How good, Knox and the Mississippi State offensive staff is busy finding out this spring. There are six scholarship running backs here on campus, and neatly divided by ages and resumes, too.
There’s the pair of old Dogs, Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert back for their senior seasons. These veterans feel the pressure more than most to bring the Mississippi State ground game back to prominence after an, let’s admit it, unsatisfying 2015 season.
They also have heat from behind in sophomores Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee. Now with a varsity season in their banks these third-year Dogs respect their elders but not enough to stop trying to take away their snaps and their jobs.
And bringing up the rear, in age at least if not abilities, are redshirted freshmen Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy. So how is a position coach to approach spring when there’s only so many practices and plays to run among such a variety?
“We’re looking at it experience-wise,” Knox said. “We’re trying to get the young guys a lot of reps, and you have Holloway and Shumpert with tremendous experience.”
That experience is keeping Holloway and Shumpert first in the spring snap-order, naturally. The sophs take the next turns, then the youngest duo. “They all bring something different to the table,” said Knox, before adding that save for one of the six there is a common factor.
“All expect Holloway have that explosive power and size, where Holloway can beat you with his quickness they can beat you with power.”
Now that the coach speaks of power… As reported in Notebooks this camp is showing a fresh wrinkle to the practice playbook. First in their unit’s drills, then in interior run/defense periods, there are snaps with two true backs flanking the quarterback. More, this split-back set typically puts the ‘power’ in the form of Shumpert or Lee to one side of the quarterback; and a runner on the other in Holloway or Williams.
Without labeling the power guys as a ‘fullback’, it surely does look that way in how the snaps are run. Knox agrees this is a set designed to put more muscle in the ground game, after relying on single-back sets almost exclusively for years now.
“We’ve got a good group of guys that are very skilled and talented. You want to get your playmakers on the field and we feel those guys can make plays for us.”
There’s another un-stated reason to look for sets, single or double or whatever, getting more backs involved. Even if he limited his rushes last season Dak Prescott did keep defenses somewhat honest with the threat to keep. Now a new quarterback must take over.
Elder Damian Williams has shown his footwork in the past of course. Soph Nick Fitzgerald did not have to run much at all as a ’15 backup but in practices he’s displayed a knack for getting out of trouble and running for gains. Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano ought to be able to do the same sort of things.
Yet ought isn’t proven. So the backs are getting used to somebody new changing plays, calling cadence, and triggering the offense. Knox expects the seniors to handle the transition without a stumble.
“It hasn’t changed their mindset. For Holloway and Shumpert they’re still in their comfort zone. Whether Dak’s there or Nick or Damian doesn’t matter to them. Now the younger guys? They don’t know who is next to them, they’re just trying to get lined-up!”
It’s interesting too that Knox includes A.Williams and Lee in the younger group, especially Williams who got 40 carries for three touchdowns last fall and played many more snaps. Still, “Aeris and Dontavian are getting into that comfort zone regardless of who is back there. The younger guys probably need an experienced quarterback like Nick next to them to get comfortable.”
Knox goes into more detail about the getting-comfortable process and the expectations for the freshmen backs in the video.