The Notebook: 3-28

Happy Friday!

A busy week at Mississippi State becomes a busy weekend today, starting with baseball tonight. And that is where the notes begin.

YQMPLOUQEPBVIGZ.20140321003702Yesterday, MSU announced it’s pitching rotation for the weekend against Arkansas, the same trio it used so successfully against Vanderbilt last weekend: Friday – Preston Brown (3-0, 1.12 ERA), Saturday – Ross Mitchell (4-1, 1.66 ERA), Sunday -Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.13 ERA).

Pitching coach Butch Thompson has compared Brown to former MSU pitcher Kendall Graveman, which seems pretty accurate. Brown racked up the ground outs last Friday, and he’s pitched 16 total innings in his last two starts. With him, Mitchell and Fitts as varying levels of inning eaters, MSU has a lot of flexibility with its bullpen.

Keep in mind, Ben Bracewell and Dakota Hudson, who both have multiple weekend starts, are fresh and available, in addition to the lengthy list of relievers and closers.

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Over at football, Dan Mullen’s team is closing in on the end of week two, including a scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium tomorrow morning at 11. That will be open to the public, should anyone like to watch.

The Bulldogs obviously do 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 in practice, but Mullen and the staff treat scrimmages as “opportunities” for the players different from regular practices. Scrimmages are their chance to make a move on depth chart and impress their coaches, making them significantly more intense and meaningful.

Typically, the first team offense will run a series against the first team defense, then the twos have a drive against each other, followed by the threes, with that schedule repeated several times. It will be interesting to see who runs with each team, as well as to see who stands out.

It was in the spring last year when Brandon Holloway made such an impression at running back, the position he has now switched to this spring.

BjwbFegCMAA43-a.jpg-largeAnother fun football note: former Southern Cal head coach Ed Orgeron was the guest speaker at MSU’s coaching clinic yesterday. I don’t know what he said, but I did find out that he and offensive line coach John Hevesy actually have a history, having coached together at Syracuse in the ’90s. Coach O seemed to be well-received by MSU’s staff and was out watching the Bulldogs practice Thursday afternoon.

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One last note, which isn’t exactly an exclusive breaking story, but is certainly entertaining and a sneak peek: softball is trying out a new promotion on Saturday where a fan at the game is selected to go in the outfield with a glove between innings and catch shirts shot out a T-shirt cannon. If you catch it, you get to keep it. And if you catch all three, supposedly, you get a prize.

Not exactly headline news, but I badly want to try it. Ought to be fun.

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Trevor Fitts, MSU’s bearded bunny, brings energy to club

Since Mississippi State began it’s postseason run last year, now-junior Trevor Fitts has been one of the best and most reliable pitchers on the team.

YTCEKXFCQBQTAXR.20140323235549In 2014, he leads the team in quality and total starts, and is 24th in the country in strikeouts per nine innings with a team-high 37 Ks this year, including 13 who struck out looking.

But his impact on the team, in all facets, can’t be relegated to just work on the mound. He’s important there, too, without question. But he means much more to MSU than just being a pitcher.

“Trevor Fitts,” pitching coach Butch Thompson began, “he’s just who we are, in every sense. He doesn’t give a pitch away. He battles. He’s an extraordinary teammate. He’s everything that I think Mississippi State baseball represents, with a special group. As a coach you try not to play favorites, but boy, he got my heart and a lot of his teammates’ hearts and his coaches’ hearts. Everybody roots for him.”

Why do they root for him? Certainly he earned some good will (and national attention) last fall when he created a PowerPoint presentation that convinced John Cohen to let his team grow beards. When the Bulldogs ran through Omaha, they were as famous for their facial [and chest] hair as they were for their actual play.

His teammates also say there are few more encouraging than Fitts in the locker room. As fellow pitcher Jonathan Holder said, it doesn’t even matter what the situation is, baseball or not.

“If you’ve had a long day at school or something, you drag around a little bit in the locker room, Fitts likes to pick you up and get you going,” the All-American closer said. “He’s the hype guy, for sure. He likes to get everybody going.”

Brandon Woodruff, another junior on the pitching staff, referred to Fitts as “an energy bunny,” saying the guy is always jumping around, talking to teammates, smiling, laughing and having fun.

That energy is contagious, particularly when Fitts gets the ball.

“When he’s on the mound, guys know Trevor Fitts is pitching that day,” first baseman Wes Rea said. “It’s just like a light switch turns on for that guy when he’s pitching that day. He gets the guys wanting to be around him. He’s energetic and ready to go. It’s a really electric atmosphere when Trevor Fitts is pitching that day.”

Much of what makes him so likeable, so loved by his teammates and coaches, is that whatever Fitts does, it’s not about him. Sure, he has his own desires and dreams like anyone. It’s no coincidence his beard is one of the finest on the team after he petitioned for their clubhouse legality. And he wants to be a good pitcher more than nearly anything.

But his encouraging attitude remains constant. Team over self.

unnamedAfter every inning pitched, Fitts runs to the mouth of the dugout, before anyone else can get there, and waits for each member of his defense to arrive, giving individual glove-bumps and high-fives as they come off the field.

“I’ve never seen a player do that,” assistant coach Nick Mingione said. “He runs off the mound after recording a third out and he’ll go give his teammates and defenders a high five. I’ve never seen it. He’s just a totally selfless player and we’re so happy he’s here.”

In his most recent start, Fitts had, by most measures, an impressive outing. In 6.1 innings, he struck out six and only allowed one run. But after he came out, and as the game wore on, his Bulldogs went on to lose 5-1, though they did win the overall series against Vanderbilt.

In postgame interviews, Fitts deflected any praise for himself. Instead he talked about how his offensive teammates had quality at-bats throughout, even if the production never came. He lamented the loss, while praising those in the bullpen for their efforts.

It’s like that any time he’s interviewed, after win or loss. Fitts has one of the biggest personalities on the team, and the energy can be seen in his smiles and bounciness, but in those public settings, he doesn’t want it to be about him.

Which is why one has to talk to those around him to hear what Fitts means to the club.

“He’s a really good teammate,” second baseman Brett Pirtle said. “Even when it’s down for him, he’s always there for you. He’s really proud of us, to have us behind him playing defense. He shows how much he likes us by being at the end of the dugout high-fiving us.”

Said Woodruff, “He’s awesome. Every time he comes around, he’s such an energy bunny. He lights up the room. It’s always fun being around Trevor … Whenever he’s coming off the mound or going onto the field, he always jumps the line. When he does stuff like that, he kind of looks like a little rabbit when he hops the line. He really sets the tone with energy.”

SALDQTKGJBHOHSS.20140216024334All the while, Fitts has steadily improved himself as a pitcher. With each outing, Thompson agreed, Fitts seems to be better than the last. His progression over his time at MSU is exactly what a coach wants to see. Used sparingly to start the 2013 season, he ended up as a starter in the College World Series.

Initially limited in how long he stays on the mound, Thompson and the staff now depend on Fitts for weekend starts and SEC inning-eating.

“He’s always redefining himself,” Thompson said.

Mingione went on to say Fitts has “a teachable and coachable spirit,” as well as an infectious personality.

