Mississippi State begins preparation for the upcoming season with the beginning of two-a-days Thursday. Prior to that, coach Sherrill talked to the Mississippi media at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Bryan Building."> Mississippi State begins preparation for the upcoming season with the beginning of two-a-days Thursday. Prior to that, coach Sherrill talked to the Mississippi media at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Bryan Building.">

Jackie Sherrill Optimistic

<img src="http://www.genespage.com/images/coaches/football/sherrill.jpg" align="left" width="121" height="160"> Mississippi State begins preparation for the upcoming season with the beginning of two-a-days Thursday. Prior to that, coach Sherrill talked to the Mississippi media at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Bryan Building.

After a disappointing season last year, made even more disappointing due to high expectations, head coach Jackie Sherrill seemed pleased with the potential of this year's team during yesterday's pre-season press conference.

"You can say this returning team is the fastest team we have ever had. The average speed for the entire team is 4.8 (seconds in the 40). The vertical jump is over 31 inches. You put the younger guys in and that speed will go down."

Coach Sherrill singled out two players, one on offense and one on defense, who will help make this team better than last year's team.

"At the end of the year last season, we were a very good, competitive football team. (Quarterback) Kevin Fant completed 70.8% of his passes. He averaged over 300 yards per game. His focus, his goals are a lot different than they were last year. He would probably remind you of a Brett Farve type player. He is very, very tough and doesn't let things bother him.

"(Linebacker) Mario Haggan is an all-conference player, an All-American player. When we moved him back to linebacker he averaged over 10 tackles per game. There is no reason that he can't be All-SEC again. Mario (Haggan), because he can play so many different positions, you like to play him at as many places as you can. The good thing about Mario is that he has played (defensive end). He can play a lot of places. He knows a lot about the game."

However, other players, young and old alike, stepped forward during the summer. Coach Sherrill commented on a few of them.

"We've had two players who lost 90 pounds between them. (Redshirt freshman offensive lineman) John Wadley lost 50, plus 6% body fat. (Senior offensive tackle) Michael Allen lost 40 pounds and 5% body. (Sophomore offensive guard) Will Rogers lost 20 pounds and (sophomore defensive tackle) Jadice Moore 13. (Senior defensive lineman) Michael Oyefesobi, (sophomore noseguard) Ronald Fields, (sophomore offensive guard) Brad Weathers and (junior offensive lineman) Manuel Dickson all lost 4% body fat. (Redshirt center) Chris McNeil, (sophomore offensive tackle) David Stewart and (junior center) Blake Jones lost 3%."

One player in particular drew special praise from coach Sherrill for his summer efforts to improve himself.

"Strength-wise, the person who changed his body structure and got stronger this summer was Chris McNeil. He increased (all of his lifts) by at least 30 to 50 pounds. You could say he is the one who did it all this summer."

The returning players weren't the only ones who drew praise. Coach Sherrill also expressed a great deal of satisfaction in the newcomers, rated by most as the best recruiting class in Mississippi State history.

"This young group that we have coming in is extremely athletic. Over half of those guys vertical jumped over 30 inches with (defensive back) Kevin Dockery going 37.5. We have some kids in that group who are 4.3 kids. We also have a couple who may hit 4.28, 4.29 at times. (Running back) Nick Turner's and (walk-on defensive back) Bernard Vinson's standing broad jump were 9' 11".

Coach Sherrill is so impressed with the new guys that he expects a large number of them to immediately play.

"We are going to play as many freshmen as we can. Out of this class, I would say 15 will play. That includes the redshirt class as well. Special teams gets first priority. We will probably see a lot of young guys on the special teams. We know they have the ability to play on this level very quickly."

While he is impressed with the newcomers, he also talked about two newcomers who will have to wait their time due to an injury and an operation.

"We have two players who would have given us some depth at defensive line, Roosevelt Tate and Deljuan Robinson. Tate got hurt in all-star practice and Robinson had open heart surgery (Tuesday). Those two guys would certainly have helped us. Both of them will be here when school starts (this fall). Roosevelt will heal much quicker. They won't know about Deljuan for three months. The doctors said everything went well (with his operation). In three months, when they do the echo cardiogram, we'll know more about him. Hopefully, they will clear him so he can do some real physical activities."

Coach Sherrill also commented on two other players who will not be playing football for MSU this fall but have been talked about by Bulldog fans for two years now, Clarence McDougal and Coco Hodge, both of whom were in last year's signing class. Both suffered injuries that kept them out all of last season. Coco broke his leg during a game his senior year in high school while Clarence suffered a knee injury during all-star practice for the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star football game.

"Those two guys have made a lot of progress, but they still have a long way to go. If you are asking me what percentage (healed) they are, they are both about 40/60 or 50/50. Will they be the players they were? That is something no one knows. Clarence has had four operations. Coco had nerve damage. There is no guarantee. The attitude of both players is good. Coco is not cleared (for football). He is cleared as far as moving around. Neither one of them will be out there and in pads until they are 100% cleared to play football. Hopefully, both of them will be full speed in the spring but you don't know that for a fact."

After discussing players, coach Sherrill discussed the strengths and weakness of this year's team.

"The strength of this team has to be the skilled people, the running backs, receivers, defensive backs, quarterbacks, linebackers and tight ends."

He commented on the various skill positions. The running back position drew strong praise from coach Sherrill. MSU returns senior Dontae Walker and sophomore Fred Reid at the tailback position and senior Justin Griffith, sophomore Darnell Jones and redshirt freshman Jeff Billings at fullback.

