New Look Lineup Paying Off For Howland

So, things happened kind of fast for Ben Howland. On January 3, his team opened SEC play by losing by 10 points to Alabama at home. Then, in a span of three days, his Mississippi State team scored 179 points in two games, beating LSU and Arkansas both on the road by a combined 23 points. One week, January 3-10, separated the beginning and end of that three-game stretch, but to watch them play, it‘s as if years have gone by. Or months, at least.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amCredit the players for their resiliency and talent, then credit Howland for avoiding the stubbornness that can often plague head coaches in any sport. Over the course of a couple practices, Howland totally revamped his starting lineup, leading to a six-day turnaround for his Bulldogs.

Of course, it’s the same roster Howland had in that first game against Alabama, but changes in how he used that roster paid off very quickly. Now, MSU did well in the non-conference schedule, finishing that portion of the year with a 9-3 record. Things weren’t going poorly. But a new lineup helped move the needle a lot closer to the “great” end.

When MSU took the floor against LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the senior point guard wasn’t in the lineup. Neither was the team’s sharpshooting freshman guard. Nor, either, was the recently-returned sophomore guard who had earned a start in just his second game back.

The starting five were, 1-5, freshman point guard Lamar Peters, sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (of course), freshman guard/forward Mario Kegler (who had been at the four), sophomore forward Aric Holman (who had been at the five) and freshman forward Schnider Herard.

Or, to put it in different terms, they were 6’0”, 6’4”, 6’7”, 6’10” and 6’10”.

“I just thought, in terms of our size, it would get us off to hopefully a better start on the backboards, which has been an Achilles heel all season,” Howland later said.

And it did work. It worked well, as a matter of fact.

“It was easier to rebound,” Holman confirmed.

Said Howland, “It helps us to be bigger, especially at the onset of games when we’re trying to establish ourselves rebounding.”

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amThe benefits have extended beyond rebounding, though. That lineup has been troublesome for opponents and advantageous for MSU, but it’s not just the length. As Howland pointed out to reporters, it puts every player at their natural position. Holman is a tall guy, but he’s more suited to play the four, where his athleticism and shooting ability can be highlighted on offense and his shot blocking ability can be best utilized on defense. Kegler, too, is a sizable human, but his talent is more naturally suited to the three, where his ball skills both on the dribble and as a passer can be used with more frequency.

Then the quick-footed Peters and the gigantic-footed Herard complement each other well at the one and five, respectively. Weatherspoon, of course, seems to be good no matter where he plays on the floor, but the two guard is his preferred locale.

“It helps to play Aric, Mario and Q all at their natural positions,” Howland said.

What it also helps are the options for substitutions off the bench. Senior point guard I.J. Ready took the change in stride (“At this point, I just want to win,” he said), and it’s his reliability that helps tie this whole thing together. With such a young lineup on the floor, Ready is the man who can come in to help get the game going in the right direction if things start to falter. And, as Howland likes to do, Ready can be on the floor at the same time as Peters, helping transition the lineup from long and strong to quick and dangerous with the blow of a whistle.

With the right subs, Howland can adjust to just about any moment. Need leadership to pull things back together, or a reliable late-game ball handler and free throw shooter? Send in Ready. Need a spark behind the arc or on the offensive glass? Enter the sharpshooting freshman Tyson Carter. Need some energy and athleticism? Xavian Stapleton. Hard minutes in the paint? E.J. Datcher.

And so on and so forth; Howland, in a rather short period of time, has set himself up to have an answer for just about everything.

“Coach Howland does a great job subbing and utilizing all his weapons at the right time,” Ready said. “The lineup we started off with [against LSU] was great.”

MSU is still a young team, certainly, and their lack of depth in some positions remains a concern for Howland. However, this group has grown up fast. It’s rare to have a new-look team in the middle of the season, but the Bulldogs have pulled it off.

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Talent, Development Shine For Schaefer’s No. 5 Bulldogs

This is the best team Vic Schaefer has had at Mississippi State, and sitting at 15-0 after blowing out 11-3 LSU to start SEC play, this might also be the best coaching job of his five years in Starkville. His Bulldogs are No. 5 in the country, and that ranking may very well get even better when the new polls come out this week.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-53-41-amWhat’s impressive about the job he’s done to this point – beyond the tough non-conference slate, the big numbers and, you know, the undefeated record – is that he’s done so with virtually the same roster he had last year. Coming into the season, fresh off an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, the 2016-17 campaign set up to be far more about development than addition.

After several years of addition by, well, addition, the stars of this year’s team are the same stars of last year’s team. The only difference is that they’re 12 months older. It’s in those 12 months that Schaefer did his work, and he continues to do so as the train of this season gains more and more steam.

The obvious answer to “What makes MSU good?” is the talent. All-SEC players like Victoria Vivians, Morgan William and Dominique Dillingham are certainly vital. Having 6’7” Teaira McCowan and 6’5” Chinwe Okorie in the post goes a long way, too. Literally.

But the little things are what have moved the needle from good to great for this top-five squad. Development is in the little things. Okorie and Vivians, who combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds against LSU Sunday, are perfect examples. Both have natural talents and abilities, certainly, but honing those skills has been of immense value.

Okorie, now a senior, has always been one of the most physically intimidating players on MSU’s roster, and while she’s certainly had a successful career, her ceiling was never quite reached earlier in her time at State.

“I have to answer when I’m on the Bulldog tour, ‘Hey, how’s your big girl? Is she gonna be able to make a layup this year?’ Schaefer shared, only half-jokingly.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-56-03-amNow, it turns out, she can. Okorie, who also leads the team in rebounds, is shooting over 60 percent from the field and is one of only three players on the team averaging double-figures scoring. Beside her in the post, McCowan has made strides from freshman year to sophomore, learning how to use her body on both ends of the floor.

The development in the frontcourt has made for a nice pairing with the junior point guard William, the team’s floor general and second-leading scorer.

“Those are the bookends to our success,” Schaefer said. “The development of our bigs inside really makes it nice for our guard play, no question about it.”

