Campbell Dale offers inspiration to those at MSU

I shouldn’t be writing about Campbell Dale. I shouldn’t even know who he is. A five year old closing in on his sixth birthday next month, Campbell should be in a kindergarten class right now, smiling, napping and learning how to add small numbers.

unnamedBut yesterday, instead of sitting at tables in tiny plastic chairs with people his own age and size, Campbell was surrounded by giants. The biggest, toughest men in the world are selected to play basketball, baseball and football in the SEC, and Campbell flew to Mississippi State to meet them.

“We’ve been looking forward to seeing you,” basketball coach Ben Howland told him as he arrived, a dozen of the tallest men Campbell had ever seen standing behind him.

In February of last year, four-year-old Campbell was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer affecting the body tissue called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Treatment began immediately and has continued over the 18 months since. What time he has now is uncertain and the reports lately have worsened, though his family prays every day for a miracle.

For now, their goal is to make the life he has the best life possible, to fill his remaining days with a full lifetime of experiences.

Campbell may not get to play football for his high school team, but on Tuesday he got to run onto the field at Davis Wade Stadium. He stood on the court with the world’s tallest men, basketball’s stars of today and tomorrow. He watched from the dugout as men with hard helmets and heavy arms swung their bats and launched baseballs hundreds of feet into the air, higher and farther than any five-year-old could dream of hitting.

Maybe his favorite moment, though, was the unplanned one. Dak Prescott, bearer of the same No. 15 jersey as the miniature version Campbell wore, walked him into Dan Mullen’s office. MSU’s football coach welcomed Campbell and his family in, chatted with brother and sister, mother and father.

Mullen has a football season starting next week and probably more things he could be doing, but something in the moment caught him. Maybe it’s because he’s a dad, too, and has kids around the same age as Campbell and his twin sister Avery, that Mullen noticed how tired Campbell was, now on his third stop of the day, and knew exactly what he needed.

unnamed-3Mullen grabbed the remote from his desk, turned his massive HD television on and popped it onto the Disney Channel. He pulled up two comfy chairs right in front of the TV, helping Campbell into one and Avery into the other.

“Sit here as long as you like,” he told them. “Dak needs to learn about Doc McStuffins.”

As much as the day meant to Campbell, the moments meant even more to those lucky enough to meet him. Big and tough as Prescott may appear, the 230-pound quarterback thought Campbell to be the strongest person he’d seen in a building full of the strongest people in town.

We’re told life isn’t fair, but some days make that truth more obvious than others.

I shouldn’t know the names Alison Parker and Adam Ward, either. Not yet, at least, not until they caught their big breaks, made it to a network job or had some career milestone bringing attention and congratulation. But today it’s their names we’ve read, heard and honored after their lives were shockingly ended while they were simply doing their job as reporters.

In a perfect world these would be isolated tragedies, but their stories are only a few of far too many like them. Things like cancer and death are evil; things impossible to consider necessary no matter how we try to rationalize them. We all should get our chance at life and it feels horribly unfair when good people have their opportunity cut short or taken away.

It’s a law of reason that nothing can exist without having an equal opposite. Without dark, there can be no light. The idea of strength must also allow for the idea of weakness. So too does life necessitate death and happiness have an opposite in sadness.

But that’s the silver lining to life. For as terrible a tragedy as may occur, the limits of our grief are matched by our capacity for joy. Everything taken from us is an opportunity to give. Every day, moment and breath are chances to be alive, to be happy ourselves and make others happy, too. All the hate in the world demands love to match it and any person’s life we can enrich makes our own worth living.

And that’s why sports are important. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses a game. Sure, it’s nice when your team wins, though that of course means someone else’s team lost. But sport offers a getaway, a chance for happiness and something to belong to. It’s one of many somethings in the world that can be something to us.

What meeting Prescott meant to Campbell, and what meeting Campbell meant to Prescott, has nothing to do with MSU winning the first game last year and was completely unaffected by them losing the last game. That Malik Newman will likely be in the NBA this time next August is inconsequential to Campbell, but when Newman gave him a smile and a t-shirt, it brightened a day that had every reason to be dark.

unnamed-4As impressive as Campbell found the men he met, as powerful as he imagined they must be, they knew with no doubt who was the strongest and bravest in the room.

We should all be so lucky to touch as many lives as Campbell has. His parents, Mullen and Prescott behind him and his sister in the seat beside him, Campbell quietly sat in Mullen’s big chair watching the Disney Channel and clutching the new football signed by his new friends, no clue how special he was or how much he meant to those surrounding him.

His plan was to be a Bulldog for a day, but Campbell was already a Bulldog for life.

Up next: Disney World, the happiest place on Earth.

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French goalkeeper Tanya de Souza offering promise for MSU soccer

According to the internet, it’s about 4,600 miles straight from here to Paris, France. A direct flight would last nearly half a day and take you seven hours into the future, one of those weird things where you go somewhere so far away that you’ve practically time traveled in the process of coming and going across a half dozen time zones to a place where the time of day is measured by something called CEST, which almost actually sounds French or at least like some weird combination of Central and Eastern Standard Time where you stand with one foot on either side of the line, but actually stands for a thing called Central European Summer Time, which just sounds lovely.

(photo by Russ Houston / Mississippi State University)

(photo by Russ Houston / Mississippi State University)

All that and a language barrier are what Tanya de Souza traveled to get to Starkville, Mississippi from her maison in Paris. She didn’t even get a chance to look at her new home before moving to the United States, a country she was quite unfamiliar with but extremely interested in moving to.

Tanya’s dream: to play soccer and go to school at an American university. At Mississippi State, the talented goalkeeper found a place to make those dreams come alive.

“I didn’t know anything about America,” she now says, remembering her first days in the country. “Everything is different. You can’t imagine. Everything you drink, you have half ice in the glass. Back home, I don’t even put ice in my glass. Everything is different, every single thing. Like automatic cars, air conditioner. I was cold all the time, at first. Everywhere I went I was so cold. Everything is so different.”

