Over the next several weeks here on the HailState Beat we’ll be running a new football-related series each week, a series of series’ if you will, and we start this week with Rising Stars: names you need to know before the season starts. Some of these will be more obvious than others, but the goal will be to single out the players you may not have heard of or who have yet to make a big name for themselves on the field, in no particular order, who will be stars by late November.
Today’s rising star: redshirt sophomore running back Nick Griffin, and it’s important to note he’s a redshirt sophomore. He’s young in terms of playing time, but he’s entering his third year in the program, all of them under the same head coach, offensive coordinator, running backs coach and strength coach. He’s a smart guy as it is, and he’s been around.
Griffin finds himself in an interesting position, where roughly a year and-a-half ago, he was seen as the heir apparent to Vick Ballard. Then, a knee injury derailed his short-term hopes of easing the load on Ballard in 2011, leaving LaDarius Perkins as the only secondary back.
Now, Griffin is one of four guys in the deepest backfield Mississippi State has had in some years, including Perkins who is still just a junior. The eldest of the group, Perkins is likely to be the day one starter, but Griffin will be immediately behind him. Freshman Josh Robinson is fast, strong and compact, but until he gets a better grasp of the offense – particularly the blocking, according to offensive coordinator Les Koenning – he will be a clear third, along with fellow freshman Derrick Milton, who has dealt with injuries of his own.
There are two questions, I think, when it comes to Griffin and his status on the depth chart. I’ll start with the first.
Does he still have the same speed/burst he did before the knee injury? In my non-expert, but somewhat-informed opinion: yes. Not only did Griffin look powerful and fast in spring practices, he appeared fresh and decisive. One play above all stands out to me from the spring: in a live-scrimmage situation, the offense had ventured onto the opposite side of the field, driving to the end zone. On a wheel route – one of Perkins’ signature plays, funnily enough – quarterback Tyler Russell tossed it to Griffin, who then streaked 30 yards down the left sideline, past linebackers and defensive backs, flew through the corner by the pylon, tossed the ball over his shoulder and unleashed a flurry of Manny Pacquiao-style punches on the fence separating the football field from the tennis courts. That’s when I knew: he’s still got it.
The second question may have more to do with Perkins than Griffin, but it asks which, if either, can be the full-time back. Let me preface this by saying both of them will get a healthy heaping of carries this year and I’m not sure there will be that much separation between the two when it’s all over. So, let’s start by looking at what we have: numbers. The sample sizes aren’t exactly apples to apples, but hey, it’s what we’ve got.
In 13 games of action in 2011, Perkins rushed 87 times for 422 yards and two touchdowns. Griffin, who only saw action in five games, mostly in mop-up duty, rushed 16 times for 108 yards and one touchdown. It’s an uneven sampling, sure, but at 6.8 yards per carry, Griffin averaged nearly two more YPC than Perkins’ 4.9, and was exactly one yard shy of Jameon Lewis, who led the team with a 7.8 yard average on his 11 carries.
There’s the argument that Perkins brings more to the passing game, and he is certainly adept in that area, but his reputation may have outgrown his production. He had 13 receptions for 59 yards last season (a 4.5 yard average), compared to 20 for 187 yards for Ballard (9.4).
Don’t get me wrong, this is no knock on Perkins, and I expect all running backs to be better in 2012 with a healthy offensive line and a more dangerous passing game to keep defenses honest. But if I’m betting my worn-out shoes on anyone, I think Griffin ends the season as the team’s top rusher, both in yards and touchdowns.
If nothing else, he’s awesome on Twitter.