For Vivians, the big step has been growing into her abilities. She’s athletic, she can shoot and she’s got length. That much got her pretty far. But now, she’s perfecting the finer points of the game.

She’s learned how to properly select and get set for shots.

“With Tori, it’s just a matter of her feet,” Schaefer said. “Tori didn’t take a bad shot today. She was on balance.”

She’s learned to see the floor on things as seemingly little as an in-bounds pass.

“We worked on that for 10 minutes in shootaround,” Schaefer shared.

She’s setting strong screens, she’s perfecting her timing on when to make cuts, and most importantly – this is the big one – she’s become passionate on defense.

“You can tell on the defensive end, it means something to her,” Schaefer finished. “I think that’s the difference on our team right now, that she’s really dialed in on both ends.“

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-54-36-amVivians is second on the team in steals (24), first in rebounds by guards (4.2 per game) and third in assists with a total 24. On that offensive side, Vivians’s 217 shots are more than double the next closest on the team, and only one other player (Okorie) has even attempted 100. Impressively given the volume of attempts, Vivians is shooting 43.3 percent, averaging 16.7 points per game.

Each game is just another display of her developed talents. Against LSU, for example, Vivians totaled 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals as she led her team to a blowout 74-48 victory.

“That’s how an All-American is supposed to play,” Schaefer said with a smile afterward.

The final piece to MSU’s success has been, to make it simple, everybody else on the team not already mentioned. It’s been Roshunda Johnson, who stepped up in the place of the injured Dillingham for a stretch in December and is now the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

It’s backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes having just two fewer assists (57) than the starter (59, William), despite playing roughly half as many minutes. It’s Blair Schaefer playing some of the toughest minutes on the team. It’s Breanna Richardson’s wily veteran ways in the post.

In short, it’s a full roster of talent, not just a top-heavy group dependent on its stars.

“We’re one of the few teams in the country that has depth right now, knock on wood,” Schaefer said. “That’s really shone in our streak right now.”

There’s more to it than all that, of course. But as Schaefer’s club continues its climb to the top of ladder in college basketball, his coaching job, and that of his staff, cannot be emphasized enough.

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Weatherspoon Dominating, Bulldogs Rolling As SEC Play Nears

Quinndary Weatherspoon has 52 points in his last two games combined. Despite a wrist injury that, for about one week, appeared to have ended his season, the sophomore is averaging 19.1 points per game as his Mississippi State basketball team finished non-conference play with a blowout victory over UMKC last night.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amLast night, that is, in a game where Weatherspoon dropped 25 points in only 25 minutes, drilled five three-pointers and shot 60 percent from the floor.

Weatherspoon is scoring in bunches, and yet, after the game, it was a single assist by his star guard that head coach Ben Howland was most anxious to discuss.

“He had a bounce pass tonight to I.J. [Ready] in transition that was phenomenal,” Howland bragged. “That’s what I’m excited about.”

Early in the second half, a missed UMKC shot bounced perfectly off the backboard and into Weatherspoon’s possession. Ball in hand, he quickly turned and took a step toward midcourt to look for his next move. Senior point guard I.J. Ready had already sprinted out ahead of the transition, being guarded one-on-one as he neared the opposing three-point line. When Ready saw that Weatherspoon was coming, he started to curl out toward the sideline in an attempt to clear the area for yet another Weatherspoon basket.

Instead, Weatherspoon made another call.

“He said, ‘Nooooo!’” Ready remembered his teammate yelling.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-01-amSo Ready cut back in toward the basket and Weatherspoon, from halfcourt, launched a one-handed pass through the tiniest of windows. Guarding Ready and with his back to Weatherspoon, the defender didn’t even see the ball sail into the small area of open space between his outstretched arm and size-something shoe, bouncing with perfect spin in the paint to curl right into Ready’s hands, where the steady senior dropped it into the basket for two points and one of Weatherspoon’s four assists on the night.

“That’s probably the best pass I’ve seen him make in a while,” Ready said.

The pass was so good, in fact, and the momentum it fostered was so strong, it forced UMKC to call a timeout to try and calm the team.

Said Howland, “That pass had to be perfect to get right through the only way it could get through. It was phenomenal and it gave us a great jolt.”

And that pass, more than the 25 points or five three-pointers, it what has Howland so excited about Weatherspoon. That, and his seven rebounds, his four assists and, particularly, his strong defense. Injured wrist and all, Weatherspoon is still the best defender on the team.

Weatherspoon is, fairly literally, doing it all, much to the betterment of his team. His defense doesn’t just help create opportunities for his own scoring, but it advances the game for the entire MSU roster.

“He just brings energy on defense,” sophomore Xavian Stapleton said. “We get stops, we score.”

That easy, apparently. And lately, it’s sort of looked that easy. The Bulldogs are 6-1 since Thanksgiving break ended, and they’ve won five games in the month of December, despite a 10-day break for final exams. They’ve won their last three games by an average of 24 points.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amHowland doesn’t think they’re peaking – he still thinks they have a long way to go – but he can see clear improvement as MSU finishes the first half of the season.

It’s not just Weatherspoon either, though he’s certainly been great. Stapleton returning from injury, even in limited minutes, has been a spark for the team with his defense, rebounding and energy. Freshman point guard Lamar Peters has responded to suspension with previously unseen gusto. Freshman guard Tyson Carter quietly, as is his nature, is hitting deep threes and racking up steals. Sophomore forward Aric Holman is dominating the paint, while freshman forward Schnider Herard is figuring out just how to use his big frame to his advantage.

As individuals continue to improve, so has the team, now sitting at 9-3 and anticipating the start of SEC play.

“It’s a great vibe,” Ready said. “We set those expectations when the young guys got here. We weren’t settling for less. We really wanted to be undefeated going into conference. That’s how we looked at it. But being in this position, I think it’s the best start since I’ve been here.”

It certainly appears to be that, and Ready, like most, gives a great deal of the credit to Weatherspoon. The jump the Mississippi native has made from freshman to sophomore year is hard to miss, as Ready, Stapleton and Howland each said this season is the best he’s ever been. He’s confident, he’s in control, and he refuses to accept any credit or praise.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-54-amOf course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many willing to heap it on him anyway.