Even the food, she says, has been an adjustment. Despite growing up in one of the most popular culinary cities on Planet Earth, Tanya said she typically didn’t eat out, instead choosing to eat something healthy at home. Here in college, she’s eating out on an almost daily basis, though she’s still having trouble with the concept of eating a meal in a car. It’s a different world.

But she’s started to figure it out and soccer has been the biggest reason why. That was her purpose in coming here in the first place, after all. Turns out, though she might not be great at eating Taco Bell while keeping an eye on the road at the same time, she’s an incredibly accomplished soccer player. In a country where soccer is the most popular and competitive sport around, Tanya has risen to the top of the heap, being twice selected for the French national team.

It was when she made the cut for the U-16 national team that she first realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this soccer thing.

“I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Am I that good to be on the national team?’ Because I just played for pleasure and I didn’t realize that I was actually good at soccer. It was crazy. Playing against international people was a good experience for me and I studied the game. That was just a dream come true.”

By the time she was selected as the goalie for the U-19 team a couple years later, she’d gotten used to the idea of being a respected soccer player. It was around that time her desire to play soccer and study business in the U.S. started to burn.

In stepped Aaron Gordon, the man entering his second season as MSU’s head coach last summer. He hadn’t thought he needed another goalie until an injury left him with only one active goalie with the season less than a couple months away. He’d heard about Tanya before, so when faced with a surprising and pressing need, he dug deeper. He called around. He studied film. He got in touch with Tanya and talked with her over Facebook and Skype, finding out that her plans to go to some other college in the U.S. had been spoiled when they didn’t want to jump through the necessary NCAA hoops for an international player and dropped her for a different goalie.

It was a bit of a risk for both of them, but Gordon was sold and so was Tanya.

“We had a good relationship,” she said. “He made me really want to come here. I really wanted to be part of this program. He made me really comfortable.”

souzaMSU’s compliance department had experience with international players and began the acceptance and enrollment process happily and immediately, but with the timeline being so small, Tanya didn’t even make it to campus from France until the middle of the first week of classes.

She still remembers flying into the regional airport settled in the no man’s land between Starkville and Columbus.

“My first impression was weird,” Tanya said, “because whenever I took the plane from Atlanta to here, we were about to land and I was like, ‘I don’t see anything but trees here. What did I just do?’”

She was quite relieved when she got to Starkville and saw that, yes, there is much more than just trees here.

She’d completely missed the preseason at that point though, and she ended up missing the first few games, as well, while she got acclimated. Once she finally got on the field she did well, but after just a handful of games she had a season-ending injury. For as quick as it seemed everything happened for her, she found herself at the end of the season in a strange land feeling as if she hadn’t done a thing.

VQVNJVTELJUGGAU.20141018032101And that’s why she’s so excited entering 2015. She’s got Gordon excited, too. He’s finally getting to see her now that she’s healthy and comfortable with her life and the language. He likes what he sees.

“I’ve said this openly,” Gordon began, “she reminds me a lot with her athleticism and quickness of Brianna Scurry, who was the No. 1 goalkeeper for the national team. I got to work with her every day in the pro setting watching how quick and fast she is. Tanya is the same size, the same build and has those attributes. I’m excited to watch her play this season, in a full season being healthy, knowing what to expect, having such a better grasp of the language.”

Scurry, for those unfamiliar, was the starting keeper for the 1999 World Cup Champions, and she helped lead Team USA to two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004). High praise from Gordon, who said Tanya’s natural abilities have flourished as a result of growing up in a country where kicking a soccer ball is as familiar to children as throwing a baseball is to American youth.

“She just kind of has that soccer brain, soccer mentality,” Gordon said. “The things she does are very natural to her. She has really good feet. She makes really good decisions when she’s called upon. She’s just so crazy athletic and quick that she has the ability to get to spots that I think a lot of goalkeepers cannot get to in the women’s game. She’s got more coverage of the goal to be able to get to things. You’ll say, ‘That’s going in,’ and then, ‘Oh, wow, Tanya got to that.’”

If her heavily-shortened freshman campaign was considered a dress rehearsal, Tanya finally gets to make her debut on the big stage this weekend when MSU soccer opens it season hosting South Alabama Friday at 7 and Murray State on Sunday at 1.

2015 has been a season years, miles, time zones and several fast food meals in the making. Now, finally, it’s here.

“I’m really confident and I can’t wait for Friday for the first game,” Tanya said. “We’re all ready to compete right now. We’ve never been this ready before. We’re going to do really good this season.”

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Walley, Johnson hoping to fill MSU’s hole at tight end

Those on the outside haven’t mentioned him at all, while even those who cover the team on a daily basis have hardly spoken his name. All the concern with Mississippi State’s offense has been about replacing Josh Robinson or Dillon Day or Ben Beckwith or Blaine Clausell. Fair concerns, sure, but no one seems to remember Malcolm Johnson, the versatile tight end who did so much for the Bulldogs as they broke record-after-record in 2014.

“We had a great offense and Malcolm was kind of the glue that held it all together,” said tight ends coach Scott Sallach. “You didn’t have the numbers for it, but the offense is much more dangerous with a guy like that who can do all those things.”

SVCDDEQORJZKUSY.20131015153853The numbers themselves are solid, as Johnson had 28 catches for 380 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging the rough equivalent of three first downs per game. But it was what he meant to the team overall, as a leader, as a playmaker, as a unique threat from the tight end spot and as a trusted veteran for Dak Prescott to lean on that made him so vital to State’s success in 2014.

As Sallach pointed out, Johnson played some 2,000 or so snaps over the course of his career at MSU, a constant lynchpin for Dan Mullen’s offense. And now, he’s gone, off to play for the Cleveland Browns, leaving a gaping hole in MSU’s lineup that somebody has to fill. It appears junior Gus Walley is going to be that guy.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Walley said. “Malcolm, those are some big shoes to fill.”

