Four by Four: Who replaces Evan Sobiesk as MSU’s kicker in 2015?

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re breaking down four position battles, continuing today with field goal kicker.

BSNFHJJUMGSHYYA.20140831030527Kicking field goals is the hardest easy thing in football. Or maybe it’s the easiest hard thing. Either way, swinging your leg to make the top part of your foot collide with an oblong inflated piece of leather to make it go higher than the outstretched arms of jumping gargantuans immediately in front of you and force it travel anywhere from 60-150 feet in a somewhat straight line so that it goes between two long neon-colored posts hovering in the sky and above one similarly-painted pipe at the bottom of those two is probably more difficult than it looks. Especially when it’s done in front of tens of thousands of people.

Some people get nervous just going to karaoke night.

But to many kickers, the games are the easy part compared to the contrived mental torture that is daily practice. For the majority of practice at Mississippi State, similar to games, the kickers stay out of the action. They’re on their own field, receiving their own individual instruction and doing their own individual drills. When the rest of the team gathers for scrimmages, the special teams guys are the next field over just kicking and stretching away.

At the very end, however, the kickers have their moment. Once the scrimmaging is done, the red zone work finished and the routes and coverages perfected, the whole team gathers to watch field goal attempts. Unlike a game, where the crowd is separated from the kickers by sidelines and stands, the 100-plus players and coaches at practice form a semi-circle wrapping around the kickers, barely giving them room to breathe, let alone move.

If kicks are missed, it often means more running for the whole team. If they’re made, of course, the prize is less running. You can imagine the pressure from the triple-digit crowd of 300-pound men who have already been sweating and running all practice. Often, the offense and defense are divided up with one kicker representing offense and another the defense. By that time, one side is pressuring you not to miss, while the other is doing everything in its power to distract you, louder and more animated than a student section behind a basketball goal during free throws.

Start with 25-yard kicks, one for each kicker. Next are 30-yard kicks, then 35, and 40 and so on. The coaches are keeping count of who makes more, who gets to kick in games. The surrounding teammates are trying to figure out how much they’ll have to run.

Make a kick and one side goes wild, drawing you into their celebration, while the other side yells in disgust and tries to claim it must have been wide left or just short. Miss a kick, and you have to drop your head while your side shows disappointment and the opposition rushes forward to sarcastically pat you on the back and sing the praises of your defeat.

So what’s worse: 80,000 strangers in far away stands, or 100 of your teammates breathing down your neck who know your every weakness and strength, aware of exactly how to lift you up or bring you down?

If you can make that 40-yard field goal in practice, the theory seems to be, knocking in a 40-yarder on gameday should be a piece of cake.

XXADEYQUZOSUCZS.20121021011521The following question, then, is who gets the honor of that cake for MSU in 2015? The main candidates are senior Devon Bell and sophomore Westin Graves. Graves has the more recent experience, having attempted one field goal in 2014 (a miss from 40-plus) and connecting on 4-of-5 extra point attempts, while Bell hasn’t kicked since early in 2013.

Evan Sobiesk quietly had one of the best seasons by a kicker in MSU history last year, going 12-of-14 on field goals and racking up a team-high total of 92 points, two more than second place Dak Prescott. With his success, there wasn’t much need for Graves or Bell or anyone else to be kicking field goals. Graves quietly waited his turn while Bell focused on punting (and did a good job of that). But now, Sobes is off to dental school and someone has to take his place.

Even before Sobiesk left the picture, Bell had the biggest leg of the group, which is why he was on kickoffs for so long. He had a rough 2013, connecting on 6-of-14 attempts, though he was 4-of-5 inside 30 and hit 25-of-26 extra points, part of why he focused solely on punting in 2014.

We’ve shared the numbers for Graves, but it’s also worth mentioning a lesser-known fact: Graves often tied or even beat Sobiesk in those slightly terrifying end-of-practice field goal sessions, regularly splitting the uprights even from 40-plus yards out. Sobiesk kept the job because of his success, but Graves absolutely pushed him in practice.

Now, heading into the 2015, the job is up for grabs. Bell and Graves both had their highs and lows in spring practice, and both have shown an ability at various times in their careers to make the kick. At this point, the edge might have to go to the senior in Bell, an experienced veteran with plans to kick in the NFL after college. But both will have their opportunities to win the job in practice and in games, Dan Mullen will make sure of that.

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Taking (and failing) the most important test all NCAA coaches must pass

It’s a 30 question test. You can miss up to six answers and still pass. Seven or more incorrect, you fail.

I missed seven.

Guess I’ll never be a football coach, after all. Or any coach, for that matter.

