There were a lot of reasons MSU improved at season's end, the biggest one had to be the job our coaches did. Everytime I caught a sound byte or heard a word from our folks it was positive. I can't count the times people told me, "Nobody's giving up". That sentiment was obvious down the stretch as the Bulldogs gave opponents all they could handle, and in some cases, more.
We have a lot of positive things to build on for 2002, none more positive than the play of Kevin Fant. There is no doubt that this is his team. MSU has had several QB's over the year's that had great physical skills and athleticism, but Fant has the arm, the smarts, and a warrior type mentality. The team plays harder when Fant is in the game. The WRs seem to have a much easier time adjusting to the ball and seldom give up on a play. Fant just seemed to be finding his groove when the season ended, so expect big things. Fant had minor surgery in the off-season, but is back and ready to put the Dawgs back in the Hunt.
Dontae Walker has the spotlight all to himself for his senior campaign. I don't think anybody would disagree with the statement that Dontae is due. Walker had a nice season in 2000, but seemed to take a step back when Zo Miller was slowed by injury in 2001. Dontae must step up if the Dogs are to climb back into the race for the wild, wild west. Walker has some relief in Fred Reid who has proven to be a nice change of pace. Reid looks to be a good pass catcher out of the backfield and will get some reps at tailback. The stable should be full with the arrival of consensus high school All-Americans Jerious Norwood and Nick Turner. If Walker stumbles, one of these young stallions should be willing to accept the challenge. The college game is much different than what these two are used to, but knowing they have relief should provide some confidence as they develop.
The last few games of the season the Bulldog wideouts began catching the football. I can't explain it, except to say they started to realize more of their potential and that perhaps the chemistry was better with Fant. Justin Jenkins showed flashes of super stardom and must develop along the same vein if this group expects to be the strong suit many are expecting. Terrell Grindle returns for his senior season in what needs to be a leadership year for him. Grindle has shown the ability to make the big catch and should see plenty of action if Jenkins plays as well as he did at season's end. Ray Ray Bivines seemed to catch the eye of Kevin Fant in the final few affairs a season ago. Look for Sparky Woods to find more chances for Bivines to touch the ball. I still say Ray Ray is the 2nd coming of David Palmer. Antonio Hargro from all indications has matured and should find a few more balls coming his way. Darius Tubbs is drawing rave reviews for his work already this season. Tubbs has had a good two-a-days and made some nice plays in the organized scrimmages. Brandon Wright and Tee Milons may see some action as the season wears on, but a redshirt wouldn't hurt either one of these kids. Look for this group to come up big. If Fant gets the time he needs, one or more of these players will receive postseason honors.
The biggest concern on offense is the offensive line. It's not that we don't have depth, we just don't have any experienced depth. One of the things I like to hear about our O-line is how committed they all were to gain or drop weight. Word is that Michael Allen wasn't even recognized at times by the coaching staff. That says a lot about how serious this group is about playing football. While Chris McNeil won't start, he has been the talk of StarkVegas. McNeil could be a brick wall by the time he muscles his way into the trenches. Reports are that Chris McNeil is the real McCoy and not an internet blue-chipper. Manuel Dickson, Will Rogers, David Stewart, and Brad Weathers all appear to be in football shape. Finding the right combination will be the key before SEC play, but there should be plenty of snaps for the two deep before the season gets too old.
Everybody knows Jackie likes using the tight end. He's put several in the NFL. We have a nice assortment of talent on campus now. Donald Lee is still the #1 guy, but there will be snaps to go around. Lee needs a big campaign. I think he'll have it. Aaron Lumpkin should get the nod as the 2nd TE.
The word I'm hearing most about the MSU defense is speed. As we all know, the modern day defenses are built on team speed. MSU has always been real strong but haven't always been fast. This group should change that. Tommy Kelly, by his own admission, wasn't in football shape and lost a lot of energy in the 4th quarter. While Tommy may be one of the only guys to admit that, that was a problem for a lot of the squad. Had we been able to make a stop in the 4th quarter, we win Auburn, Arkansas, Alabama, and BYU. While 7-4 would have been a disappointment compared to the SEC championship that was forecasted, it would have been a far cry better than 3-8. How about this? If we get those late stops MSU is 5-3 in conference and tied for the SEC West lead with LSU. To say that the defense doesn't have a chip on it's shoulder is just silly. Look for a much more seasoned and battle tested D this season.