The good news for Walley is that Johnson spent the better part of the last three years personally training him to step into those shoes when the time came. Walley’s very first day at MSU, he walked into the locker room in search of his nameplate. At the time, the room was set up with the lockers in pairs, and Walley’s was connected to Johnson’s. Johnson was the first person Walley met on his new team, and he turned out to be the most important one, too.

“Everything about the game that I know today is because of Malcolm Johnson,” Walley said. “He taught me everything I need to know. Coming out of high school, I was a receiver just like him. Just like him, it was foreign to me when I came in, but he took me under his wing.”

Walley scoring against UAB, courtesy Scout.com

Walley scoring against UAB, courtesy Scout.com

The question now: is Walley ready? He only had four catches last season, though more than anything that was due to Johnson getting nearly every possible snap. But even when he wasn’t getting passed to, Walley was still getting time on the field. He says now that those moments, despite how nervous he was, were absolutely necessary. He was thinking too much, he said, and not playing naturally. Since then, and because of those moments, the game has slowed down.

Walley says he’s finally comfortable, finally smooth and finally ready for the job. His coach agrees.

“All you have to do is just watch him perform out there,” Sallach said. “Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play, the effort you’ve got to give, the intensity you’ve got to have … You look at where he’s come from to where Gus is now, it’s not even close … You can see the difference in his attitude, his performance, his demeanor.”

However, replacing Johnson may not be a one-man job. Big-bodied senior Darrion Hutcherson will be part of the rotation, too, and it’s he who Sallach said has made the most improvement of anyone in the group of tight ends.

But it’s a true freshman who might be the next Johnson in more than one way: the 6’3”, 230-pound Hoover High School product Justin Johnson. Since the first day of fall camp, his name has been coming off the lips of his teammates and coaches as an impressive young player who has surprised people with his abilities.

Sallach said Walley is “clearly” the guy at the No. 1 spot, but that Justin’s potential might be the greatest on the team, and perhaps even moreso than Malcolm’s.

“He’s an extremely talented young man,” Sallach said. “He could be an upgraded version of Malcolm Johnson if – if, if, if, – he keeps progressing in the right direction, if he has those same intangibles that Malcolm had.

“He has God-given ability that not everyone in that room has. There are things he can do that not everybody just physically is capable of doing. They can still be successful at the same things, but he can do some things that other people can’t. You just hope the mental aspect is able to progress to doing those things on a Saturday evening.”

Malcolm Johnson is difficult to replace, and parts of what he contributed may be gone with him, but there’s reason for he, MSU and Sallach to have faith. He may be gone, but Malcolm trained his successor himself and it looks like the heir to the throne may have just arrived.

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Live thread: MSU soccer and volleyball media day

Beginning at 1 p.m. today, Mississippi State’s volleyball and soccer teams will have their preseason media day led by their coaches. We’ll have live updates throughout the afternoon right here on the blog. Soccer opens their season at home on Friday, while volleyball begins plays next week.

Updates to follow.

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HHUYWCOWEDODZGK.20150113222412Volleyball coach David McFatrich is up first, entering his first season as MSU’s head coach. Energetic guy, ought to be entertaining.

“It’s been a fast-paced seven months,” McFatrich opens. Says the staff has been everywhere from California to Europe recruiting.

“As you guys probably know, we’ve got to change a lot of things around Mississippi State volleyball.”

As part of that change, Fatch says the players had their own practice sessions throughout the summer to help improve. Very different looking roster.

“Our philosophy is embedded into the minds of our players,” he says, “and we are excited about getting started.”

We’re also talking with Evie Grace Singleton, who followed McFatrich from Central Arkansas to MSU because she wanted to continue playing for him. Said his “passion is contagious” and that he fits the aggressive style of play she prefers. Backs up the reports of Fatch being very energetic.

Also here is Emily Howard who transferred in, a player Fatch believes has pro potential. She’s got big goals for the 2015 season: “I want to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

Asked by local celebrity Bart Gregory what the team’s identity is, McFatrich gave a lengthy answer:

“Fast, aggressive and fearless. We don’t care who we play. That’s part of the mindset we’re trying to instill in them. It’s not easy changing culture sometimes. But when you let players know that if you’re going 100 miles per hour and you screw up, I’m OK with that … They need to be playing all-out every play. There’s freedom in that, knowing that if we make a mistake, we’re OK with that.”

And that’s it for volleyball.

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VQVNJVTELJUGGAU.20141018032101Head coach Aaron Gordon and the soccer program up next, joined by senior Shelby Jordan.

Gordon talking now about getting ready for the season. Soccer only gets 16 days of preseason, one of the shortest in athletics.

“My last two years here were about developing a program and changing the conversation,” about Mississippi State soccer, Gordon says.

As far as changing that conversation goes, Gordon says one of the biggest steps to getting where they want to be is becoming relevant on campus. Said much of the summer and the marketing plan is devoted to doing that. He feels like it’s happening.

“It’s a new time here,” he says. “It’s exciting. We’re still young, but we’re getting there … We’re gonna be in a lot more games, we’re gonna compete in a lot more games and that means we’re going to win a lot more games.”

Gordon obviously has a much higher level of confidence. Said it’s something he’s seen in preseason practices and looks forward to that product being on the field. The win over a good Memphis soccer program in the preseason was a good sign.

Talking to Jordan, she sees a bright future. “When I think about it, I get jealous … I think they’re going to do really well when I’m gone.” She added that she sees the young talent coming in and how quickly their developing.

She thinks they’ll be good this year, too, of course. She was speaking to the future of the program based on the question she was asked.

Getting back to the Memphis exhibition win, Gordon said MSU had seven new starters and to see them do so well was encouraging.

Big thing going forward for Gordon’s team is just to have good performances. He knows soccer is a cruel sport where you can dominate an entire game and still lose, but you put yourself into position to win with good performances. With a bad performance, you don’t have a chance. That’s what he’s going to be looking for early in the season.

