocquell Johnson, Lawrence Brown
LEFT GUARD: Deion Calhoun, Ronald Cochran, Rodney Lacy
CENTER: Jamaal Clayborn, Harrison Moon, Nick Proby
RIGHT GUARD: Devon Desper, Darryl Williams, Michael Story
RIGHT TACKLE: Martinas Rankin, Elgton Jenkins, Evans Wilkerson
WIDE RECEIVER: Donald Gray, Gabe Myles, #16 walk-on
WIDE RECEIVER: Fred Brown, Jesse Jackson, Jonnas Spivey
SLOT RECEIVER(S): Malik Dear, Keith Mixon, Deddrick Thomas, Christian Roberson, *Fred Ross
TIGHT END: Justin Johnson, Farrod Green, Dontae Jones, Christian Roberson, Aaron Hamaker
RUNNING BACK: Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert, Aeris Williams, Nick Gibson, Dontavian Lee, Alex Murphy
QUARTERBACK: Nick Fitzgerald, Nick Tiano, Damian Williams, Nate Gieb, *Elijah Staley
DEFENSIVE END: Torrey Dale, Grant Harris, Tre Brown,
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Nelson Adams, Braxton Hoyette, Kendell Jones
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Nick James, Jonathan Calvin, Fletcher Adams
DEFENSIVE END: A.J. Jefferson, Cory Thomas, #93
MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Richie Brown, Gerri Green, Kelan Chairs
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: J.T. Gray, Trevor Jung, DeAndre Ward, Josiah Phillips
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Leo Lewis, Tim Washington
RUSH LINEBACKER: Will Coleman, Anfernee Mullins, Tim Washington, Allen Perkins
SAFETY: Kivon Coman, Mark McLaurin, Deontay Evans, C.J. Morgan
SAFETY: Brandon Bryant, Jamal Peters, Zak Neary, Hayes Walker
CORNERBACK: Tolando Cleveland, Jamoral Graham, Maurice Smitherman, #26 walk-on
CORNERBACK: Cedric Jiles, Lashard Durr, Chris Stamps, Chris Rayford