SPECIALISTS: With preseason running down, this is when kicking game plans rise to practice prominence. Mississippi State should be reasonably settled in most aspects with veterans to punt, placekick, and of course Hunter Bradley snapping the ball.
In his first full-time season punting, Logan Cooke went from 41.4 yards as a little-used backup in ’14 to averaging a solid 42.2. And while he’s probably capable of better range, State’s emphasis on hang time, placement, and coverage typically takes some off the top. Only ten of the 85 Bulldog punts last season were returned.
“So I think he’s really good” says junior PK Westin Graves, though he adds that “I know nothing about placekicking!” What he does know is Cooke is a reliable hand receiving Bradley’s snaps. “There’s nobody else I would want holding,” Graves said.
Cooke is being handled carefully this preseason after summer procedure for back issues.
As for Graves’ own task, we’ve reported how he now feels completely confident being told to kick from 50, even 55 yards out this year. Yes, he always has distance in the back of his mind…but that’s also where he tries to keep it. Waaaay in back.
Especially on clutch-time kicks.
“To be honest, this may sound weird but I try not to think about anything. I go out there and the best state of mind for a kicker in my opinion is not think about anything.” Certainly not distance, and much as possible about pressure. The trick is don’t over-analyze a crunch time kick, a long-range try, or both, and treat it as much like a 40-yarder as humanly possible.
“It’s really just do the same thing. Make sure my line is straight, make sure I’m where I need to be. And once I do that I try not to think about literally anything,” Graves said. “I’m looking at Logan’s hand, and make sure I don’t think about anything. That’s when you can find yourself making mistakes.”
HAPPIER RETURNS? Now, about the other aspect. Which Bulldogs will be returning kicks on opening day?
Nobody will argue if Fred Ross is fielding punts again. Not after netting 10.5 yards with a 77-yard touchdown. The only concern is of course wear-and-tear on a starting and star receiver. So there are surely other qualified candidates, such as Donald Gray and Gabe Myles who both caught a punt last fall and have practiced it in spring and preseason.
He’s not going to break many or maybe any tackles, but given a clear path Brandon Holloway can take it back…as he did to open the whole ’15 season. But take just that one return away and Holloway averaged just 20.3 yards, going down on first-contact regularly. And word is Holloway has not been practicing this job much in this preseason.
Instead Dear (19.8 yards), who got five chances, looks to be a leader for the job again this year. Gray and Gabe Myles are also options, and since practices are closed it’s unknown if any of the gifted incoming freshmen are getting tested now.
However…what about the Dog who had the most impressive return of 2015? That was safety Brandon Bryant’s 73-yard runback of a Louisiana Tech pass. And yes, Bryant enjoys special teams play anyway in coverage duty.
As, “Before you become a starter you have to play special teams,” Bryant said. So, what about return duty? “I’ve been returning a little bit,” he said, meaning kickoffs. “But wherever coach Mullen puts me I’m going to play.”
This raises another idea. His fellow safety Jamal Peters took some spring turns at wide receiver. Might not Bryant, who surely knows what to do with a football in his hands, get a look there someday?
“Ha, yeah!” Bryant laughed. “I played a little offense in high school. I came here and turned into a defensive player. I’ve got a feel for the ball, I’ve got a couple of moves I can make.”
GREEN LIGHT: Middle, weak-side, viper…never mind the labels. Just tell Gerri Green where to set-up, and turn this linebacker loose.
That’s what coordinator Peter Sirmon and the defensive staff have in mind for Green. After two seasons practicing and then playing at middle linebacker in a 4-3 system, Green is being groomed now to do his thing at either the new viper position or as an inside linebacker at either of those spots.
Moving around regularly in practices is fine by Green. “If that’s what I need, I will. But right now if I’m needed at viper or mike, wherever they send me that’s where I’m going.”
To be clear, Green is quite capable of manning the middle. Doing that and other assignments he tallied 49 tackles last year…which was sixth-most on the entire team despite being a rotation ‘backer. It’s just that with Richie Brown, the mike job is spoken for.
Viper, now…that’s a job Green may as well been designed for physically at 6-4, 248. He looks even bigger, and can stand beside 270-plus Jonathan Calvin without glaring difference. For that matter all the vipers just look ‘right’ in that role.
“Yeah, I feel it’s all our body types,” Green said. “Even though we’re all big strong guys, look at Calvin and my body we look totally different from Trevor Jung. But all of us can do the same thing. I just feel that compares to the way we play.”
Playing closer to the line also relieves Green of one assignment he doesn’t enjoy, covering receivers. “It’s not our strong point,” he said for all mike-men. Also, speaking purely for himself, while Green enjoys being in the literal middle of everything back there, viper frees him to have real fun.
“Mike is like you’re the quarterback of the defense. You control everything. But at viper, that role is took off you. So you’re more just playing out there. It feels good not having to think too much at times.”
PATIENCE, YOUNG JEDI: Another sign of how the sports coverage business has changed; Mississippi State passed out the first set of 2016 football media guides on Monday, August 22.
Now, the media relations office did provide a team ‘guide’ at SEC Media Days in mid-July. Only, it was all on a flash drive along with the other 13 schools’ books. The printed edition though wasn’t printed until well into August. Intentionally so.
Because, the historic June printing deadline is increasingly useless. Ever since the NCAA began allowing incoming football players to enroll on scholarship in summer sessions, pre-published fall rosters have been more and more incomplete. Or inaccurate with transfers and dismissals and such. Plus, p.r. directors want to have the latest and best heights and weights for everyone, most of all the freshmen since their sizes on signing day are almost universally wrong.
This year Mississippi State’s director Bill Martin gritted the teeth and held back printing a guide as long as practical. The result is an accurate roster thanks to July clearances and enrollments, and accurate sizes.
But, Martin held off on one thing that not even the head coach has settled yet, ten days before kickoff.
For the first time in ages, there is no projected depth chart in a MSU media guide. Martin will release one next Monday at the first game-week press conference…and makes no promises it will be correct.
LOOKING AHEAD: While the underclassmen focus on winning or keeping jobs, or climbing the depth charts, or just finding some 2016 niche…some senior Bulldogs are bound to be just a bit distracted by other preseason events. As in, the NFL’s training camp and exhibition games.
Because a year from now a few can expect to graduate to professional football. Leading the list are receiver Fred Ross, linebacker Richie Brown, and defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson.
The two defensive Dogs have some welcome new help in their NFL ambitions. Defensive line coach Brian Baker arrived at State after 19 total seasons coaching in the league, at eight clubs. And Brown is coached by seven-season NFL linebacker Peter Sirmon.
Yes, Brown said, “I’ve asked him about that. I’ve asked him several questions, anywhere from agents to what the NFL is like, what to expect. And we’ll get more into that as it gets closer. But yeah, I have had some conversations. And it’s good to have somebody kind of guide me through the process.”
Sirmon’s primary instruction for the moment though isn’t about the next level. Brown can do so much for his own stock with a great senior season, as he goes for consecutive 100-plus tackle campaigns.
“Oh, just relax for right now!” Brown said. “Just focus on my year, that’s what really impacts my draft status.” As for the arcane topic of picking an agent, well…
“Obviously I’ve got a few in mind. There’s only so much they can do for you for a few months, and until that second contract comes around.”
Also, unlike last winter, there don’t seem to be many juniors with early-entry resumes. Those considering it anyway should check the examples of receiver De’Runnya Wilson and linebacker Beniquez Brown, both ’15 juniors who declared and went undrafted. Brown did catch a free-agent contract with Green Bay. Of course junior defensive lineman Chris Jones was drafted, the first Dog taken.