Hearing Gordon talk, it sounds like he likes his defense and the growing talent across the field, defending and attacking. They’re getting more speed and power. The thing left is to get experience, which is something they’ll have to do as they go.

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David Turner talks depth and talent on defensive line

As often happens with this particular coach, I have found that David Turner is far better at explaining things and sharing information than I could hope to be. Mississippi State’s defensive line coach is regularly among the best quotes on the staff, exhibited again this week when he broke down his position group for reporters in the middle of fall camp.

11831781_1077484982263983_2300907706273587827_nThe question and answer session below is a transcript of his time at the podium, but I’ll single out a few highlights before we dive into the whole thing.

Two players earned praise from Turner, a coach who is not one to often dole out such things in the media, and both times it seemed to be the most glowing review he’s given them. It went to the pair of defensive tackles Chris Jones and Nick James. They may be the most naturally talented players on the line, so to see those two making strides bodes well for the overall success of the group.

Turner also mentioned that things are getting easier and more natural for junior defensive end Jonathan Calvin. He’s one I fully believe will have a big role in the rotation this year and seems a likely candidate to take the No. 3 spot A.J. Jefferson occupied last year.

Speaking of Jefferson, Turner also said it’s possible they could move him inside on an occasional or even regular basis. MSU had a lot of success doing similar things with Preston Smith last year, and that option speaks to Turner’s confidence in the rest of the defensive ends.

Question: How has camp been so far?

Answer: I think A.J. Jefferson and Ryan Brown have kind of been the leaders of the group. Those guys have led every day through their work ethic, the way they have attacked practice. The young guys have kind of followed. I say young guys, but it’s kind of a unique group. I’ve got one senior and seven juniors, and the rest of them are freshmen. There’s a little bit of a gap there, but the guys have been working extremely hard.

Chris Jones has worked harder than he’s worked the two previous years, which is good. I’m pleased with the way camp has gone thus far.

Q: Junior defensive end Will Coleman, who redshirted last year after coming from junior college, said the year off helped him. What changes have you seen from him?

A: I don’t think there’s any question it changed him. No. 1, I don’t think last year he’d have been ready to play mentally or physically, so things kind of have a way of working themselves out. He’s a whole lot more confident now. He’s stronger. Having been in the program a year, not played, but been in the defense, he’s a whole lot more knowledgeable. He’s not thinking now, which means he’s playing faster. I’ve really been pleased. It started about the last week, week and a half of spring ball and has continued through fall camp.

Q: After losing a lot of players from last year’s team, how do you feel about the depth in 2014?

A: We did lose a lot, but every year each team changes. We’ve got numbers, we do have that. Some of the young guys, the redshirt freshmen, have got to step up. Cory Thomas, he’s had some good and bad days. Braxton Hoyett, he’s had some good and bad days. Those guys have got to step up. Hopefully we get a chance to play them early and get their feet wet. I think, by the middle of the season, they’ll be really solid guys, really solid backups. Somebody’s going to have to step up, there’s no question about it. I don’t know if we’ll be, up front, as deep as we were last year, but we’ve still got to be able to roll two-deep at least, maybe two and a half.

Q: How are juniors Nelson Adams and Nick James handling the competition for the other starting tackle spot?

A: Nelson is coming along. He’s still probably not as physical as I want him to be, but he’s getting better. Nick James has made tremendous strides. He’s by no means a finished product, but he’s moving in the right direction, which it’s his time. If you look at it realistically now, he’s a redshirt junior, so this is his time. Usually by their redshirt junior year, those guys start to figure it out. He’s coming along, I’ve been pleased with him. Just got to keep him focused each day. Just take it one day at a time with Nick. I pick at him. I say hey, just hold it in the road today and stay focused. So far, he’s done that.

Q: You mentioned that A.J. Jefferson has been a leader. What has he done in practice to show that?

A: A.J. loves football. It’s obvious by the way he attacks it. Every day is the same: he works hard, he gets better. A.J., I laugh with him. He’s kind of sneaky good. Last year, during the start of the season, he was doing things, and I was like, wow, that’s A.J. People remember Preston, but A.J. did some really good things last year. I think it started about midway during the season, he started to figure it out. He works at it. A.J. is a hard worker, as is Ryan Brown. Those guys kind of feed off each other and they’ve been good for the group.

Q: You said Chris Jones is working very hard. What’s brought that about?

A: I’m not sure, you’d probably have to ask him. I think he’s a little more mature. I think he’s a little more focused. I think he knows what he wants. I think he was kind of embarrassed by his sophomore year last year and that what we saw last year was not the real Chris. I think all those things have played a factor in his development, his push, his desire this fall. It’s his time. He’s a true junior, everybody knows he’s talented, but he’s gotta have the work ethic, put the time off the field into the game and work on his craft when he’s out there. That’s what I see him doing now.

Q: What have your impressions been of the true freshmen?

A: Well, we’re just trying to keep them here. All of the sudden, they get here, and it ain’t recruiting anymore. You get out there at The Farm and it’s 100 degrees, all of the sudden, they say, man, I don’t know about this college football. But they’re doing well. All jokes aside, it’s a good group. Keith Joseph has been a pleasant surprise. Anfernee Mullins is a guy that’s from Aliceville, Alabama, but he’s kind of like a typical Mississippi kid, country kid. He’s got a long ways to go, but he’ll develop. Kendell Jones has done some good things. Then, obviously, Fletcher Adams. He’s got a motor. It’s a good mixture of guys and I’m really pleased with them. I think, before it’s all said and done, they’ll have really good years here.

Q: What have you seen in junior college transfer defensive end Jonathan Calvin?

