Basketball Bulldogs adding offense, strength, agility in summer program

The goal of the offseason is to get better. Obviously.

The goal of a new coaching staff is, again, to get better. Clearly.

With those two combining the last couple months, it seems Mississippi State basketball is doing exactly what those around the program have wanted it to: gotten better.

“It already feels different now,” senior guard Craig Sword told reporters last week, speaking for the first time all summer.

Malik Newman, front, and IJ Ready, second, go through summer workouts

Malik Newman, front, and IJ Ready, second, go through summer workouts

Sword, as one might imagine, appears as if he will be one of the big benefactors of Ben Howland’s hiring as MSU’s new head coach, as well as the arrival of heralded freshman point guard Malik Newman.

If the goal of the offseason is obvious – get better – then the goal of a game of basketball is even more obvious – score more points than the other team. Sword has been the offensive catalyst for MSU the past few years, but to hear him talk, things are changing for the better in that regard.

“Everybody can score the ball,” Sword said when asked about the pressure on him to fill the basket. “It’s going to feel great knowing I’m not the only one that everybody is focused on now.”

Newman’s presence is a big part of that, as are the arrivals of fellow freshmen Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman. Even last week when Howland was out of town recruiting, Sword, Newman and the gang were getting together after hours to put shots up, scrimmage and get to know each other both on the floor and off.

Through those hours together, it’s become apparent that Sword isn’t the only one who will benefit.

Howland has said more than once since his arrival in Starkville that one person in particular he wants more action for is senior forward Gavin Ware. Ware needs more touches, more shots, more opportunities, says Howland. Like his fellow senior Sword, Ware appears ready to benefit from a new style, as well as the infusion of scoring talent around him with guards who can shoot, drive and pass at will.

“I absolutely love it when we have scorers out there,” said Ware, who has dropped weight and says he’s the most fit he’s ever been at MSU, “because it takes the pressure off me, so when I get the ball I don’t have to worry about double-teams and triple-teams. I can just get the ball in the post, take a deep breath, make my move and be in position to score. And I can sink in the defense to give my teammates room to score.”

Good ol’ win-win for Ware and his teammates.

Turns out, it’s not just the guys on the court who are noticing that things are changing for the Bulldogs. Non-MSU people around the country aren’t filling up the bandwagon quite yet, but at least a few are readying themselves to jump on when the time comes. One national college basketball writer considers MSU one of the top-five teams in the SEC this year, despite the fact they finished 12th in the league last season. The same person tabbed specific Bulldogs as breakout candidates, All-SEC picks and under-the-radar performers.

Quietly, expectations and excitement are already building.

The players don’t talk about it too much themselves, and asking the individual in question only leads to well-worded non-answers deflecting praise, but the underlying reason for all the optimism and expectation is Newman, a player expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft this time next summer. He knows it himself, and while he’d rather not talk too much about it, he embraces the pressure and is constantly training for the moment he gets to start performing.

“I think we’re going to be one of the teams that’s slept on next year,” Newman said, “but I think we’ll make a lot of noise. All the guys are excited about this year. I can see the level rising up each and every week. Guys are getting better, we’re getting stronger.”

unnamed-1That strength, while mostly unknown outside the program, is one of the primary reasons for the optimism within the Mize Pavilion, home to MSU basketball’s weight room and practice courts.

New strength coach David Deets has been more aptly titled MSU’s Director of Basketball Performance. His concern isn’t how much his players can bench or squat or how many down-and-backs they have to run at the end of every practice. His focus is on training their bodies for what they do – play basketball.

Strength. Agility. How to plant. How to move efficiently. How to get explosive. Weekly sand training, a stringent nutrition program and yoga twice a week for recovery. MSU is doing a little bit of everything under Deets and players are already reaping the rewards of working with him.

Newman, who has gained 10 pounds of muscle in his short time on campus, said his teammates are actually excited about working out, a great sign for their mental approach.

“If guys are excited to be in the weight room, I know they’re excited to be on the court,” he said, discussing the strength training. “That’s something I know I need with all the big, strong guys in the SEC. I’m taking the weight room very seriously right now.”

Nearly every member of the team has put on at least 10 pounds of muscle – Ware, who gives text message updates to Deets after every meal he eats, being the exception – including a full 20 pounds in roughly a month by forward Fallou Ndoye. The most impressive part? Every single player has improved their vertical jump, too. The weight their putting on is good, and the agility exercises are paying off quickly.