As the years have passed for Cohen in Starkville, Mingione sees a team full of young men who reflect the personality of their head coach, the style of the school they play for and the emblem on their jerseys.

This team, he said, is a perfect representation of the program. And the bearded energy bunny is just another great example.

“Trevor Fitts, he’s one of the guys we feel like is who we are. He just pretty much does embody what Mississippi State baseball is.”

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Chris Jones making strides in first offseason; review of first week of spring football

At seven days and four practices into Mississippi State football’s spring period, we’ve only seen the Bulldogs in full pads once, so making an attempt to break down the two deep for the fall of 2014 would be a bit premature, if basing it off the last week.

But there is still plenty to glean from the practices on MSU’s new turf field, and the biggest one is of the intangible type.

At times last year, particularly in the middle during the rough stretch of the 2013 season, MSU didn’t often seem particularly positive. So many young players on the field, combined with injuries and mounting losses, had State at a rough mental spot at points in the season.

By the end of the year, that turned around. The Bulldogs finished with three-straight wins, including two overtime SEC victories, one of them the Egg Bowl, then ending with a big win in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

The good vibes from those games, rather than the frustrated ones from early on, are what have carried over into the spring.

Rather than taking a third party observer’s word for it, rising sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones was asked about the difference.

“If I’m wrong, tell me,” the reporter began. “But it seems like y’all are just so happy out here.”

“The chemistry is a lot better,” Jones said. Much of it, from both the observer’s eye and that of those on the inside, seems to come from Geoff Collins, the second-year defensive coordinator who runs around practice yelling, talking, awarding juice points and generally enjoying himself. “Coach Collins preaches to have fun in what you’re doing,” Jones continued. “You can’t just be out here trying to do something. You’ve gotta have fun in what you do. We do it so much and we’re gonna spend so much time here, you’ve gotta have fun. You’ve got to enjoy the process of it.”

bwgyavsqlmfmysa-20131006013553It seems the team, and Jones in particular, is doing just that. And it’s with him our first weekly report begins.

Collins wants the entire team to have fun, but he finds it particularly important with Jones, who has only been under the tutelage of coaches for nine months, despite his rising stardom in the SEC.

Collins and defensive line coach David Turner had a meeting with Jones before the third day of practice to give him a simple message.

“‘Chris, let your personality come out,’” Collins says they told the big man. “Because he’s got a huge personality. He’s 6’6”, 308, but his personality is even bigger than that. But I don’t think we’d seen that. He’s got such a big persona. If he lets that come out, it’s gonna be dangerous.”

The issue, as it often is with young players, is that Jones was thinking too much. Talent can only take a player so far, Mullen said when asked about Jones. Technique, skill and determination are what can fully mold the talent into production. Desperate to get better, Jones worked on those little things his coach preaches as so important, though it sometimes made things tough.

In his relative youth, those techniques are growing on Jones, even if they aren’t quite second nature.

But, even with just a few months of offseason work, it’s improved a great deal.

“I feel a lot better, man,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of stress. When you first get in here, it’s like, they’re just running plays and you don’t know what it is, then coach tells you to get in the game and you don’t know what to do. You gotta learn different sets and formations. It was a great first year, but now I’m trying to progress. Knowing things now, I can play and have fun.”

In his continual effort to improve, Jones is down to 290 pounds, saying he played most of the 2013 season between 310-315 pounds. His eventual playing goal is 285.

“I’m able to move around a little swifter now,” Jones said, as he expects to play more on the outside as an end in 2014. “I can carry my body better.”

ncf_i_chrisjones_ms_600x600Between himself and other young talent blossoming on defense, Jones is unabashedly optimistic about their potential.

“I believe the sky is the limit for us,” he said. “All of us on the same page, we work toward the same goal: be the best defense in the nation.”

Check out the video above for highlights and recap of week one, while below we’ll have continually updated breakdowns by position of what’s happening in spring practice.

Quarterback

This section needs relatively little description, as MSU is as set at the position as it has ever been. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned leader of the team, while backup Damian Williams was key in both of MSU’s overtime wins.

What’s new is the coach, Brian Johnson. Only about six years older than Prescott, Johnson has the personality to connect, but he brings the experience – both as player and coach – to help make his players better.

One noteworthy item: he stresses ball security very seriously. At the beginning of every practice, the QBs run through drills not dissimilar to ones you might see on a basketball court: catching the ball with one hand, weaving the ball around their backs and between their legs, as well as taking turns trying to strip the ball from each other mid “tackle.”

Running Backs

7847382Two items of note here. 1. Dan Mullen seems to be all in on Josh Robinson as the starter in replacement of LaDarius Perkins, a role the rising junior enjoys. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry in relief of Perkins last year.

2. Former receiver Brandon Holloway has switched to RB. Easily the fastest and smallest on offense at the same time, it seems to be a good fit. When he gets any space at all, he’s off.

Offensive Line

John Hevesy has an odd combination. On the one hand, this is the deepest his group has ever been. On the other, he’s replacing two starters and only has two guys he knows for sure will be starters. He’s operating under the same style he always has, saying the five best linemen will be on the field, regardless of position, and he likes for his guys to be able to play all positions.

Sophomore Jamaal Clayborn seems to be set to take over for Gabe Jackson at left guard, leaving the guard and tackle spots on the right side of the line open. We’ll have more on this after more work in pads, naturally.

Wide Receiver

TZNJZVVZXCHMOPX.20131117042355It seems we’re seeing the fruits of a full year under receivers coach Billy Gonzales. Last spring, as MSU replaced four seniors, their coach and all the starters, we frequently saw guys running the wrong routes, not knowing when the ball was coming or making other miscues.

Now, after Gonzales being able to get his hands on them for an extended period of time, those simple mistakes are far less common, if not close to eradicated. There’s still the occasional dropped ball, of course, but the second-year coach for MSU seems to have his receiving ship running very tightly.

Tight Ends

This position is about as steady (and perhaps underrated) as it comes for MSU. Malcolm Johnson enters his senior year as one of the Bulldogs’ best weapons and a leader of the team.

Off the field – sideline technically – Johnson was a part of one of the cooler things I saw this week. The athletic training staff is testing out a new cooling vest that a few players, including Johnson, wore in practice. It’s a thin, low weight vest that goes on underneath their pads and has a hook up for a hose at the collar. On the sideline, the staff has a cooler full of ice water, which they run through hoses and into and out of small pockets lining the vest as a means of lowering internal temperature in the Mississippi heat.

In a Venn diagram of people who are big and people who run the most, you’d find Johnson and guys like middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the middle. As such, those were two of the experimenters for this new device.

Defensive Line

Like Gonzales, Turner is another coach who hasn’t received enough credit and praise for the job he’s done. We know the talent returning with guys like Jones, Preston Smith, Ryan Brown, P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Nelson Adams, Jordan Washington and a handful of others, and Turner has developed them into what could possibly be the best defensive line in the SEC.

The wildcard in this has been the progression of sophomore tackle Nick James. The uber-talented and gargantuan-sized James redshirted last season, and the year of learning and working seems to have done him good. Where he used to tire after two plays in a row, he can now stay on the field without getting winded. He’s still gigantic, but he’s trimmed down and is relatively lean for someone so large. This group is already great, and a player of James’ caliber could be the proverbial icing on a 300-pound cake.

