Back in March, during spring practices, Mississippi State had two rising stars and one established veteran who were poised and ready to be starters and key players for the Bulldogs in 2012.
Fast forward to mid-October, and this weekend might be the first time all three of them even see the field on the same day, though most around the conference and country are focused on other players and match-ups in the outing against Tennessee Saturday.
Malcolm Johnson was the next big star at tight end, named to the pre-season watch list for the Mackey Award and considered a key cog in Dan Mullen’s offensive machine entering the season. Then, injury hit. MSU had the depth at the spot to make it without him for five games, though they certainly didn’t have anybody of his skill set, Johnson being a converted receiver. This weekend, he’s expected to return.
P.J. Jones was a highly-recruited defensive tackle when he signed with the Bulldogs, and he so impressed the coaches that he was able to earn playing time as a true freshman last season. With the departure of Fletcher Cox to the NFL, Jones was in line to assume his starting position and play alongside Josh Boyd. Then, we find out he was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He missed the first four games and finally returned against Kentucky last week.
Lastly, senior offensive lineman Tobias Smith, one of the most talented maulers MSU has, but also one of the unluckiest. After injury early last season, Smith’s return was supposed to help stabilize a line with several young pups. However, knee injuries take time, and Smith has had to play sparingly. After limited action against Jackson State and good bit of play against Auburn, Smith hasn’t played or practiced since. This weekend, he’s slated to make his return.
In a game like this, against a talented and hungry Tennessee team, MSU needs everything it can. The Bulldogs need to have their first complete game of the season. The returns of three key players could go a long way in securing that special performance.
And perhaps the most important one is Jones. MSU’s coaches and players said all week the key to rattling quarterback Tyler Bray and the Volunteer offense is get pressure on the quarterback, force him to make quick decisions and force him to move out of the pocket.
Jones can do just that. Last year, Cox and Boyd formed a fearsome duo, largely because they complemented each other so well. Boyd was the bigger run-stopper, while Cox was the faster, powerful inside rusher. With Cox gone, MSU hasn’t had anyone to fill the role of getting to the quarterback from the inside. The Bulldogs have a bevy of talented tackles, but they’re all very similar. Jones brings the different element to the field.
“He’s a very good pass rusher,” Boyd said, “and he’s getting better and better every day, so he’s a lot of help to us.”
Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson even said Monday one of the reasons Boyd played so well against Kentucky was because of the presence of Jones. Those two will be key if MSU wants to get the pass rush going Saturday.
And speaking of pass rush, Smith is just as important for the opposite reason. Tyler Russell said Tuesday he thinks the offense needs to score on every possession. He looks forward to the challenge of keeping up with the UT offense, and he said the Bulldogs can’t afford three-and-outs. If those wishes come true, Russell will need strong blocking from his line to keep the pocket intact. Saturday night is the senior Smith’s chance to shine.
Lined up not far from Smith will be Johnson, whose role, again, is similar. Russell needs to depend on the play-making tight end as he tries to march down the field. We wrote about the impact of Johnson’s return last week, and this is the perfect game to get him back, when you need all the offensive firepower you can get.
MSU’s offense has done well, but it’s been pretty dependent on Chad Bumphis and LaDarius Perkins. Finding another game-breaking weapon – like Johnson – would make it much tougher on opposing defense and much easier on MSU’s offense.
There are plenty of exciting match-ups to watch Saturday night, but forgetting the possible impact of these three players would be unwise.