Tuesday, June 23, 9 a.m., Mississippi State football team meeting room

Once a year, every coach in the NCAA has to pass a recruiting test. If you don’t pass it, you don’t recruit. If you don’t recruit, you don’t have a job.

unnamedGil Grimes is the Assistant SEC Commissioner for Legislative Services, easier explained as the compliance guy for the Southeastern Conference, and it is he who A) proctors the tests for conference staffs and B) allowed me to sit in and take the exam at Mississippi State Tuesday morning. Perhaps I should add that he is also C) the one who failed me.

“You were close, though,” he said with a laugh.

Darn close. Of course, if I were actually a coach, I could take it again soon and [hopefully] pass.

But the test didn’t happen until 10. At 9, Grimes began speaking to the group present to take the test that morning. A few head coaches, many assistants and several members of support staffs. Baseball, tennis, track, football, basketball – most teams and sports were represented, but not all. Those coaches will take the test another day.

For the next hour, Grimes held a review session with those who were there, hitting the high points of what the test is likely to include, going over some verbiage that has commonly caused issues and reviewing changes to the new manual which had just been handed out to those who didn’t have it, myself included. Typically, he says, they review new legislation, but there actually wasn’t any this time.

“There will be several changes next year, however,” he told the group.

It’s good he reviewed some of the specifics beforehand, though, or else I would have failed by much more. For example, Grimes explained, the NCAA manual and the test it gives uses the word “commit,” but not in the verbal and relatively meaningless sense most of the public use it for.

“If you see the word commit, that means someone who has signed their Letter of Intent,” he said. “That’s where we’ve had a lot of people miss questions.”

Additionally, if you see reference on the test to a “representative of athletic interest,” that refers to a booster. Many people, Grimes shared, see that phrase and interpret it to be a coach or athletic administrator of some sort.

From there, Grimes guided us on a quick journey through the NCAA Division I Manual, a thick, detailed and mentally exhausting compilation of NCAA laws, by-laws, regulations, exceptions and the like.

Section 11.3.2.5, he reminded us, serves as notice that coaches cannot endorse recruiting services.

13.6.3 is the rule requiring that recruits must present proof of completion of a standardized test before they can take official visits.

“That one seems to be hard for us,” MSU Director of Compliance Bracky Brett interrupted to say, mostly joking but subtly reminding his coaches.

15.3.4.2 – permissible reasons to cancel aid (ineligibility, fraud, serious misconduct or volunteering), and just below, reasons you can’t cancel aid agreements (performance, injury/illness).

Several pages earlier, 13.1.7.17 refers to exceptions in the recruiting calendar where coaches can attend events like the Olympics or the World Cup.

Carrier pigeon: probably not an NCAA-approved method of communication

Carrier pigeon: probably not an NCAA-approved method of communication

There’s even an entire section on the definition of a phone call. Spoiler: you can make a phone call without using a telephone.

There are by-laws on envelope sizes, collect calls and even on how one can use various Microsoft products.

“It’s kind of an antiquated by-law,” Grimes said, “but we have restrictions on PowerPoint.”

I laughed and darted my eyes to MSU baseball coach John Cohen, the famed PowerPoint presenter who was sitting in the front row directly in front of Grimes.

Around 9:45, I saw another head coach on the front row look into his empty coffee cup, rub his eyes with both hands, then pick his pencil back up and continue taking notes. They must think I’m crazy to sit through this and take the test of my own accord.

It wasn’t all bad, though.

“We’ve de-regulated transportation to and from the airport!” Grimes happily shared.

Indeed, these are the best of times.

10 a.m., team meeting room

Finally, it was test time, and there are several versions. If you’re a football coach, you get one version. A women’s basketball coach, you get another. Then there’s the all-sport test, covering the basics across the board, which I decided to take, given that I cover every sport at MSU. Might as well see how much I’ve picked up. Not enough, as we now know.

The test is also open-book and open-note, and while I did consult my notes, I opted not to take advantage of the open-book allowance. I’d like to proudly state that it was to give myself the true measure of the test and its difficulty, but really, that manual is more involved and confusing than Moby-Dick. I just didn’t want to fool with it.

Right away, the review proved helpful. Question two quizzed me on previously-mentioned by-law 11.3.2.8

Question three involved a “commit” and asked about their ability to make visits during dead periods. Commits as most people know them cannot. Commits under these guidelines are now fully allowed to do so.

Question four had to do with the definition of a phone call. Good thing I studied.

However, I was not prepared for them all. I guessed at a few, getting some right and missing several more. I didn’t know, for example, that courier service is a permissible way to send a recruit his paperwork for National Signing Day. Fax, email and certified mail are all acceptable, too, I learned.