“Guys are getting stronger,” Deets said. “You can tell on the floor that they’re getting better movements than they were able to before, so we’re actually getting better at movement patterns that are going to translate to the floor.”

Summer isn’t even over, but the team is counting down the days until the games begin in November. If they’re to be believed, everyone else should be, too.

“Go get your tickets, your season tickets, all types of tickets, whatever you can get,” Ware said as his interview came to a close. “This is going to be an exciting year.”

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Stricklin looks back on past year, ahead to next one

 

It’s hard to talk about the past with a man so continually focused on the future. Ask Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State’s Director of Athletics, about something one of his teams did this year and he quickly muses on their possibilities for next season. Compliment him on a year full of athletic successes, academic achievement and fan engagement, and he’ll tell you exactly how things can improve going forward.

Such is the curse of the job, it seems, but when he’s able to look back, Stricklin recognizes he’s at the end of a historic year for MSU, even if he does have an eye on the potentially greater one on the horizon.

The 2014-15 athletic-academic year, ending with the close of the month of June, saw record crowds, win totals, rankings and even GPAs. In the Learfield Director’s Cup, an annual ranking of the most successful athletic departments based on performance, MSU placed 52nd despite only fielding 16 teams, one of its top three finishes in school history. That ranking came on the backs of 10 different MSU teams making the postseason, as well as the earning of several wins in those appearances.

After years of being much closer to triple digits than single in the rankings, MSU has consistently been around the 50th spot the last several years as teams across the board have improved significantly. The good news, Stricklin says, always looking ahead, is that MSU is on the precipice of even more. Say, for instance, that the baseball team had reached a regional final like it did in 2014, and MSU would have moved up to 45th. Additionally, had State’s softball and women’s basketball teams won simply one more game in their respective postseasons, MSU would have been in the 30s, a huge leap forward for a department once hovering around 100.

“You can see we’re really close to taking that next step,” Stricklin said.

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

It could happen as soon as next year, when Stricklin says there is “no doubt” baseball will be back in the postseason, men’s basketball under Ben Howland looks poised to make a big jump, and all 10 of last year’s postseason teams have reason to believe they’ll repeat, at least, and perhaps do even better.

However, back to the year MSU just finished. The future may be bright, but 2014-15 wasn’t exactly hidden in the dark. It started with success by the football team in the fall, the quickest rise in the history of the polls as Dan Mullen’s team ascended from unranked to No. 1 in the country, a position it held for five weeks after beating three-straight Top 10 teams.

“I don’t know what’s more than historic,” Stricklin joked. “Uber-historic? But it was kind of a dreamlike situation.”

The ranking, the success, the attention – all unprecedented. The state of Mississippi was at one time the center of the college football universe and MSU was the best team in the land. It was a months-long event that reverberated throughout the department, as Vic Schaefer pointed to quarterback Dak Prescott and told his women’s basketball team to take inspiration from him, Ginger Brown-Lemm had the QB come speak to her team before they left for the NCAA Tournament and softball coach Vann Stuedeman looked back at a football team no one had believed in as she took her team that was supposed to be re-building to a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament.

MSU’s success across the board had quietly been mounting the last half decade, but it was Mullen’s football team that seemed to break the dam of recognition around the country. ESPN, CBS, the New York Times, even the Wall Street Journal hopped on the bandwagon, singing the praises of Prescott, Mullen and “StarkVegas.” For seemingly the first time, the perception of Starkville and MSU is overwhelmingly positive outside the borders of the state, and those few months in the fall have a great deal to do with it.

“Football does so much to drive that,” Stricklin said. “We have 16 sports and we value all of them equally, but football gets a lot of attention and drives a lot of the awareness of your institution and athletic department. When you’re No. 1 in the country for five weeks and your logo is sitting there on ESPN and on SportsCenter and all the other media outlets with a No. 1 next to it, it has an unbelievable impact on how people view your school.”

EYTDZHIEXLOZSLW.20141208211435Of course, one of the most impressive parts of that run in the fall hardly drew any attention, and certainly didn’t garner any national headlines. In the midst of so much on-field success, MSU’s student-athletes set a record GPA that semester. With the spring semester now over, Stricklin was proud to share that the cumulative year-long GPA for all sports was over 3.0 for the first time in the history of the school.

