Lining Up The Dogs In Early Camp Contests

With only two days of preseason practicing in the books nothing has happened to shake-up the higher slots in the Bulldog lineups. Or should we be saying, nothing has happened yet? Because based on efforts by a number of players who either finished spring in second- or third-team roles, as well as initial rookie showings, a few rotations are about to become quite competitive.

Through these opening sessions Coach Dan Mullen has been satisfied…no, make that outright pleased with how Mississippi State has gone through the first two practice dates. As quoted in yesterday's report, he said the initial goal in any preseason is to pick up at the same point as the team finished spring ball. "We're at least where we left off, if not better than where we left off in the spring," Mullen said Thursday.

And for now the lineups seen when the Bulldogs went to 11-on-11 work Thursday are the same squads that squared-off in the final week of spring camp. For now. Though, Mullen pointed out, he is not setting a whole lot of stock in what the rotations look like to sideline observers in week-one. In fact this week's drills schedule is designed for everyone to get a serious look at their position, or positions.

"We're rolling guys at different spots, there's guys getting in," Mullen said. "Basically if you looked at practice everybody got the same number of reps today. So as we evaluate the reps afterwards it really doesn't matter what group you're in because everybody is getting the same reps."

Still there has to be an order of practicing and if these aren't to be presumed as set-in-stone ‘teams' they do provide a starting—and backup, and reserve—point for judging the preseason roster.

Such as the highest-profile position. When Mullen talks about a player being as good or better on the practice field in August compared to April, quarterback Chris Relf is a fine example. From the moment camp began the junior has looked and acted and operated like the #1 man he is. If there is a surprise at his position it is not that Relf has maintained such status; it is how much ground he has gained on Tyler Russell. Not because the redshirt #2 man has regressed, either, but because Relf has made his own progress.

Russell still has lots of camp left to pick up his own pace, as expected from a second-fall quarterback. Though he now has his own pressure from behind with true frosh Dylan Favre impressing observers with arm strength and aggressiveness. Though, that latter aspect has already gotten him in trouble with some quick picks tossed in full-team situations. The good thing is both Russell and Favre have shown they can deliver the ball all over the field and camp competition will make everyone sharper by September.

Running back work has been interesting as well, and only the coaches could say who would get first snap in a real game right now between Robert Elliott—the only veteran on the roster this fall—and juco Vick Ballard. For the record, Elliott does go first in drills but that likely matters little for now. But of the two redshirts, LaDarius Perkins seems to have taken a lead on classmate Montrell Conner for third spot in the rotation. This is particularly the case in passing drills where his better-developed receiving skills matter more, as well as Perkins' knack for scampering through traffic on shuffle-passes…something the first two practice days have featured.

Patrick Hanrahan and Sylvester Hemphill are interchangable veteran fullbacks with William Shumpert and Adrian Marcus giving them a stout push.

There is no preseason point in trying to list a receiver depth chart because this is the offensive area where everyone really is getting as many snaps as everyone else. The simplest evaluation is that veterans Chad Bumphis, Leon Berry, and Brandon Heavens, along with either Charles Smith or redshirt Ricco Sanders if it goes to a four-wide set, make up the first rotation. After that it is a case-by-case competition, though one new face has raced to the forefront already. Freshman Jameon Lewis has turned into a first-week star already working from a slot spot, the one that belongs to Bumphis most times. Safe to say a place will be found for both.

Though heat got to him on the first day, due to not being enrolled for summer work, frosh Michael Carr recovered quickly and is making an early case as well. He can be lumped into the ‘second' group along with Charles Bailey, Chris Cameron, Dane Leake, Randy Moulds, and Krisjon Wilkerson. Mullen has said it requires eight to twelve wideouts to run a really effective spread, so snaps are up for grabs this season.

Marcus Green, Kendrick Cook, Brandon Henderson, and Thomas Webb are the experienced tight ends, joined by walk-on Reed Gordon and at least for now by a true frosh. Athlete Brandon Hill, who might still end up as a wide receiver, is working with the eligible blockers for now.