10 minutes in, one apparently confident coach had already finished. Another walked up front to check with Grimes on the verbiage of a specific question.

Slowly, I worked my way down. I wasn’t close to the first to be done, but I was far from the last, either, as many were poring through pages in their manuals, determined not just to pass but to get every question right.

Grimes quickly graded my scantron sheet before giving me the bad news. I had failed by one measly question.

“You were close!” Brett said as he reviewed my wrong answers for me. “If this were the basketball test you would have had this one right … “

“… We changed that one a couple years ago. Technology caught up to us…”

“… No chance that one’s legal. We’d have all kinds of problems…”

Close as I may have been, there are no letter grades. It’s pass or fail, and I failed, even if I did so respectably.

But hey, there’s always next time. And at least my job doesn’t depend on it.

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Four by Four: Assessing MSU’s battle for starting safeties

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re breaking down four position battles, starting with safety.

So, who are MSU’s starting safeties going to be next year with both of the 2014 starters out the door? Anyone? Bueller?

There are a great number of candidates to fill the spots vacated by Jay Hughes and Justin Cox, but trying to pick from among them is difficult with their varying degrees of experience, potential, size and skill. The battle might as well be a Royal Rumble for safeties coach Tony Hughes. Throw ‘em all in there and see who comes out.

XEGZGMPIAVUMRTS.20141004182959Assessing the competition, we’ve at least got one good starting point with the lone senior of the group – Kendrick Market. Dan Mullen recently called him one of the smartest defenders in the country, and he’s by far the most experienced player at the position for MSU. Intelligence, leadership, experience and considerable talent make him a likely candidate, though certainly no one is going to hand him the job.

Continuing with those who have experience, juniors Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman have seen fairly significant reps the last couple years, particularly as numbers at the position dropped toward the end of 2014. Evans has been drawing good reviews from coaches since he first walked onto campus, a seemingly-instinctive player with a knack for finding the ball, though it’s Coman who has been relied on a little more heavily.

By at least one stat, Coman and Evans had better seasons last year than every safety other than Market, as they accrued 39 and 34 tackles, respectively, both numbers higher than those of Hughes and Cox. Coman had six pass break-ups while Evans had three himself.

Then come three players who, while they have literally seen the field with their eyes, they haven’t played a game on it with their arms and legs. Funnily enough, they might be the three most talented ones of the bunch, depending who you ask, though coaches will tell us they always prefer production over potential.

MCZZPQPHIIYRJFD.20140831024343First is Brandon Bryant, a hard-hitting freshman with a nose for the ball who redshirted in 2014. Nearly every practice, Bryant found a way to stand out. Not to use that P-word again so soon, but those who have watched him are enamored with his potential. When we talk breakout candidates next week, he’s a strong consideration. But, like any freshman, he’s behind a bit because he’s never played while so many others have. However, a year learning the defense and spent in the weight room certainly helps.

The last two have neither of those things, but they’ve got plenty going for them. Incoming freshmen Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin are likely going to make the competition even more heated. Peters was the No. 1 safety in the country in the 2015 signing class, and there are some who say he could have played for MSU last fall. He’s generally considered to be the full package. Alongside him, McLaurin enters with less fanfare, but those who watched him regularly in high school say he’s as talented as anyone in the heralded signing class, and while he may not get the headlines, he’s got all the ability to get the playing time.

Could both of them of play in 2015, or even one of them? Hard to imagine at least one doesn’t, but then if both do, MSU would have at least six safeties in the rotation for two spots.

Replacing both starters seems like a struggle, but the good news for new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is that, at the very least, there seem to be plenty of able candidates, and at least a few with experience.

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Four by Four: Predicting MSU’s leading tackler in 2015

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season. Today: predicting MSU’s leading tackler.

I thought about going with interceptions for the final prediction set, but those can be a little too random at times and MSU has its leading intercepter back, anyway. Though it’s him – Will Redmond – that I suppose I’d pick were I to do so.

TSSILQHZOAWQOZJ.20140921012108However, while the interceptions leader is back, the team’s leading tackler and one of the best linebackers to ever play for the Bulldogs is off to the NFL after the Houston Texans drafted Benardrick McKinney and his team-high 71 tackles.

Now, Manny Diaz does have the No. 2 tackler returning in junior outside linebacker Beniquez Brown, a budding star for MSU who filled up the stat sheet with 62 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three quarterback hurries in his first season as a starter. In fact, word from NFL scouts is that when they were studying McKinney on tape before the draft, Brown stood out as much as anyone.

