Who Shall Lead Them? Rushing

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 continue this week with Who Shall Lead Them? An attempt to discern who will lead Mississippi State in some of the more important and hard-to-guess statistical categories this season.

Today: who will be MSU’s leading rusher in 2012?

With the receivers yesterday, we were able to look at the numbers from 2011 to try and get an idea for who could be in line to lead the wideouts in 2012. After all, every single one of them returns this season.

With the running backs, however, it’s a clean slate, a different offensive line, a new offense and several new faces. The only returner with any significant experience is junior LaDarius Perkins, and even he had nearly 40 fewer carries than quarterback Chris Relf in 2011.

Junior LaDarius Perkins is penciled in as the starting running back in 2012

Perkins, a 5’10”, 190-pound speedster, is the de-facto starter and is aiming to become an every-down back, despite a reputation for predominantly being a receiving/speed threat. Redshirt sophomore Nick Griffin, who we wrote about last week in our Rising Stars series, has relatively little experience, but a more prototypical frame at 6’0”, 225 pounds. Behind those two are redshirt freshmen Josh Robinson – a bowling ball/fullback-looking runner with surprising speed – and Derrick Milton – another back with a powerful 6’0” frame.

Perkins and Griffin seems to be the main competition for the purposes of this exercise – guessing Mississippi State’s leading rusher. And that’s where it gets tough. As I’ve said, I think Perkins is the starter on day one. I’ve also said I think Griffin has a very good shot at taking over that role by the time November winds blow in.

Our problem, or lack of clarity, I should say, comes from some facts, guesses and musings that would seem to conflict with each other. For example:

  • Perkins wants to be an every-down back, and his coaches have said he can do it. But in two years on the field, he has been a complementary back to Vick Ballard, something his size and speed lend him to.
  • Griffin between the tackles and Perkins on the edge seems like a perfect one-two punch, with a little mixing of the roles here and there. However, in Mullen’s three years at MSU, he has found one back to carry the load (Ballard the previous two years and Anthony Dixon in 2009), and sprinkled in other backs here and there.
  • With Tyler Russell taking over as the signal caller for the mobile Relf, many of the runs made by quarterbacks last year will now go to running backs. But Russell at quarterback also means more passing, including passes to the backs.

Ultimately, I’m guessing Perkins and Griffin will have similar numbers in total offensive yards, which does include receiving. But here’s the thing with Perkins: it’s not just a matter of proving he can be an every-down back, which I think he can be. He also has to prove he can be a better every-down back than Griffin.

But no matter who proves themselves worthy of the “starting” spot, my gut tells me Mullen will get away from his tradition of having one main back. Going back to his days at Florida with Urban Meyer, the pair regularly used multiple rushers. Mullen, to his credit, has generally played the hand he’s been dealt, so to speak, while running the offense at MSU.

With a tall, big-armed quarterback, two talented running backs with different skill sets and a full arsenal of able-bodied receivers, that hand is significantly different, and Mullen’s spread offense might really start spreading the ball around like it did during those days in Gainesville.

If I’m guessing now, Griffin ends up with more carries and yards, but still a fair few receptions, while Perkins ends up with more catches and receiving yards, but still with a fair few carries. Quite a few times in spring I caught the little guy hiding behind massive guard Gabe Jackson, only to jump out and dart past an unwitting linebacker or two.

To peg Perkins as only a receiving back is unfair, and to say Griffin can only run between the tackles just isn’t true. Who “starts,” who “leads,” and who scores won’t really matter. The Bulldogs will be as deep at running back as they have been in years, and Perkins and Griffin will both be out to prove it.

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