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An Entirely Unofficial Outlook on What Dogs Will Line Up Where Come Camp

It didn’t escape notice when Mississippi State’s media guide didn’t include a depth chart. There’s good reason. Bulldog coaches aren’t worried about writing up any position pecking orders this far in advance. And since their careers hinge on assembling an actual lineup, who are we to question?

Wellllll…we’re fans. We like depth charts. Accurate if possible but if not, hey, it’s July. Just throw out a lot of names and we’ll jump at them like dollar bills on a sidewalk.

So. To fill a void until Bulldogs report to practice fields in slightly more official order, let’s look over how everyone came out of spring ball and plug-in the few injured guys. Slotting the summer transfers and freshmen? Sorry. Not until we see where they go stand initially on August 2.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE: We’ll get right to this area of most preseason concern, again. And while some might snort, fact is better linemen and line play in 2015 would have meant at least one and possibly two more victories.

What we don’t claim using Martinas Rankin last fall would have meant more wins. It’s an easy conclusion but dubious at best. Rankin admits himself (see feature posted earlier this summer) he learned he wasn’t really ready for SEC tackle play.

Now? He should be. He’d best be if the line is to give a new quarterback time to develop under live fire and open up the ground game State must, must improve. OK, lecture over.

And, 2016 Line Edition ready to begin. Or resume with four familiar faces finishing spring on the first team and Rankin edging ahead of spot-starter veteran Elgton Jenkins at the other. That’d be at right tackle, which was either a great big spring tease or a sign that State wants two-year starting right tackle Justin Senior to take that experience to the quarterbacks’ (the three righthanders anyway) passing blind side. Makes sense.

Then again we all ought know by now, left and right are assignments and not identities in MSU’s thinking. Senior can just as easily find himself back at his old side and Rankin/Jenkins out left again. Point is, the bare-bones minimum of three available tackles for two jobs is settled BEFORE August this year.

There might even be four by now, but that’s because senior Jocquell Johnson is also probably the third guard going into camp. Oh, and maybe the second center, for that matter. The interior trio is where things get really, really interesting when drawing up an unofficial depth chart.

The top three are easy: Devon Desper is back at right guard, Jamaal Clayborn at center, and Belk Bowl starter Deion Calhoun takes over at left guard. However. During the last spring scrimmage Calhoun took over as #1 center. OK, it was probably one of those ‘in case’ practice deals since guards are supposed to be able to snap if injury demands. And casual observation is Calhoun has always looked more natural and certainly mobile in the middle of the line than Clayborn.

But giving up a strong, strong young guard is risky until redshirts Darryl Williams and Michael Story develop. So best guess is Johnson will be the #2 center until redshirt Harrison Moon can get his snapping under control. And not to look too far ahead—OK, to do exactly that—with Desper, Clayborn, Senior, and Johnson all seniors, those redshirts better make huge strides now.

Our tentative and entirely unofficial pre-camp chart, with obvious duplications:

RIGHT TACKLE: Martinas Rankin, Elgton Jenkins, Ronald Cochran

RIGHT GUARD: Devon Desper, Darryl Williams, Michael Story

CENTER: Jamaal Clayborn, Deion Calhoun, Jocquell Johnson, Harrison Moon, Brett Armour

LEFT GUARD: Deion Calhoun, Michael Story, Ronald Cochran, Rodney Lacy

LEFT TACKLE: Justin Senior, Jocquell Johnson, Evans Wilkerson, Lawrence Brown

 

QUARTERBACKS: Let’s make this fast. If the season opened August 2, against the current schedule as it is and with South Alabama not expected to be too serious a challenge…yes. Go ahead and give Nick Fitzgerald the ball and the offense.

Though it was not dominating by any stretch, the sophomore’s spring play—more so in practices than tough-to-interpret scrimmages—showed Fitzgerald has the best combination of tools, understanding, and experience in what we think, repeat think, the 2016 offense will be.

Now, does the rest of the team agree with outside assessment? Remember, the ultimate in democracy is the locker room and they don’t give a rip about our campaigning. Go beat the two September Souths and play LSU straight-up in Death Valley, and that vote is sealed.

It’s still too soon and foolish to overlook Damian Williams. Funny how redshirting a year made the junior almost invisible. A rough scrimmage (the second went better) showed a rusty arm as well, though if State is serious about pounding the ground more this year Williams can call on old experience there. Thing is, the best experience was way back in 2013…and this offense has developed in another direction since then.

There’s no denying Elijah Staley is a physical freak. There isn’t a throw that arm can’t make. And range? You truly needed to see him, when limited in ’15 work, throwing punts with better hang time and distance than any kicker could manage.

What’s lacking then? Experience obviously. More subtle is understanding a sophisticated college offense that demands multiple recognitions and reads over defaulting to a quick throw or tuck ‘n tote. And to be blunt, just showing he really, truly, badly wants to win the job.

Nick Tiano does. Someday he should. A bold statement to be sure, but…for a low-key recruit this redshirt has startled everyone with more tools than anticipated and quick grasp of the systems. Oh, and intangibles that had a certain former MSU quarterback legend, watching the kid during bowl camp and spring practices on the sideline, smiling really, really big.