Lining up on the outside rather than in the middle like McKinney may lessen his opportunities for tackles somewhat, but Brown has one thing going for him we may not be able to say for others: as long as he is healthy and able, Brown will almost never come off the field. He’s one of the most vital parts of the defense, the central figure in making sure everyone is lined up and letting his teammates know what’s coming from the opposing offense. Plus, you know, he’s pretty good. That makes him the obvious choice, and he’s my pick, but it’s worth exploring other possibilities.

One option I’ll throw out there is a little off the wall, but inspired by a surprise I found when looking at the numbers from 2014. Any guesses who was MSU’s third-leading tackler after McKinney and Brown? Matt Wells, Taveze Calhoun, Richie Brown, maybe Preston Smith? All in the top 10, but none had as many tackles as Christian Holmes, the athletic linebacker and special teams ace, who racked up 60 stops, just two fewer than Beniquez.

UODDGZXBOHGKCQA.20140906220153Holmes, now graduated, accrued the majority of those tackles on kickoff and punt coverage, a place where his speed and strength flourished. Figuring out who will replace him is a crapshoot at this point, but one possibility could be Zach Jackson. He’ll play on defense far more than Holmes did, spending most of the spring as a starting linebacker along with the two [unrelated] Browns, but his skillset lends itself well to special teams. He’s big and strong as a linebacker should be, but he’s also very fast and agile, similar to Holmes. I’m expecting a bit of rotation among the linebackers (more on that momentarily), which could free up some time for Jackson to spend on special teams.

Jackson had 34 tackles himself in 2014, while he replaces Wells at OLB who had 45. If he steps even partially into the role of Holmes on special teams, too, he’ll be in position to make a lot of tackles and challenge for the most on the team in 2015.

Elsewhere, the two starting corners – Calhoun and Will Redmond – were fourth and fifth in tackles, respectively, and are worth watching on a Diaz defense that moves people all over the field. Safety Kendrick Market merits consideration, as well.

GEBCRRIUPLBHQCA.20140831030416At linebacker, where one typically expects to find the leading tackler, Diaz has a bit of an embarrassment of riches. Behind Jackson and the Browns, MSU has a future star in redshirt freshman Gerri Green, a player coaches have bragged on for years as he’s struggled through injury in Dez Harris, an incoming junior college player who is reminiscent of Wells in Traver Jung, and that’s without even mentioning Leo Lewis, the true freshman who was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country out of high school, or J.T. Gray who was freshman All-SEC last season.

It’s hard to imagine any of those linebackers not playing extensively in some fashion, meaning it may be hard for any of them to rack up enough tackles to lead the team without a little boost from special teams duties.

Beniquez Brown is the pick here, but if last year is any indication, there will be plenty of work to go around. In 2014, 26 different players had double-digit tackles for MSU.

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Four by Four: Who will lead MSU in rushing in 2015?

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season. Today: predicting MSU’s leading rusher.

Ashton Shumpert

Ashton Shumpert

1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns have left Mississippi State for the Indianapolis Colts in the way of running back Josh Robinson jumping to the NFL after the 2014 season. MSU’s got a stable of backs ready to replace him, though, and it’s been well over 20 years since there wasn’t a talented runner in the backfield for the Bulldogs. Robinson, Perkins, Ballard, Dixon, Norwood … it’s easy to lose track as you count them back through the years.

The question after each hasn’t been can anyone replace them, but who will replace them. There’s a second question to address in a moment, but for now, let’s just go through the candidates.

True junior Ashton Shumpert seems the favorite to win the starting job, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have it when MSU opens the season against Southern Miss. What offers promise for Shumpert is the way he finished the season. After only totaling 14 carries the first eight games of the year, he came on strong when Robinson’s touches waned late. His 24 carries in the final two games of the regular season were a huge jump from his previous usage, and his 68 yards on 10 carries in the Egg Bowl was one of the few bright spots of that game for MSU.

But, wanna hear something maybe unexpected? Shumpert was fourth on the team in rushing behind Robinson, Dak Prescott and, wait for it, Brandon Holloway. The speedy change-of-pace back was in his first season in the backfield after switching from wide receiver and actually ran for 20 more yards than Shumpert on two fewer carries in 2014, including three games with 65-plus yards. He seems unlikely to be an every-down rusher, but crazier things have happened.

Brandon Holloway

Brandon Holloway

Then comes the pair of redshirt freshmen calling themselves either the Bang Brothers or Thunder and Lightning depending on which day you ask. Aeris Williams was the four-star who set records in West Point during his illustrious high school career, and Dontavian Lee was the “other” running back in the class who some seemed to think would end up having to change positions. Both impressed in practices while redshirting last year, and it seems safe to say that no running back had a better spring than Lee.

While Shumpert is expected to be the starter for the first game of the season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lee is the starter for the last one. He’s fast, strong, has good hands, has good vision and has put on some needed muscle since arriving in Starkville. But it won’t be easy as he competes with the other three, not to mention the highly-recruited freshmen arriving on campus this summer.

