Post-Spring Depth Chart Review

The players have returned to the semester routine of class work and strength training. The coaches? They might not be on the practice field but spring football continues unabated for Mississippi State's staff as they review video of individuals, units, and entire teams. And, revamp the spring depth charts with an eye towards summer projections for the 2008 lineup.

As summer approaches the position coaches will be interviewed for their informed opinions about how the Bulldogs should stack up when August camp opens. For now, though, here is how the informal depth chart looked by the end of spring, based upon what Dawgs' Bite staff observed during daily practices and the scrimmages. Some speculation is also involved, partly due to the late-camp incident that resulted in two starters being dismissed from school and has a trio of others in an indeterminate status until the legal process is completed.

Today's report is on the MSU offense, with the defensive depth chart forthcoming. In the listing, names in ALL CAPS means a returning 2007 starter at that position; an asterisk means the player was injured or limited during camp.

LEFT TACKLE

74 Mark Melichar SO-1L; 55 Quentin Saulsberry FR-RS; 62 Addison Lawrence FR-RS.

Why, oh why did Mike Brown do what he did? Whatever his reasoning, the result is State's best blocker is gone, a job is vacant, and until filled the quarterback's blind-side is open.

After practicing 14 days at right tackle, Melichar returns to left tackle where he played nine games in relief last fall so there's not a total void of experience.

Defensive line recruit Saulsberry was being groomed to take the job in time; that time might come sooner than planned now.

Certainly there'll be plenty of August competition here which bodes well for the future. But losing Brown means what was shaping up as the best front-five at State since the late ‘90s, has taken a step back. Or at best sideways. And that there might be some options under summer consideration on the other end of the line to strengthen here.

LEFT GUARD

53 ANTHONY STRAUDER SR-3L; 73 Dakota Merritt FR-RS; 72 John McMillan SO-SQ.

Ironic, how Strauder was playing somewhat in Brown's shadow, yet all along his position coach has said the senior has pro potential of his own. Now Strauder will have to play like an all-pro and in all directions as he will be flanked by new starters on either side. Hopefully he's up to the assignment…and stays uninjured all season so J.C. Brigone's move to center can stick.

Merritt, like Saulsberry, is being developed and '08 seems a bit early for responsibility. That's what had to be behind Croom's spring-game day comment that Johnny Carpenter is now the ‘swing' backup at guard and center. Because right guard is in very good shape.

CENTER

70 J. C. Brignone SO-1L; 66 D.J. Looney FR-RS; *58 Johnny Carpenter JR-1L; 63 Craig Spencer JR-SQ.

For two years he's been proclaimed the strongest young lineman—maybe lineman, period—on this roster. Now, can Brignone add the even tougher mental aspects of playing college center to his undoubted physical gifts? Nobody is asking him to be Royce Blackledge from day-one, because learning how to read defenses and communicate with the quarterback takes live-action. Missing a whole week of camp, for completely legit family reasons, delayed a fuller evaluation of how far the kid's come in his new job. But Croom is convinced and that'll do for summer.

Looney is another physical specimen at the spot which bodes well for competition for years to come.

And as Carpenter gets healthy it offers options all across the middle of the line for all the above. Again, look for some potential inter-play at center and left guard come August.

RIGHT GUARD

78 MIKE GATES SR-3L; 75 CRAIG JENKINS JR-2L.

What else needs saying here? Well, only that if needed Jenkins can certainly always go back to tackle. And that it's hard to have one of these veteran guys on the bench too long. And that if only, if only another tackle of four years ago hadn't gotten in legal (ie, jail-type) trouble, toppling dominos that ended up forcing prep tight end Gates to play as a true frosh tackle. He might yet make it to the League despite being a year ahead of ideal schedule, having emerged in his ideal guard position. Some wonderful day this is what Croom wants the whole front to look like, truly two-deep everywhere. For now only right guard can really claim such status.

