Bulldog Football Scouting Report

The Game: Mississippi State kicks off the 2010 season hosting Memphis in a renewal of the once-annual interstate and inter-conference series. Game time at Scott Field is 6:00 for telecast by ESPNU. The broadcast is available on the MSU Radio Network, as well as XM 198 and Sirius 217. This is the 58th season with Jack Cristil as Voice of the Bulldogs.

*Cristil has broadcast every Mississippi State-Memphis game played, save the first in 1951.

*Mississippi State is 75-33-2 in all season-opening games; and 51-11-1 when beginning a season on the home field. In all first-home games Bulldog teams are 82-25-2. State has won the last two home openers.

*State has opened a season against Memphis 14 times, with a 12-2 record.

*Mississippi State has won 248 home-field games in 110 seasons.

*Mississippi State won just two of seven home games last year, but that included the 2009 finale against Ole Miss. It was also State's first win over a ranked opponent of the Dan Mullen era. State's '09 slate was ranked #1 toughest in the FBS.

*The 2010 schedule isn't much easier, either, rated by some #4 toughest going into the year. State will play programs that have accounted for the last four BCS titles.

*The MSU coaches who held the head post more than one year have posted winning records in year-two 14 times; losing records nine times; and one tie.

*New Memphis coach Larry Porter is a Jackson native and was 2-2 against State playing for Memphis in 1990-93, and scored two touchdowns in the 1993 victory at Scott Field. As a player and assistant coach Porter is 5-0 at Starkville.

The Opponent: Hey, Tigers, it's been long time, no see. And once Memphis dropped off the annual schedule MSU folk lost track save when Tommy West took teams to bowl games or knocked off our rivals. There just wasn't enough of either lately and after eight years West left, with former Tiger fullback Porter taking charge. It seems he hasn't worried about making many friends in media circles, but Memphis football fans—a fairly rare group of late—have to be encouraged by a tough new approach to the realities of making this program competitive again in CUSA. Porter has a sound assistant record to point to, developing quality running backs in major programs and learning larger skills as assistant head coach the last four years at LSU. This is not an easy job by any means, as there are neither the resources nor expectations he knew at Oklahoma State and LSU. Still Porter appears a good choice as he knows the local landscape, what sort of talent is available, and who will fit into his idea of promising program.

Offense: Anyone who's snuck into a Tiger practice want to offer some clues what sort of offense this new staff plans to run…and pass? State's staff has even scrounged up tape of UTEP when Eric Price was the coordinator there. Then again had the previous staff stayed scouting personnel would have been a challenge anyway with most of the big producers gone. The top returning rusher, for instance, had just five carries all '09. Senior Gregory Ray (four carries, 16 yards) leads this depth chart for opening night, but UM is putting a lot of hope in freshman-via-Hargrave Military school runner Jerrell Rhodes. There isn't a ton more experience at quarterback either. Of the four candidates in August, local product Cannon Smith has been tabbed to start. He spent 2008 at Miami playing one game, transferred, and is being given first chance to run this show. He's a blank page in scouting terms, just like true frosh Ryan Williams who did play well in the spring game as an early-enrollee. Want more questions? OK, who will they throw to? An impressive receiving corps is mostly gone, with X-end Marcus Rucker (18 catches, 2 TDs) and backup wideout Cam Baker (20, 0) the major returnees. Much hope is being put in a pair of junior redshirts, A-ends Jermaine McKenzie and Billy Foster; and the door is obviously open for former Bulldog Delmon Robinson at Z-end. It ought to be easy to spot 6-8 tight end Deven Onarheim, who had nine catches as a junior. If all the skill spots are largely-unknown quantities, Porter can take comfort in having a seriously experienced offensive line. Preseason all-conference RG Dominik Riley has 29 starts to his credit, while the right tackle, left guard, and left tackle all started every game in 2009. Oh, center Brad Paul started ‘just' eleven games last fall, by the way. That's a mature bunch of two seniors and three juniors just like coaches want, and it ranked 3rd-best in CUSA sacks-allowed. Memphis ranked #53 in NCAA rushing last year and #63 in total offense, yet with all those now-gone skill players were just #95 in scoring. Tiger folk will have to give Porter time to develop his gameplan…whatever that is.