“He’s a heck of an offensive talent,” UMKC head coach Kareem Richardson said after Thursday’s game. “He plays at such a really calm pace. He doesn’t get sped up, doesn’t get frustrated much and kind of has that old-hand, calm pace about his game.”

Said Howland, “He creates a lot with his athleticism. He’s really, really playing well. He’s great to coach. He’s phenomenal in terms of being coachable. It’s nice having your best player also be maybe your most coachable player.

“I would think that everybody’s gearing their defense toward him,” he continued. “And again, it’s not about the points he scores. It’s about him leading us to the big ‘W,’ and you do it in a lot of different ways. You do it No. 1 with your defense and your rebounding, then he does it tonight with his passing. For him to be the best he can be, it’s an area he has to continue to grow in, making plays for others.”

Making plays for others, in addition to making plays for himself, has helped MSU to its most promising start in years. Weatherspoon gets the headlines, and deservedly so, for his performances. But his success is just an indicator of the success the entire team is having.

“We’re getting better,” Howland said. “We’re improving, and that’s exciting. That’s what you want as a coach.”

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Mullen, MSU Aiming For Momentum In St. Pete

Bowl games are strange in the way that they don’t technically have much meaning or bearing on the individual seasons of the teams involved, but they have the ability to make a world of difference in ways that don’t show until months after the event. Momentum isn’t tangible or measurable, but to coaches and their teams, it can be of severe importance and have tremendous impact.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-13-39-pmMississippi State is on the good side of such a momentum swing right now following a 55-20 blowout of Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to finish the regular season, and it’s because of that win that the Bulldogs are in St. Petersburg right now for a bowl game. A bowl game, head coach Dan Mullen says, that’s an opportunity to multiply the momentum and keep it going between now and the beginning of the 2017 season. Now coaching in his seventh postseason at MSU, Mullen is quick to share how meaningful these games are, despite what some might consider to be something of a lack of meaning.

“It’s huge,” he said. “We don’t play again until September. I don’t want to be miserable for nine months.”

What happens between now and September will go a long way in determining what happens when 2017, and what happens on December 26 against Miami (Ohio) will go an equally long way in determining what happens during that long offseason.

“You want to finish on that win,” Mullen said. “A win in a bowl game, when you show back up in January, you’re excited to get going again. I think it can really energize you to get going again.”

unnamed-1The best example from Mullen’s tenure may also be the most apt comparison for the current trajectory of the program. When MSU had its historic run to No. 1 in the 2014 season, it came on the heels of a winning streak and a bowl game blowout victory to end the 2013 campaign. Coaches and players said then, as reported on this blog, that they felt the finish to the season set them up for big things in 2014.

Consider the similarities between the 2013 season and the one MSU is currently having in 2016. Both teams entered the month of November with no one expecting them to make a bowl. Both teams were very young but started clicking as the season went on. Both teams featured sophomores at quarterback and running back who looked like future stars. Both teams were stocked with talented but yet-to-be fully developed youth on defense. Both teams had injuries, low moments and even occasional field goal kicking issues.

And both teams got the Golden Egg back.

In 2013, MSU dominated Rice in the Liberty Bowl, then carried their momentum all the way to No. 1 in the country in 2014.

Which brings us back to December 26, the St. Petersburg Bowl and a young MSU team ready to blossom in 2017. Will they finish 2016 in a similar fashion? Make a similar jump into national conversation in 2017? Asked about the comparison, Mullen didn’t concede too much, but he did confess, alittle momentum would go a long way.

“If we win this game,” Mullen said, “we’ll see. Hopefully that enthusiasm carries us into offseason conditioning and spring practice. We’ve got a lot of good young players on this team, a lot of good young talent. We’re excited about out future.”

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The A-Train: On The Making, The Legend And The Future Of Aeris Williams

THE MAKING

Sitting in his office in the field house at West Point High School last week, Chris Chambless got a call from his wife – Aeris Williams had just walked in the door and Chambless had better finish work soon and come home to see him. The three-time State Championship-winning head coach compares his relationship with the former Green Wave star and current Mississippi State sophomore running back to that of a father and a son, saying his children even consider Williams to be a brother.

“To this day, when he comes in, it’s like he’s coming back into his own house, going to the refrigerator, getting something to drink, hugging everybody’s neck and throwing the ball with the kids.”

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU (Credit: Davey Miller)

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU
(Credit: Davey Miller)

With a quiet, unassuming and exceedingly loyal personality, Williams is loved deeply by those who he is close to, an emotion he returns many times over. A yes sir, no ma’am, please-and-thank-you kind of guy, you wouldn’t know just by talking to the humble and reserved kid from West Point that he was a budding star running back in the SEC.

You also wouldn’t know by watching him run up and down the field on Saturdays that he was never even supposed to be able to play football after an accident as a toddler. When his grandparents’ house caught on fire when he was two years old, Williams watched from the other side of the road, struggling to break free of his grandfather’s grip and join his mother in trying to do something for their burning home. He finally slipped through the hands of the man trying to protect him and sprinted onto the road, heading for his mom. He was too focused on reaching her to see the car hurtling down the street, and the driver was caught with too little time to stop or swerve.

The car slammed into Williams’s two-year-old body, sending him flying into the air and across the pavement. Discovering three broken bones in his legs, Williams’s mother was told her son would never be able to play sports.

Mark that doctor down as the first person to be wrong about Aeris Williams. The star running back never had it easy, and that’s what shaped him into the man he became.

“He has great character. He’s a hard worker. A great leader. All the attributes that make a good person, he has,” Chambless said. “Aeris, even on a bad day, he’ll try to lift someone else up. He wasn’t ever looking for somebody to lift him up. He was always trying to help somebody and he still does.”

Even now, Williams makes a point to go back and visit his old team, speaking with individuals and the entire group to offer encouragement, inspiration or a word of tough love, if it’s needed. He exchanges the same with Chambless, too, as he’s spent many nights sitting on the couch in his old coach’s living room just talking about life.

“He’s got a family here in West Point for life,” Chambless said.

The feeling, for Williams, is mutual.