RIGHT TACKLE

79 Derek Sherrod SO-1L; 76 Phillip Freeman JR-JC.

For a guy who didn't start a game, it sure seems Sherrod's name ought to be in all-caps already. Too good to redshirt as a rookie, he'd have taken the starting job this year even if J.D. Hamilton hadn't graduated. Naturally the first thought of most (myself included) upon word of Brown's loss was moving Sherrod to the other end. But the way State likes to run the ball to the right side he's plenty valuable there already. Still we'll keep an ear out over the summer here.

Freeman was brought in a semester early to redshirt and take a starting job in 2009; not now. He has to play, and goodness knows if the staff had anticipated end-of-spring developments they'd have given Freeman a lot more live snaps. Oh, well, he'll do what he can over summer to make it up. And should Sherrod end up at left tackle, he'll play a lot more ball than anyone planned.

TIGHT END

85 Brandon Henderson SO-SQ; 84 Nelson Hurst FR-HS; 82 Marcus Green FR-RS.

Considering how much was lost here, and the near-total lack of meaningful experience among the contenders, Croom was surprisingly upbeat about tight end after the final week. Henderson, who owns what few snaps are here, is also the best-rounded of the contenders as far as a blocker first, receiver second. His spring started slowly but evidently Henderson did enough the last two weeks to earn being named #1.

That mid-fall of running back Green to tight end certainly paid off in spring. The redshirt was known to have speed, but in drills he showed moves without the ball that hint at receiver potential. The blocking will need work, of course, but that was expected.

And how fortunate was State that Hurst was able to enroll early out of high school? No redshirt year here, the kid is going to play. Especially with lingering concerns about how the fullbacks can and will be utilized.

QUARTERBACK

13 WESLEY CARROLL SO-1L; 16 Tyson Lee JR-JC; 14 Chris Relf FR-RS; *17 JOSH RIDDELL SR-1L.

The youngest ‘old hand' in the league was so quietly efficient in his first college spring that after a week or so even his coach stopped talking about Carroll. Because it was the same thing every day; another good, efficient, unspectacular day. What, you expected the true soph to become a spring gunslinger? Not Carroll, who is at his happiest reading a defense, making the calls, and handing off into the correct play. He just did it that much better this spring, exactly as it should be. Oh, and finally getting to do some real weightlifting (remember, he never got 100% back in 2007 from January shoulder surgery) paid off with a noticeably stronger arm in camp. Not a cannon by any means, just good, efficient, unspectacular…and the right guy to run this show.

The downside to early spring is that Riddell wasn't quite all the way back from October knee surgery. He could do drills, drop back, move side-to-side, and throw, just not do it at game-speed. A shame because Riddell looked good passing the ball and would have been the push even a guy like Carroll can always use.

The unintended up-side was Riddell's sometime-absence meant that many more snaps for Relf and Lee, thus more chances to practice a contrasting side of the offense to Carroll's specialties.

Redshirt Relf has all the physical tools and they were on display this spring; his long throws are effortless and the accuracy is now coming, yet he doesn't blast the ball on shorter patterns. There is some touch here and an increasing awareness of how the college game is played. And should Relf get loose outside the tackles, as Croom said, he's another Anthony Dixon going north-south.

Yet all anyone wants to know is about Lee's chances of playing. Darn good is the answer. The transfer just has a knack for the roll-out game, picking up targets and delivering a catchable ball without too much risk. His throws have some range, too. Remember how Carroll sparked that fourth-quarter drive in the Liberty Bowl with option runs? Relf/Lee fit that bill quite nicely, spring showed.

FULLBACK

35 BRANDON HART SR-3L; *38 ERIC HOSKINS; 44 Ethan Stockett FR-RS; *30 Arnil Stallworth JR-2L.

The fact that a guy who could not practice a serious snap all spring due to injury is second on this list really tells the story. Croom simply doesn't have a healthy fullback he feels totally confident in to do what is demanded here.

If not for that nerve problem, which is utterly unpredictable, Hoskins would be the man as he was until November injury. For now though nobody knows if he'll play again, period.

Hart should be better than he's shown, the build and ability are there for a reliable SEC fullback yet he just seems to lose the proverbial focus too often.