For now…

QUARTERBACK: Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley, Nick Tiano

 

RUNNING BACKS: It’s to his credit that Brandon Holloway begins his senior season on three national post-season awards watch lists. Setting aside how wide a nominations-net these committees cast, it is a useful reminder not to assume automatically that just because there are younger, stronger, about-as-fast and far more physical backs in the bunch that Holloway will be surpassed come camp.

In fact, it’s a counter-intuitive sign of his status that Holloway had the fewest spring scrimmage carries. That’s how State usually does things, giving less-proven personnel more touches. And tacklings. So the 165-pounder should be primed for his final fall.

Classmate Ashton Shumpert is in an interesting situation for sure. His ’15 starts just didn’t produce as a single-back runner, and others have more moves. What Shumpert has going for him is size and strength…which is why in spring ball when State showed a split-back set it was Shumpert leading the way for Holloway.

Or, it was Dontavian Lee working from that side as blocking back for Aeris Williams in the second pairing. Whether a two-back set becomes standard this season is to be proven. The point is, those two tandems seem to suit the scheme just fine.

The other point is, again based on spring ball, soph Williams just looks like the best all-around package in the six-deep. Running and catching, we mean. Plus he’s added a dozen pounds since the rookie season. If he can address ball protection questions, and if State wants to commit to one primary back, Williams is ready to roll out of either a single- or two-back set.

As said before, scrimmage stats are shaky ground to build depth charts upon. But the number of carries and net gains by redshirts Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy on Scott Field turf were intriguing to say the least. Maybe one showed more muscle some days, the other more moves, but the difference were trifling. The potential, isn’t.

The question is, especially in context of an offense that seems serious about grinding out ground, will State commit to a couple of the best all-around backs; or look for package runner/receivers in situations? We probably won’t get an answer until maybe October, but hopefully the staff doesn’t force-fit and ride the wrong guys until forced to adjust.

Anyway, based on spring ball…

RUNNING BACK: Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert, Aeris Williams, Dontavian Lee, Alec Murphy, Nick Gibson

 

WIDE RECEIVERS: Yeah, have fun here. As if trying to assemble a spring-only depth chart wasn’t challenging enough with first Fred Ross and then Donald Gray sidelined by injuries; then came l’affaire Fred Brown and the loss to academic policy of a starting split end.

Well. The good news for charting chances is both Ross and Gray are recovered and ready to slot into their spots. In Ross’ case it IS the slot where he only managed to set a program record with 88 catches last season. That’s with De’Runnya Wilson running routes, remember. And by the way…bad as we should feel for Bear about going undrafted, he knew the chances and deep-down knew he needed another college campaign. Oh, well.

His absence initially promoted Brown and it was looking good until he messed up one time too many with University policy. This raises the prospect that maybe Ross doesn’t stay in the slot spot after all. He cut his teeth as a split end remember and would be just fine out there again. It’s something to watch for in August.

Plus, sliding Ross out allows Malik Dear and Keith Mixon to slide up. No, I’ve no idea if Dear gets a shot at running back (it’s already crowded there). It is safe betting he’ll get a lot more use lined-up anywhere. But don’t overlook recruiting classmate and redshirt Mixon. He had some fine spring training catches and plays ‘bigger’ than the 175 pounds.

What happens with Ross can impact Deddrick Thomas as well, since this redshirt looks comfortable practicing either at slot or outside. The slot-side split end job is up for grabs now and both Thomas and Jonnas Spivey can certainly give Jesse Jackson the push the bigger sophomore needs in a crossroads fall for him.

Or, just as likely, to get both on the field every chance, Gabe Myles goes to one side leaving Gray possession of the other split-out end. Moving Myles from the slot looks like a winner for all. Meanwhile Gray has the gifts and a knack for the tough catches, he just needs to show consistency in all the simpler things.

Because we’re not projecting incoming freshmen, don’t look for me to chart Jordan Thomas quite yet. But if any area beckons with instant August opportunity it is tight end. It’s also deeper than most any position on the entire roster.

But only one of these has played, and that gives soph Justin Johnson a real edge on redshirts and spring freshmen. One of the latter, Christian Roberson, caught some eyes in spring ball and not just because he’s 6-5 and now nearly 240. (Thomas of course measured 6-5, 295 upon summer arrival, but we’re not talking about him right? If he doesn’t ultimately end up at tackle count this Dog shocked, and expect it to work out much better than the last such conversion did.

For that matter early-arriving Dontea Jones looks like a more classic cruncher to boost the ground game. So where does this leave Johnson, who bulked-up over summer; and redshirt Farrod Green who himself added 17 whole pounds? Well, as parts in a mix-and-match group of tight ends who ought be able to meet all sorts of scheme needs.

How they finished spring with injured guys added at the top:

WIDE RECEIVER: Jesse Jackson, Anders Fladda, Deddrick Thomas

SLOT RECEIVER: Fred Ross, Malik Dear, Deddrick Thomas, Keith Mixon

TIGHT END: Justin Johnson, Farrod Green, Dontea Jones, Christian Roberson, some new kid we aren’t talking about yet…

WIDE RECEIVER: Donald Gray, Gabe Myles, Jonnas Spivey

 

TOMORROW: Defense and Specialists/Returners


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