A: It’s been like Will Coleman, in a sense, that I think spring, he kind of learned what to do. He was feeling his way around. Now, he’s a whole lot more comfortable. He talks a lot more. It’s tough for a junior college guy to come in in January and all the sudden they’re thrown in the middle of everything, don’t know anybody, then it’s spring ball. He’s comfortable now around all the guys. He’s laughing and joking. He’s not a guy that talks a whole lot, but he’s more comfortable and it’s allowed him to play faster, he knows, he studies. He spends a lot of time studying. He knows football is important to him. That’s allowed him to play faster. He’s got a lot of natural pop. He’s a strong kid. He’s got a lot of natural pop and I think he’s going to be a good addition to him at end.

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MSU expecting a “NASCAR offense” with Wilson, Ross

Roaring around tracks at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour, stock cars represent some of the fastest, most entertaining and most dangerous feats of sport in the world. Those who would get nervous approaching 90 MPH on an interstate gather to watch as professionals speed by at more than double their white-knuckle-inducing personal extremes, all in the name of competition and performance.

FOQKBDFAGSPGJRG.20140831035115De’Runnya Wilson is expecting something along those lines to happen on football fields when he and his teammates suit up for Mississippi State this fall.

“It’s going to be very explosive,” the 6’5” junior receiver said, “a NASCAR offense. We’re going to go faster than we were going last year.”

MSU’s offense already led the Southeastern Conference in plays of 20-plus yards last season, so the amount of room for improvement might seem slim. However, Wilson – along with teammates and coaches – has a very clear explanation for why he expects to be even more explosive. It starts with All-SEC senior quarterback Dak Prescott, of course, but much of the expectation is predicated on the duo of Wilson and fellow junior Fred Ross.

Wilson is entering only his fourth year of playing football, but he’s quickly become one of the best receivers in the conference and country, a chore to tackle when he gets the ball and even harder to prevent from catching said ball in the first place. Ross came to MSU with much more polish and experience than Wilson, helping him to play as a true freshman, but lingering injuries hampered most of his first two years on campus.

However, down the stretch of 2014 Ross finally got healthy. Entering 2015, he’s switched inside to the slot, where coaches expect he will be the perfect complement to Wilson’s considerable abilities on the outside.

Wilson broke it down shortly after sharing his NASCAR-level plans.

“It’s inside-out,” he said. “I’m the first-read, and if I’m not open, it’ll open up the [slot]. If it’s Cover Two, the [slot receiver] should have a good game. If it’s man-to-man, the [outside receiver] should have a good game.”

HUMDFPJPNGPQFNL.20150101040244It seems like a solid plan, assuming each is able to hold up his end of the deal. Nothing is guaranteed, but the available data suggests it’s plenty possible. In their most recent two games (against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and at Ole Miss to close out the 2014 regular season), Wilson and Ross combined for 28 catches, 422 yards and four touchdowns.

It may seem unreasonable to expect the pair to average 14 catches, 200-plus yards and two touchdowns per game over the course of a season, but then again, that’s somewhere in the realm of what they’re aiming for. Pressed to put numbers to his goals for 2015, Wilson said he’d like at least 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. Lofty, sure, but why play if you’re not confident?

“If you double-team De’Runnya, I feel like I can win on the inside,” Ross said. “If you double-team on the inside, I’ve got all the faith in De’Runnya that he’s going to win 99.9 percent of the time.”

Wilson is the more proven of the two, leading MSU in catches (47), yards (680) and touchdowns (nine) in 2014, despite only playing extensively in about seven games. But Ross was second on the team by a good margin with 489 yards, and his 16.3 yards per catch were actually tops on the team for any receiver with 20-plus catches.

His transition to the slot could change the yards per catch number, but it’s a switch he says he’s comfortable with, especially after playing it some in high school, too. In fact, Chad Bumphis – statistically the best slot receiver in MSU history – has raved about the switch since seeing it up close in spring practices, saying Ross is a natural as a crisp route-runner with strong hands who knows how to use his body to catch passes and create space even when he’s covered.

Ross is a little bigger than the average slot receiver, something he expects to use to his advantage.

“With my versatility, I feel like I can do a lot of things in the slot position,” Ross said. “I feel like I have the tools to succeed at the slot position.”

JHGBKLCMEBQDLLN.20141116010217Co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Billy Gonzales said this is the deepest group of receivers he’s ever worked with in his lengthy and successful career, saying there is much more than just Ross and Wilson. Gonzales’ goal he preaches to the receivers is to have at least five plays per game of 20 yards or more, a reasonable goal given MSU’s success in explosive plays last year.

“If we can continue to do that,” Gonzales said, “we will put points up on the board.”

Gonzales never used the words “NASCAR offense” as Wilson did, but it’s clear listening to him, Dan Mullen and the rest of the offensive staff of coaches and players that expectations of explosion are high.

“Our receivers are very, very talented,” Prescott said. “We have a very talented group that is going to make my job easier.”

To hear them describe it, Wilson, Ross and the gang will take the field as the highly-trained and adrenaline-pumped drivers of wonder speeding by as those around them look on in awe, unable to stop them even if they wanted to.

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Live thread: MSU football Media Day

Beginning today at 11:30 and running through early afternoon, Mississippi State football will be hosting its on-campus Media Day. Festivities begin with Dan Mullen at 11:30 and will continue with defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, followed by select players.

We’ll post live updates here throughout the interviews.

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WFBQUHQFOMPLUWA.20150226192708Dan Mullen is here and this thing is underway.

“We’re excited,” he says. “This is one of the best times of the year, training camp.”

MSU is through five practices now, so Mullen says guys are getting back into the swing of things.

As far as camp goes, Mullen says today through all of next week is the only football-only time they have based on the academic schedule at MSU.

On Dak Prescott, Mullen says, “We need him to have the best year of his career. I think he’s really driven and is pushing himself to do that.”

Mullen breaking down the positions, says the receiver depth is deceiving because technically there’s only one “returning starter” but a solid six or seven guys who have played a bunch and have good stats, even if they’re not actually returning starters.

On kicking, Mullen says “we feel pretty good about the special teams game.” Mentioned that Logan Cooke and Devon Bell have both kicked field goals, done kickoffs and done punts. They’ve got experience and maturity.