Stricklin and his coaches have preached the importance of academics, which sounds nice, but in the atmosphere of college athletics it can sometimes ring hollow when administrators around the country talk about tests and studying as coaches and schools are making more and more millions of dollars.

But, sort of like the wins on the field, the numbers in the classroom ultimately tell the story. It’s one thing to say it, but MSU has legitimately made a commitment to academics across the board, something Stricklin said took time and dedication.

The biggest key, he feels, is a having a unilateral belief that academics are actually important. It only takes one group involved – students, coaches or administrators – to not take school seriously for the whole thing to crumble.

“You’ve got to recruit quality young people and attract them,” Stricklin said. “Your coaches have to understand that it’s important. Once the students are here, the coaches and the students and the academic staff all have to work together to make sure they understand it’s a priority. Our coaches make it a priority. They hold our students as accountable as our faculty does.”

The result of academic achievement, athletic success, investment in facilities, exponential increases in visibility and an influx of resources with increased SEC money and rising donations has been a sort of new Mississippi State, a collective rising star in the SEC made up of budding and current stars in over a dozen different sports.

Games, matches and meets against MSU in any sport have gone from “easy W” for conference opponents to primetime showcases on ESPN, CBS and the like. Stadiums once only half-full have been packed to capacity, driving the need for expansion, renovation and new construction. Bulldog Club membership is at an all-time high, MSU license plates are now available across the southeast and Hail State has turned into a nationally-recognized rally cry in just a handful of years.

“You do sense that there’s a renewed sense of pride among Mississippi State people,” Stricklin said. “There’s a can-do attitude here that I don’t think has always existed. There’s a sense of ‘Why not?’ Why can’t we go play for the SEC Championship in football? Why can’t we go play for the National Championship in baseball? Why can’t we go to the Final Four? We’ve done that before.”

The last 12 months of Mississippi State sports were important and decidedly successful, but Stricklin, ever-focused on the future, isn’t content to maintain. Last year, and really the last several years, just served as the launching point.

“It’s not a matter of if MSU is going to win a National Championship. It’s when. It’s going to happen. Then once it happens, you may see more than one,” he said. “To put yourself in a position to do it, you’ve got to win consistently, and that’s what’s changing.”

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SEC West title on his mind, Mullen keeps thinking back to loss at Alabama

Georgia’s on his mind, too, what with the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta less than five months away, but it’s Alabama that Dan Mullen can’t stop thinking about.

He mentioned them again on Tuesday when going through the rotation at ESPN Studios in Bristol.

“We played Alabama with the SEC West Championship on the line,” Mullen told SportsCenter host Jaymee Sire.

unnamedIt’s part pride and part frustration that keeps the game in question on Mullen’s mind. Pride that in the middle of November last year his team was No. 1 in the country, undefeated and playing divisional-foe Alabama with the SEC West on the line (and the overall SEC Title and a playoff spot, as Alabama demonstrated after winning). Those are the kinds of situations he wants his team in on a yearly basis.

It’s frustration because, well, he didn’t win the game. And maybe because he’s yet to beat Alabama since he got to Mississippi State, the only West team he hasn’t toppled in six years on the job.

At SEC Media Days last week, he field several early questions on that specific game, a 25-20 loss, but at the moment it seemed like it was just a large group of Alabama writers in an Alabama town asking about Alabama’s team. And that was the case at the time, but not as the day went on. Whether it’s been in his mind all offseason or it was just put there by the local reporters, the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs’ most recent bout against them was a topic Mullen continued to bring up himself throughout the day.

When a pair of reporters in the CBS room asked about offensive philosophy, Mullen immediately went into a spiel on the importance of scoring touchdowns in the redzone. His example? Alabama.

“We lost by five,” he told the duo, after reminding them the game was for the SEC West title. “We missed two chances in the redzone. We score on one of those, we win by two.”

NSYEJTNJZPQGFCX.20141116010830It’s not that straightforward, of course, and Mullen knows that. But the point is again the same, he’s proud to have been there and bitter to have lost. He’s got hope going forward, though. Beyond his belief in having a good team, he’s now got something else he didn’t have last year if he finds himself in the same position again: experience.

Yes, MSU was the higher ranked team in the game last year. Yes, they’d already beaten a Top-10 team three times in that season alone, one on the road and two at home. But Alabama was favored to win the game anyway, and among the reasons for that was the simple fact that MSU had never been there before, had never played in a moment that big.

Looking back, Mullen admits being that close to winning the division – title banners, championship games and playoff appearances already dancing in their heads -affected his team.

