Even with the departure of leading rusher Nick Turner from the team (123 carries for 696 yards and 7 touchdowns last season), Mississippi State has a lot of experience returning at the halfback position.
Former high school Parade All-American Jerious Norwood returns after starting eight games last season. During his two-year career, Jerious has rushed for 1,036 yards - 642 of those yards came last year - in 24 games. Running just behind him based on spring practice observations is senior Fred Reid. Although he is a small back (5-9, 184), Fred has been a solid backup during his career, rushing for 603 yards.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton, nominated for the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year Award in 1999, has been very impressed with both players.
"(Jerious) Norwood and Fred Reid are two complementary backs that have a lot of quickness and a lot of upside," said Drayton, a two-time Division III first-team All-American running back. "Both have great hands out of the backfield. They give you a lot of versatility out of the backfield.
"Jerious Norwood is a slashing type runner who can see a hole and hit it at a very fast speed. Fred Reid is a player who has some wiggle about him and great vision."
Backing those two are redshirt freshmen Carlton Rice and Jason Jude. Coach Drayton has been impressed with the fact that they bring a lot of size and punch to the halfback position, something that has been lacking at MSU since the J.J. Johnson days.
"Carlton Rice and Jason Jude are bigger backs that bring a little more punch to our running game," said Drayton. "Jason Jude is a big back with some agility. He is a guy who moves like he is 190 pounds but weighs 220. Carlton Rice is intriguing. He is a guy that is definitely adding some power to the backfield."
Walk-ons Gerrod Rivers and Antonio Mills are also in the mix.
Overall, he has been pleased with what he has seen at the halfback position this spring, especially due to their attitudes.
"Their willingness to learn is their strength," said Drayton. "I'm asking them to do some things that are kind of out of their character due to some techniques that they are working on, some different steps. We have an entirely new offense. All of them are improving but we still have a long way to go, still have a long road to travel."
While the halfback position has solid depth, the same can also be said for the fullback position with two seniors and a sophomore in the mix.
"We have (seniors) Darnell Jones, Nick Signaigo and (sophomore) Bryson Davis at fullback," said Drayton. "All three of those guys are going to hit you."
"Darnell Jones is a senior who brings some leadership to the group. I am really impressed with how well he catches the ball out of the backfield. Bryson Davis is a young fullback who will hit anything you put in front of him. I am very happy to see that from him. The thing I like about Nick is how good his hands are. Plus, he is a sharp kid who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He is on the right path right now.
Walk-ons Doug Jones and Ashanti Murrain are also in the mix at fullback.
Not only is experience important in the fact that it allows you the luxury of having guys who have played in the SEC, but it is usually easier for veterans to understand a new system. And this year MSU's offensive players are learning one of the most complicated offensive systems in football, the West Coast offense.
So far, Coach Drayton has been pleased with how well his fullbacks have taken to the new system.
"I am really surprised on how well they are picking up the offense," said Drayton. "We are asking a lot out of our fullbacks right now. They are kind of the heart and soul of that backfield."
While experience and attitude is important, winning in the SEC also requires talent. Does Drayton, after seeing his players this spring, believe there is enough talent to win in the SEC?
"There is no question that we have the talent level to compete in the SEC," said Drayton. "The one thing I can say about these kids is they are talented enough to win ball games. Fundamentally, we still have some things we have to work on, but we are on the right track."
With so much experience back at both halfback and fullback and a couple of big newcomers at halfback, MSU may have finally found the right mix of players to make these two positions a major strength of next year's ballclub. Time will tell.
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.