And all of that is why none of those players are the answer to the second question – who will lead the team in rushing?

My pick: Dak Prescott, QB 1. If you combine all the previously mentioned running backs, I feel sure they’ll have more total yards in 2015 than Prescott. But as individuals, I don’t know that any will get enough carries to get the near-1,000 yards it will likely take to top No. 15. Their strength is their weakness, in a manner of speaking, that they’re all talented and will likely be sharing duties with each other.

TCUPOVUPDVPUGAC.20141123025642Consider, as well, that MSU is replacing three starters on the offensive line, perhaps meaning more running early on for Prescott as he helps them adjust, and he already had 986 net rushing yards last year, anyway.

And in fact, there’s already precedent for this. Easy to forget considering the comparative memorable-ness of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but Prescott was MSU’s leading rusher as a sophomore in 2013 and it wasn’t even close. As a part-time starter who only played in 11 games, Prescott accrued 829 yards on the ground, far more than LaDarius Perkins (542 yards) and Robinson (459 yards) who split duties. The two certainly had more combined yards than their quarterback, but neither got enough carries to have a chance of catching him individually. The same situation seems pretty possible in 2015.

One thing, however, seems to be a near guarantee. No matter who has the most yards, Prescott is sure to lead all contenders in rushing touchdowns, just as he has the last two seasons.

Dak Prescott rushing touchdowns 2013-14: 27.

Starting running backs combined rushing touchdowns 2013-14: 16.

That seems like one trend likely to continue in 2015.

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Four by Four: Predicting who leads MSU in sacks in 2015

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season, looking at sacks today.

ZIZIWACXKZYSVIU.20141011224421For all the returning star power MSU has on both sides of the ball, State’s defense has huge hole to fill in the graduation of defensive end Preston Smith, a second round NFL Draft pick of the Washington Redskins. Smith opted to return for his senior season in 2014 and led the team with nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries, not to mention his two interceptions and multiple SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week awards.

The good news for defensive line coach David Turner is that he’s got a big list of capable candidates to take over the No. 1 pass rusher role. The question for us is who will it be? Sleeper candidates Jonathan Calvin (junior end), Will Coleman (junior end), Nelson Adams (junior tackle) and Torrey Dale (senior end) deserve mention here, and it’s worth factoring in the new style of blitzing defense Manny Diaz is going to employ, meaning linebackers and defensive backs are going to get in on the action, too. In fact, it was senior linebacker Matt Wells who had the second-most sacks on the team last year with four.

But for the moment, we’ll narrow it down to three veterans on the defensive line: senior end Ryan Brown, junior end A.J. Jefferson and junior tackle/end Chris Jones. Of the trio, Brown had the most sacks last year with 3.5, and was second on the team behind Smith with 10 quarterback hurries. Jones had three sacks and eight hurries while Jefferson had 2.5 sacks and nine hurries.

Jones, by most observations, is the most naturally-talented of the bunch, one of the top few players in the country when he signed with MSU just a couple years ago. He played immediately and his ability was evident from the first day of camp. What’s funny is that while he was named first-team All-American by Sporting News this week, he hasn’t even been a first-team player at his own school. Don’t be mistaken, he’s received the reps of a starter, but in 2015 as a junior, he will be a starter for technically the first time [we assume].

Jones has the highest ceiling of the bunch and has the potential to have a monster junior year and leave to be an early pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. He’ll be lined up all over the front line for MSU, but Jones will play the majority of his reps at tackle, which may keep his numbers from showing the impact he has. Such is the curse of defensive tackles.

DGEVZMDOPPOFZCI.20141004182959The surprise of the big contenders is Jefferson. In the much-ballyhooed defensive signing class of 2012, Jefferson was close to an afterthought despite being named a Dandy Dozen player in Mississippi by The Clarion Ledger. Maybe it’s because Jefferson, somehow, doesn’t quite look the part of an elite defensive end. But he’s proven to be one of the most productive linemen of that class, despite the lack of credit and attention.

Maybe there’s a chip on his shoulder from that, maybe there’s not. But once every few months for pretty much the last two years, coaches have singled out Jefferson as the as the hardest worker in the group of defensive linemen in practice. During this year’s spring practice, there might not have been anyone on the entire defensive unit who was as impressive as Jefferson.

Then there’s Brown who, like Jefferson, received very little attention in the 2012 signing class, barely registering as one of the top 1,000 players in the country according to recruiting rankings. But the long-armed and mild-tempered Brown got to campus and played immediately, impressing coaches in practice and fans in games as a true freshman. Going into his senior season, Brown is one of the unquestioned leaders of the entire defense and he’s my pick to lead the team in sacks in 2015.