“That’s the game that we were there [in the big moment],” Mullen told the Sirius/XM hosts. “We played poorly the first 15 minutes, then we won the game from then on.”

Those 15 or so minutes, as he mentioned, were the killer. In about a quarter-and-a-half, Bama jumped out to a 19-0 lead and looked like they were going to cruise to blowout victory over the No. 1 team in the country, a crew that clearly wasn’t ready for the moment. State’s first six drives ended in four punts, an interception and a safety, the first two points of the game.

“They got knocked down,” Mullen said, “but they got back up.”

DXCDAPPJHJHKORJ.20141116010830After a bad start, the Bulldogs rallied. A 70-yard drive to end the first half got MSU on the board for the first time. A 67-yard drive to start the second half brought another score. Later, two touchdown drives totaled 110 yards between them, one of them MSU’s last drive of the game. But it was the two drives between those scoring marches that did MSU in, the missed redzone opportunities that have been bugging Mullen all summer.

Once, MSU went from it’s own 20 to Alabama’s 15, only to see an interception halt the momentum. A scoring drive followed, however, putting MSU right back in it. Then the next drive, the big moment came again. The Bulldogs drove from their own 26 to the Alabama 20, the land just before the Promised Land, only to see an interception halt the attempt again.

Despite those interceptions, though, Mullen was still right. His team outscored Nick Saban’s 20-6 over the final 2.5 quarters and actually out-gained them by almost 100 yards on the game as a whole, racking up 50 percent more first downs. There’s no moral victory in that, though. Not even close when, quite literally, everything is on the line.

All Mullen wants for his players now is another shot at glory.

“We want to be back in that game because now our guys have experienced that situation,” Mullen said. “I think we’re good enough to win the West.”

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Behind the scenes with Dan Mullen at SEC Media Days 2015

Dan Mullen wakes up Tuesday knowing that whatever semblance of a vacation college football coaches get is over. In fact, his wife Megan could tell her husband had already mentally made the switch when they stepped off the plane on Monday back into Mississippi at the end of an enjoyable final weekend of freedom.

“You’re game-faced,” she said, noticing his business-like demeanor switch back on as he made phone calls. “Family vacation is over and it’s all ball the rest of the way.”

IMG_4966SEC Media Days every July is the unofficial kickoff to college football season, at least for those in the Southeastern Conference. Tomorrow, all of Mullen’s staff is expected to be back in town and back in the office first thing in the morning to get to work on the 2015 season. But today, Mullen has his turn at Media Days in Birmingham.

“I’m wearing the shoes,” Dan calls out to Megan, referencing the new Adidas custom Yeezy 350 Boost shoes he just received yesterday and hasn’t even removed from the box.

“I’ll try to make it all work,” she replies.

Megan always dresses Dan. He can pick out his own gym shorts and t-shirt for practice, of course, but when Mississippi State’s head football coach is going to be in front of cameras, it’s his wife the former TV anchor who picks out what he’s going to wear. Today, she’s going fairly simple, laying out a black suit with pinstripes thick enough to be seen on television, a plain white button-up shirt and a lavender tie that ends up looking a little more purple than expected on camera.

Their pre-K-aged daughter picks out a pair of outlandish socks for her dad to wear, but Megan quietly exchanges them later, opting for a stretchy gray pair with maroon Bulldogs stitched onto them.

“I’ve got sock game,” Dan will later brag to reporters.

It’s his shoes, however, that end up as the highlight to those reporters. For every one question about his Heisman-hopeful quarterback, he gets 10 more about his “swagged out” shoes. Of the 1,200 media in attendance, far more are interested in the kicks he’s getting so much attention for, rather than the 10-win season he earned accolades for half-a-calendar ago.

Shortly after arrival in Birmingham, Mullen’s phone rings as he’s waiting to go on SportsCenter. It’s his wife.

“Hey beautiful,” he says, before pausing to hear her request. “Yeah, here ya go, here he is.”

“Hello?” MSU quarterback Dak Prescott asks. “Hey! Yeah, I’m ready, just getting my makeup on for TV.”

Megan likes to make sure her players (she considers them hers just as much as her husband’s) are always ready for events like these. But whatever attention was spent on the quarterback as he took the call is quickly drawn back to Mullen’s feet, the No. 1 shot every camera roaming the complex was aiming for that day.

