Grass growing, rain falling and sweaty, 300-pound men running into each other.
Ahh, spring is in the air.
Mississippi State and Dan Mullen begin spring football practice on Thursday (or potentially Wednesday if that flighty Mother Nature causes problems), signaling the return of warm weather and the opening of the season of eternal optimism.
As the Bulldogs prepare to hit the field, this seemed like a good time, if not the best time, to do a spring preview of sorts, breaking down the team by position with what to expect and storylines to keep up with.
Naturally, we’ll have plenty of spring coverage here on the HailState Beat, but until then, let’s look at what’s coming.
For the first time since he got to campus, O-line coach John Hevesy more or less returns all five starters from the previous season, with a likely line of Blaine Clausell, Gabe Jackson, Dillon Day, Justin Malone and Charles Siddoway from left to right. That’s two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore (Malone) who his teammates have said is a future All-American, all of whom have starting experience.
Combined with returning starters at quarterback and running back, MSU ought to be in good shape between the hashes, the most important place in SEC football.
The polar opposite of the offensive line, MSU lost five receivers to graduation and is breaking a new coach at the position with Billy Gonzales. The good news is Mullen and Gonzales have a long history together, plus the cupboard is far from bare for the new coach if the wideouts.
Juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis bring the most experience back, though neither has started. RoJo, as his teammates call him, will have the chance to wrap up one of the starting spots on the outside, and I know at least a few of his former teammates believe he will. Chad Bumphis and Sam Williams, now graduated, both have told me they expect Johnson to be a star in 2013 now that he’ll have a chance in the spotlight.
Lewis is the only slot player with any game experience, though it’s not a ton as he had the unfortunate position of being stuck behind Bumphis the last two seasons. Offensive coordinator Les Koenning has said Lewis can do “crazy things with the ball in his hands,” and he’ll have the chance to show that. Redshirt freshmen Brandon Holloway (a speedy track star in high school) and “Smooth” Fred Brown, as Bumphis called him, will battle for time, too, along with sophomore Joe Morrow and junior college transfer Jeremy Chappelle, who may also earn a starting gig if his JUCO production translates.
Mullen has already talked this offseason about using the tight ends significantly more in 2013, employing some two-tight end sets and taking advantage of a group deep with athleticism and pass-catching prowess. Scott Sallach remains the positional coach and he’ll have plenty to work with. Junior Malcolm Johnson was on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award last summer (an annual award for the nation’s top tight end), but an injury shortly before the season shortened his sophomore campaign. Presumably, he hits the field this spring at full health.
Athletic junior Christian Holmes has moved to tight end from linebacker, where he joins sophomore Rufus Warren (the tallest skill player on the team), Brandon Hill and Gus Walley. Sallach and Mullen will have the depth and talent needed to do some fun things with the tight ends, which may also help ease the learning curve for MSU’s completely-new receiving corps.
After setting multiple records in his first year as a starter, Tyler Russell is back for his senior year. The only question at QB in 2013 is how much backup Dak Prescott will be used. The dual-threat sophomore has been used situationally, generally with success, and as he matures his role should only increase. In 2011, Mullen played Russell regularly while senior Chris Relf started, an experience Russell credited much of his success in 2012 to. Knowing Prescott is probably his quarterback of the future, Mullen will want to get him on the field this year.
Like most spots on offense, the Bulldogs have both a returning starter and quality depth in the backfield. LaDarius Perkins, like Russell, is now a senior and in his second year as the full-time starter. Of course, the spring is often just as much about the backups as it is the starters, and MSU has plenty of those, too. Sophomores Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton were mixed in last year to give Perkins a breather and provide a change of pace, which they did with varying degrees of success. Big-bodied junior Nick Griffin will be out for the spring with an injury, but he finishes off a quartet of experienced and balanced running backs.