The first and second offensive lines are the same: LT Derek Sherrod and Blaine Clausell; LG Quentin Saulsberry and Gabe Jackson; OC J.C. Brignone and D.J. Looney; RG Tobias Smith and Mark Melichar; and RT Addison Lawrence and Phillip Freeman. After that there is some shuffling going on as various tackles and guards work both the left and right sides of center for evaluation, with Sam Watts and Dillon Day the reserve centers by the way. So far Sam Latham and Archie Muniz have got the most full-team chances at left tackle, Eric Lawson and Ben Beckwith at right tackle. Templeton Hardy can handle either guard spot but usually is on the left side alternating with Damien Robision; John McMillan at right, then Paul Thompson getting a look also at right guard.

While those depth charts shake out over the coming weeks, what is really worth noting is that for the first time in this memory Mississippi State can put four complete offensive lines on the practice field without any duplication. Nobody is going to get over-worked in camp.

The same holds true on the other side of the trench where no less than 17 true defensive linemen are practicing this week. And while not much seems different about the first two grouping so far, unit drills show a lot of side-switching and various combinations testing themselves together.

The best competition is at the right end of things (though everyone is expected to be able to play either end to match up) where Sean Ferguson and Nick Bell take turns with the first unit. Pernell McPhee of course has the starting job on the other end locked up. Between them Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox are left and right tackles, backed by James Carmon and Devin Jones as the rotation second pair. Reggie Odom and Jeffrey Howie split snaps as third left tackle with Rodney Prince or Curtis Virges at right. Back at ends, Johnathan McKenzie backs McPhee with Kaleb Eulls third for now; and either Trevor Stigers or Shane McCardell are second at the other end with Corvell Harrison-Gay in reserve.

The best competition among the linebackers is the ongoing battle from spring for strong-side, with Emmanuel Gatling holding a slim advantage over Cameron Lawrence. Mike Hunt and Christian Holmes are working here for now, too. On the weak-side it is K.J. Wright of course, backed by redshirt Deonte Skinner, Mark Lynn, and Chris Hughes. In the middle Chris White is anchored and backed by Brandon Wilson, Jamie Jones, and Ferlando Bohanna. Some of the younger ‘backers such as Holmes and Hughes should get a few looks in other slots in days to come.

Putting together a depth chart for the secondary is for little more than fan entertainment at this point, because some jobs are shuffling and shuttling as the staff throws all sorts of combinations into play. Especially when they go to nickel and dime packages, which so far has usually meant taking a first team cornerback and making him the extra ‘safety'. More often it has been RCB Corey Broomfield moving to the middle of the action to either blitz or drop into deep coverage. He is then replaced by Damien Anderson, Louis Watson, or Jamerson Love depending on which snap it is.

LCB Maurice Langston will also practice at nickel, especially when the package has to allow for running plays. This is a hot spot in camp anyway with Johnthan Banks practicing at cornerback after his brilliant rookie season as a free safety. One way or another Banks is going to be on the field somewhere. Marvin Bure and Dexter Shelton are the reserve left corners.

There isn't really a ‘strong' or ‘free' safety in new coordinator Manny Diaz' mind. So for now the listing has Charles Mitchell, Zach Smith, Asian Ruff, and Matthew Wells as the ‘right' safeties; then Nickoe Whitley, Wade Bonner, Dennis Thames, and Ivan Muniz on the left side.

Heath Hutchins and Derek DePasquale are taking turns in punting drills; which gives DePasquale double-duty since he and Sean Brauchle are again competing for top placekicker.

Fans can keep in mind that almost all the above is provided as a very early observation and for entertainment purposes. The coaches? It is their job to figure out who plays where, when, and how often. And there are close to four more weeks left for settling these questions, so Mullen is not in a hurry to make out any depth charts.

"People who earn playing time are going to play, that's just kind of how we do every position in the program," Mullen said. "If everybody really earns playing time we'll rotate a bunch of them; if one guys separates himself and everybody else is kind of average then we'll go with one."

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