XUTRJFANEZUYMCW.20141012002434At 6’6” and 266 pounds, Brown started 12 games last year and was quietly one of the central pieces of MSU’s defense, which is sort of his style. He’s comfortable talking, regularly doing interviews with us media folk, but he’s what Turner often talks about – a lunch pail guy. He’s a hard worker who – apologies for the clichés – has kept his head down and his nose clean for three years while earning respect from those around him and causing trouble for those who play against him.

Others will get the hype going into the season, both for MSU and around the country, but like Smith in 2014, Brown is likely to have the numbers by the time the 2015 season ends.

Whoever it may be to lead the team, there will be one fun storyline to watch along the way: every year since 2012, MSU has increased its sacks, going from 19 in 2012 to 20 in 2013 and jumping to 37 in 2014. Can they top those numbers in 2015?

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Four-by-four: Predicting MSU’s leading receiver in 2015

To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.

This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season, starting with receiving.

CVVTGHVPKDKPWIA.20141115232932Wide receiver, despite what it lost from the 2014 starting lineup, might be the deepest and most talented position on the roster, a far cry from the early days of Dan Mullen’s tenure when a pass-catcher over 6’1” was a rarity and few players outside of the starters had much of a shot to see the field.

As we attempt to predict who will be MSU’s leading receiver this year, I’m going to lump everything together and make a semi-educated guess with yardage as my main factor. Were we to divide this into categories of yards and touchdowns, the answer for each might be different.

To begin, let’s start with the obvious candidate: Last year’s leading receiver De’Runnya Wilson is back. He’s the logical choice here, having caught 47 passes for 680 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, all tops on the roster. “Bear” did all that despite only playing extensively in seven-ish games and only being in his third year of playing organized football, having just played his senior year of high school in Alabama.

The immensely-talented Wilson is 6’5”, nearly-impossible to tackle and could potentially be in an NFL minicamp this time next summer. But while he’s likely going to again lead MSU in receiving touchdowns and will probably get all the attention from opposing secondaries, he’s not my pick here.

HUMDFPJPNGPQFNL.20150101040244I’m going with Fred Ross. The rising junior was in the same class as Wilson, a polished Texas receiver who played in his first possible game at MSU. Injuries hampered his ability and effectiveness over the first two seasons, but despite those setbacks, he was quietly second on the team last year (behind Wilson, of course) in receiving yards. His 489 yards were over 100 more than the third place finisher, and his 16.3 yards per catch were actually tops on the team of any receiver with more than 20 catches, nearly a full two yards per catch better than Wilson.

A few of the reasons I’m picking Ross here: he should finally be fully healthy. He’ll benefit from the attention Wilson receives. MSU lost long-time starting tight end Malcolm Johnson, creating a need for more pass-catchers. Dak Prescott is only getting better as he improves footwork and accuracy going into his senior season.

All good reasons, but my biggest one: Ross has moved to the slot, and judging by spring practice, Mullen is going to have Ross all over the place in MSU’s offense. Inside, outside, in the backfield, on pitches, reverses, everything. He’s going to be used and used often.

The slot receiver, to this point, has been one of the most important members of Mullen’s offenses, and Ross is taking to it naturally as a talented route-runner and pass-catcher who knows how to use his body.

To illustrate the importance of the slot receiver under Mullen: every year except for two since he arrived at MSU, the slot receiver has led the team in yards and catches. In those two off years, there were injuries at the position. And in most of those other four years, it wasn’t even close from the slot to the next guy.

Last year, for instance, senior starter Jameon Lewis was hurt early and replaced by freshman Gabe Myles, then the two split duties late while Wilson led the team in all categories. Combine their numbers into one receiver, however, and that one player would have led the team with 54 catches and his 51.7 yards per game would have been second, just behind Wilson’s 56.7 ypg.

Now, put in the healthy junior Fred Ross with his considerable talent and seeming knack for the position, and you might have found MSU’s leading receiver in 2015. Not to say it won’t be close, and I’d take Wilson if we’re talking touchdowns, but Ross could be the sleeper star in 2015, the Cris Carter to Wilson’s Randy Moss.

Either way, the duo ought to be fun to watch. In the final two games of the 2014 season (against Ole Miss and Georgia Tech when both were healthy), Wilson and Ross combined for 28 catches, 422 yards and four touchdowns. Watch out.

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Former MSU track star Cochran to compete on American Ninja Warrior

A sign of strong athletic programs at the college level is often how many players make it to the next level. At Mississippi State, for example, the last five years have seen first round picks in the NFL, NBA, MLB and WNBA Drafts. Bulldogs have made their way to the Olympics and the PGA. The Last two summers have seen the debuts of former MSU athletes in the professional softball and women’s soccer associations.