Defense: Want to recite some really dismal numbers? #96 in rushing defense, #117 passing defense, #110 in scoring, #116 in total defense, and #119 red zone defense…after a hideous 2009 showing on this side of the ball there is literally no direction the Tigers can go defensively but up. And Porter has brought in some familiar coaching names to take on this tough task with Jay Hopson as coordinator and Mike Dubose directing the line. The latter has some experience, and a lot of size, to work with; the projected starting tackles crush the scales at 350 and 320 pounds apiece, making the ends mere lightweights at 280 and 265. Junior DE Frank Trotter is the top returning D-line tackler with 36 stops in nine starts; while DT Dontari Poe, the biggest of this bunch, had 7.0 tackles for losses with a couple of sacks. Oh, and the interior two are tall enough to make middle-field passing a challenge. The linebacker corps has a distinct SEC look about it. State folk well-recall Jamon Hughes as a fine middle linebacker in 2006-'07. Well he's just as capable now as a Tiger, posting 87 tackles as a '09 junior with 5.5 hits behind the line. Former Auburn safety DeRon Furr was moved to outside ‘backer midway of last season and it worked well enough that now he is going to start. Senior 210-pound Jeremy Longstreet has won the other OLB starting assignment, but then his backup is a former Arkansas player Khiry Battle, so why not go for a transfer trifecta? Hopson is safeties coach and pitiful pass coverage of '09 can surely stand the upgrading. Senior Marcus Ball had a pair of picks at FS and is back; the real hope here is that a bunch of D-backs sidelined by health last season can deliver now. Those are guys such as strong safeties Akeem Davis and Tremain McKenzie. They could surely take some of the load of cornerbacks D.A. Griffin and Darius Davis who had no less than 96 tackles between them last fall. No wonder coverage was an issue, not to mention an area State is bound to test in the opener.

Specialists: Both new, since the excellent kicker who filled both jobs is gone. Paulo Henriques did at least get to boot kickoffs with a 62-yard average; now he will get first shot at placekicker. Summer addition Tom Hornsey, an Australian, opens '10 as the new punter. The return game could stand plenty improvement and even though the regular kickoff man is back, safety McKenzie begins the season listed for the job on both kickoffs and punts.

The Series: Mississippi State holds a 31-11 lead in a series that began in 1951 and has twice been interrupted for lengthy cooling-off periods. After MSU won the first nine games, the Tigers took three-straight and after 1965 the rivalry froze until 1974. The renewal is still legend, especially at State as Rockey Felker led that dramatic last drive for a touchdown and winning two-point play. From there the teams played every season until 2003 when after State had won ten-straight there was another break. Memphis last won consecutive games in 1983-84, and their last success in Starkville was 1993. MSU holds a 14-4 lead at Scott Field, 16-6 on whatever home field Memphis had, with a 1-1 split of games played in Jackson.

The Last Time: October 11, 2003 Booking Memphis for Homecoming was risky but did provide an entertaining afternoon at Scott Field, as Mississippi State built a healthy halftime lead and made it hold up for a 35-27 win. Tight end Aaron Lumpkin was the home team's star, catching two touchdowns passes in the first quarter thrown by Kevin Fant. Special teams provided a second-quarter spark with Fred Reid running back a kickoff 100 yards, and Nick Turner darted 19 yards for a 28-17 intermission margin. Turner accounted for State's last score as well, on a one-yard dive at 2:40 of the third quarter. From there it was a matter of surviving Memphis' all-out aerial attack, as Danny Wimprine put the ball up 60 (!) times for 398 yards, two interceptions, and one touchdown. He tried to rally the Tigers with a short TD toss before the third quarter ended, and Stephen Gostkowski made it a one-score game with his field goal at 11:34 left. That was as close as Memphis got though, despite 568 yards total offense to State's 381. Jerious Norwood had 86 yards on 25 runs, and Fant was 16-of-34 passing for 245 yards. At least the home fans could enjoy Homecoming, because the win was also the last of the 2-10 season and final success of Jackie Sherrill's turbulent tenure.

Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State claims the largest gain in NCAA average attendance in 2009. A total of 376,544 watched the seven home games, for an average gate of 53,792. In 2008 the average home crowd was only 43,453.

*Not entirely by coincidence, more fans turned out to watch a more effective offense. State went from ranking #115, out of 119 teams, in NCAA total offense in 2008 to #65 in Dan Mullen's first season. His Bulldogs jumped to #72 in NCAA scoring, from 15.2 points per game in 2008 to 25.6 in '09.

*The Bulldogs ended their first season under Mullen's direction by more than doubling their rushing output. The 2009 team ranked first in SEC rushing and 9th in the NCAA at 227.6 yards per game; compared to the 102 average of '08. In fact, last year's team ran for more ground per-game than the 2007 and '08 teams combined.

*The 2009 Bulldog offense ranked 8th-best in program history at 371.9 yards per game. It also produced the second-most first downs ever at State, behind only the 1982 offense; the second most yards behind '82 as well; and ran the third-most plays.

*But now Mississippi State has to replace 1,924 rushing yards, or 70% of the total, from last season; along with 17 of the 21 rushing touchdowns. Most of this belonged of course to all-time rushing and scoring leader Anthony Dixon. He had 1,391 rushing yards and 12 TDs on the ground as a senior. Dixon finished as the SEC's #9 all time rusher.

*However, State does have players back who accounted for 18 of the total 37 touchdowns tallied in 2009.

*Last fall the Bulldogs scored seven non-offensive touchdowns. Five came on interception returns, one on a kickoff return, and another on a blocked punt. This total gave MSU the most non-offensive TDs since the 1998 team tallied eleven such scores returning interceptions, fumbles, kickoffs, punts, and blocked kicks.

*In all State's defense picked off 17 passes; more than double the total of eight in 2008. The five pick-sixes were the most for State since 1994 (six).

*After seeing State quarterbacks sacked 36 times in 2008, the Bulldog offensive line cut that total almost in-half for '09. MSU blocking allowed just 20 sacks last season.

*The 2009 Bulldog offense set a very under-appreciated record. It had the highest pass-completion percentage ever for MSU, at 57.5% of passes caught. That was still just #6-best in the SEC for '09, though.

*So the push in on to improve this air game further. QB Chris Relf is the only returning experienced quarterback, but threw for only 17% of the '09 passing yardage. Yet his five touchdown tosses were more than half the total.

*And Relf had just 3 of his 41 passes intercepted, compared to the 14 other picks against MSU.

*Relf went five-straight games, two under suspension, without throwing a ball. But in his final two appearances off the bench he was 4-of-7 against Arkansas; then 3-of-5 against Ole Miss.

*Relf had just 283 passing yards all last season; and almost doubled that with his ground gains of 500 yards even. His 6.6 gain per-tote was better than any full-time running back.

*In the last two games of the year Relf ran for 68 and 131 yards and averaged 7.4 yards per attempt.

*The next-highest rushing total by an active Bulldog? 221 yards for TB Robert Elliott, with a 5.0 average gain as a third-fall sophomore. Elliott scored one rushing touchdown.

*By contrast, State welcomes back both the leading receivers of '09. That includes freshman phenom WR Chad Bumphis who had 32 catches for 375 yards and four touchdowns. He was named a Freshman All-SEC by league coaches.

*The last time a freshman led State in receiving was 1977, when Mardye McDole had 29 catches.

*Bumphis had just one TD catch the second half of the season, but it mattered as it came in the Egg Bowl comeback surge. His longest catch was for 69 yards, against Georgia Tech.

*Bumphis also rushed for one touchdown this rookie year, against Georgia Tech. He's yet to throw for a score but that will come in time. Bumphis is 1-of-2 passing for five yards.

*In the last four games, Bumphis got to return 11 kickoffs (23.3 yard average). But he returned just one November punt. He still mustered 876 all-purpose freshman yards.