Stockett did little to improve his status in his first camp, and Stallworth was also hurting all spring.

Not to brag or anything, as I'm sure many thought the same thing all along, but even before spring I was suggesting to peers that Christian Ducre should get a look here. You guessed it, as camp ended Croom was talking the same thing. Hey, it's a great way to have him on the field a lot more snaps where the junior can do something of everything.

HALFBACK

24 ANTHONY DIXON JR-2L; 29 CHRISTIAN DUCRE JR-1L; 2 Robert Elliot FR-RS; 20 Wade Bonner FR-RS.

Wishbone, anyone? Well, no, as tempting as the thought may be for us of a certain era. Still this collection of backfield talents is reason that State is openly (I'm giving away no secrets here) tinkering with some option-type situation wrinkles in the package.

With A.D. everybody knows the Dogs can pound between the tackles, or run the draws and delays with big-play Ducre. Both caught quite a few balls this camp, too. Yes, there's natural skepticism out there about talk of ‘opening up' the offense but there were enough signs of such in practice to offer real optimism.

It's the addition of real speed in the form of redshirts Elliot and converted safety Bonner that have the staff looking for other ways to get the ball outside tackles where the kids can first make a move, then kick it in gear and go. Passes to backs were a spring focus with often splendid results…and the inevitable gaffes as everyone, and I mean everyone, worked to get on that proverbial same-page in plays that rely on timing. Practice, practice, practice. Which fortunately is something throwers and catchers can do in the summer on their own, of course.

Oh, and what needs to be understood is that Elliot isn't just a corner-runner; this pup can exploit seams in the front and squirt through for gains in traffic. Maybe not with the body-balance of a Dicenzo Miller, but with a good ‘lean' and knack for getting something out of not-much if necessary.

Bonner won't have to be hurried in the transition. Besides, he's bound to get a look at kick return come August. Hmmm, maybe Ducre was the one to suggest a switch to fullback first.

WIDE RECEIVER

‘X' 15 CO-ERIC RILEY SR-1L; 87 AUBREY BELL SR-3L; 47 Ryan Mason SR-1L. ‘Z' 89 JAMAYEL SMITH SR-2L; 81 BRANDON MCRAE JR-1L; 80 O'Neal Wilder FR-GS.

Yes, I always have to go back and confirm; in State's scheme ‘X' is the receiver lining up, usually, on the weak-side while the ‘Z' is typically on the tight-end side. Or not. Labels aren't as important as production anyway, and here State found some spring-time producers.

When camp opened there were legit questions of whether Riley would step up his game and replace Tony Burks. By the end such questions were safely answered as Riley did rise to the opportunity—a huge relief to all concerned. Then again last spring, for example, McRae was a camp warrior, earned the opening-day start, and failed to deliver. Still the staff is convinced Riley has turned the corner as a collegian based on consistent efforts and actions this spring.

But Bell was no slouch either in drills and brings a more physical presence to the position.

If there was a surprise it was Mason, oft-injured and mostly-forgotten until the second week when suddenly he was running the routes and making the plays. And, not coincidentally, healthy at last.

Over at ‘Z' Smith was able to hold his starting job by just doing the job daily. He had to because McRae again stood out in spring play; yet this time there's reason to believe he will be able to carry this on into and through August.

McRae seemed to become a more ‘technical' receiver this time around than the guy who relied on physical talents before.

Then there was Wilder, who had an impressive first two weeks before a physical condition caught up with him at mid-camp that was probably aggravated by his doing double-duty running track. If a fix is found Wilder will be a really interesting addition to the rotation as a true deep-ball threat to stretch defenses that (should) already have to spread out a bit to handle the quick slants and hooks State has shown. And, of course, to hold a safety downfield a tick longer for flips to the half- and full-backs. Which is why something else likely to be stressed more come fall camp is downfield blocking by the wideouts. Depth at ‘Z' and ‘X' will probably have to come from fall freshmen. Wide receiver and fullback are the only offensive areas true rookies will be pressed to help quickly.


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