BjWk65ZCMAAnNL6.jpg-largeLinebackers

Benardrick McKinney is the star, and is only getting bigger and better, so the storyline here is the replacement of outside linebacker Deontae Skinner. Rising sophomore Beniquez Brown, based on these practices, looks more than ready to take the job. As much as anyone can be a star through four practies, the big and athletic Brown has been, making tackles, batting down passes, even intercepting some, and showing a great deal of energy. Or juice, I should say.

Defensive Backs

Guys like Jay Hughes, Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are known quantities. But two others seem to be candidates for emerging stars. Senior Justin Cox has made the switch from corner to safety, which appears to be a much more natural fit for him. The way he’s playing, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to end up a starter.

At corner, it’s junior Will Redmond who is doing everything he can to get on the field. Like Brown at linebacker, Redmond has made a quick and big impression in the spring with interceptions, pass break-ups and compliments from his offensive teammates.

Special Teams

Running backs coach Greg Knox received his new and additional title as special teams coach. I was told it would be the case, and observation has backed up the claim that this was not merely a promotion in title. It’s actually happening. Every time special teams sessions are taking place, Knox is running them.

Certainly, other coaches are involved. Gonzales works with returners, Hevesy directs the line on field goals, Collins and Tony Hughes work with the punt and field goal block units, but Knox is in charge of it all. The special teams are his show, which the players seem to like.

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How the M-over-S sign came to Dudy Noble

The night before Mississippi State kicked off its season at Dudy Noble Field in February, a few thousand gathered in the stadium for a celebration of the journey starting the very next day.

unnamed-1While there, the crowd was treated to a baseball version of lighting the Christmas tree, as the newest part of Bulldog baseball was unveiled and lit up for the very first time. Standing on top of the scoreboard in right field is a giant version of the Diamond Dawgs’ logo, the M-over-S, MSU’s most famous and unique symbol, exclusive to those who play within the confines of Polk-Dement Stadium.

Several additions and cosmetic upgrades have been made to the stadium since the Bulldogs returned from the College World Series back in May, but none are so symbolic, naturally, as this symbol, nor are any as big and obvious as this giant sign standing higher than all but the light poles, shining brighter than the moon rising behind it every night.

“That was really important to me,” head coach John Cohen said. “Our athletic director Scott Stricklin, who I think has tremendous vision, uses a word I don’t use enough: branding. I thought a lot about our brand, and our brand is that M-over-S.”

Anywhere he goes, Cohen said, people recognize their logo, the emblem unique to Mississippi State baseball.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “You can be in Seattle, New York – somebody’s gonna walk up to you and they know what that M-over-S stands for. That’s pretty neat, to know that Will Clark wore that M-over-S. Rafael Palmeiro wore that M-over-S and Buck Showalter wore that M-over-S, and on and on and on. It’s important.”

ZBGXVZDBBSFKVHP.20130320030307And it was Cohen himself who had the idea for the big, bright sign, according to Stricklin. When head coach came to athletic director with the proposition, the first thing Stricklin asked, naturally, was “how much will it cost?”

Cohen told him, then followed up by saying he had money in his budget to pay for it himself. It was that important to him.

Stricklin responded, “If you can handle it, sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it.”

And so the designs were done and the order placed.

“I told our players,” Cohen later said, “we could spend that money in other areas, but that the staying power of that and the significance of it, to me, is important.”

A hefty chunk of that significance, beyond its seemingly-universal recognition, is the exclusivity of M-over-S to the MSU baseball program.

Though all it technically stands for, obviously, is “Mississippi State,” with nothing specifically tying it baseball, no other sport on campus uses it. Never have, and they never will, so says Stricklin.

“I tell our baseball guys at the beginning of every year,” Stricklin said, “that logo is special because they’re the only sport on our campus that gets to have a unique logo. They get to do that because the people who came before in that program won to the level where that logo became synonymous with our baseball program.”

mississippi-state-jonathan-holder-061513Part of what makes the M-over-S so unique, in Stricklin’s eyes, is the way it grew into such a specific symbol. Any of the standard M-State logos could mean football, academics, tennis, softball or golf. They represent everyone. The M-over-S became the only emblem to be so unique and so specific in meaning.

“We don’t want to take that away because it has too much equity,” Stricklin said. “We also don’t want to put it on the other sports because it’s unique to baseball. When people see that, they may not think Mississippi State University, but they definitely think Mississippi State baseball. There are just very few marks and logos that don’t just speak to a university, they speak to a specific sport at a university.”

Like both Stricklin and Cohen said, it became a brand. Cohen compared it to a visit he took to Yankee Stadium and the famous N-Y symbol, which he says might be branded better than any he’s ever seen.

With history intact and sign erected, Cohen hopes the future can see the M-over-S as a similar symbol for Mississippi State baseball.

“It’s important,” he said. “It’s kind of a big branding piece, but it’s really important for us to brand our program that way. It was really important to me and our players.”

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‘Bowling Ball’ Josh Robinson brings juice to offense as new starting running back

Geoff Collins is the man behind ‘Juice Points’ at Mississippi State, and he can be seen running around the field jumping, yelling and high-fiving throughout a practice.

While Collins may be the one keeping track of the actual points, rising junior running back Josh Robinson, who often jaws playfully back and forth at practice with the defensive coordinator, claims the energy itself started with him.

“Nah,” Robinson said with a laugh when asked about Collins, “I’m the Juice Guy. Coach Collins brings juice to the defense, I bring juice to the offense.”

RGGMFDYJYPUMLTO.20120916031143While trash talking and quick wits on the field are usually reserved for the defensive side of the ball, Robinson has been one of the most vocal players on the team in all areas. On the practice field, on the game field, in the locker room or even running around with a video camera surrounded by a horde of fans waiting outside the stadium like he did before MSU played at Alabama back in 2012.

He certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, either, as he uttered the words “National Championship” following an overtime win at Arkansas last fall. The Bulldogs only had five wins at the time with one game left that season, but the optimistic sophomore and his ever-moving mouth couldn’t help looking ahead to the future.

“He’s got a lot of energy to him,” Dan Mullen said with a smile after the first practice of the spring. “He likes to talk. It’s good to have those guys and the excitement that he plays with.”

Robinson is the first to speak up on the sideline in down moments and the last to leave the locker room as he encourages his teammates.

“I’ve always been like this,” he said. “I’m always the energizer bunny trying to motivate people around me. You never know how somebody’s day is going.”

The truth of his self-assessment goes beyond football, too.

When spring break began, the last free week for Robinson and the team before spring practice got started, his classmates and teammates all skipped town for vacations on sandy beaches.

He eventually joined his friends for sun and fun, but not before spending the beginning of that week visiting with sick children at the hospital and hanging out with kids at the Boys and Girls Club in Starkville.

He didn’t go as part of team field trip or because his parents made him.

That’s just how Robinson is.

“I gotta give back to the kids,” he said in a much quieter tone than usual. “I’m majoring in that. That’s what I want to do.”