*That was far surpassed by his receiver/returner cohort WR Leon Berry though. As a junior transfer Berry had 1,259 all-purpose yards. That was 10th in the SEC final standings.

*Berry finished #4 in league kickoff return rate at 26.7 yards. In the process he obliterated the MSU record for season return yards with 1,015. That mark had been set only in 2008 by Derek Pegues with 708 yards by comparison.

*Berry's KOR touchdown against Georgia Tech was the first by any Bulldog since 2003.

*But Berry did not catch a pass in the final six games of '09. He had 14 grabs for 236 yards in the first six games.

*The throws that might have gone to Berry or other wideouts instead ended up in the hands of TE Marcus Green. As a junior he netted 306 yards on 27 catches with three touchdowns. Compare this to the ten total catches by MSU tight ends in all of 2008.

*In the last two games of the year Green got five catches and 42 yards.

*Fellow TEs Brandon Henderson and Kendrick Cook had just one catch all last year, by Cook for 13 yards.

*OG Quentin Saulsberry has started 24-straight games at left guard. OC J.C. Brignone has 24-straight starts, too, 23 of them at center.

*The defensive leader in total starts is WLB K.J. Wright with 22. But he missed a pair of starts last fall as State opened play with a nickel formation.

*Wright is still the top returning tackler with 82 total stops as a junior, but was #2 on the team last fall. In fact he was second in tackles as a 2008 sophomore, too.

*Wright has 161 career tackles in 34 games. He also has 15.5 career tackles for losses, and 6.0 sacks.

*Chris White had 26 tackles in the first five games of his transfer season; he nailed ballcarriers 49 times in the last seven games. His 75 total stops were third-best on the team, working at WLB. He moves to middle linebacker this year.

*Junior S Charles Mitchell enters the year with 95 career tackles.

*Mitchell's four interceptions produced 131 yards of returns and one touchdown.

*He was topped by a fellow safety, though, and a younger one. As a freshman, Johnthan Banks took over starting at FS mid-season and finished with four picks as well, but for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Banks, who opens this soph season as a cornerback, had the longest return of the year with a 100-yard pick-six against Florida.

*In fact he had a pair of interception returns in that game (the other for 20 yards). In the process Banks became the first Bulldog ever with two pick-sixes in a single game; and tied the season record as well.

*And that still wasn't the team-leading interception total. It belonged instead to Corey Broomfield, who tied the program record with six interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns, in the opener against Jackson State and the finale against Ole Miss. So it was Broomfield winning Coaches Freshman All-SEC.

*All 14 picks of '09 came from Bulldogs who had never gotten an interception before last year.

*Senior DE Pernell McPhee did not pick a pass in 2009. But he broke up four throws, was credited with eight more hurries, and sacked quarterbacks five times. That was nearly one-third of the team's total sacks, and earned second-team All-SEC honors from league coaches.

*DT Fletcher Cox was a Freshman All-SEC last year. He blocked a field goal in the Houston game.

*Senior PK Sean Brauchle began the year by making 6-of-9 field goals, with a 49-yarder against Vanderbilt that tied for the longest by a Bulldog since 2001. His season was interrupted mid-way by a leg injury.

*So PK Derek DePasquale took over and hit 10-of-12 field goals with a long of 48 against Ole Miss.

*Between them the two placekickers were perfect on 35 PATs.

*State was the only SEC team that did not kick-off for a touchback in 2009.

*P Heath Hutchins averaged 39.7 yards as a junior transfer. The year before State averaged 37.8 punting yards.

*There are 11 scholarship freshmen from the 2009 rookie class ready to be activated this weekend: OL Gabe Jackson, DE Johnathan McKenzie, RB LaDarius Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, WR Ricco Sanders, RB William Shumpert, LB Deonte Skinner, DB Dennis Thames, OC Sam Watts, DB Nickoe Whitley. The count can also include delayed-enrollee P Baker Swedenburg, and redshirted walkon WR Sam Williams.

*There are 57 Bulldogs on the official 2010 roster who have played a game for State; with 34 having started a game.


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