Defensively, Mullen says “the secondary is a little bit deeper than we thought it would be.”

“Defensive line is where, to me, we probably have to see the most guys step up.”

Mentioned how many players and snaps they lost from last year. Said they need younger players to step so “we can rotate guys on the line like we want to.”

That’s the end of his opening statement, Mullen is now taking questions from reporters.

Asked if there is a linebacker with a similar skill set to the departed Matt Wells, Mullen says sophomore JT Gray is the closest, calling him one of the fastest guys on the team regardless of position. Gray was Freshman All-SEC last year. Overall, however, Mullen said trying to box someone in as a Matt Wells replacement is unwise.

At tight end, Mullen said Gus Walley “is ready to step in and do the same things” that Malcolm Johnson did at the position for the last few years. Added that the competition is for who else will be in the mix for the No. 2 spot to get snaps.

Asked about Rufus Warren’s switch from tight end, Mullen jokes, “hey go eat another burger at lunch and a biscuit at breakfast and go play left tackle.”

Said it was easy for Warren to put on the necessary weight to play left tackle, after it had been a struggle for him to stay around 270 pounds at tight end.

Mullen puts the odds at 50-50 that junior QB Damian Williams could redshirt this year. Said it’s hard to predict, don’t know what’ll happen.

More on the returning starters, Mullen says, “I look at Will Redmond as a returning starter for us. He might not have played the first play every game, but he played the last play in a lot of games. There’s something to that.”

Went on to say there’s a difference between Redmond and, say, right guard Devon Desper who started one game, but didn’t play extensively otherwise. Mullen thinks the biggest thing to look at is career snaps, rather than career starts.

Mullen talking offensive line depth now, saying the recruiting efforts have paid off to where now someone like JUCO transfer tackle Martinas Rankin can come along and develop at his own pace. “We’re not forced to put him into positions he’s not ready for right now.”

Mullen speaking now on Kendrick Market, said you can clearly see the difference in the secondary from the spring when he was hurt to now when he’s out there and directing the defensive backs. Considers that extremely valuable to have a veteran guy who intelligent and respected to guide a young group of players at safety.

On the subject of running back, Mullen was asked what he’s looking for as someone to become a starter. He said, obviously, they all can run the ball. That’s what they were recruited for. But he wants to see them do everything else well.

For example, Mullen said, let’s say MSU runs 80 plays in a game with an even number of running and passing plays. Of the 40 runs, say that Dak gets 10 of them. So that’s 50 plays per game, at least, that the running back isn’t carrying the ball. How will they do on those 50 plays? That’s how someone can separate from the rest of the pack.

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Now co-offensive coordinator receivers coach Billy Gonzales is here. Opening statement talking about how excited he is to be back. Said he’s been impressed with freshmen, many of whom have already put on 10-15 pounds.

Of note, said the energy has been great in practice. “We want to build that toughness and have that energy.”

Gonzales reminds reporters that MSU led the SEC in plus-plays of 20 yards or more, and he wants that to continue. He says the goal they discuss in the meeting room is to have five big plays per game.

Gonzales says he talked to De’Runnya Wilson some this spring (as well as others) about being draft-eligible after this season. He told them the most important thing they can do is work on their fundamentals.

Gonzales says Wilson told him, “Coach, I just want to win. I want to get better and develop. I came here to get an education and play football.”

Gonzales says the depth he has this year at MSU is better and more than he’s had anywhere he’s ever been. Impressive, given Gonzales’ history.

Gonzales saying one of the keys to the offense is having two receivers who defenses have to worry about. Said that Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson complement each other very well when asked about those two, added that he’s got a host of options at the third spot. Said it makes his job much easier.

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Time now for co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy.

First question is about center Jamaal Clayborn, who switched over for guard at the end of last year. Said he had told Clayborn he’d be the guy in 2015.

“He’s done a greta job leading the other guys and being that guy,” Hevesy said. “Through camp so far, he’s done a great job. Still has a lot to learn.”

As for left tackle Rufus Warren, Hevesy says the transition form tight end to tackle wasn’t too hard. He thinks the bigger transition is going from a part-time guy to a full-time starter.

“He’s learning now, it’s every play, every little detail, every thing he has to be great at.”

Funny story on Hevesy and Warren. Hevesy says four years ago he told Warren, “If you keep eating, you’re going to end up in my meeting room. He kept eating. Now he’s in my room.”

Interesting thoughts from Hevesy on the development of offensive linemen. “Ultimately, your future is based on your past.”

He said the reason guys last year were good is because they learned from people like Derek Sherrod and JC Brignone and Gabe Jackson and Tobias Smith. Said this year’s group has to be good by learning from the people before them and that next year’s group and future players will be the same way. Good or bad, he says, you have to learn from the past. Nice outlook for offensive linemen, as well as life.

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And now defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz is here.

“Toughness is always going to be the foundation of our defense.”

Says, “One of the most encouraging things to this point has been the development of the team [from the spring] … Our football IQ is much, much higher.”

On the freshmen on defense, Diaz says “every one of those guys has done something to stand out and showed us something good on tape.”

Diaz says the way you can tell players are developing is heightened confidence. “You can either get beaten before the snap or after the snap … Our guys are not getting beaten before the snap.”

At linebacker, Diaz says he’s “very impressed with the number of guys that can contribute.” Said Benqiuez Brown has picked up where he left off and says the game has really slowed down for him. Mentioned Richie Brown and Zach Jackson having good approaches, as well.

Diaz says the competition for the starting spots will go up until day one, then says it will continue through the end of the season. Says the best players on day one may not be the best players by the end of the day.

As far as who plays, Diaz says he’s looking for the best six linebackers regardless. Said he’s going to take the best ones, regardless of specific linebacker position. “If we’ve got too many SAMs, someone will have to learn WILL.”

Comparing to his last time at MSU in 2010, Diaz says the linebacker group is “certainly deeper now.”

Speaking on this season, Diaz says they have to be a better defense, “and we were really good last year, so that’s going to be hard. But we have to do it.”