“The city means a lot to me because they’re behind me, pushing me,” he said. “Every time I get on Facebook, it’s somebody telling me how proud they are. I just thank West Point … The city is behind me, I’m telling you.”

Credit: Davey Miller

Credit: Davey Miller

It’s in that city, raised by a loving mother and surrounded by a supportive community, that Williams developed the attributes responsible for his success now. It’s cliché and perhaps even boring to say Williams is a great running back because of his strong work ethic, but any who have been around him immediately point to his dedication as the reason for his success.

“As good of a player as he is,” WPHS offensive line coach Casey Welch said, “probably what people don’t see is that, with us, he was the hardest working guy. You would finish workouts and look up, and him and two or three other guys would be pulling tires without us even out there. He always wanted to do more. He was always going to go above and beyond what any coach asked him to do.”

In fact, it was moments like those, more than the impressive running ability he displayed in games, that made MSU head coach Dan Mullen so eager to recruit and sign Williams nearly three years ago.

“That was something that really separated him from a lot of people,” Mullen said. “The type of person he was off the field was really special.”

Team captain and senior wideout Fred Ross, as he nears the finish of his collegiate career, is the leading receiver in Mississippi State history, and within the program, he’s respected most for the extra work he puts into developing himself. Spending as many hours at the team’s facility as he does, no one is better placed than Ross to see who puts in additional time on their own and who doesn’t.

“I remember [Williams] came here his freshman year and he worked so hard,” Ross said. “I work out a lot, just by myself … but every time time I’m out there, Aeris is out there. I could be walking into the facility to get some clothes out of my locker to go work out, and Aeris will already be out there in the sand pit working hard.”

Williams was never supposed to be able to do any of this, and that’s why he’s so dedicated to doing as much as he can.

THE LEGEND

Anyone who was in West Point, Mississippi during a certain time had an Aeris Williams moment at some point. Granted, there aren’t that many people in the small east Mississippi town compared to the homes of many of the game’s legends, but in their corner of the Golden Triangle, West Point High School football is everything, and for a handful of years, Aeris Williams was West Point football.

Some saw it coming before he even finished middle school, while others had the realization later in his career, but everyone in the town, from the Mayor to the coaching staff and the newspapers to the fans, had their moment – their realization of just what it was that they were witnessing.

unnamed

Credit: Davey Miller

As great a person as he was off the field to those who took the time to get to know him, Williams’s immense talent between the lines was quickly realized by all who saw him, friend, foe or stranger.

The exact timing of when those following his career discovered his ability varies from person to person, but the moment of his debut, his first call to action, goes back to his freshman year. Like most high schools, West Point had its varsity football team of 10th-12th graders, then also had a ninth grade team made up exclusively of freshmen that played a separate game against the ninth graders of the other schools every week. The physical difference between a freshman and a senior is much greater in high school than it is in college, and the separation gives the younger players a chance to play, something they would never be able to do if they were competing with the older kids.

Almost never, that is. In 2010, the Green Wave had an injury to their starting running back, a position where they were already thin, and they had to do something exceedingly rare at WPHS – they promoted a ninth grader to the varsity team mid-season.

Williams, of course, was that ninth grader. Playing against a strong Clarksdale team, he made his debut, running for over 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns as West Point eked out the victory and discovered a star had quietly been born.

“He did very well as a ninth grader against people his own age, but it’s hard to get them ready to play these guys two and three years older than they are,” Chambless explained. “We were able to squeak out a win, and it was because of him. I knew from that moment that we had somebody special.”

Following that first act, Williams’s legend grew as night by night over the next four years more and more people were witnesses to his talent.

Brandon Walker, in addition to his job as the managing editor of the West Point Daily Times Leader, was the substitute radio announcer for the team during Williams’ sophomore season. The Green Wave played Starkville High twice that year, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. During the regular season matchup, Walker had his Aeris Williams Moment.

“There was a run, at some point during the game,” Walker remembered, “that he broke through the line, ran over a linebacker, did a spin move on the first safety and hurdled the second safety. It was like one of those videos you would see on YouTube. It was just a highlight that happened in front of you. I remember in real time thinking, ‘I will never forget what just happened.’ That’s when I knew this guy was special.”

In the second game against Starkville that year, Robbie Robinson had his turn. The current Mayor of West Point, Robinson has seen a lot of Green Wave football in his lifetime. He knows as well as anyone what it means to say that Williams stands among the greats in the pantheon of West Point’s legends.

“We’ve had a lot of good football players,” he said. “I knew he was special when I saw the Starkville game, I believe when he was a sophomore. He caught a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone. It was a leaping, acrobatic catch and I said, ‘This kid’s special.’ Doggone, it turned out he sure was.”

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

The Mayor was right. The legend grew and grew, and to hear those in West Point talk about Williams now, his tale has seemingly reached Paul Bunyan status, those in his small town remembering his feats and accomplishments as some of the greatest they’ve ever seen, rendering those who watched often incapable of describing his performances with anything short of awe.

In a rivalry game against nearby New Hope one Friday night in 2013, Chambless and his Green Wave found themselves in an offensive battle of fairly epic proportions, with 126 total points being scored by the end of the game. Welch was the offensive line coach that year, Williams’ senior season. Like his head coach, Welch had known since that game against Clarksdale three years prior how special a talent they had, but if indeed any doubters still existed, Williams’s performance against New Hope shut the door on those who had yet to buy in.

“Aeris carried it nearly 30 times that night for just a ridiculous amount of yards. Never once asked to come out. I know he had to be dog tired, but he never wanted to come out. You couldn’t wear him down,” Welch remembered. “I wish I had the numbers in front of me.”

Williams, by then committed to play for Mississippi State in college, led West Point to a 76-50 win as he ran the ball 23 times for 227 yards and five touchdowns. And that wasn’t even his career high.

By the end of his playing days in West Point, Williams had amassed 3,994 total yards on the ground. Rushing for 1,607 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, he was named the Mississippi Association of Coaches 5A Offensive Player of the Year, was selected to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen, was picked the WCBI-TV Offensive Player of the Year, represented his state in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game and was a nominee for the Under Armour All-American Bowl.