This summer, MSU will have a first when former track star Jasmine Cochran competes on American Ninja Warrior.

Cochran featured on the sneak peek section of the American Ninja Warrior website

Cochran featured on the sneak peek section of the American Ninja Warrior website

Airing tonight on NBC at 7 p.m. central, American Ninja Warrior is a highly-entertaining battle of physical ability and mental capacity, described by NBC and Esquire as follows:

The action-packed series follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country. Those who successfully complete the finals course in their designated region move on to the national finals round in Las Vegas, where they face a stunning four-stage course modeled after the famed Mt. Midoriyama course in Japan. The winner will take home a grand prize of $1,000,000. Although many have come close, no competitor has yet to achieve total victory and claim the prize.

Tonight, Cochran will compete in the Houston qualifiers hoping to make it to the city finals with a trip to Las Vegas and a shot at one million on the line. Although, technically, she’s already made her attempt and learned her fate.

“But I’m not allowed to tell you what happened,” she said.

What she can tell us, however, is how she got to that point. A multi-sport standout in high school, Cochran (maiden name Walls) actually played basketball her first year of college. But when she decided that wasn’t for her, MSU track and field coach Steve Dudley convinced her to come play for him in Starkville. She obliged, and then she flourished. As a senior in 2006, she set the all-time school record in the high jump, her specialty event in both indoor and outdoor settings.

The record has since been broken by current Bulldog Erica Bougard, but Cochran says, “If the record was going to be broken, I’m told she’s a good person to do it.”

It was a bit of winding road that got Cochran to that record-setting moment in 2006, but she never felt like that was the end. Her last event as a college athlete was a competition in Tennessee, and she remembers walking off the track unfulfilled.

“When I finished, I didn’t feel finished,” Cochran said. “I was just trying to find my way.”

Her search for an athletic outlet was only encouraged by her husband James Cochran, a former MSU football player who understood the desire to compete.

Cochran receiving the phone call telling her she'd been picked

Cochran receiving the phone call telling her she’d been picked

The difficulty was in finding somewhere to do it. As Cochran pointed out, there aren’t pick-up track meets around town like basketball or softball. Some friends recommended that she should run marathons or perhaps compete in triathlons, but there’s no fun in running without an obstacle and Cochran conceded she’s not a strong swimmer, so those were out.

A few years ago, American Ninja Warrior caught her eye. She watched a season and was intrigued. She watched another the season the next year. Then finally, she decided, “I could do that.”

So Cochran, currently a personal trainer in Texas, put together an audition tape, made her submission and waited to find out if she’d be picked. We know now, she was invited to compete. It should be no surprise that a track athlete such as her would have the abilities needed.

“Track is the foundation of every other sport,” Cochran explained before going on to use the high jump as an example. “That event is very technical. You’ve got to be able to pay attention to the small things. You have to adjust your body and make quick decisions.”

Without revealing details of the competition or its outcome, Cochran did say one of the biggest things from her track days that came in handy was the versatility she had to learn for so many events.

As for how much of tonight’s program will be dedicated to Cochran, that she still does not know. Each competitor did full interviews the day before competition, with the producers left to decide how much is included in the final broadcast. A main point of conversation, as you’d imagine, was her time at MSU.

So, we wait a few more hours.to see what happens, and she waits to see how much of the interview they use.

“I did say ‘Hashtag Hail State,’” she said with a laugh.

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A ‘new era’ of Mississippi State basketball begins with Howland, Newman

Today was the first day of class and the very first college practice for three freshmen basketball players, day one of a journey with a coach in his first year on campus and a team playing together for the first time.

“The start of a new era for Mississippi State basketball,” Malik Newman told reporters after practice.

Malik Newman with reporters after his first practice at MSU

Malik Newman with reporters after his first practice at MSU

Newman, a point guard, is the newest star on campus, the All-American and No. 1 point guard in the country who chose to wear the same uniform his father once put on and play for the Bulldogs. He joins four-star guard Quinndary Weatherspoon and highly-coveted forward Aric Holman as the first freshmen on campus, going through their first day together.

“It’s gonna take time to get used to,” Holman said of college life, “but it’s a blessing to be here.”