“Dude,” ace ESPN producer Jonathan Whyley says with his eyes on Mullen’s kicks, “we’ve got to get these shoes on there somehow.”

FullSizeRender-2Whyley then makes sure they have a camera set up and already zoomed in on Mullen’s feet when the shot begins. SportsCenter host Jay Crawford goes on about the Kanye West customs before the shot, during the shot and even more after the shot. Looking from Mullen to Prescott, Crawford offers, “you guys easily win best-dressed combo at media days.”

The reaction is the same everywhere. You’d think Mullen showed up wearing the winged sandals of Hermes the way every single person seems compelled to stop and say something about his footwear. The somewhat surprising level of attention and chatter causes one confused middle-aged local TV reporter to turn and ask what the deal is.

“Are they orthopedic shoes? Does Mullen have bad feet?”

His feet are fine. Better than ever after today. And while the reporter may be younger than Mullen is, it’s understandable why the former was confused and the latter expected the hype around one of the hardest-to-get pairs of shoes in America.

“I spend my whole life around 18-22 year olds,” he tells reporters in the internet and radio room when they asked about his Adidas kicks. “That keeps you young. In my mind, I’m only a few years older than they are.”

On the way out, he’s stopped three different times so people can take pictures of his shoes on their phone. He feels young in this moment, and he seems, it, too. But not long after he’ll make a confession revealing he’s significantly more than “a few years older” than his 20-somethings in the locker room. Pressed on the issue, Mullen reveals he’s not overly familiar with Kanye West’s music. Asked how many of the famous artist’s songs his coach can name, Prescott laughs and says, “probably one.”

In fact, just this past weekend Mullen celebrated his 25th high school reunion. It was the first reunion he’s ever been able to attend, as they typically have taken place in the fall when he’s in the middle of football season. He and 10 of his old high school buddies who get together at least once a year went to a Yankees-Red Sox game together while they were in the Boston area. Dan and Megan even went to a U2 concert Friday, his favorite band. Dan still remembers the first concert he ever went to, a nearby stop on Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch Tour’ in the mid 1980s.

During the short vacation time they had this summer, the Mullens met Jimmy Buffett (they go to one of his concerts annually) and even went to Greece to celebrate their wedding anniversary the same way they celebrated their honeymoon so many years ago. Dan and Megan make a concerted effort once a year to take a trip with just the two of them, knowing how little time they get to themselves during the pre-season, in-season and post-season of the football calendar. IMG_4973

All of this a far cry from the custom Yeezys Mullen is walking around in today, but hey, his feet are more comfortable than most and his players like it. That’s what’s important. He even admitted he’ll often check with the team first when trying out things he knows may not quite be designed for men of his age, trusting them to be honest about what he can and can’t pull off (though he does have confidence in his ability to do so, asking one reporter how many other coaches in the conference could rock those shoes like he does).

It might seem an odd way to show it, but Mullen asking his players for that advice is one of the many subtle indications he gives about what the young men mean to him. Given the pressures and competitiveness of his job, he’s not often going to be emotional or have heart-to-hearts about just how much he loves those guys. But it’s evident in his actions and in his words below the surface.

He spent all Tuesday afternoon in Birmingham extolling the virtues and singing the praises of his three young men along with him – Prescott, cornerback Taveze Calhoun and defensive end Ryan Brown. Calhoun and Prescott are already in graduate school, he’s always quick to point out, and Mullen bragged to the Sirius/XM crew that Brown, a double-major, is one of the smartest people they’ll ever meet.

Mullen, asked to describe Prescott, offered immediately, “he’s a winner in life and he’s someone you want to be around.” Later on to another reporter he said, “I hope Dak plays 15 years in the NFL, but I don’t have to worry about that. He’s going to be successful no matter what he does.”

Prescott returned the compliments in his own way, saying, “I play for the most swagged out coach in the SEC.”

Those shoes are somewhere in the midst of conversation all day. It’s before answering a question about his relationships with players that Mullen looks up from his phone and says, “Sorry, I was looking to see if Kanye retweeted me.” He hadn’t. At least not yet. FullSizeRenderBut as Mullen is asked questions about excellence, what makes a good coach and questions of the like variety, the swag is turned down and the honesty is turned up.

“Teachers make the lasting impression on your life,” Mullen says, explaining that he wants his coaches to be like good teachers. “I can’t tell you who won the Heisman when I was in second grade, but I can tell you who my teacher was.”