Of course, what his major is may prove to be inconsequential if he follows in the footsteps of the running backs who came before him at MSU.

7847382LaDarius Perkins is headed to the NFL, Vick Ballard was drafted by the Colts, Anthony Dixon just signed his second NFL contract, Robinson ticked off on his hand.

One reporter asked him if he remembered Jerious Norwood, called J-Rock by those in Maroon and White. Fitting for Robinson, who calls himself J-Rob.

Although, Mullen has said before Robinson reminds him of Dixon. Not because they look or play the same, not at all. But because of the personality and charisma they have in common.

Robinson keeps in touch with those who preceded him in the backfield lineage as he now steps into the role they all had: being the starting running back at a school with a history of great ones.

“I’m trying to do something none of them did,” Robinson said, again making passing mention of his lofty goals. “I’m trying to make history.”

In the short few months of the offseason so far, and under the tutelage of MSU’s new strength and conditioning coach, Robsinon has been molding and re-shaping his body to prepare for a starter’s load.

He says he first dropped some weight, purposely, after the 2013 season ended. Then, Robinson tells us, he put the weight back on by building muscle.

The result?

“I’m faster,” he said, “and stronger, too.”

Both Robinson and Mullen acknowledge he has to work on some of the little things like blocking and route running as he assumes the starting gig from Perkins, but his 5.9 yards per carry in backup duty last year are a good start and his 574 total yards were the fourth-most of all offensive players.

To be sure, the difference from being a backup and a starter is great, but whatever Robinson lacks in reps, he makes up for in confidence.

“Just be the best player Josh Robinson can be,” he said. “We’ve got a great team. We’re expecting big things to happen. I’ve just gotta play my role and do what I can do.

“[Perkins] told me, ‘Be Bowling Ball and when you strike, strike hard.’”

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Five storylines as MSU spring football begins

At exactly-ish 4 p.m. today, the 2014 Mississippi State football season sort of officially begins as spring practice gets underway. This first practice – as mandated by the NCAA – will only have players in shorts, shirts and helmets, with full pads coming this weekend.

As we wait for practice to begin, I offer five submissions for top storylines to watch over the next several weeks.

1. New quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson

brianjohnson1Last year, MSU was breaking in a new corners coach, a new receivers coach, a new defensive line coach and a new defensive coordinator. This year, the only turnover on the staff comes at quarterback coach, where former Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson is taking the reigns from the departed Les Koenning.

The good news is plentiful, as MSU already has a budding star at the position in Dak Prescott, who pairs nicely with a rising coach in Johnson. For the first time since Dan Mullen got to MSU, all of his quarterbacks have the same style of play, with Damian Williams and true freshman early enrollee Nick Fitzgerald both dual-threat players.

Two things which help Johnson: he himself was a mobile quarterback playing in a spread, and he was also coached by Mullen back when he was a player at Utah, so the familiarity with everything involved is already there. This is far from starting from scratch.

2. Who will lead them?

Last spring, I witnessed a moment I’ve had stuck in my mind ever since. There was a small scuffle during team contact drills and in the heat of the moment, we found out who the leaders were. When Tyler Russell, Prescott, Malcolm Johnson and Nickoe Whitley ran forward to diffuse the situation and calm the involved teammates, it became clear where the leadership in the locker room came from.

0fa519bd4c4937f51053b17b799e28cbAs spring begins, I’ll be interested to see who steps up into those roles. Prescott is already a known quantity when it comes to the intangibles, and safety Jay Hughes has often been referred to as a coach on the field. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney and center Dillon Day are certainly leaders, as well.

But which youngsters will step up the way those veterans before them did? Some people have natural qualities and charisma making people want to follow them. Prescott is an example. Someone like rising junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun seems a similar personality.

More times than not, the greatest players become leaders early in their career, which leads me to sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones. He was already a vocal and encouraging teammate as a true freshman, so now will he become the all-around leader, on the field and in the weight, film, training and locker rooms? I’ll be watching.

3. Position changes

Some of these are known, while others are guessed, but all will be kept track of. We know big-bodied Rufus Warren is switching from tight end to left tackle, where athleticism is at a prime. In bowl prep, freshman receiver B.J. Hammond worked at tight end with mixed results, but he’s got the frame for it to be a fit.

CAFRKWCCMCJKTZY.20130420212126The two I’m most interested in: Brandon Holloway and Justin Cox. A rising sophomore, the diminutive Holloway was a track star in high school and has seen snaps at receiver, but has practiced at running back in the past. With the graduation of LaDarius Perkins, the Bulldogs have no game-breaking speed threats in the backfield, nor do they have a proven pass-catcher. Holloway would be far from an every down back, but his skills could certainly be utilized at running back.

As for Cox, he was one of the top junior college defensive backs in the country when he signed with MSU, though his first season on campus as a corner relegated him to spot duty. Switching to safety for the bowl – the position he played in JUCO – worked well for him and if the switch sticks, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him wrap up a starting job and have a breakout senior year in 2014.

Elsewhere, Dee Arrington has switched from safety to linebacker, offering some athleticism at the position, and it sounds as if jack-of-all-trades junior Christian Holmes will be at linebacker rather than tight end, though that could certainly change.

4. Offensive linemen

Outside of Day at center and Blaine Clausell at right tackle, nothing on the line is guaranteed. The upside is that all candidates for the open spots are already on campus, as the Bulldogs must replace All-American left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Charles Siddoway.

CSFCXTJTXTGLJCV.20130926144346It would seem Jamal Clayborn, a mauler-type who spelled Jackson at times as a freshman last year, would have the inside track at left guard. At right guard, Justin Malone narrowly edged out Ben Beckwith to earn the starting gig last year, but Beckwith took over for him and performed admirably all season after Malone was injured early on.

Right tackle may be the biggest question mark, where JUCO transfer Jocquell Johnson, incumbent backup Damien Robinson and perhaps even redshirt freshman Jake Thomas will be competing for the open spot.

While there are three battles, the good news is that at least one of them is guaranteed to be won by someone who has started multiple SEC games, while the other two are likely to be filled by players who at least have a fair bit of experience, even if it isn’t of the starting variety.

5. Will continuity carry over?

Dan-Mullen-MSU-Shanna-LockwoodLast year with a young team replacing a boatload of talented seniors, spring practice was an important time for teaching and learning. This year, Mullen’s team returns a high level of experience at nearly every position, as well as the previously mentioned coaching staff.

The Bulldogs have an established quarterback, strong offensive and defensive lines, a potential All-American middle linebacker, a surprisingly experienced and deep secondary, the top returning receiver in the SEC (in terms of yards), the only tight end to twice earn Mackey Award Player of the Week honors last year, a stable of running backs and a sixth-year head coach who has a roster completely built by him and his staff.

In theory, MSU shouldn’t have to be overly worried about installation these next few weeks. Players already know Geoff Collins’ defense, every starter but Prescott has the same position coach and Mullen has been running the offense since he got to town. All of it could mean that, instead of learning the basics, a deep and talented team can worry about fine-tuning, improving weaknesses and accenting strengths, rather than spend the spring just building a base.

