State Quarterbacks will Take Saturday Turns Against South Alabama; Injuries Mean Cornerback Promotions

One mystery is over. Of course Dan Mullen only initiated another by naming Mississippi State’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s lidlifter against South Alabama (11:00am, SECN).

Like, who is Nick Williams?

He’s the answer to a question Mullen doesn’t intend to really answer until the Bulldog offense takes the field for real. “I see Nick Williams playing quarterback for us,” Mullen dead-panned in Monday’s press conference. As in both sophomore Nick Fitzgerald and junior Damian Williams are going to play against the Jaguars.

And, Mullen added, both will “probably” play in the first quarter too. For that matter if that opening period goes slow enough with sufficient series, it’s not impossible redshirt freshman Nick Tiano could also see the field. Or before halftime, at least.

Though Mullen is having some fun with the preseason’s top topic, there is a serious takeaway from not naming a number-one to open the 2016 season. Which, the eighth-year head coach said, he would prefer to do. He spent the last four weeks looking for clarity at quarterback.

That picture remains un-clear. Mullen remains un-worried.

“I hoped it would be really sorted-out for me. But we’ve got guys that are competitive and continue to improve.”

The fact is, for the first time since Mullen arrived in 2009 he does not have an easy starter call. Or that is one fact. Another, is that whoever Mullen has put in charge of the Bulldog offense has thrived over time. The top four Bulldogs in career passing percentage at State are, yes, Mullen’s four regular starters in the past seven seasons.

Based on track record Mississippi State fans need not fear a capable quarterback will be developed from this trio. Based on matchup, they need not fear having a ‘the guy’ type for this opener either. Mullen said all the right things about Joey Jones’ Jaguars, reminding how South Alabama gave the ’14 Bulldogs an early test before State’s 35-3 final in Mobile.

But this is not a good Jaguar team, and the defense is in particularly poor shape from graduations and injuries. So Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson have the luxury of using the opener as almost a preseason game ahead of consecutive SEC contests. Not that Mullen will say so.

Any more than he will say until later in the week—possibly as late as pregame warmups—who will take the first offensive series. “I want to see how guys are going to handle the next two or three days implementing a gameplan,” he said.

Quarterback naturally obscures other position questions. But there are a few of interest. It’s not so much who will go first at running back; Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert have seniority in their favor. Mullen did have more to say though about soph Aeris Williams, officially listed #3 today. The coach mentioned that Williams has some of Holloway’s speed and some of Shumpert’s power and is the best balance of the veterans.

While soph Dontavian Lee has been working back from an ankle issue, redshirt Alec Gibson and Nick Murphy have practiced more with the second unit. Getting five or six backs Saturday snaps won’t be as simple as rotating two and three quarterbacks. But Mullen made clear that given any chance, any back has to maximize it right now to climb the depth chart. Or, come up big on a special team(s) to get a place on the first road roster.

“It will be who deserves reps,” Mullen said.

The offensive line depth chart had a couple of interesting twists. Devon Desper and Deion Calhoun were listed at left and right guards respectively, unlike preseason reports. And the starting job at left tackle is another either/or situation between veteran soph Elgton Jenkins and redshirt junior Martinas Rankin.

As expected, Fred Ross is listed first at H receiver (slot) despite not doing any intentional contact work since the bowl game. But the senior All-SEC has practiced outside receiver as well so Malik Dear and Keith Mixon can expect Saturday action. Donald Gray steps up at X and former slot-man Gabe Myles at Z, the split end positions.

The defensive chart uses a 3-4 set with one potential twist, as after practicing at the new viper position Gerri Green is back listed as the top weak-side linebacker ahead of Leo Lewis. Again, this should be a game to allow early and frequent subbing all around the front-seven.

“It’s not the one, it’s the depth as the season goes on,” Mullen said.

But the number-ones and the depth at both cornerback spots are a real concern now. Veterans Tolando Cleveland (knee) and Cedric Jiles (arm) are both out, leaving starting jobs open. Jamoral Graham and Lashard Durr apparently will get the starts Saturday. And as Mullen said, before those injuries a week ago “Everyone was getting the same number of reps” in cornerback drills so there wasn’t a clear separation here either.

The advantage is with a strong safety corps and a new scheme to suit the sizes and skills of this roster, the 2016 defense should be much, much easier to play mix and match in the early weeks. Maybe, all season?

“You move chess pieces around instead of being locked into this guy is only this,” Mullen said. “We could have some cross-over. Because we’ll see all different types of (offensive) schemes this year.”

Mullen did update a couple of injury situations. Defensive end/viper Will Coleman is out at least two more weeks with a back issue suffered the second day of preseason. And tight end Dontea Jones, sidelined for weeks by a shoulder problem, has returned to practicing.

Jokes aside, 2016 is a transition year. Dak Prescott, face of the program as well as heart of the team for two-plus years, is now getting ready for unexpected starting status at Dallas. It may not be the quarterback; it may not even be any one player or handful of players who assume Prescott’s clear leadership of this team.

But, as Mullen reminded, even ball clubs that return lots of veterans are “undefined” whenever kicking off a new season “No matter how many guys you have returning or lost.”

So if Nick Williams should suddenly establish himself as that leader, that big Dog of 2016? Maybe his name will make the next depth chart.


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