The Mississippi State linebacking corps graduated two starters off of last year's squad: Three-year starter T.J. Mawhinney (12 games started, 110 tackles) and Jason Clark (12 games started, 61 tackles) Normally, graduating two starters from a three-man linebacking corps would be reason for concern. However, MSU is not without experience, having played seven returning players in all 12 games last year. One of the seven, Marvin Byrdsong, started 7 games, while Clarence McDougal and Chris Swain started 3 each.
So, while a lot of experience was lost, a lot also returns.
While the experience gained from last year is important, what a player did or didn't do doesn't really matter that much to new linebacker coach Amos Jones because he doesn't like to come into a new situation with a pre-existing opinion of a player. In fact, that is the very reason he has watched very little film of last year's team.
"I have watched very, very little tape and know very, very little about what (former MSU DC) Ron (Cooper) and his coaches were doing last year," said Jones. "I don't even know who was a starter last year or who even lettered and don't really care. I don't watch tape because you can become very judgmental about a player when he was running a previous scheme. You don't know what he was told to do in that scheme."
Even though Jones has only had a few spring practices to watch his players, so far, he likes what he sees from his returning players.
"I think we can be competitive with this group because the scheme is going to allow them to make plays," said Jones. "I have been pleased with this group's work ethic and their attitude. The biggest thing with this group is that they are hungry. They are not afraid to hit you."
As for individual players, Jones has seen some things in each player that he thinks will be positive for next year's team. One player, in particular, has stood out.
"The biggest thing with (SLB) Clarence McDougal is he has set himself apart from the standpoint of enthusiasm, playmaking ability, learning the scheme," said Jones.
He also likes former Parade All-American prep linebacker Marvin Byrdsong, although he believes Marvin has some things he still needs to work on to become the player he can be.
"We know that (WLB) Marvin Byrdsong has a lot of ability," said Jones. "He just needs to refine some things and be committed to everything that the program is offering."
He also thinks Byrdsong's backups, Rico Bennett and Cody Upton, have the ability to do a good job backing him up.
"Rico Bennett is a kid that has a lot of potential," said Jones. "He just needs to step up and reach that potential. Cody Upton can be a quality kid to come in and bring some enthusiasm. He is like McDougal, a feisty guy, a guy who gets fired up about a big hit."
At MLB, Brad Horton and Kenny Kern have both performed well during the spring, with Horton slightly ahead of Kern on the depth chart.
"Brad Horton has done a nice job of learning the scheme, as has Kenny Kern," said Jones. "The biggest thing with both of those guys is they have to be able to get off a block better and be better at the point of attack, as all of them do."
Backing up Horton and Kern is Brandon Downing, a junior who is recovering from a knee injury.
"Brandon is still struggling with the knee injury," said Jones. "He's trying to push himself and I appreciate that. I think the biggest thing with Brandon is every day is going to be a different level of rehab for him because of the seriousness of the knee injury."
Marcus Hunter, a veteran walk-on from Columbus High School in Columbus, Mississippi, is backing up all three positions.
While Coach Jones is pleased with the effort and talent the players have exhibited on the field, he is somewhat concerned with some of their off-the-field efforts.
"I think we have a long way to go from the standpoint of the off-the-field issues that happens with kids nowadays, especially academically," said Jones. "I'm not pleased in that respect. I would like for them to take a little more responsibility. It's just a matter of whether they are going to make the commitment to do everything the right way."
As for recruiting needs and what the current players need to do as a group to improve themselves on the field, Jones has some ideas.
"Depth is definitely something we need," said Jones. "The strength level is adequate but not anything special. I would like for my group to be bigger. We need more speed. You would like to have kids that look like Marvin Byrdsong all across the board from the standpoint of size, speed and athleticism."
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.