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The Notebook: Extended thoughts on baseball’s series win, MSU basketball and a new national champ

Almost nothing has happened on Mississippi State’s campus the last six days, with the University out for spring break and nearly every team on the road over the weekend. While students and staff were out, though, much has occured elsewhere worth discussing now that classrooms and offices are welcoming their tenants back.

MSU’s second season under Rick Ray came to an end, baseball won its SEC-opening series at Georgia and Steve Dudley’s track program saw its third National Champion in a year.

1. Baseball wins Georgia series 2-1.

1513650_812321768782995_1686185677_nAfter State lost the Friday night game on the road 7-1, MSU twitter and message boards neared the edge of the cliff, but then Saturday happened, when the Bulldogs from Mississippi won both games of the doubleheader and we learned a lot about the team.

Like last weekend when Cohen put in All-American closer Jonathan Holder in the second inning, MSU made one of those change-it-up moves in game one Saturday, deciding to give reliever Ross Mitchell the start, the second of his illustrious All-American career in Starkville. For lack of a more apt description, this seemed like MSU’s staff sort of saying, “Forget it, we have to win and whatever we’re doing isn’t quite working.”

And it did work, as Mitchell threw a complete game, getting a 6-1 win, a performance which earned him his second SEC Player of the Week honor in three weeks as he extended his record to 19-1. Cohen said afterward that the junior lefty has likely earned himself a spot in the weekend starting rotation going forward. Which leads us to….

The trio of juniors Trevor Fitts, Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder in the final game of the weekend was filthy. The three combined for 13 strikeouts in Saturday’s second game. The likelihood of them all being available in any one game going forward seems slim, but if possible, there’s a lot of heat coming from those guys.

I love the idea of Mitchell and his low-speed, high-movement stuff being the first guy a team sees to start the weekend, and while he isn’t likely to throw a complete game so often, he ought to go deep into games. Once a lineup has seen 100 pitches from him, balls in a game two lineup of Fitts, Lindgren and/or Holder will seem like they’re being shot out of a cannon.

Lindgren, I should note, has been superb this season. His move to the bullpen couldn’t have worked out better, so far. He’s basically averaging two strikeouts per inning this season, a total of 26 Ks in 13.2 innings, with an ERA of 1.32.

Cohen to reporters after the final game: “Those guys just said, ‘hey, I’m gonna put you guys on my back. Watch this, I’m gonna win it for you.’

“We experimented a lot during the course of the season, but what it really comes down to is we’ve gotta put the ball in the hands of the guys who got us to Omaha a year ago, and that’s what this whole day was about.

“I think we found out a lot about ourselves and where we need to go from here.”

The head coach also said Preston Brown, who has been stellar to date in non-conference and mid-week games, would have been a consideration to start had MSU played Sunday, but with Brown having thrown eight innings Tuesday, it was a bit too soon.

The next question, of course, is what will the lineup look like when Vanderbilt comes to town this weekend? And beyond asking who pitches, which games will they throw?

FPMOHYUWSRKHTDO.20140309013340Mitchell and his career 1.62 ERA in the SEC, oddly enough, may be the only guarantee to start, though Fitts seems like a very, very safe bet after his performance Saturday (and the rest of his resume` from this season and last). Could Brown supplant senior and co-captain Ben Bracewell? His start in Friday night’s game was rough, but otherwise Bracewell has been MSU’s most dependable starter, so it would be tough to take him out.

It’s certainly a good problem to have, and as Cohen said, both they and we learned a lot about the staff this weekend.

Elsewhere on the field, a few notes worth, well, noting:

  • Senior third baseman/designated hitter Alex Detz broke out of his slump, going 5-for-12 (.417) on the weekend, notching three RBI in the process.
  • Also at third, junior Matthew Britton had the best game of his season in game one Saturday, hitting 2-for-4 with three RBI and two runs scored. The battle between those two and freshman Reid Humphreys at third is a hot one, with no bad options.
  • Right next door, junior Seth Heck has seemingly wrapped up shortstop for some time now. He’s been tremendous defensively and has produced well at the plate, batting .353 on the year.
  • Senior outfielder Demarcus Henderson improved to a perfect 9-for-9 on stolen bases this season.

Wrapping up the baseball section, I found it interesting that there wasn’t a single sweep over the opening weekend of SEC play. Every team won either one or two games. That bodes well for the entertainment and competition in the conference this season.

2. Brandon McBride wins National Championship

OXGUXFMPZJIUKAG.20130206174453At the indoor national championships over the weekend, MSU’s Brandon McBride took home the title in the 800m run, with an astounding time of 1:48.17. It doesn’t work this way, but to put that number in perspective, it would equate to running a mile in 3 minutes and 36 seconds, in theory.

Also on Saturday, defending National Champ Erica Bougard had a personal-best high score in the pentathlon, placing second nationally in the competition.

Along with D’Angelo Cherry, who won the title in the 60m last spring, MSU now has three individual National Championships in the last 12 months from its track and field program. Head coach Steve Dudley, even with the high-level of praise he’s already getting, may still not be receiving enough.

3. Basketball comes to a close

Losing to Ole Miss in the second round of the SEC Tournament last Thursday night brought Rick Ray’s second season at MSU to a close with a final record of 14-19, as most of us know by now.

With the year now complete, we can look back on it and try to apply some perspective and look ahead to the future.

The most interesting part to me is a quote we got from Rick Ray last Monday, when he said MSU’s game against Vanderbilt in the first round would be an indication of how the 2014-15 season would be for the Bulldogs.

At the time, it seemed like a dangerous statement. Ray’s team was in the midst of a double-digit losing streak and had secured a spot as the bottom seed in the SEC Tournament. Staking expectations for the future on the result of that team’s next game seemed, honestly, a bit of a gamble.

But then, MSU went out and beat Vandy from start to finish, eventually winning 82-68.

TCHYMVDPAGOPDEU.20140113143044That game, along with the first 25 or so minutes of the loss to Ole Miss, were a reminder of the start of the season, when MSU surpassed it’s 2013 win total before SEC play even began. A point in the year where development and growth was obvious, second-year players were making big jumps and the Bulldogs were winning games.

Of course, by the end, the games became microcosms of the season. Start strong, show a lot of fight, eventually lack the steam to pull it out.

Going into Atlanta, MSU was beat up, exhausted and perpetually undermanned. Which is why the future is so promising.

From my point of view, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this, Ray’s team was another post player and spot-up shooter away from pulling out so many of the games they led early in the second half before slowing down, and if it had had any real depth, it may have had the stamina to maintain the leads it so often lost down the stretch of long battles.

Next year, he gets those things in bunches. For the first time, he’ll have a true center in 6’11” Fallou Ndoye, who spent this season on the bench as mandated by the NCAA. He’ll add the talented Travis Daniels to what was previously a woefully small number of forwards. With three signees coming to campus, he gets his shooter he can trust on the perimeter, he gets another guard who can drive and he adds yet another member to the bunch in the post so Gavin Ware doesn’t work himself to exhaustion.

MSU will enter next season with Ware, Fred Thomas and Craig Sword in their junior years – a guard in Thomas, by the way, who was one of the best offensive players in the SEC his last seven games, by the numbers. And he was already MSU’s best perimeter defender.