"We are probably deeper than we ever have been. There is talent there. The competition will be there. I'm kind of anxious to see the young guys. The running styles of the young ones are similar. (Nick) Turner has speed. Jerious (Norwood) has speed as well, but he also has a lot of movement."

Coach Sherrill also commented in detail about Dontae Walker. First, he talked about his spring, then discussed his playing weight.

"Dontae, before he got hurt in the spring, was the best player on the field. Everybody is talking about Dontae's weight. (He) will never be skinny. His body structure will not allow him to ever be light. Realistically, his ideal weight is 235-238. He can carry that easily. He was 238 or 240 when we played in the Independence Bowl."

The second skilled position he discussed was quarterback where Kevin Fant seems to be firmly entrenced as the starter with redshirt freshman Kyle York as his backup. Three youngsters will vie for the third spot.

"Certainly, we have Kevin there. Then we have Kyle York, a young man who had a very good spring. We have three young ones who are vying for the third spot. All have talent. Probably the most athletic is Aries Nelson. Ken Topps can throw the football and he has quick feet. (Justin) Tyler is a young man who is athletic and is the biggest of the three. We will take one of them and get him ready to be the third quarterback."

The defensive secondary is another position that coach Sherrill feels good about. Starters returning include cornerbacks Korey Banks and Demetric Wright as well as free safety Josh Morgan. The one oncern is the DOG Safety position where juniors Milas Randle and Gabe Wallace earned the starting positions coming out of the spring. Senior Walter Burdett, injured during the spring, is also battling for a starting spot at the DOG Safety.

"We have some young guys who we are moving over (to DOG Safety). In the past, we said the Dog Safeties were the ones who had to make tackles. Today, when you play people there, those guys better be able to cover. Now you have to look for one who can not only play physical, but can cover as well. That is very difficult to find. However, I think we have some kids that can do that.

He made note of one DOG Safety in particular.

"(Junior) Gabe Wallace is a very good player. We really liked Gabe in high school. He was a very gifted athlete. He was also a very, very tough player as a defensive player. He has gotten better each year. He is now at a point where he is ready to play and make some things happen. (Secondary coach) Curley (Hallman) really likes him. He is a kid that is very intelligent and takes care of his business and is a good student. He came out of the spring as a starter. Somebody will have to take it away from him and I don't know if he will let them."

Coach Sherrill also commented on an intangible of this team that was lacking in last year's team, veteran leadership.

"(Senior fullback) Justin (Griffith), without a doubt, is one of the leaders on the team. To have a good football team, you need guys who are leaders at each position. (Junior wideout) Justin Jenkins and (senior wideout) Terrell Grindle are (leaders at) receiver and (senior) Donald Lee at tight end are leaders. Mario (Haggan) and (senior free safety) Josh Morgan at secondary (are leaders)."

Although coach Sherrill feels like the strengths of the team are the skill positions and leadership, he also feels good about the offensive line despite having only two starters returning, Donald Tucker and Blake Jones. Backups Michael Allen and Carl Hutchins also return. Allen won a starting guard position during the spring.

"I feel very good about the offensive line. We have some young guys (guard Brad Weathers, tackle David Stewart and center Chris McNeil) that I think will certainly help us. They have shown that."

He noted the improvement of junior left offensive tackle Donald Tucker in particular.

"Donald Tucker ended up with a very good spring. I think he has made a decision to cross over the line. He has a lot of talent."

An area of concern for MSU fans is the kicker. Last year, MSU played John Michael Marlin, a redshirt freshman at the time, at that position. John Michael struggled during most of the season, but now has competition from junior college kicker Brent Smith and true freshman Keith Andrews. Coach Sherrill seems to feel confident about this position going into two-a-days.

"John Michael (Marlin) and Brent (Smith) had very good springs. There is no question that John Michael was much, much better in the spring. He kicked much better than he had. This summer, I would say that both of them worked very hard. We have three kickers. (Keith Andrews) out of Louisiana has a very strong leg. We have slots for two kickers on our roster."

Those two kicking slots will be filled very quickly, according to coach Sherrill.

"We will decide (who will play) very, very quick. We kick everyday. We chart them and have them on film. We will know the answer to that pretty quick. We may end up having one guy kick field goals and one guy being your kickoff guy."

Although coach Sherrill was optimistic about most positions, the one area he appeared to be most concerned about was the defensive line, not because of talent, but because of depth. Three players who started at times last season, junior tackle Tommy Kelly, sophomore noseguard Ronald Fields and senior tackle Kahlil Nash, all return. Senior backup Michael Oyefesobi and little-used sophomore Jadice Moore and junior Lennie Day also return. MSU graduated one senior last season, Dorsett Davis, and two veterans are no longer on the team, Dannie Snyder (academics) and Demotto Youngblood (transfer).

"The one place where we are thin is in the defensive line. Hopefully, we can stay healthy there. The reason that we were very good in 1999 was because we had two defensive lines. People who play well defensively usually stay fresh up front."

While it is not a position, another aspect of this season that concerns coach Sherrill is the twelve-game schedule. Coach Sherrill noted during the press conference that most of the teams MSU will play this season will either have an open date or play a relatively easy game prior to playing the Bulldogs.

"Almost everybody that we play either has an open date or plays Alabama A&M, Vanderbilt, Austin Peay or Louisiana Lafayette (prior to playing MSU). Only three teams have to play teams very physically before they play us. Mississippi plays LSU. Tennessee plays Miami and Kentucky will play Georgia."

Overall, coach Sherrill appeared to be very upbeat about the upcoming season.

Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page (http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com), the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. You can contact him by email at swindoll@genespage.com.

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