Receiver Rotations Taking Preseason Shape

He would be happier with a deeper deck to draw from. And in time Coach Mark Hudspeth is confident he will have a longer list of Bulldog wideouts to mix and match. For now, though, with Mississippi State getting down to serious game-planning for the opening weeks, a sextet of reliable receivers should suffice.

"There are six guys now that I've got a lot of faith in," Hudspeth said. This was after the Tuesday practice and ensuing squad meeting, where receiver coach and staff reviewed latest evaluations and opinions of the Mississippi State offense. If particular focus was turned to the wideout corps, that only figures because this is an area of special preseason interest. Dan Mullen has every intention of expanding the entire offense in year-two and much, so much, depends on upgraded production from the pass catchers.

Hudspeth has his preseason reasons for confidence that for the first few 2010 games he has a reliable rotation to work with. "I think six, early, you can get that done," he said.

"That's Leon Berry, Ricco Sanders on one side; Arceto Clark and Chris Smith on the other. Then Brandon Heavens and Chad Bumphis. Those guys have been pretty steady."

Steady in the variety of roles and responsibilities that Hudspeth, Mullen, and quarterbacks coach Les Koenning have run these six through, he means. There are more of those roles to go around this year, too. Spring practices showed that Mississippi State intends to put a broader mix of receiver packages on the field this fall, and preseason work has only emphasized these plans. In fact the basic approach typically counts three true wide receivers, along with the assured presence of tight end Marcus Green doing his own route-running thing. And since Green can cover ground like the best wideouts, every indication is that this is going to be as aggressive a MSU offense as seen in many years.

Though no strict depth chart is set yet, Hudspeth is confident with senior Berry and redshirt freshman Sanders as the X receiver; sophomores Clark and Smith at Z; and then sophs Bumphis and Heavens working out of the H slot closest to the interior linemen. Though, he reminds, the outside guys are being prepared to play at both of the split end posts as well to either the right or left sides of the field. "They can flip-flop," he said. "Those guys have really now become interchangeable, where last year they weren't."

This ability to interchange sides-of-field, or the specific outside slots they line up at, is indeed critical to Bulldog hopes of increasing the big play potential in this offense. Certainly it will keep defenses guessing in the huddle which direction(s) to take. The bigger trick of course is to ease guesswork among the receivers themselves, and in 2009 there was quite a bit of natural uncertainty. Re-check the classes of the above sextet, subtract a season, remember Berry was a new transfer, and be reminded of just how green the entire group was.

And for that matter still is. Sure, Bumphis had a huge rookie season leading the corps in catches, yards, and touchdowns. Berry had his own junior year contributions, and there were plenty chances for Heavens and Smith to get on the field as frosh. Still Hudspeth was working with a roster that was not only young on the whole but thrown into immediate action in an offensive approach none had seen the like of before. As Mullen has said, he had to simplify a lot of things in the air game so the kids could play on pure athletic ability.

Not now. In 2010 the technical expectations are much, much higher. Hudspeth does not see a finished product by any means, yet there is encouraging progress all around.

"We're still trying to improve fundamentally. And we've got to become a little better stalk-blockers, we're not there yet. But we're learning the system, and this is their second year in it. Boy, they're so far advanced to where they were this point last year so that makes a big difference."

Take Heavens for an excellent example. With Bumphis, Berry, and then-senior Brandon McCrae getting most of the snaps the then-frosh did well to secure seven passes for 36 yards. But he had more rushes than catches, trying nine reverse-runs for 27 yards. Those facts showed A) the potential State saw in this kid and B) how much work it would require to turn it into production.

A year later Heavens is being counted on for those bigger things. In no small part, Hudspeth said, because he is just plain bigger. "He weighed 159 pounds in game-one last year and just wasn't in condition to be an every-down player in the SEC. Now he's 174 pounds and a lot more physical, that has allowed him to be a guy we put on the field and feel OK whatever we have called."

The staff was pleased how true soph Smith performed early in August camp, too. The surprise, though, has come from his top competitor at Z. There are fans still peeved that Arceto Clark had his redshirt burned for five games in the lost 2008 season (three catches and three rushes). Yet it might now be seen to have worked out for the best anyway, since Clark was under 2009 suspension by the new staff and exiled for a fall at scout cornerback.

He opened spring on defense, too, but the last week of camp Clark returned to his original post…and thrived. His August has been so impressive that suddenly Clark is up there in the opening rotation, in fact.

"We moved him over there late and he's made up a lot of ground quickly and is progressing well out there," said Hudspeth. "I think he's going to help us. I was worried about his ball skills because he'd been at DB. But he's worked hard on it this summer and is tremendously improved. And he has made a couple of nice catches the last couple of days."

Hudspeth has high hopes for two new contenders also. Fans allowed to observe the first week of fall work quickly noticed true frosh Jameon Lewis jumping right into the mix, and at Bumphis' position no less. The coach even lists him now as part of the H-receiver rotation. Meanwhile, not being able to enroll for summer put Michael Carr several steps behind his classmates. Yet the ability is obvious to all, along with the opportunity to get on the field fast. Not that Hudspeth is pressuring the newcomers, too much.

"Physically they are plenty talented enough to get out there and play. But they've only been in this system three weeks right now. And it's pretty complicated. It takes a lot of time to pick all these adjustments up. We want to make sure when we put them in they've got a chance to be successful, and don't want to put them in a bad situation."

This applies as well to the latest addition to the wideout roster, converted defensive end Shane McCardell. Hudspeth welcomes the big body to work with but cautions "It wouldn't be fair to expect much out of him this year." Had the soph moved in spring things might be different; for now the coach sees no true clue about playing college receiver…or not yet. "He can really run and to me has natural ball skills. He might not have been a physical D-end but now he's going to be a physical wideout. It will be next spring probably before he's able to get in there and help us."

Oh, and what of the other half of the throw-and-catch equation? Mullen and Koenning have made a camp-point of rotating Chris Relf, Tyler Russell, and Dylan Farve regularly and working them with all sorts of teams and combinations. Maybe in the future such things will be more standardized, who throws with whom. For now Hudspeth actually likes having his wideouts running routes for the entire trio.

"I tell you, I think all three quarterbacks have tremendously improved. I think all three guys are throwing nice balls and working hard every day. They all have really great attitudes and work well together, and our receivers think highly of all them also."

The Bulldogs have regular practice-field sessions Wednesday and Thursday afternoons this week, then will work under the DWS lights Friday evening to mimic conditions for the 6:00 kickoff on September 4 against Memphis.

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