Ray believes he has a game-changing point guard in IJ Ready, though his freshman season was riddled with minor injuries, preventing him from ever getting into a real groove. Ready said himself he’s excited to have a full offseason to lift weights and build up his stamina so he can be a more consistent player and shooter.

I’m not predicting MSU will win the SEC, return to the Final Four or anything like that. But optimism and promise exist within a program that for two years running has had one of the most difficult roster situations in the country, nearly all of it beyond Ray and MSU’s control.

Consider that, in addition to those who played this season, the Bulldogs at one time thought Wendell Lewis, Jalen Steele, Andre Applewhite, Ndoye and Daniels would all be playing on this year’s team. Some are gone for selfish reasons, others had to sit for other situations. But had they played, Ray’s post depth would have gone from decimated to celebrated, he’d have had a talented shooter to open the lane up for Sword and the needed depth would’ve been at least vaguely existent.

Of course, the head coach is ultimately responsible for the state of the roster, but it won’t be until this fall when we finally see what Ray can do with a full compliment of players. To do what he’s done so far with the situation he took over, coaches around the conference have frequently said, is somewhere between a last-second Hail Mary and the biblical Virgin Mary in terms of miracles. (Certainly more toward the Hail Mary side, though)

No one has questioned the effort of the players, nor has the coaching ability of Ray and his staff been a concern.

Ray actually quoted Bill Parcells not long ago, telling reporters that his team is what the record says it is. And that’s true in the vacuum of a single season, but despite the wins and losses of the last two seasons, MSU  appears poised for a big jump in year three, one in which the fruits of two years hard labor may finally be reaped.

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A night in the dugout with MSU softball’s ‘Dog Pound’

My assignment was to spend a game in the dugout with the Mississippi State softball team. Take notes, observe and figure out what happens in that noisy cement-built rectangle alongside the third base line.

Last Tuesday night, the sun wasn’t down, but it wasn’t out either, hidden behind gray clouds and colorless sky.

2014-02-07-18-58-42-2The air was wet and near freezing, somewhere in the 30s; the kind of weather people in this state are barely comfortable driving in, let alone standing around in for hours at night. Softball in the spring and summer, bathed in sunshine, is great. But this? The date on the calendar was inconsequential. This was cold, miserable winter, the opposite of what outdoor sports were made for.

Despite every reason to sulk, avoid movement and get through the night as quickly as possible, every single player and coach jumped around smiling and talking, relentlessly upbeat as if it were 75 and sunny as the game drew near.

There may not be a more encouraging place than a softball dugout.

A few minutes until first pitch against UAB, half the team was playing hacky sack and paused to watch their coach, Vann Stuedeman, walk to the plate for the meeting with the umpires and the opposing head coach.

As soon as she had started the walk, the hacky sack fell to the ground and the whole team started chanting, “OOOOOOOOHHHHHH!” like a football crowd before kickoff, only stopping once Stuedeman had finished the handshake.

“What in the world was that?”

“An intimidation tactic, more or less,” one of the assistants told me.

Finally, the game began, the start of the countdown until a return to warmth of indoors.

Alison Owen, MSU’s star pitcher, stood in the circle, ball in hand and extra sleeves on her arms, steam pouring from her face with every exhale of hot breath into frigid air.

“DOG POUND!”

I heard the yelling call to assembly at the opposite end of the dugout coming from senior Rachel Zdeb.

Perfect. This is what I was there to watch.

The Bulldogs, always supportive, have developed roles both on the field and in the dugout.

IMG_4732Every individual on the team wants to start and play every game, but with more than twice as many players as available positions, they all know how it works. Some will stay in the lineup as long as they are healthy, others move in and out and plenty more patiently wait their chance from the dugout.

And all of them have a responsibility. This group – the Dog Pound – took a name long after it organically formed. In a game as mental as softball, like baseball or golf, shaken confidence can lose a game, while heavy doses of it lead to dominating performances. Such is the purpose of the Dog Pound, to cultivate that confidence with bravado of their own.

The bench in any sport cheers for those in action when good things happen. But softball may be the only one with constant noise and exhortation coming from the uniformed teammates watching on the side, regardless of big plays or complete inaction.

Before, during and after every pitch, they yell. Leading up to each at-bat a chant of some sort comes pouring out of the dugout.

In the first inning against the Blazers, UAB’s pitcher stood on the mound waiting for the signal and getting ready to deliver a pitch.

As she paused and then moved into the wind-up, the whole dugout, or Dog Pound, chanted much like they did for Stuedeman before the game.

“OOOOOOOHHHHHHH!”

As soon as the called ball three breezed high into the catcher’s glove,

“BOOM!” they all yelled.

“We got some Dogs up in here!” two of them followed up.

Those two – Kayla Winkfield and Logan Foulks – patrolled the empty corridor in the middle of the dugout as Katie Gentle, Erika Gaul, Olivia Golden and other chief members of the Dog Pound stood on the bench at the back, while the rest of the team lined the outer edge of the dugout along the net protecting them from foul balls.

The cheering and yelling is constant. I’ve met enough strength coaches to know how scratchy and gravelly voices get after years of working those sound cords. How these ladies get through entire games and seasons somehow still maintaining their higher-pitched feminine voices is a vocal miracle.

Early in the game, UAB was the first to get on the board, taking a 1-0 lead.

If anything, the cheering from the Dog Pound only got louder when that green jersey stepped onto home plate.

“Right back,” they called. “Let’s go Dawgs!”

The next inning, freshman Mackenzie Toler, the designated player, stepped to the plate for MSU.

“MAC!” half the dugout yelled.

“DADDY!” the other half responded.

And the back-and-forth repeated three times before ending in an emphatic, “That’s our Mac Daddy!”

Not long after, one Bulldog took an errant pitch to the shoulder, being granted first base.

“H-B-P,” came the chant, again repeated three times, before ending in a chorus of “We – don’t – moooooove!”

In the bottom of the third inning, MSU tied the game up 1-1 as Caroline Seitz’ RBI sent Loryn Nichols across the plate.

In that half inning, real and constant barking came from the Dog Pound. Not people saying “woof,” but actual, guttural barks from the bottom of their throats. Gentle would lead it off, Gaul following suit and the whole crew eventually joining for a snarl or two.

BBTVJXHHMEXQFTK.20130208030356When the top of the fourth ended, it came as right fielder Julia Echols hauled in a deep hit out in the grass. After making the catch, she turned and tossed the ball over the outfield wall to the fans watching from behind the fence, drawing laughs and whoops from her teammates in the dugouts.

I could barely feel my hands to scribble notes on the pad stuffed in my hoodie, and I’d long since lost my toes to numbness, but here this team was barking, chanting and having fun with their fans and each other.

In the bottom of the fourth, Toler was back at the plate and this time she shot a liner to the outfield, eventually sliding in safely to second base.

“MacDouble!” someone yelled.

“1-2-3,” Zdeb led the count.

“Mac Daddy, YOU KNOW!” the Dog Pound followed.

Then trouble came again in the fifth. And more trouble, as UAB got hot at the plate, scoring two runs to get a 3-1 lead. Then, after a scoreless sixth, the Blazers scored two more in the top of the seventh inning.

