Freshman Faces See Brighter Bulldog Future

Chad Bumphis never fully realized just how long 13 consecutive weeks of football could last. Or, the strains involved. "It's been rough, my body needs a break. I'm just tired, just physically tired," the freshman receiver says. But, mustering a post-practice grin, Banks added "It's a good tired!"

Good because Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3 SEC) has a double-dose of relief this week. First, because they are coming off an encouraging victory at Kentucky that keeps several season ambitions viable. And second, just from being able to dial back the intensity for a few days before kicking it back up to an even higher level for the November stretch-run.

"Yeah, we're real happy to have a break," said Bumphis. "It helps a lot. We've got a whole week to get better and get ready. And just coming off a win helps a lot."

Speaking of helping a lot, that's a good description of what some other first-year Bulldogs have done collectively. As in, the combined contributions being made this fall by members of the freshman class of 2009. To be sure, veteran Dogs have led the way in this first season for Coach Dan Mullen on both offense and defense. Yet the elder State-smen are quick to credit help provided by freshman faces in the lineups.

"They've got good enthusiasm, they work hard," senior RB Anthony Dixon says. "I feel they're definitely trying to send us out with a bang."

Junior LB K.J. Wright agrees. "Oh, I see a lot of good things from these freshmen." Though, he adds, he does take a little private pleasure in occasionally reminding rookies about the practice pecking order during tackling drills. The larger point being State's frosh often as not hold their own in practice.

And several are doing the same in real games. Through eight games and two months seven true '09 freshmen have participated and six have started at least once. These are Bumphis, WR Brandon Heavens, special teamer Cameron Lawrence, S Johnathan Banks, WR Chris Smith, DT Fletcher Cox, and DT Josh Boyd.

Scholarship-signed freshmen yet to participate and thus barring unforeseen issues all but assured of redshirting are: RB Montrell Conner, WR Ricco Sanders, WR Dennis Thames, QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg, FB William Shumpert, LB Deonte Skinner, DE Johnathan McKenzie, OG Gabe Jackson, and OC Sam Watts. There are some other frosh who came as walk-ons, such as QB Daniel Stegall, who also have yet to see action. However some of the above, such as Stegall, Swedenburg, and McKenzie regularly dress for Bulldog games.

Playing or not, this is a rookie class that has reason to be proud of what is has done whether on the scout team or against opposing teams this fall. Banks certainly shares that feeling. "It's great. I mean, we've got people contributing already and then you have people in practice redshirting that you can see what they're going to be able to do next year. And it's going to be a great thing."

Banks of course is exhibit-A for freshman contributions in recent weeks. Since earning a starting safety job the newest member of the secondary has picked a team-high four passes, including two pick-sixes against Florida to set a program game record and tie the career record at the same time. Meanwhile up front two touted rookie tackles have more than lived up to billing; Boyd and Cox have muscled past veteran linemen to start the last two games. Cox has 21 tackles, a sack and 3.5 tackles for losses and Boyd 13 tackles with more to come. Working on kick coverage and protect alike, and working quite well, Lawrence has eight tackles.

Wideout/return man and even occasional passer Bumphis got off to the fastest start of the freshmen with two touchdown catches against Jackson State. He has since snared another TD throw as well as run for one more, both against Georgia Tech. Bumphis is the team's leading receiver in both catches (26) and yards (290). Classmate Heavens has actually got more snaps the last few weeks though his stats (six catches, 30 yards; seven rushes, 17 yards) doesn't reflect how much playing time he's been handed. Smith started twice in October but has slipped down the depth chart with three catches, 22 yards.

And the true-frosh who have yet to cross the Scott Field sideline? While Mullen has said State "is not a redshirt program" in principle, the practice is unavoidable whether for reasons of existing depth or ongoing development of the new talent in town. Still the Bulldog staff finds ways to keep their kids involved beyond mere scout team or game-reserve duty. During these fall months Mullen likes to set aside some post-practice periods for the redshirts and reserves to briefly scrimmage; to both keep everyone involved and continue exposing freshman faces to aspects of the playbook.

That was the case yesterday evening as part of bye-week work. Mullen dismissed the varsity after 90 or so minutes to hold a four-series contact session. Obviously there aren't enough redshirting freshmen, scholarship or walk-on, to scrimmage with so many more reserves—older players who don't play often or at all in games—stayed behind to round out the rosters.

Obviously the rookie of most scrimmage interest was Russell, the all-star quarterback signee who has dressed for all but the last game (with a 70-man road roster, Stegall took the #3 quarterback slot for the Kentucky trip). Mullen has often said that since Russell is not a ‘package quarterback' and if he was to ever play it would be to run the complete offense, the rookie won't see any spot duty. Which is as good as declaring Russell will go into next spring expected to compete for the starting job to be vacated by Tyson Lee's graduation.

Russell got to throw a lot of passes Tuesday and completed a couple for red-zone touchdowns to conclude two of his series. Stegall's turns were more invested in getting the ball to running backs, as the walk-on gets back into a real football mindset after four years in professional baseball.

Redshirting backs Conner and Perkins can see their own opportunities in '10 with three senior runners graduating. Linebacker Wright likes what he's seen from these kids. "I believe those guys are going to step up for us at running back. And William Shumpert is a real big load at fullback. I expect a lot of big things from Perkins with his speed and Montrell. I'm looking forward to what they can do."

Sanders might have played like some other frosh this fall had he not lost time awaiting clearance. He'll wait his turn to show stuff in spring. Thames is a more interesting case, practicing as a receiver this first fall—he lines up almost exclusively in the slot—but forecast by most observers to end up as a defensive safety if everyone develops as planned. Then again State's secondary returns almost intact; not only that but Banks will be a sophomore, SS Charles Mitchell just a junior. Still coordinator Carl Torbush likes using nickel packages and three safeties a lot so there's a job to be taken after CB/S Marcus Washington graduates.

Lineman Jackson was working as a left guard in the scrimmage while Watts, the #3 center in August, has had a setback by tearing a labrum during a special teams drill. He should be ready again by spring though the curveball might take a while to come back. On defense, Skinner practices well enough to play but is not needed this year; in spring he'll put the pressure on at strong-side linebacker and perhaps help the staff make some personnel moves to create room. McKenzie does not even look like the same kid that came to campus in June, having packed on all sorts of new muscle without losing any moves. He's already bidding for a rotation job at one end by next fall, perhaps even a starting job at his accelerated development pace.

Which means Mullen's first Mississippi State freshman class is already looking like something special. Naturally the pups agree with that idea. "It could be real good. That's just me saying," says Bumphis. "But if we stick together and everybody continues to grow it's going to be a great class."

For his part Dixon can see great things from these frosh both now and in the future. "They're just in there working hard trying to help us get to where we want to be. And it's definitely going to help them for the better. Because they can look at us seniors and try to find the work ethic and experience through us," the senior said.

"I think they're definitely going to be able to carry the tradition on, the hard-nosed tradition we've got, and help build the program to get where we want to be. That's a championship level. And I think they've got what it takes."

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