Whatever he would go on to do after high school, his legacy in West Point was cemented.

THE FUTURE

His nickname is The A-Train. It’s a moniker he was given in high school, and one that’s perfectly fitting for the former West Point star. His touchdown celebration, while it seems innocuous enough if one doesn’t know what to look for, is what they call cranking the train. It’s a West Point thing, fans of the Green Wave will explain, and like the tracks running through town, it’s been around far longer than Aeris Williams.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-53-52-pmRaising one hand in the air and yanking the imaginary chain of an engine car’s horn is a sign that the train is rolling and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. When West Point gets going, so does the train, and during Williams’s four-year career, the train was a-rollin’ almost every Friday night.

“When I saw him start yanking that chain, cranking that train up,” Chambless said, “that’s one of the best feelings in the world as a coach on the sideline knowing you’ve got a guy that’s taking control.”

The celebration is one that Williams’s teammates at Mississippi State have picked up on, and when the sophomore tailback was running wild on Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl at the end of November, the MSU sideline could be seen on the TV broadcast cranking the train in celebration for each of Williams’s two touchdowns.

“We got a kick out of that as coaches at West Point,” said Welch, a former Mississippi State offensive lineman himself. “That made us feel good.”

With 191 yards on 25 carries, that Egg Bowl performance was the cap of a breakout stretch for Williams at MSU. It took two-and-a-half years of patiently waiting, working and preparing, a timespan Williams says now he very much needed, even if it was frustrating at the time.

Just as it had been so many years before as a ninth grader at West Point, Williams’s opportunity at MSU came when the starting running back in front of him got hurt. After getting no more than five carries in each of the first five games of the 2016 season, Williams got his shot in game six when he ran the ball 21 times against BYU, totaling a solid but not overly-noteworthy 82 yards. A few weeks later, Williams broke out.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-54-53-pmAgainst what was then a Top-10 Texas A&M team, MSU coach Dan Mullen decided to give Williams the rock as many times as it took. His reward was watching the redshirt sophomore romp on the Aggie defense, racking up 140 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries.

Despite a limited role for half of the year, Williams ended up the team’s second leading rusher, his 656 yards more than doubling the total of the next-closest running back, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and found the endzone four times.

It took a little while, but now Williams is one of MSU’s brightest young stars and is all but cemented as the running back of the not-so-distant future for the Bulldogs.

“It was just a process,” he said, again declining to give himself too much credit.

He wasn’t lying, of course. It was a process, and one that included Williams having to learn just how much he didn’t know. In his words, he had to find himself as a football player.

“He would call and talk about struggling with pass protection and things like that,” Welch said. “The advanced offense that colleges run compared to us in high school – we weren’t a zone team. We were a block-down, kick-out where he knew what hole to hit as soon as we snapped the ball. I think it took him a little while to develop that patience.

“At that level,” he continued, “everybody who plays was the man on their high school team. We were just trying to talk to him and tell him, ‘Your time is coming. Just continue to work hard and be patient and do everything the coaches ask you to do.’”

So, he did exactly that. While he redshirted in 2014, as he saw exceedingly little time as a freshman in 2015, and as he waited on his chance as a sophomore in 2016, Williams was working on whatever his coaches gave him. He was developing his vision. He was memorizing the plays. Perhaps most importantly, he was learning how to block.

“When you get to the college level, it’s more than just running the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to block. I love blocking for my teammates because they love blocking for me … In high school, I didn’t do a lot of blocking, so I had to find myself there. With my cuts, I had to learn to keep my head up and have vision. You just have to find yourself. Once you find yourself and get that confidence, there ain’t no stopping you, I promise.”

Williams, quite clearly, has found himself, and with that self-discovery has come the quiet confidence of a force that considers itself to be unstoppable. The A-Train is back on the tracks.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-55-56-pmTalking to him now, one thing is clear: Aeris Williams doesn’t think things. He knows them. In interviews with reporters – when he can be coaxed into speaking publicly, that is – his answers to questions come in clearly declarative form. He speaks what he believes to be absolute truth and delivers his truths in an exceedingly matter-of-fact manner – even if it’s not about football or his faith or his family.

Why are you so confident in everything you say, he was asked?

“Because I’m not lying to you,” he quickly responded with a disbelieving chuckle, drawing laughs from the room of reporters surrounding him.

Among the topics he confidently expressed his feelings on, Williams discussed the future of MSU’s offense, and its backfield specifically, at length – a conversation coming as MSU neared the end of preparation for its bowl game in St. Petersburg.

While Williams was steadily working his way onto the field this fall, his quarterback and fellow sophomore Nick Fitzgerald led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, setting the classmates up as one of the conference’s and even the country’s most dynamic duos and dangerous running threats for the foreseeable future.

“Our years here,” Williams began in earnest, “I promise, for Mississippi State, the running game is looking great. I promise it’s bright for the future.”

In Starkville and to the Bulldogs who cheer for him, Williams’s legacy has just begun to be written. In West Point and to those in the city that raised him, his status as legend is already assured.

“To all of us here in West Point to see him have the year he had is very exciting for us,” Chambless said, “but at the same time, we’re his biggest fans no matter what. If he doesn’t step on the field, we’re his biggest fans and he knows that.”

However, Mayor Robinson added, “I think his career is just beginning.”

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SEC Commish Sankey Speaks At MSU Graduation, Offers Advice And Shares Experiences

If Greg Sankey ever pens a book on his professional successes, this story – the one he shared as the guest speaker at Mississippi State University’s commencement Friday night – is likely to be his first chapter. It may even be the title of the book: ‘The Restroom Near Gate A-26.’ Should make for a snazzy cover.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-21-amNow the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Sankey was the Commissioner of the Southland Conference back in 1997, and it was then, at the restroom near gate A-26 in the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, that his life was turned around. In fact, it was quite literally knocked over.

The last thing Sankey remembers was becoming a bit lightheaded while in the restroom. His next memory is waking up on the floor of that restroom. The 32-year-old husband, father and Commissioner had an atrial fibrillation. After a handful of tests and visits with doctors, the reason for Sankey’s sudden collapse was clear.