Entering the final frame trailing 5-1 and facing possible defeat just three outs away, the mood was no different than if MSU were up by the same score.

“It’s gonna happen,” Echols cried with no hint of false bravado.

“We’re gonna get some barrels,” Toler repeated several times in a sing-songy fashion.

I got distracted when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Owen and Foulks were walking up and down the dugout doing “touches,” a superstition involving, as you can guess, touching every person in the dugout twice.

MOLXQVOPPDHEVVZ.20140224225639A comeback didn’t seem overly likely to me as I watched from the very end of the dugout, but the thought that they wouldn’t find a way to win it didn’t seem to have crossed anyone else’s mind.

A few batters later, Seitz crushed a two-run homer and all the sudden MSU was within two and their bats were hot.

Every member of the team raised their hands in the air as Seitz rounded third, then as one yelled “BOOM!” when she jumped onto home plate. Hugs, high fives and smiles all around.

They kept working the plate as the final frame continued. After another runner got on base, I realized the tying run was at the plate with two outs.

Not only had I gotten a notebook full of observations on the Dog Pound, but I was about to get a dramatic come-from-behind narrative to build my story around. This relentless support and mutual confidence had made a difference.

But the storybook victory never came. UAB recorded the final out and for the first time that night, the dugout was quiet. The cold was felt.

Losses happen, of course, especially to good teams like the Blazers, and it wasn’t MSU’s first defeat of the year anyway.

Whether it was because of that the knowledge or as a result of the Bulldogs’ inability to be anything but positive, the sound picked back up almost as quick as a skip on a record. Heads held high despite heavy hearts and nearly-frozen extremities, the team gathered together behind the plate and sang the fight song with their fans who had stuck out the chilly night with them.

Here would be a too-obvious time for a philosophical or inspiring thought, but the point would hold true. It’s not a matter of if you fall, because in sports, like life, you always will. But when you fall, who will pick you up?

softballStuedeman has the answer filling her roster top to bottom. The same encouragement which took the Bulldogs to an NCAA Regional the last two years and the way her players own their role and responsibilities leave this team in strong position.

In fact, since playing UAB, MSU has started SEC play, beat the No. 8 team in the country on Saturday, plated 16 runs and recorded a grand slam in a win Wednesday and owns a 21-5 record going into its series with Georgia this weekend.

In Mississippi State’s dugout, getting back up is as easy as looking at those surrounding you.

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Hail State Combo: The Notebook and ABC Mailbag, 3-12 edition

It’s a slow week on campus with all the students out of town for spring break and most of the athletics teams in action on the road, but there are still a few things worth pointing out.

BHDFFYJSFCHUGPX.20131121195821As a means of consolidation, we’ve got a combo Notebook and ABC post, starting with a few quick notes and followed by the mailbag.

  • At 8:30 central, the Mississippi State basketball teams plays Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC Tournament, which will be broadcast on SEC TV. MSU lost their regular season game with Vandy, but it was probably their best defensive performance of the year. If the Bulldogs win tonight, they’ll play Ole Miss tomorrow for the third time this season.
  • MSU announced dates for spring football practice today, with 14 of the 15 practices open to the public. The full schedule:

Tuesday, March 18 – 4 p.m.

Wednesday, March 19 – 4 p.m.

Friday, March 21 – 4 p.m.

Saturday, March 22 – 11 a.m.

Tuesday, March 25 – 4 p.m.

Thursday, March 27 – 4 p.m.

Friday, March 28 – 4 p.m.

Saturday, March 29 (Scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium) – 11 a.m.

Tuesday, April 1 – 4 p.m.

Thursday, April 3 – 4 p.m.

Saturday, April 5 (Scrimmage, location TBA) – 11 a.m.

Tuesday, April 8 – 4 p.m.

Thursday, April 10 – 4 p.m.

Saturday, April 12 (Maroon and White Spring Game in Davis Wade Stadium) – Noon

  • Rosie Dion

    Rosie Dion

    Sophomore righthanded pitched Preston Brown had a career night yesterday as the MSU baseball team shutout Southern Illinois 3-0. The Diamond Dawgs begin SEC play this weekend at Georgia.

  • After two rounds on Tuesday, the women’s golf team is dominating their invitational in Hawaii, sitting in first place as a team with four Top-10 individuals in play.
  • The men’s golf team notched a third-place finish in the Tiger Invitational at Auburn, including a second-place overall finish by Chad Ramey.
  • The women’s tennis team got back into the polls this week following a big win over Tennessee, checking in at No. 61, the highest ranking in nearly five years.
  • Also wanted to pass along an NFL note: Anthony Dixon is reportedly in Tennessee today for a free agent visit with the Titans. Sylvester Croom is the running backs coach there, so there’s certainly a connection.

And now, for ABC.

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Each week on The B&B Show (a radio show I co-host on Bulldog Sports Radio; you can listen to today’s full show here) we have a segment we call ABC, which you’ve seen me mention if you follow on Twitter.

It stands for Ask Bob Carskadon and is, basically, a radio mailbag of some serious and many non-serious questions sometimes but not always relating to Mississippi State sports.

Every Tuesday, we ask for questions on Twitter (tweet them to @bobcarskadon) and now, every Wednesday, I’ll pick some good ones to answer here on the HailState Beat. (PSA on those tweets: if a twitter profile is locked, people who don’t follow it can’t see its tweets, even if they are mentioned in the tweet.)

Keep in mind, as always, opinions and views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of MSU, though sometimes they very well may.

To draw some semblance of a line, the topics are conveniently divided in sports and non-sports.

Sports Questions:

mississippi-state-jonathan-holder-061513Eva S. Brandon @evastricklin: Any chance we’ll see Holder put into the pitching rotation after his performance against Arizona?

Bob: His career-long performance on Sunday, beginning in the second inning, was quite impressive. It reminds a bit of when John Cohen put Holder in against Ole Miss on Sunday of their series last spring. It was something of a desperation move, as the Bulldogs had been in a rut, and MSU went on to win that game, starting a run that ended in Omaha. Not to say that will or won’t happen this time, but it bears remembering.

As to the question, Holder will certainly stay in the bullpen, but the emergence of Jacob Lindgren, Will Cox and Myles Gentry in save situations offers Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson a fair bit more flexibility than they may have had last year, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see more things like Sunday, though probably not to that extreme level.

@Stoli_Dan: If there was no Prescott and you could take any other returning college QB in the nation, who would it be?

Bob: Assuming it’s got to be a returning starter from elsewhere, Florida State’s Jameis Winston seems like the obvious answer after winning the Heisman. However, I might be overthinking this, but I actually lean to Oregon’s dual-threat star QB Marcus Mariota, who seems like he would be a better fit for Dan Mullen’s offense. Interesting question.

Hump4Hoops @Hump4Hoops: Describe the state of the major MSU sports teams in one word each.

Bob: I did this in rapid-fire succession on the radio, so I’ll share those first-word-coming-to-mind answers.

Football: Promising.

Basketball: Rebuilding.

Baseball: Competing.

That Guy @thatguy1878: If Dak were to get injured in the first game and miss the rest of the season, what would your record prediction be?