The three of them join a team of veterans hoping to resurrect a program that has been to the top in the past but has struggled in recent years, and there’s hope both within the program and out that they could do it, and quickly. Newman, whether he’ll admit it or not, is one of the main reasons for that optimism, considered a likely one-and-done player based purely on talent. Add in his considerable maturity and polish for a young man who just graduated high school (he greeted each reporter with a handshake and a smile before beginning his interview), and it’s easy to understand why Howland A) wanted Newman so badly and B) expects him to do great things, sooner rather than later. I.J. Ready, MSU’s junior and returning-starter point guard, instead of viewing the supposed freshman phenom with disdain or even envy, has taken Newman under his care, teaching him and helping him with one goal in mind: winning games for Mississippi State.

“Malik is an outstanding talent. We basically bonded as soon as we saw each other,” Ready said. “We come out here every day and compete against each other to make each other better and make the team better. Malik is fascinating, but he’s young and there’s a lot to learn. I just want to be there to help him and teach him.”

Newman, like Holman and Weatherspoon, understands his place, too. All three conceded that after only one hour of practice with Howland and his staff, they realized how little they really knew, how far they had to go and how different college was going to be from high school. They may have big names or piles of newspaper clippings, but they have no experience and haven’t even had a chance to earn respect from older teammates. The good news for them, however, is that the veterans on the club, seniors like Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas and Craig Sword, have welcomed their new teammates like brothers.

“When I first walked in the locker room Tuesday,” Holman said, “none of them acted shady. It was all love. I really appreciated that.”

That being said, all of them – freshmen and veterans alike – are competitive. They want to play, they want to start and they want to be the best.

“Just because I’m coming in with a big name, doesn’t mean that [I.J.] is gonna lay down for me,” Newman said, “and just because he’s been here doesn’t mean that I’m gonna lay down for him. For him to push me and for me to push him, I think that can just help the team get better.”

And that will be the ultimate goal. For Newman, who wants to learn. For Ready, who wants to improve. For Howland, who is spending his time teaching, breaking down his players to build them back up again, forcing them to improve at the little things that separate the good from the great. And for all of them, they just want to win.

“I’m ready to work and get Mississippi State basketball on the map,” Weatherspoon said.”

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List of freshmen football enrollees, plus new numbers for returning players

In the dregs of summer, we pounce on any football news we can get. This week, we didn’t even have to scrape the bottom. A wealth of small Mississippi State-football related items are worth talking about the last few days. Summer workouts for the team began Monday and summer school classes started today.

DUEQHOZBTOGJHGD.20141004185209Most importantly, new freshmen enrolled this week and they’ve picked their collegiate uniform numbers, one of the more difficult decisions they’ll have this summer. The list below represents all freshmen who enrolled for the start of the June semester, though first we’ll mention a few older players who have opted for new numbers.

*Note: Heights and weights for incoming players are not updated and may change once they are officially weighed in by MSU’s staff.

VETERAN NUMBER CHANGES:

No. 2 Elijah Staley, redshirt freshman QB

No. 7 Nick Fitzgerald, redshirt freshman QB

No. 7 Tolando Cleveland, junior DB

ENROLLED NEWCOMERS:

No. 3 Traver Jung (Holmes CC) – LB, 6-4, 215 pounds

No. 12 Jamal Peters (Bassfield, MS) – DB, 6-2, 216 pounds

No. 14 Nick Tiano (Chattanooga, TN) – QB, 6-5, 230 pounds

No. 21 Nick Gibson (Birmingham, AL) – RB, 5-11, 197 pounds

No. 23 Keith Mixon (Birmingham, AL) – WR, 5-8, 175 pounds

No. 26 Alec Murphy (Nixa, MO) – RB, 6-1, 225 pounds

No. 30 Chris Stamps (Vicksburg, MS) – DB, 6-1, 170 pounds

No. 31 Maurice Smitherman (Adamsville, AL) – DB, 5-9, 178 pounds

No. 41 Mark McLaurin (Collins, MS) – DB, 6-2, 210 pounds

No. 43 Fletcher Adams (Brandon, MS) – DL, 6-2, 260 pounds

No. 44 Leo Lewis (Brookhaven, MS) – LB, 6-2, 231 pounds

No. 50 Tim Washington ((Yazoo City, MS) – LB, 6-3, 183 pounds

No. 69 Darryl Williams (Bessemer, AL) – OL, 6-3, 304 pounds

No. 75 Harrison Moon (Chattanooga, TN) – OL, 6-4, 276 pounds

No. 81 Justin Johnson (Birmingham, AL) – WR, 6-4, 224 pounds

No. 85 Jonnas Spivey (Bay Springs, MS) – WR, 6-1, 181 pounds

No. 91 Anfernee Mullins (Aliceville, AL) – DL, 6-4, 245 pounds

No. 92 Kendell Jones (Pinson, AL) – DL, 6-4, 255 pounds

No. 99 Keith Joseph, Jr. (Pascagoula, MS) – LB, 6-4, 226 pounds

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