"Basically, I am trying to build on what (former catching coach, now pitching) Coach (Russ) McNickle started the past few years. I don't care who you have coming back or what recruits you have coming in, it is going to be tough to replace a third-round pick like Craig Tatum, a guy who started all 59 (games) last year. He is your prototype catcher; a big, physical guy who has the unbelievable arm and a lot of power. We don't have a guy like that, now, but what we do have is a more athletic group. (Thomas) Berkery played second base as a freshman, third base as a sophomore and now he is going to catch. In a pinch, he could probably play just about anywhere. (True freshman) Ed Easley played shortstop when he wasn't catching. And he played a great third base for us this fall. He is another Berkery.
"What is exciting about our (coaching) staff is that Coach McNickle and I have more involvement between his group and my group. It's not just him coaching the pitchers and me coaching the catchers, because the main job of the catchers is to help make the pitchers successful. So, we have really approached it that way. We have taken a lot more input from the catchers. During the games, we are going to allow them to give us more input. The catcher has the best seat in the house. He sees everything much better than we (coaches) can from the dugout. If they want to attack a hitter a certain way, we are going to listen to them and trust them. The guys have really liked that the coaches are going to give them more of a say in the game. That's what we worked on all fall."
Talk about each player and where you see them fitting on the team during the upcoming season?
"Individually, two guys have separated themselves from the rest, Berkery and Easley. They are great athletes. At this point, it is difficult to project who is going to play more than the other, although I would say that Berkery has the edge because he is an experienced junior.
"With Berkery, there is not going to be a big drop off from last year. He is a great athlete who could probably play football or soccer. His body has changed since he has been at State, especially with what our new strength coaches are doing. He has become very physical, much stronger and he has gotten faster. He ran a 6.8 sixty on Scout Day. I think he is really going to have a breakout season.
"Last season was tough on him due to switching positions. He struggled offensively because he wanted to do things he's not really fit to do. Sometimes, he wants to be a power guy. He's got some power, but not as much as he wants. He wants to be a four-spot guy (in the lineup) when he's probably better suited for two or three. He's not going to hit the home runs that Tatum did.
"His throwing will be the same in terms of a stopwatch time as Tatum's. People don't realize that because they saw the velocity of Craig Tatum. They just have a different style. Tatum took a little longer to let go of it, but threw it 90 miles per hour. Berkery's transfer (of the ball) is amazingly quick and he also gets rid of it very quickly. He is great defensively. He does that as good as Craig did. The one thing that he has lagged a little behind in - and that's probably due to him not catching that much - is blocking the ball. He's had to learn to catch the ball with his stomach instead of with his glove when trying to block a ball. He's done a lot of extra work, so I've been very pleased with where he's at. When he's not catching, he will probably be playing third. This will probably be a year when we don't have one guy who will start 59 games because we have two guys that we want to play.
"Easley is an interesting story. He came in with a tremendous amount of accolades coming out of high school. He turned down the possibility of a amazing amount of money to come to school. And we are ecstatic about that. What he has done that has really won over our team is he is very business-like. If there is one word to describe that kid, it's business. He doesn't say anything unless you ask him a question. He acts like he is a walk-on. He doesn't expect anything extra. That has a lot to do with his parents. He comes from a great family. He does exactly what you ask him. If I tell him to run 10 sprints, I don't have to watch him because he is going to run 10. He is never going to be in the wrong place or do anything wrong. Kids in the future should follow his lead.
"One thing about him is he was so good in high school you kind of just left him alone and let him do his thing. I did the same thing in high school when I was a coach. Now, we are trying to teach him the small mechanics that he has to learn to help get him from being a great high school player to, hopefully, being a great college player. He picks up things very quickly.
"He struggled a little in the fall because it was the first time that it didn't come easy to him. He saw some pitching that he probably didn't see last year (in high school). But, it was good for him. While a lot of kids will get down on themselves and get a little negative, he just worked a little harder. By the end of the fall, he did pretty well (offensively). He is eventually going to be a big-time hitter. He'll also have some power, but probably not along the lines of Tatum. He runs pretty well, so he's going to hit a lot of doubles. Because he is a freshman, there will be times when he is going to struggle, but he will figure it out and make the necessary adjustments. Everybody does that as a freshman. Even (MSU junior) Brad Corley and (MSU sophomore) Jeffrey Rea did that.
"Defensively, he blocks great and can really receive. His arm is pretty good, but everybody will seem like a little drop off from Craig's (arm). Nobody threw like Craig but Craig. Ed transfer the ball pretty quickly, but he did have some mechanical issues that needed to be worked on to speed things up. I think we are close to correcting those.
"Like Thomas, he is a very athletic kid who will play third when he's not catching. He's got great game moxie. I think that's what set him apart. You can't teach that.
"After those two, there are really two guys that are fighting for the next spot. Wyn Diggs, a transfer from Mississippi Delta Community College, is a left-handed hitter who had a good fall. He is a junior who has played two years. He is a very mature kid who is solid in terms of emotion. In my personal opinion, he may have been the best we had in terms of handling pitchers. He has been a great addition. Eli Dew is very similar to Wyn. He gained experience from being here last year and he is a left-handed hitter who can really hit. Eventually, he will hit a lot. He improved dramatically defensively. Coach McNickle did a great last year of working on that. Based on our philosophy, whoever hits more will probably be the third guy. Really, as the third guy, you are probably going to come off the bench and hit more than you will come in and catch.
"After those two is Joseph McCaskill. He is a redshirt sophomore who can really hit. He would be fighting for that third job, but he's really battled a lot of injuries with his throwing arm, which continued this fall. He hit great in the fall, hitting .307, but he can't stay healthy enough arm-wise to consistently be out there. It actually cost him some time as the third catcher last year. We didn't take him on road trips because his arm was struggling so bad. But, if he gets healthy, he will be in the mix.
"The last guy we have is really one of our favorites, Brooks Lewis. He is a freshman walk-on who loves Mississippi State. He might be the most excited kid to be here. When we finally told him in the fall that he made the team, he gave me a big hug and went crazy. As for as catching, it's easier to be the backup at other positions than it is at catcher because when you are the sixth catcher, mainly what you will do is catch bullpens more than the others. Because of that, it is more physically demanding. When you are the 4th to 6th catcher, you are in the bullpen catching all 19 of our pitchers. You are getting beat up and blocking balls. Brooks never complains. When we ask him to catch somebody, he'll run down and catch him.
"Overall, it has been a great group to work with. They are all good guys who like each other. Each one has his own strengths and weaknesses, but they've all learned from each other."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.