“I was not living well,” he told the crowd Friday night.

In short, he was over-working himself and stretching himself far too thin, metaphorically, while he was very literally letting his body fall completely out of shape and good health.

In the months following that realization, Sankey began a search for truth that shaped the rest of his life. He met with professional after professional, friend after friend, authority after authority, and he asked them all the same questions about trying to find a balance between work and family.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-00-amNothing clicked. But then Sankey happened across a book appropriately titled, ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted’ by John Ortberg. A few chapters in, the man in search of answers read the two sentences that form the heart of his message today.

“A balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote our lives,” Sankey quoted the book as saying. “The problem with that goal is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too slight.”

Sankey’s prepared speech continued, “You see, balance implies we are two-dimensional, trying to balance work and family. Or pick two other aspects of your life and think about finding equilibrium between the two.

“But the reality I learned in the Atlanta airport is what Ortberg wrote is exactly right: a balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote my life. Instead, each of us has to recognize our multi-faceted existence.

“For me, I’m a son, a husband, a father. Some of you have watched the officiating in a game and wondered, who is the Commissioner? Well, that’s me. I’m also a friend, a neighbor, a person focused on how faith informs his life. I serve on the board of a non-profit organization working to provide fresh water to people around the globe.

“That’s eight different roles, and I’m just getting started. Balance, from my perspective, is best left to a seesaw on the playground. What then became important is what I valued, and how the values informed the principles by which I live.”

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-07-00-amSankey was speaking to all 1,370 December graduates of MSU on Friday night, and despite his background, his only references to sports were a couple jokes about cowbells I his intro and his self-deprecating crack about officiating. However, a few dozen of those 1,370 were student-athletes at Mississippi State, young men and women who were earning the degrees he was congratulating them on by virtue of the conference he runs.

Those people, perhaps better than many, understood the stress and the need for balance Sankey spoke so passionately about. They relate to the difficulties of trying to balance so many areas of their life at once. They know what it is to spend the same day trying to learn the diagram of a cell and the nuances of a cover two defense.

They know how many different worlds one must live in, trying to earn the approval of coaches, of teachers, of friends and maybe even of that cute guy or girl in their chemistry lab. If there’s time, of course.

They know the pressure of keeping their grades up not just so that they can play their sport, but so they can make their parents proud, so that many of them can be the first in their family to get a college education, so they can get a job when they graduate and so they can prove to themselves that they’re good enough, that they can do it.

This weekend, they did do it. They walked across the stage, they shook the President’s hand and they were given a diploma that’s technically just a piece of paper in a nice leather binder but is symbolic of the time and effort put in to reaching that place and realizing that life achievement.

As students in caps and gowns were walking onto the floor of Humphrey Coliseum as part of the processional Friday night, other students in helmets and shoulder pads were right across the street at MSU’s football facility preparing for State’s bowl game later this month. Head coach Dan Mullen’s team is 5-7, owners of a record not typically seen in the postseason. But for the same reason that 17 of his players were missing from practice to graduate, all 100-some-odd members of his team get to spend a week at the beach in late December.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-02-amBecause MSU’s APR (Academic Progress Rate) was so high, MSU was one of a select few teams rewarded with the chance to continue their season.

“It teaches young people a lesson in life that football isn’t all we’re here for,” Mullen said. “We’re going to a bowl game because of academics, because of the work our guys have done … We’re getting to go to a bowl game because we had 17 guys graduate today. It’s one of the great lessons that guys in our program will learn in their entire career here. It was academics, it was off-the-field that got them rewarded with this trip this year.”

Their success is exemplary of the standard Sankey charged all 1,370 graduates to strive for – prioritize your life, live by your principles, and most importantly, make good decisions.

The Commissioner pulled out a laminated card on Friday night as he neared the end of his speech. Smaller than a playing card, he showed it to the audience, then read its contents. It’s a simple list of 10 components which guide his decision-making and, thus, guide his life.

  1. Live honorably
  2. Live a quiet life
  3. Live within my means
  4. Laugh often
  5. Make each day a masterpiece
  6. Mind my own business
  7. Be diligent in my work
  8. Associate with people who make me better and return the favor
  9. Order my life to limit exposure to temptation
  10. Be open to the needs of others

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-37-amIt’s easy for him to rattle off a list – with explanations for each provided – but Sankey knows there is great difficulty in applying any lesson to an indivudal life as it comes in everyday situations. And no matter how hard anyone tries, all are likely to have their own Restroom Near Gate A-26 moment at some point.

“But that’s the great thing about life,” Sankey told the coliseum full of new graduates. “It ought to scare you a little bit. Maybe every day. That’s how you make the masterpiece.”

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Cohen Shares Excitement For Bowl, Pride In Academic Success

Stay in school, kids. It pays to have good grades.

Or, at the very least, it can get you a trip to south Florida in late December, which is also good.

unnamedThat’s why Mississippi State’s football team, despite its 5-7 record in 2016, is playing in the St. Petersbug Bowl in sunny St. Pete, Florida on December 26. Those following MSU are likely aware by this point not just of the bowl destination itself, but the fact that MSU has the opportunity to go because it had one of the top APR scores in the country, second-highest among five-win teams and third behind 6-6 Army selected under the same criteria.

APR, which stands for Academic Progress Rate, is basically how the NCAA measures graduation rates for its schools and student-athletes. Basically, the more players schools sign that end up graduating and staying in school with a healthy GPA, the better the APR score.

In this endeavor, MSU’s football program has succeeded greatly in the last eight years under head coach Dan Mullen, as not only have the overwhelming majority of his signees earned their degrees, but an impressive number have graduated early and many have even earned Masters degrees in their field of choice. In fact, over half a dozen of Mullen’s players will graduate between now and the date of bowl.

The week leading up to MSU’s Egg Bowl win, when the Bulldogs still sat at four wins, Mullen knew the team would be in good position if they could pull off the rivalry win, thanks to years of dedication to academics as a priority.