Her name, at the time, was Mrs. Varney. Mullen remembers his high school science teacher just as well.

“It was one of the hardest classes I ever took,” Mullen shares, “but I loved it because he drove me to be great.”

It’s clear Mullen considers himself a teacher, too, and to him it’s one of the most important things in life. Turns out, it runs in the family. Mullen’s maternal grandfather was a coalminer who worked two jobs, not exactly a grade school instructor, but it was all so his little girl could take ballet classes. That little girl grew up to be Mullen’s mother, a classical ballet teacher whose son remembers the endless hours spent at the theatre as she trained young dancers just like she had once been.

“She says she’s not sure if she’s proud of it,” Mullen tells the camera with a laugh, “but the one thing she passed on to me was an unhealthy work ethic.”

Even as a kid it was obvious. As many times as Mullen has moved in his football coaching career, he still makes sure to keep the bicycle he bought with the money from his very first job: a paper route.

“Megan knows that’s the one item that has to come on every move,” Mullen says, still proud of the work put in to earn it.

All the memories, all the teaching, all the swag, and all the while Mullen is in the process of building a program he believes can compete to win the SEC and hopefully a National Title. His shoes are about to come off for the rest of the day, though he’ll certainly wear them again and he even conceded to having more specialty shoes he’s yet to reveal, including a ‘Coach of the Year’ pair Adidas made for him.

But his focus now is on beating Southern Miss on September 5, then LSU the next week and then, hopefully, 13 more games along the way for the 15-0 season Mullen envisions, predictions be darned.

“I’m happy to be back up here. It’s hard to stay up here as a coach in the SEC sometimes,” Mullen said as he took the stage in the main room at SEC Media Days early Tuesday afternoon. “This is my seventh year coming here, and I think every year they’ve picked us to finish around last place. It’s kind of a tradition.”

Not long after, Mullen is passed by a Tennessee player making the rounds.

“I like those shoes!” the defensive lineman calls out.

“Thanks, man,” Mullen replies. “I hope we see you in Atlanta!”

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Addressing the “returning starters” conundrum for MSU in 2015

Participating in the internet lately, it seems like most everyone outside the state (and probably a few in-staters to the north) is picking Mississippi State football to finish somewhere around last place in the SEC West this year, many wondering if the Bulldogs will even make a bowl game.

And here’s the thing: I get it. I completely get it. Sure, MSU finished second in the west last year and earned a berth in the Orange Bowl. They vaulted to No. 1 in the country after beating three-straight Top 10 teams and held that spot for over a month in the meat of the college football season. And yeah, State’s quarterback finished with the most Heisman votes by an MSU player in history.

11050729_993706023975213_1618475771423030826_nBut it’s easy to see why folks expect a dropoff. Seven starters from a record-breaking offense are gone: three offensive linemen (including one All-American), a second-team All-SEC running back, two receivers and a tight end – roughly 17 years of starts. On the other side of the ball, goodness, eight starters are gone. Three out of four defensive linemen, two out of three linebackers, half the starting corners and both the starting safeties. Included in that mix are two second round NFL Draft picks and four more players in NFL camps right now.

All that, and MSU still has to play in the SEC West. Tough luck.

So yeah, I get the lack of confidence in Dan Mullen’s team in 2015. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.

For one, there’s the return of All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott. More on that later, but in a quick note dug up by Brian Hadad from Bulldog Sports Radio, 10 of the 12 returning All-SEC quarterbacks in SEC history have won at least eight games, while many have won more. There are always exceptions, though, and perhaps MSU is the exception this year, one could easily think. We’ll see.

TVZAGUHXNEGQWVB.20150101040244But back to the missing starters. Statistics, as they say, can be made to prove anything. The numbers, in this case, don’t exactly provide the full picture. Let’s start at the offensive line, where three starters are gone. Big loss, to be certain, seeing a left tackle, center and award-winning guard all graduate. But take a look at those replacing them.

To begin, new guard Devon Desper isn’t a returning starter, but he’s started before. In fact, when MSU lost its center for a game last year, Desper got the nod at guard and helped pave the way for MSU’s offense to rack up 559 yards and 48 points against a ranked Texas A&M team. He’s a redshirt junior and a two-year letterman.

Next is Jamaal Clayborn at center, who most had penciled in last year as a starter before personal situations slowed his season and availability. Also a junior, he’s considered one of if not the strongest players on the team and was good enough to play as a true freshman in 2013.

