Dean of SEC coaches Sherrill looks to future

Just about any coach anywhere in the country would jump at the chance to coach all the young talent at Mississippi State.<P> It should make Jackie Sherrill's task of finding replacements for five assistants, who will not be rehired, fairly routine although the "Dean of the SEC Coaches" said he would seek the best available in the interest of the Mississippi State football program.

Offensive coordinator Sparky Woods and defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn along with wide receivers coach Craig Stump, defensive line coach John Hendrick and offensive line coach Carroll McCray will not be back it was announced Monday.

"I appreciate what they have done for our football program and for Mississippi State University, but I have made the decision to make the changes," Sherrill said.

The winningest coach in Mississippi State history, Sherrill said he expects to fill the vacancies in the next few weeks.

"I am in the process of conducting interviews and plan to have coaches on board within the next two weeks, with approval of the athletic director, president and the IHL board.

"All my efforts are directed toward assembling the best staff I possible can for our football team and Mississippi State," added Sherrill, who guided the Bulldogs to the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship in 1998.

Despite a subpar campaign, Sherrill has pointed out a lot of positives in the Bulldogs' immediate future - one a talented class of young players.

Throw in the key returning veterans and there's no reason the Dogs can't be a contender in 2003 at least that's the general consensus within the league.

Mississippi State closed out its 2002 campaign with five tough SEC setbacks, any of which the Dogs could have won with a few breaks. The Bulldogs fought Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas down to the final whistle and had a chance to knock off the Razorbacks in the final seconds.

Although moving the ball at will between the 20's against instate rival Ole Miss in the annual Egg Bowl, the Dogs bogged down in the red zone on more than one occasion in a very deceptive, 24-12, loss on Thanksgiving night on the road.

The Bulldogs easily outgained the Rebels, rolling up 419 yards on total offense, with junior quarterback Kevin Fant at the controls, to 297 for the Rebels. It was through the air that the Maroon & White noticeably outgained Ole Miss 340 yards to 207. Most of the Rebels passing yards came on two long plays, one a 77-yard Td pass.

Fant went all the way at quarterback for the Dogs, completing 23-of-42 passes, including a touchdown, a well-thrown 22-yard toss to sophomore Ray Ray Bivines on a fade pattern in the corner of the end zone to pull the Dogs to within five points, 17-12, with 12:24 remaining in the game.

"I think offensively we did well, we just did not do the things we needed when it counted," said Fant, who has been in and out of the lineup all season with injuries. "The offensive line fought hard, harder than I have seen them fight before. We got penalties and in third-and-long too much, and that made it tough," he said.

Although not much was said about the Dogs' young defense which got the ball back in the final six minutes, giving MSU a chance, that's precisely the case. However, Ole Miss came up with a turnover that led to a score to seal the win.

More determined than ever to return the Bulldogs to championship caliber, Sherrill noted "five big plays" that basically turned things around in the game.

Mississippi State dominated the first quarter and continued to set the pace into the second quarter, running 27 of the first 30 plays, but got only a 35-yard field goal by Brent Smith, one of the most accurate kickers in the country.

A season-long victim of the turnover bug, Mississippi State freshman Kevin Dockery intercepted an Eli Manning pass to turn the tables. Fant then completed a pass to Donald Lee of Maben, MS, before hitting Bivines twice and Darius Tubbs for five. Justin Griffith rumbled inside the Ole Miss 10 and down to the five, but the 16-yard gain was nullified by a penalty and two plays later the Rebels came up with an interception, a huge play in the game.

"Five plays make a big difference," said Sherrill, including the two interceptions. "Kevin (Fant) made plays (one the TD)."

He said Ray Ray Bivines, who had a career-high six catches, was maybe 80 to 85 percent for the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs lost one of their top receivers senior split end Terrell Grindle to injuries the week before in a tough 26-19 loss to SEC West Champion Arkansas.

Sherrill said it was a frustrating season as he watched painfully while player after player went down with injuries several off the offensive line.

"It is frustrating to lose so many key players such as not having No. 15 (Grindle)," he said.

He noted that losing the Dogs' outstanding first-year line duo, redshirt freshman Chris McNeil and true freshman Richard Burch, was a big setback.

"One of those guys or both could have been freshman All-American," he said about the talented duo who went down to injuries in midseason.

On the question of next year, Sherrill promised to go back to work immediately.

"If you put a knot on my head I want to repay it. I've said before that you need to get your licks in while you can because you are not going to get them long."

Mississippi State will miss seniors like All-American linebacker Mario Haggan, running back Justin Griffith, both of whom will suit up in the Senior Bowl, two-sport star Michael Gholar, who helped lead Rick Stansbury's Bulldog hoopsters to the SEC Tournament championship and who blocked a field goal in the Egg Bowl, along with tight end Donald Lee, DB Josh Morgan, and numerous others. But with youngsters like freshman WR Tee Milons of Starkville, who had three catches for 85 yards, Brandon Wright, highly-touted running back Jerious Norwood, nose guard Willie Evans, free safety Darren Williams, of Clarksdale, MS, and linebacker Marvin Byrdsong, of Longview, TX, the future looks oh so bright.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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