In just four practices, we learned more about the Mississippi State football than in the three previous months of agonizingly slow summer combined. Between a pair of open practices, interviews with players and thoughts from coaches, we’ve got plenty to digest as the Bulldogs begin two-a-days and camp down on The Farm.
Naturally, and as Dan Mullen will tell you, nothing is settled now with roughly three weeks to go until MSU starts the season. That said, we’re able to re-assess our starting point when we try and break down the team. Rather than write long, wordy paragraphs about each and every nugget of information we’ve gleaned since Thursday, it’ll be easier just to break it down by position like we did with our roster previews before practice started.
The main message from the position is exactly what Mullen wanted: junior Tyler Russell picked up right where he left off in the spring, the verbal leader of the team and a confident, accurate passer. The surprise of the position came in the form of freshman walk-on Jamil Golden, who is every bit as tall as Russell and quite astute as a runner, though his accuracy and understanding of the offense is, naturally, far behind Russell’s.
The biggest concern for this position entering fall practices remains the most glaring question mark today. Will senior right guard Tobias Smith be ready to go? He was able to work in positional drills with his fellow linemen when practice was open Saturday, but he sat out the team portion of practice. He told reporters after that he’s “114 percent” and that he’s confident the coaches will have him ready when he needs to be.
While the rest of the line seems pretty clear, redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Damien Robinson appeared to have a leg up at right tackle, but junior college transfer Charles Siddoway does not seem to be far behind him, if at all. In fact, Mullen said Sunday that one of the two will likely have to be the swing tackle that backs up both the left and right tackle spots. Siddoway may experiment with the swinging in the coming weeks, but Robinson was the main one to move back-and-forth in the spring.
Junior LaDarius Perkins was the starter entering the fall, and nothing that has happened since Thursday would indicate his job is in immediate jeopardy. Sophomore Nick Griffin had a bit of the fumble-itis early in Saturday’s practice, though he did recover nicely with a goal-line touchdown in team drills, and redshirt freshman Josh Robinson is trimmer and impressive, but still has to learn pass protection and the playbook.
Derrick Milton, another redshirt freshman, stood out to me on a few occasions, showing some aptitude in the passing game, as well as some speed in the open field. And rumor has it the speedy Perkins had a couple long touchdowns the next day. Griffin is the most likely to eat into Perkins’ carries and possibly take the starting job, but Perkins is off to a fast start this fall.
Wide receiver/tight end
Two things we expected to see out of the receivers we did see: seniors Arceto Clark and Chris Smith were sure-handed and dependable. There are plenty of young pups on their way up the depth chart, but it will be hard to unseat either of these two dependable vets. The exciting news for those who like to prognosticate was the strong play of redshirt freshman Joe Morrow (a 6’5” receiver with long arms) and sophomore Jameon Lewis, an exciting player who has struggled with fumbles. Offensive coordinator Les Koenning said Morrow was inconsistent, but impressive when he does things right, while Mullen said Lewis is starting to grasp his role as receiver, not just an athlete.
Both of the true freshmen, Brandon Holloway and Fred Brown, seem more likely to redshirt, though Holloway’s speed may land him a spot on special teams this fall.
Malcolm Johnson is still out with an undisclosed injury, but sixth-year senior Marcus Green returned to practice and appears to have the tight end position covered in the meantime, catching three-consecutive passes from Russell at one point during two-minute drills.
Despite the loss of Fletcher Cox at tackle, the defensive line was one of the deepest positions in the spring, and that group was only bolstered with the arrival of several high-profile signees, including mammoth tackle Nick James. The most important piece, to me anyway, is defensive end Denico Autry, the speedy pass-rusher who put up video game stats in junior college last fall. He appears to have solidified his spot as the starter, but there may be a disconnect between him and Mullen at the moment.
Autry said Saturday he sees himself as a specialist with his affinity for pass-rushing. Mullen said Sunday he wants to Autry to be an every-down player, effective against both the run and pass. The truth, more than likely, is that Autry may not be comfortable enough in the defense to do everything right now, but as he learns and practices the next three weeks, coaches hope the long-bodied end will get the playbook down pat and be ready to play full-time by September 1. His backup Shane McCardell, however, made tremendous strides in the spring and only looks bigger and stronger now.
We knew what MSU had in outside linebackers Cam Lawrence and Deontae Skinner, two of the better at their position in the SEC, according to linebackers coach Geoff Collins. What we didn’t know was which inexperienced youngster would be called upon to start in the middle. Ferlando Bohanna has [limited] experience, but redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney seems to grab a stronger hold of the starting gig as each day goes by. Not only is he huge and smart, ‘Little KJ’ has a knack for making big plays.
Among the others vying for time, Collins singled out Christian Holmes, an athletic sophomore who excels both in coverage and pass rushing, as someone who made big strides over the summer and impressed him when practice began. Holmes had several nice plays over the weekend, including an interception returned for a touchdown.
It also seems possible, or even likely, that true freshmen Richie Brown and Benqiuez Brown could earn playing time in their first season on campus
There are two big items of note here. 1) Junior safety Nickoe Whitley looked like a man who has never had so much as a bruised arm, let alone a ruptured Achilles, as he flew around the secondary over the weekend. His ball-hawking ways continued, registering at least one pick that we saw, and perhaps more in practices closed to the public. As I wrote not long ago, Whitley is the one player on defense MSU has no one else like. If he’s healthy, that’s a big deal, and it appears he is.
2) Mullen tells us that senior Corey Broomfield will be playing at least some safety, and it’s possible he could be a permanent starter alongside Whitley. This move gets MSU’s four best defensive backs on the field, allowing uber-athletic senior Darius Slay to start at the cornerback spot opposite Johnthan Banks.
Those four, along with sophomore Dee Arrington, will be the primary players in the secondary over the next five months, but the young talent was on display during practices, as well. True freshman corner Cedric Jiles was as impressive as anyone in the morning session against mostly starters on Saturday, regularly batting down well-placed throws from Russell and Golden, and high-profile freshman corner Will Redmond showed some speed and leaping ability, as well. In the evening, redshirt freshman Taveze Calhoun, a long-bodied corner in the mold of Banks, had a few nice pass break-ups and lightning-quick sophomore Jamerson Love showed some ability at the other corner spot.
MSU has plenty of cornerbacks, but the safety position could be shallow if Broomfield doesn’t take the switch well or Whitley’s health takes a step back, though youngsters Jay Hughes, Kendrick Market and Quadry Antoine are talented, despite their lack of experience.
As Mullen said yesterday, you can’t learn much about kickers until they do it in full pads against competition, so we don’t know much now. However, based on the simplest of observations and contextual clues from coaches, it appears freshman Devon Bell will handle kickoffs and fellow freshman Evan Sobiesk seems to be the likely field goal kicker. It could cause some nervousness to depend on freshmen, but if they pan out, then Mullen is set for the next four years.
The only player with any kickoff or field goal experience, Brian Egan, is back practicing with the team, but he’ll have his work cut out for him trying to earn a starting job.