He said it’s a tremendous advantage to go up against Dak Prescott in practice every day.

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MSU experiences success with emoji keyboard

In the realm of social media, Mississippi State has made a habit of being first. For instance, the MSU football team was the first to have a hashtag in the endzone, even if that was later outlawed. This week, MSU was the first SEC team to have a Periscope feed of football practice.

NUMGSUAJFHBPCSX.20150722152808And late this summer, MSU became the first college in the country to have its own emoji keyboard. Not only were they first, but they’ve been extremely successful in their efforts.

Partnering with a group called Snaps, MSU’s athletic department launched the keyboard on July 22, and in the two weeks following, Snaps recorded over 33,000 downloads.

“It spread like wildfire,” said Leah Beasley, MSU’s Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing. “I think it’s been one of the most innovative and successful new launches that we’ve had in my two years here. People want Mississippi State stuff. They crave it. So we’re in the business of giving them what they want.”

MSU and Snaps expected good numbers on the downloads, but the true test was the level of interaction and how often the keyboards were used after the first day. According to numbers from Snaps, expectations on that front were far exceeded.

Individuals have used the keyboard an average of 25 times per person, each user sharing an average of 10 content items since download. Further, 38 percent of users have shared the keyboard with a friend (the average is 28 percent), while the MSU keyboard has a 39 percent engagement rate, compared to the average of 23 percent. All told, the MSU keyboard has seen 1.15 million interactions, an impressive number.

“So far,” said Snaps CEO Christian Brucceleri, “Hail State is the best performing sports keyboard, and the best performing college keyboard on our platform in terms of shares of content. The top emoji shared by MSU fans is the Hail State logo, which has been shared over 20,000 times in the past three weeks. Clearly, branded emoji are meeting a passionate fan base in Mississippi State.”

The final product was something nearly a year in the making, as MSU’s marketing department began conversations back in 2014. Those talks became a little more serious when MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said he, too, would like to see an MSU keyboard. Once MSU saw the success of the keyboard launched by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, they decided they wanted to be the first college team to have their own.

Not that there weren’t challenges, of course. Coming up with ideas for what images and gifs to use was easy enough, a group effort by those in the department, but the hangup was the active use of the keyboard. MSU loved the idea of having one, but the lack of compatibility on Twitter and Facebook was problematic. In fact, the keyboard would have launched sooner, said Assistant Marketing Coordinator Rhett Hobart, if MSU hadn’t been determined to exhaust every possibility to make the emojis compatible with other social media programs.

The science behind it is actually fairly interesting, as Hobart describes it. There actually exists an international consortium who approves or disapproves images for the official emoji keyboards such as the native ones on iPhones. Those particular emojis are something called Unicode, which assigns alphabetical value to the symbols. In effect, those keyboards are considered their own language, the same way one could use English, Mandarin or French keyboards.

The application process for Unicode can take as long as two years, and most people are denied anyway, Hobart said. Naturally, that was not a realistic option. What the consortium recommends is image-pasting, which is where Snaps comes in.

Snaps creates a keyboard that basically runs as a gallery of images to be easily copied and pasted. At present, Twitter and Facebook don’t support the pasting of images, though there’s hope that could change in the future.

In the meantime, MSU has a far more flexible and easy to use board. One of the advantages to this route is the ability to add and remove emojis whenever they like. MSU’s staff has already added a few since launch, and they have plans to keep the rotation fresh, reflecting the various seasons of athletics for the Bulldogs.

The fall, of course, is football heavy, and that will change as basketball and baseball seasons arrive. Hobart said there are plans for old school logos for Throwback Thursdays as well as Christmas and other MSU-themed holiday emojis.

“I picture it,” Hobart said, “as let’s say we win the Egg Bowl and we immediately add the Golden Egg Trophy to the keyboard. We send out a push notification that we’ve added something, and immediately, that will be sent thousands of times.”

In the couple weeks since MSU’s keyboard launched, Hobart said he’s fielded calls from double-digit schools across the country looking for information on how they can get their own versions. It’s clearly a unique feature to offer fans, though benefits are felt elsewhere, too.

As Hobart pointed out, it’s a recruiting tool, too. As it stands today, Dan Mullen is the only coach in the country who can send custom emojis and gifs of his school to recruits. The same holds true for all of MSU’s coaches, naturally.

To hear MSU tell it, the service will only grow, both within their own keyboard and across college athletics. Not only is MSU proud to have it, they’re proud to have done it first.

“It was one of the coolest things we’d seen,” Beasley remembered thinking when she first saw the Hawks keyboard. “No other college was doing it, so we said hey, let’s go for it. I want our department to be in the business of being the firsts and the onlys.”

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Under new scheme, Chris Jones aiming for breakout junior campaign

Congratulations, Dan Mullen, one of your star players was named a preseason All-American! What do you have to say?

“I think the worst people are preseason All-Americans,” Mullen deadpanned after MSU’s first preseason practice Monday. “If you’re a preseason All-American, you better finish a postseason All-American. If not, you have done a really bad job because people thought you were supposed to be good and then you didn’t do it.”

ZXLJHKGWBTRHLIH.20140831025430Sounds a little harsh, but it’s a very logical sentiment, especially for the player in question – junior defensive lineman Chris Jones. Getting attention isn’t the struggle for Jones. Getting the production is what he’s working on.

Those around the program know his story, a highly-recruited player – with offers from anyone and everyone – who arrived at Mississippi State as one of the biggest signees in a decade. His freshman year went very well, but his sophomore year was not nearly as impressive as he or his coaches were hoping for.

It’s for those reasons that Jones is even less excited than his head coach about the preseason awards and recognition he’s received lately.

“That don’t mean nothing. Last year I was named all that and didn’t get it,” Jones told reporters after the second practice of MSU’s fall camp Tuesday. “Last year I wanted to achieve so many things in my mind and I feel like I let myself down. This year, I’ve got that chip on my shoulder.”