Then it appears to be Rufus Warren at left tackle, who is every bit as athletic as departed starter Blaine Clausell, if not more so, and is entering his fifth year in the system. He knows the offense, he’s got the size, and it appears he’s beat out the top-ranked junior college offensive tackle in the country for the starting gig.

Now, it’s fair to ask how those three will do as full-time starters, or how Clayborn will do with the switch to center. I’ve got those questions, too. But these aren’t scrubs, and co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy has yet to have a season with a bad offensive line. The results speak for themselves, at a certain point.

Back to running back, I do expect the loss of Josh Robinson to sting a little early on, but MSU has as deep a stable of runners as ever, a position that hasn’t been an issue for State teams in a couple decades. Who will replace Robinson? I don’t know, but who was going to replace LaDarius Perkins, Vick Ballard, Anthony Dixon and Jerious Norwood? I don’t expect that line of successful starters to break in 2015 or anytime soon.

At receiver, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis, along with their many yards, catches and touchdowns, are out the door. But the two best receivers down the stretch for MSU last year: De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross. Wilson will hold on to his starting spot, and the finally-healthy Ross is primed to take over for Lewis in the slot, who was hampered by injuries last year. Replacing Johnson is some combination of senior Joe Morrow – who quietly had a solid and consistent 2014 averaging a team-high 20.2 yards per catch – and Donald Gray, one of the most highly-recruited junior college receivers who was called by one scout “the best athlete in the state of Tennessee” his senior year of high school.

MCZZPQPHIIYRJFD.20140831024343Switch over to defense, and it actually gets better for MSU. Will Redmond is projected by some as a first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft and is rated by Mel Kiper as the No. 1 senior cornerback in the country, but he’s never “started” a game. But he played as many reps as any corner on the team in 2014 and he “replaces” the missing starter at corner.

Chris Jones is the same story, the No. 2-rated player in his signing class but, technically, a “backup” the last two years. He’s a new starter under the strict definition, but he’s the most-talented member of the front line and, like Redmond, got starters reps even if he didn’t actually get called a starter in 2014.

At linebacker, junior Richie Brown played just as much as Benardrick McKinney and was actually tied for the team-lead last season with three interceptions. Sure, they all came in one game, but you get the point.

A.J. Jefferson, now a junior defensive end, had nine quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in 2014. He’s a “new” starter in 2015. Similar story for Kendrick Market, the hardest hitting defensive back MSU has, maybe the most intelligent player on the roster, but a “new” starter at safety, despite leading all members of his position in tackles last season by a longshot.

MSU fans often took to complaining about the frequent substitutions last year, an understandable frustration at times, but it looks like it’ll pay off pretty well now. The label of returning starters just doesn’t really apply for MSU’s defense, and much of its offense, too.

Plus, there are those who do get the gracious label of returning starters. Beniquez Brown, the brains of MSU’s defense. Taveze Calhoun, the heart behind it. Ryan Brown, the previously mentioned Prescott and Wilson and the Justins Malone and Senior on the offensive line. There are a combined 17 years of playing experience in that group.

Beyond all the above-mentioned players is the rest of a roster which, after seven signing classes under the current regime, has finally started to look the way Mullen envisioned it when he took over in 2009. For all the talk of returning starters and new starters, there are a solid half dozen true freshmen or redshirt freshmen who could leap into those jobs, as well as another half dozen who will almost assuredly have significant roles in some form or fashion.

And then, finally, is that vaguely indefinable but very obvious thing: the Prescott factor. In nearly every game MSU plays, it will likely have the best player on the field. To boot, Prescott plays the most important position on the field. And, as a dual-threat player, he’s got the capability to make up for any possible shortcomings as the “new” starters get broken in. Not to mention that he will have what ought to be the best group of receivers under Mullen at MSU, possibly in the history of the program.

This has been a bit long-winded, I know, and I say all that to again admit I understand why people are picking against Mississippi State. But it’s like one of my favorite childhood cartoons taught me – with the Bulldogs in 2015, it’s more than meets the eye.

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

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

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

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

Some people get nervous just going to karaoke night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I missed seven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t all bad, though.

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

Indeed, these are the best of times.

10 a.m., team meeting room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashton Shumpert

Ashton Shumpert

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

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

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

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

Brandon Holloway

Brandon Holloway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dak Prescott rushing touchdowns 2013-14: 27.

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

That seems like one trend likely to continue in 2015.

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