The D-line needs a take-charge guy. I look for Tommy Kelly to be that guy. He has the ability and has the strength. It's time for Tommy to take his place at the head of the table and lead the group in the trenches. Ronald Fields played well most of the season, but needed to get a bit stronger. If Khalil Nash makes up his mind, he could be one of the most dominant DL in the country. He has the skills to be whatever he wants. Defensive end, which is basically a linebacker in the JLD system, may be the strength of the squad. Jason Clark and Robert Spivey or Kamau Jackson will be the starters with Corey Brown and Tarus Morgan providing great depth. And watch out for true freshman Marvin Byrdsong. He has shown signs of brilliance in practice. There is not a very large gap at all between the starters and the 2nd team.
Mario Haggan is back in the middle. Haggan demolished the conference in 2000 from his linebacker spot. T.J. Mawhinney played well in spots a year ago, and should be on the field a good bit this season. Haggan is the better tackler of the two, but neither of these guys have any regard for public safety when the ball is near. This should be a huge strength for the Dawgs.
The much maligned secondary returns both starting corners after a trip to Coach Hallman's dog house. Hallman has a no-nonsense type attitude to playing football. To their credit, the secondary has responded to the the challenge put to them by Coach Hallman. I expect a top of the conference type effort from this group. Korey Banks found a way to make some big plays in the final weeks.He and Demetric Wright will be tested early and often. If they make the plays, it will certainly make life easier on the developing D-line. Josh Morgan returns for his senior season with several preseason all-conference honors already in the fold. Morgan can make life difficult for opponents who stray too far over the middle. Look for Josh to be a leader on this team and a stabilizing force in the secondary. The Dog safety positions are still hotly contested. Rico Bennett or Milas Randle will emerge as a starter and I still like Gabe Wallace on the other side. Don't forget Darren "Dappo" Williams in all the shuffle. This is a talented group they just need to step up and make plays.
John Michael Marlin has been pushed by walk-on Brent Smith. Smith brought tears to the eyes of Bulldog's everywhere as he drilled some long range bombs in the spring. If Marlin struggles early, expect to see Smith. JWS coaches special teams and we lost some close ones a year ago that we shouldn't have. Expect Jackie to keep the kickers on a short leash this year.
@ South Carolina
The Bulldogs have usually started fast and stumbled late. Last season the Bulldogs improved as the season went along. The Dawgs face a stern test to open the season. This is a chance for the Bullies to show the nation last year was a fluke. Oregon lost a lot from 2001, but this will be about as tough a contest as the Dawgs will see all season. The Dog Pound has been a tough place for visitors to play. Look for the running game to get a nice work out in week 2. The Auburn game is a must win for the Dawgs. If the Dawgs win Auburn and split the next two, they are no worse than 3-2 with three manageable opponents ahead. Troy State might want to cancel. I'm sure Jackie and company will treat this one just like another game, but the players will be out to prove something. State should be 6-2 with 4 to play which means a split gets 8-4 and back in the bowl picture.
The final four will determine the Dogs bowl possibilities, but if the Dogs need a win over Mississippi to get to 7-5, they'll get it. If the Dawgs need a win over Mississippi to get to 1-10, they'll get it. I don't care who plays for Mississippi, come Thanksgiving there is no way they beat MSU. It's just not going to happen. The folks at the University of Mississippi have given Bulldogs everywhere something to call home about. I cannot remember a time when we all have been so united. The Egg Bowl a year ago did a lot to ease the pain of a dreadful season. It did not make our season, like some would have you believe. The game certainly showed what the 2002 dawgs should be capable of. I like our chances.
Many people have asked me over the last several months what went wrong. I have no clue and won't pretend to know. I do know that something was dreadfully wrong, but I also know that these things happen. In 2000 many thought Alabama would challenge for a national championship yet they struggled all year much like MSU did in 2001. In 1998 LSU came off a 10-win season with nearly all starters back and finished at the bottom of the conference. There is no rhyme or reason to these things. Sometimes expectations and egos get too big and complacency sets in and the next thing you know you've lost to UAB or Troy State. Look for the Bulldogs to bounce back strong. We should have a solid passing attack and a more conditioned defense. I don't know if we'll come anywhere near the top of the heap in 2002, but I do know this: If these young men play with the heart and desire like they did the last few weeks of the season when they had nothing to play for but pride, then I like our chances. I like our chances a whole lot!
Until next time,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is email@example.com.