0fa519bd4c4937f51053b17b799e28cbBob: Are people nervous about Dak? The immediate thought is that it would decrease MSU wins by at least a couple. Losing a star quarterback, no matter who you are, is pretty detrimental.

That said, MSU was twice without both Prescott and Tyler Russell last year, and in each instance true freshman QB Damian Williams was integral in MSU winning. He scored the game-winning overtime touchdown against Arkansas, then started and played the first three quarters and change against Ole Miss the very next week. Certainly, losing Dak would be tough, but there’s more promise in Williams than some may have expected.

Will Gilmer @gilmerdairy: Would you rather SEC basketball and baseball tourneys rotate cities or stay at a fixed location? What cities/venues would you pick to host those tournaments?

Bob: I like this question. The answer is yes, if given my choice, I think it would be fun to rotate host cities. Having some geographical diversity would be helpful for a conference which has grown significantly in footprint, finding places closer to various schools on different years. Also, if you go to a particular tournament or championship every year, it would be more fun to go to a new southern city each time, rather than the same one five years in a row.

Locations I’d like: St. Louis for SEC baseball tourney, New Orleans, Tampa, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham and maybe even Charlotte, though that’s a little outside of SEC boundaries.

On the show, my co-host Brian Hadad suggested the idea of rotating the SEC football championship game from year-to-year, basically making the western division and eastern division the hosts, perhaps switching back-and-forth from New Orleans to Atlanta.

MSU Equipment @HailStateEQ: Managers or trainers?

Bob: You’ve put me in a pickle here, trying to pick between the two. I love them both equally, but if I get completely selfish about it, the equipment managers literally provide the shirt on my back. Winner: managers. Sorry, trainers. But thank you for the Gatorade.

Non-Sports Questions:

Hump4Hoops @Hump4Hoops: Rank these international pastries: churros, baklava, cannolis, strudel.

chocolate-churroBob: Again, the decisions you people ask me to make sometimes are next to impossible. There’s not a single item on this list I wouldn’t pay good money to have set in front of me right this moment.

A quick aside before the difficult rankings: it was actually Megan Mullen who first introduced me to real New York cannolis, and I could not be more grateful.

That said, there’s very little that can compare to a fresh, warm, cinnamony churro.

1. Churro 2. Cannoli 3. Strudel 4. Baklava. And I love baklava. Tough one.

William Craig @BillySubs: What are your top three nacho options in Starkville?

Bob: The more and more I do this segment, the more I realize Starkville might be an appetizer town. In fact, on the show, we officially declared it – “Starkville: Mississippi’s Appetizer Town.”

If I’m forced to pick….

1. Chicken nachos at Bin 612 2. Philly cheesesteak nachos at Halfway House 3. New Orleans nachos at The Veranda. Honorable mentions: Greek nachos at Zorbas, Gumbalaya nachos at Stagger In, and in memoriam, the no-longer-available BBQ nachos from Grumpy’s.

Tyler Jones @TheRealBigJones: How long does an eyebrow take to grow back? Asking for a friend.

Joey-EyebrowBob: We don’t really think about it this way, but eyebrows are technically facial hair. I mean, it’s hair on our face. So, Tyler’s Friend, how long does it take for you to get a thick growth along your jaw line? I’d imagine it would take roughly the same amount of time, give or take, to grow an eyebrow back. Even if you can’t grow much facial hair, I’d think an eyebrow wouldn’t take more than a couple weeks to fill back in.

Happy Spring Break.

Abigail Stricklin @AbigailS12: If you could be any animal native to Australia, what would it be?

Bob: There lots of good options here. Kangaroos, Tasmanian Devils, dingoes, wallabies, wombats, all members of the bandicoot family, even platypuses, anteaters, emus, kookaburras, sea turtles, sharks, lizards and real-life penguins in southern Australia.

koala-lazing-aboutBut the life I most want to live? I’ll take the eucalyptus-eating, tree-climbing and long-napping days of the koala.

Will Gilmer @gilmerdairy: What did you do while Twitter was down?

Bob: What a dark, dark time that was. I started some laundry and did some jump roping to take my mind off the fear. So glad we’re past that now.

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End-of-regular-season Rick Ray press conference

At 10 a.m., Rick Ray will meet with the media for his final Monday press conference of the season. Mississippi State plays Vanderbilt on Wednesday in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

Live updates to follow.

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In preparation for Vandy, Ray says they’ve watched the film of MSU’s regular-season game against them five or six times already.

One issue, Ray said, is how many sets the Commodores have on offense. He says they can’t prepare for all of them, just have to be ready to handle it. Ray believes VU’s Kevin Stallings to be one of the best coaches in the SEC.

Coming off a losing streak, Ray says the team has to have a couple short, upbeat practices before heading to Atlanta.

Ray did say he expects Vanderbilt to play zone defense against the Bulldogs, as teams have been apt to do.

Asked what positives he takes from first two years at MSU, he says the perception of the program has improved significantly. He said coaches around the conference and country now say how tireless the team is and how much effort they give. That’s not the ultimate goal, Ray says, but a good start for where they are.

Interesting hearing Ray talk about freshman point guard IJ Ready. Ray says he’s a very good shooter and that a full offseason of strength and conditioning will give him the legs and stamina to be more consistent next year.

On Ready, Ray says, “We want him to be more of a scorer for us.”

Two things Ray says he will finally have next year: “legitimate competition at every position … And my favorite teacher – the bench.”

Two-sport star De’Runnya Wilson is done with basketball for the season. Ray says he had a little bit of a groin issue – nothing serious – and also that he really hasn’t had a break since fall football camp started. Ray said he knows Wilson’s future is in football, wants to make sure he’s fully prepared for spring practices.

Looking ahead, Ray says all signees will be on campus for the second summer session beginning in July. Said graduation dates at high schools make it difficult for them to enroll in July.

On walk-on guard Tevin Moore, Ray says he’s still not doing anything in practice other than some warm-ups on the side.

Ray: “I really think you can’t anticipate playing two years – your first with six or seven scholarship guys and your second with seven or eight.”

What should fans look forward to next year? “A full roster. And not just a full roster, but a full competitive roster … We’ll finally look like an SEC team.”

“I think there’s a lot to be excited about with the program. I know you guys can’t always see that because you don’t see what I do in practice in every day. I’m excited about Fallou [Ndoye] and Travis [Daniels].”

“Some of the things we have trouble with in our defensive rotation, we’ll have numbers now.”

On how roster has affected his coaching: “We’ve got good kids on our team, but everybody needs to be able to go to the bench and learn … We need the threat of a guy not being in the rotation.”

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Talking to players, IJ Ready says they have to forget about everything that’s happened and go into the Tourney with a new mindset.

“We really have nothing to lose … If we go out and get a couple wins that’ll give us a confidence boost.”

Ready says Craig sWord talked to the team once the bracket came out, encouraging them and making sure everyone was in the right place mentally. It’s a new season.

In the offseason, Ready says he’ll eat better, try to put on weight and stay in the gym more to make sure his body is ready.

“Right now, we haven’t been making a high percentage of jump shots,” Ready said, “and I know that’s where I can help from. Coming off the screens, hitting jump shots. I’ve gotta make sure I’m automatic.”

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