“I think it’s a tremendous credit to Coach Mullen,” MSU Athletic Director John Cohen said Sunday after the selection was announced. “Obviously, all of our folks in academic support do a great job, and our compliance people do a great job. All of that has to work in concert, and the most important thing is you’ve got to get the right kids who believe in progressing toward a degree and who want to get a college degree. All that has to happen. Coach Mullen has recruited the right kids and they have the right support staff.”

Cohen, recently named to his new position as Athletic Director, has shown a similar dedication to the academic side of being a student-athlete. As head coach of MSU’s baseball team, his program set and then broke many records for team GPA under his watch. A former student-athlete himself (who earned both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, to boot), Cohen entered the coaching world and now enters the administrative world as someone with both an appreciation and understanding for the demands put on student-athletes and the fact that most of them will, as they say, go pro in something other than sports.

“We want all of our kids to have opportunities in their sports, and we want them to have tremendous opportunities outside their sport,” Cohen said. “You’re not going to have tremendous opportunities unless you work in the classroom. Our kids have a lot heaped on their shoulders, but the fact that they’re supported so well by so many groups of people, to me, makes all the difference in the world.”

As for MSU’s football program itself, this invitation marks the seventh-straight year for the Bulldogs to go bowling, extending the current program record. State is also one of only five SEC schools to go to a bowl game every year this decade, one of those being Texas A&M who started the decade in the Big XII.

Mullen has talked often in the past about the importance of bowl games in the matters of perception, preparation and development, and he believes the stretch of appearances now shows the consistency they’ve developed.

“There’s no doubt that Coach Mullen is a winner,” Cohen said, “and that he has put a process in place to allow us to be exceptional in every phase of our program. He’s created a culture at Mississippi State that’s really been fun to watch.”

For ticket information, visit www.hailstate.com/tickets

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Future Bulldog Pros Prepare For Windfalls Of Cash

Somewhere near 98 percent of NCAA student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports, or so we’re told. But what about the small percentage of college students who do end up making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in the NFL, NBA or MLB within a few years of finishing school?

On the one hand, heck yeah – money, fame, success at the highest level. On the other hand, an alarming percentage of professional athletes are broke within a few years of the end of their careers, and the majority of their careers last no more than a few years anyway. The average NFL career, for example, is 3.5 years, and that’s if you make an active roster.

unnamedGoing from a broke or at the very least not-particularly-wealthy college student to a professional athlete with access to large sums of money over the course of a few weeks is exciting, but also exceedingly dangerous. Money goes quickly when lifestyles change so dramatically, and the number of people asking for that money – agents, runners, lawyers and investment seekers, to say nothing of friends and family – adds up in a hurry.

Being prepared for the relative insanity of becoming a professional athlete is an important thing for that small percentage of college students to do, but it’s not one they’ll often think about or even know what to do about. This week, Mississippi State had its draft-eligible players from the baseball and football teams (the basketball team had a game that night) meet with a man named Eric Smith to prepare for exactly those situations.

Smith is what’s called a financial literacy coach working with The EKS Group, an LLC helping college student-athletes and NFL and NBA and MLB rookies who are making or about to make that transition. A 28-year former banker, Smith has met with over 20,000 student-athletes in his present line of work and is well-versed in the potential pitfalls as well as the financial possibilities of such a change in lifestyle and income.

“You better be ready when the money gets here,” he told the room on Monday night. “We’re here to talk about the reality of the next step, not to give you a glossed-over picture … People have this incredible opportunity, and when it’s over, they don’t have anything to show for it.”

Smith had the potential millionaires in the room go through a number of exercises, including asking them to makes lists of the first things they want to buy, their financial goals and what they see as potential threats to their financial success. He shared 10 tips for how the wealthy become wealthy, and 10 more for how the wealthy become poor.

He offered advice on selecting agents, financial advisers, insurance plans, banks and the like. He advised on how best to prevent identify threat, low credit scores and being taken advantage of.

Without giving away his entire presentation, Smith had MSU’s future pros prepared for long-term financial success in a little under an hour-and-a-half.

Mississippi State has been in the business of putting a great many players into the pros lately. With programs like this, MSU is also making sure their young men are prepared for success beyond just their fields of play. As Smith’s presentation so eloquently puts it, “broke ain’t sexy.”

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Dominant Egg Bowl Win Establishes New Faces And Stars Of MSU’s Present and Future

I don’t know his name. I don’t know how old he is. I don’t know what he does, how long he’s been married or how he became a fan.

In fact, I don’t even know what he looks like. I never saw him myself. I just know he was there.

I know he was sitting in section S of the stadium. I know he was wearing a maroon pullover. I know that when it got cold in the second half, his wife helped drape a Mississippi State blanket over him, tucking it around his body and the wheelchair he was bound to.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-09-23-pmAnd I don’t know why, but I know Saturday night’s Egg Bowl was the first Mississippi State game that lifelong Bulldog fan had ever seen in person, the first State game he’d ever attended. I know he was overjoyed to watch his team win back the Golden Egg. I know his biggest smile came when sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald sprinted 61 yards straight down the middle of the field in the third quarter for the touchdown that sealed the victory. That one made him particularly happy.

I don’t know all of the people who made up the largest crowd in the 113-year history of the rivalry, but I know one to whom MSU’s win was among the most meaningful and joyful in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg.


“Nothing’s impossible. Improbable, maybe, but never impossible.”

Megan Mullen was drowning in hugs and smiles before the game even ended. Standing near the endzone while she waited on her husband to complete the victory a little further down the sidelines, she was getting swept up with the realizations the day had provided. After such a hard year, after two rough losses in this game the previous two seasons, after a news cycle full of harsh words, cutting criticism and often hurtful questions, redemption was coming for the Mullens, for Mississippi State, for a program desperately in need of something to finally go their way this year.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-15-29-pmShe felt all of that. But she also knew she had witnessed something special beyond just single-game domination of a rival.

“You know what’s incredible?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“That young man was asked to come in here and replace Dak Prescott and have to try and play in his shadow,” she said with an eye toward Nick Fitzgerald. “And look at him now.”

It wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly improbable. A converted wide receiver and option quarterback whose next biggest offer out of high school was Middle Tennessee State was given the unenviable task of following the greatest act MSU football had ever seen.

