"They're getting better," said Knox of the four tailbacks currently competing for places in the preseason pecking order. "A lot has been thrown at them in the first, I'd say, seven practice sessions." The coach means that about half of the 13 completed practices have been partly or wholly invested in actual instruction; the rest of the time it has been players' turns to show how well they've learned those lessons. All in all Knox approves of the pace of progress.
Which is not the same thing as satisfaction. "I think they're taking it all in," he said. "I think we're taking baby steps right now." An odd image for a quartet that in year-two of Coach Dan Mullen's spread-system will have to play physical as well as fast, but the point comes through. Especially since only one of the four, junior Robert Elliott, has ever actually carried a football in SEC action. The rest have yet to take a live handoff and face an opposing tackler on Scott Field, which lends juco Vick Ballard, redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins and true rookie Nick Griffin a kind of baby Bulldog outlook.
"I feel good about where we're headed, though," Knox adds. "I think the veterans, Ballard and Elliott—even though Ballard hasn't played in a season I feel he's kind of a veteran because he went through spring ball--have really stepped-up. Their experience is really helping the other, younger guys."
Most obviously the youngest of the guys. Whatever freshman Griffin expected his role to become in 2010, he came to summer school to get ready to play ball this fall. Knox is now giving him more serious consideration, too, particularly with the loss of redshirt Montrell Conner. The second-fall frosh is transferring to junior college, having failed to work his way into the top tailback rotations so far in spring or August.
This opens a door even wider for Griffin. "I think he'll have a chance," Knox said. "When he first got here we believed he'd have a chance. And we're going to give him every opportunity to see what he can do."
Along that line of thought, it is taken for granted that all these tailbacks will be able to haul the ball. "They're all good runners or they wouldn't be here!" Knox points out. Where Bulldog backs, not just tailbacks but the fullbacks as well, are getting intensive practicing now is in the passing game Mullen intends to expand greatly this second season. Dixon and Christian Ducre were competent catchers. But also-graduated Arnil Stallworth offered other clues about how running backs should be equally capable in running routes and pulling in the pass; then making real gains after the grab.
This might end up the real separator when it comes time—or comes down-and-distance situations—to choose which tailback is on the field.
"The one with the best hands, the one that catches the ball the best, that could be what tips the scales for us," said Knox.
Then again the running backs coach, nor the coordinators or head coach for that matter, are too worried just yet about who's direction the scales tip on opening night. Depth charts still matter in terms of who gets first chance in practices…but as Mullen reminded, those change daily. Besides, State has not even held a full scrimmage yet. That comes up next Friday.
So Knox isn't in a hurry to pick a starter or a rotation.
"Not right now. We're kind of still going through our install, and once we get everything in and can see how they execute in the scrimmage." But he adds, every sign so far is that Mississippi State will have a well-balanced backfield in 2010 with runners—and catchers, and other talents—to fit the need.
"They all are very versatile, they all have gotten better with their blocking. They all have really improved since the end of spring. I like our depth."