He’s got a new number, too, switching from 96 to 98. He swears it’s not a “new year, new me” change, but he conceded that the best year of his career – when he was a senior in high school – came with the 98 on his back, and he’s hoping to get back some of that magic in 2015.

He’s got reason to believe he will, too, as a new scheme under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz ought to showcase Jones’ immense talents. To hear the 6’6” behemoth explain it, the defense last year had the defensive line setting things up for the linebackers to make plays. The plan under Diaz, Jones says, is for the defensive linemen to be the ones making those big plays as the scheme puts he and his teammates in one-on-one situations with an opportunity to get in the backfield quickly.

Beyond the new scheme, Jones said he expects to play frequently at defensive end, though his starting position will be at tackle. In preparation for the changes, Jones is down to 305 pounds now, rather than the 315 he played at last year.

All together, it kind of seems like the perfect scenario for a talented player attempting to have a breakout season, right?

“Yes, sir,” Jones said with his big smile. “Coach Diaz, he kind of frees us up. I’m loving Coach Diaz. I feel like he’s a great coach. He utilizes the D-line a lot more.”

JUJADJFYPUMIBFJ.20140831031150Not that a new scheme is automatically going to make Jones the postseason All-American [and potential first round NFL Draft pick] he wants to be, of course. He’s big, strong and fast, and moreso than most in all three of those categories, but he has to improve as a player, too. Throughout the spring, during the summer and now entering fall camp, that’s what Jones has been trying to do. Improving his hand placement, he said, is one of the big “little” things he’s gotten better at. His footwork has improved, too, he believes. He’s learning how to stay low, as well, an important thing to do in the middle of the line.

Luckily, we don’t just have to take Jones’ word for it. Senior left tackle Rufus Warren said not a day went by when Jones wasn’t doing extra work of some sort over the summer. Much of it was in the weight room, but more often than not he was in the film room watching tape and trying to learn as much as he could.

If that part of his game catches up with his natural ability, Warren said he’ll be glad to know they’re on the same team rather than facing each other.

“He’s one of those defensive linemen that you don’t want to go up against,” Warren said of his teammate. “He’s big, strong, fast, long. I mean, you name it, Chris Jones has got it. He’s one of those guys that he’s just gonna move you, and he’s quick with it.”

Mullen said earlier this summer that for MSU to have a great year as a team, Jones has to have a great year as an individual.

Senior defensive end Ryan Brown is the leader of the defensive line, and while it might seem necessary for him to help Jones toward that goal, he said he doesn’t even has to.

“I don’t think I need to tell him anything,” Brown said. “Everything that he’s working for is right there in front of him. I think he’s gonna reach his potential this year.”

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MSU’s Hubbard working to provide clothing for African orphanages

Summertime is one of the few opportunities for relaxation in college football where workouts, practices and recruiting seem to fill the entire calendar. Those who work in that world take advantage of the slower summer months (in between camps, of course) to get out and away, traveling to beaches and big cities or just relaxing at home with books or TV.

DSC_0256Mississippi State’s Assistant Equipment Manager Jason Hubbard, who spends his year getting football players and coaches all the gear they need, catering to all their desires, spent his vacation doing more of the same. But instead of doing it in a locker room in Starkville, Mississippi, he spent three weeks taking care of kids in an orphanage in Zambia, Africa.

Hubbard is part of a growing group called Managers On A Mission, a collection of equipment managers from college football programs around the country whose aim is to use their expertise and resources to help those whose needs line up with what managers can provide. They partner with the Rafiki Foundation, a group running orphanages in 10 African countries where needy children are given a full education and a place to live and grow.

Naturally, the managers use what they have in front of them every day to help the kids: equipment. They’re not handing out shoulder pads and helmets to children, of course, but those who have seen the equipment rooms of major college football programs know how many T-shirts, pairs of shoes, shorts, jackets and the like are leftover at the end of every year. Rather than ask people for money, the managers just ask coaches for those leftovers, putting donation boxes in coaches’ locker rooms across the country.

Many of the gifts go straight to the orphanages in Africa, while much of it is also sold on eBay to help raise funds, rather than having to ask people for monetary donations. This summer, for the first time, Hubbard was able to take those gifts straight to the kids himself as he led a team with student managers from Kansas State and Michigan. The experience was one he believes will stay with him throughout his lifetime.

“They have no clue who Mississippi State is, who The U is, who Ole Miss or any of them are, but when they get that stuff, it’s awesome for them,” Hubbard said. “To see the appreciation and excitement on their faces is like Christmas in July.”

DSC_0310Hubbard has worked with the program since receiving an email from MOAM’s executive director a few years ago, and he recently took his involvement to a higher level, joining the board of directors as their only active equipment manager and getting the opportunity to go on one of the trips this summer. In fact, he wasn’t even the first MSU manager to go, as his enthusiasm for the project led to one student manager going on last year’s trip.

Word has spread quietly but quickly through college athletics with more and more schools and managers participating, as well as several coaches taking a more active role. Last year, MOAM only took one trip, and that grew to three this year, including the trio in Zambia led by Hubbard. By next summer, he says, they hope to be able to send the small teams to as many as five or six locations, and eventually they’d like to be able to visit each of the 10 orphanages at least once per year.

DSC_1034MOAM and the Rafiki Foundation are natural partners, and the pairing of Hubbard and the group of fellow managers was one of the easiest things he’s done. He and MSU equipment legend Phil Silva worked together to provide gear the last few years and help spread the word through their network in college football. As Hubbard’s involvement grew, so too did his passion.

“The more I heard about it, the more I became glued to what they were doing,” Hubbard said. “It was constantly on my mind and I wanted to help out any way we could. At the same time, I felt like the Lord was leading me to take on a bigger role with my faith in athletics. It seemed like the perfect way to live that out. To know that we can have a positive impact on kids, not just here at Mississippi State, but across the country and the world – that’s why I have this job. It’s why I’m here.”

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