“Dak Prescott really was Mississippi State football for a long time,” Fitzgerald said after the win. “To be the guy who came in after him, obviously you knew everything you did was going to be compared to him. Every mistake and every triumph was gonna be compared to what he did.”

On Saturday night, The Guy Replacing Dak Prescott officially became Nick Fitzgerald.

“I think, all year, too many people worried about who he’s not instead of who he is,” Dan Mullen said. “He’s a pretty darn good quarterback.”

Nick is not Dak. In fact, you can see that very clearly when you look in a game program and see his name listed above his predecessor’s in a few spots of the records section. Most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game: Nick Fitzgerald, set September 10 then broken again November 26. First quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season: Nick Fitzgerald, 2016. The most rushing yards by any player of any position in any one game in school history: Nick Fitzgerald, 258 yards, Saturday afternoon.

“He’s fast,” Mullen said with a laugh. “I think everybody saw that.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-14-13-pmAnd he can pass, too, totaling 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns in what amounts to 11 games of action in his sophomore season. Since being named the full-time starter in week two, Fitzgerald has had at least one touchdown pass of 30-plus yards in 10 of those 11 games, many of them with more than one.

Saturday’s 55-20 Egg Bowl win wasn’t just the return of the Golden Egg to Starkville, it was the christening of MSU’s new star, of the new face of the program. It was the death of The Replacement and the birth of Nick Fitzgerald, QB1, Big Man on Campus, The Guy.

In Oxford, as MSU took back it’s prized trophy, it also took back the spotlight. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald having to play in the shadow of a Maroon and White giant. The whole team had to do it. For a few of the seniors, they were effectively playing in their own shadow. This was a roster haunted by its recent success, unable to go a day without hearing about 2014 or Dak Prescott or the Orange Bowl or Preston Smith or De’Runnya Wilson or Benardrick McKinney or the No. 1 team in the country.

They were the replacements. They were chicken salad for lunch the day after the best dinner of your life. They practically had no hope. The “Mississippi State” written across the chest of their jerseys was a name others had built and they were now expected to maintain.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-11-11-pmIt took three months and 12 games, but these Bulldogs finally made the name their own. Aeris Williams and Leo Lewis aren’t the next Josh Robinson and McKinney. They’re the first Aeris Williams, the first Leo Lewis. The transformation is apparent throughout the young roster, one that started the year immensely inexperienced and finished it battle-tested and commercially approved.

“The kids stuck together,” Mullen said, emotions overflowing in his post-win press conference euphoria. “It shows someone’s character. This team never gave in throughout the course of the year.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-13-16-pmIt took a great many hard moments to get there, but the 113th Battle for the Golden Egg was the coming out party for the new Bulldogs and their young stars. Emblematic of his team – and it is his team now – Nick Fitzgerald became Nick Fitzgerald at the end of his obstacle-strewn first season as Mississippi State’s quarterback.

“To end it on something as high as this, an Egg Bowl win, is phenomenal,” he said, later turning an eye to what lies ahead. “The future’s bright.”

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MSU Video Department Makes History With SEC Network Broadcast

In technical terms, Mississippi State’s video department had its landmark first linear broadcast on Wednesday.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

In every-man speak, MSU’s video department made history through the magic of fiber and expensive equipment on Wednesday night when the MSU-Ole Miss volleyball game was broadcast nationwide on the SEC Network using only the resources on campus already.

To break that down a bit further, ESPN showed up with nothing but the on-air play-by-play announcers for the game and some of their own personnel to supervise this first national broadcast coming straight out of Starkville. There was no TV truck – previously the only way such a broadcast could be done – no extra equipment, no anything. And any cable or satellite subscriber across America could turn on their television and see a thrilling come-from-behind win for MSU’s volleyball team over its in-state rival.

Broadcasts like this were one of the long-term dreams when the SEC Network was conceived a few years ago, though the realistic expectation was that few schools would have the resources necessary to accomplish these goals. The advantages for ESPN are obvious – they save money by not having to send a truck, not having to send teams of cameramen, producers and the like. Their talent can just show up while MSU takes care of the rest

The boost for MSU – beyond the national exposure for its various programs – is the opportunity to make money as ESPN pays the school for some of the savings they get in the deal. Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to work on big-time broadcasts and get incredible experience without leaving their campus.

Plus, it’s really cool.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Nights like Wednesday were possible for MSU because of the deep investment the athletic department made in its video and broadcast capabilities when planning for the SEC Network. This eventuality was one that those in charge, like Senior Associate A.D. Scott Wetherbee, knew was a possibility early on. In the preliminary stages, MSU’s staff decided to make it a goal.

When that decision was made, MSU’s control room for such broadcasts was still a slightly upgraded version of the room they built to run the Sony Jumbotron at the football stadium when it was installed decades ago. When that initial control room was built, it wasn’t even HD, though it of course got the HD upgrade when the new video boards were built at Davis Wade Stadium.

Now, in the bowels of the expanded north endzone of the stadium, MSU has fleshed out an immensely impressive broadcast hub complete with control room, engineering room and even a replay room, with a second control room on the way soon.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Bennie Ashford is the Assistant A.D. for Video Operations, and this new facility is very much his baby. An expensive, high definition and technologically advanced baby, sure, but a baby nonetheless. His smile Wednesday night was evidence of not only the work put in, but the quality of the product going through fiber from MSU’s volleyball court to Davis Wade Stadium to SEC Network headquarters in Charlotte and then out into the world, with not even a second of visible delay.

“I’m a Mississippi State guy, and I know that we don’t always have the financial resources that some do,” Ashford said. “But this is on par with the absolute best.”

Excitement for the night in the control room, while much quieter than the crowd for the game they were broadcasting, was still palpable. MSU staff and ESPN staff shared in the anticipation, running myriad machines and screens and cameras as the countdown began. ESPN sent one of their best producers down to run the show as a means of marking the occasion. With seconds left on the clock before the show began, she happily offered encouragement to the entire team of students and professionals about to make quiet history in a dark room in MSU’s football stadium.

“Have a good show everybody – have fun!”

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