The anchor of the defensive line is an interesting spot, where MSU has a boatload of young talent, but also a massive opening with both starters graduating, as well as one of the top reserves. P.J. Jones was good enough to play as a true freshman, but last year as a sophomore a suspension kept him out of action for half the season. Curtis Virges brings, perhaps, the most experience, while sophomores Nick James and Quay Evans were two of the best defensive linemen in the country coming out of high school and both got onto the field last year as true freshmen. Jones and Evans bring more pass-rushing at tackle, while Virges and James offer big, run-stuffing frames.
Of course, one potential playmaker is Kaleb Eulls, who could switch back to the inside. He’s been the starter at defensive end the previous two seasons, but he arrived at MSU as tackle. David Turner returns to coach the defensive line and it was he who once recruited Eulls as a tackle. If the switch does happen, it gives MSU someone with both talent and starting experience at the position, something it doesn’t currently have a ton of.
If Eulls switches inside, it of course opens up a starting position on the outside, but senior Denico Autry – who played his best football in the second half of last season – has the other side locked down. Much like tackle, there is a host of youth hoping to get a spot in the rotation, led by the long and speedy junior Preston Smith. Ryan Brown managed to get on the field – and look good doing it – as a true freshman last year, and he’ll be one of several others hoping to get the open spot and bolster a position which didn’t get as much pressure on quarterbacks in 2012 as Dan Mullen might have liked.
At two out of three spots, MSU is pretty set with senior Deontae Skinner on the outside and sophomore Benardrick McKinney (a freshman All-American) in the middle. But as Cam Lawrence graduates, the question is who will step up and fill his role. Matt Wells, the linebacker/safety hybrid, has both experience and speed, as does Chris Hughes. But a pair of redshirt freshmen will be in the mix, too, after Richie Brown and Benqiuez Brown (no relation) spent a year learning the ropes on scout team.
I may sound crazy, but the loss of Lawrence is, to me, just as important as Johnthan Banks’ absence. Finding someone to replace him will be one of defensive coordinator and linebacker’s coach Geoff Collins most important tasks. Which brings us to…
With the receivers, this is one of two positions I will have my eyes on almost constantly. Banks, Darius Slay and Corey Broomfield, with somewhere around 1,000 starts between them (all numbers approximate), are all out the door. For the first time since Mullen got to Starkville, he won’t have Banks and Broomfield on his roster. Who replaces them? Well, that’s the big question. Junior Jamerson Love, one of the fastest players on the team, got more playing time last year than any other corner still on the roster, so he would appear to have the inside track on a starting gig. Sophomore Taveze Calhoun has length, like Banks, and would pair nicely with Love, while Cedric Jiles is the total package and someone Bumphis once said “looks like a three-year player.”
Here, we have another question of positions. Junior college transfer Justin Cox arrived at MSU listed as a defensive back, and he’s played both safety and cornerback before. He seems to have the talent to do either at an SEC level, but two points stand out: which is he better at, and which does MSU need him the most for? The answer to both may be cornerback. If it is, he could easily be a starter from day one under new corners coach Deshea Townsend
This is another position where the Bulldogs are fortunate enough to return both their starters and the position coach. Senior Nickoe Whitley and junior Jay Hughes finished the 2012 season as the last line of MSU’s defense, so it would seem to follow they will start 2013 in the same fashion, particularly after Whitley’s big game in the Gator Bowl. They won’t be without competition, however, as Dee Arrington and Kendrick Market both have special teams experience, while redshirt freshman Quadry Antoine – a player in the mold of Whitley – arrived on campus with plenty of fanfare.
The good news: MSU’s punter (Baker Swedenburg), kicker (Devon Bell) and special teams coach (Mullen) all return.
The underrated news: The Bulldogs need a new holder with Chris Cameron’s graduation. It doesn’t seem like the most important spot, and it’s certainly not a glamor position, but as soon as a holder messes up, a game can change.
In a strange way, it won’t be the worst thing if MSU fans have no idea who their holder is in 2013.
Of course, MSU is set with Bell, who set the single-season record for points by a kicker as a freshman last year, and Swedenburg, who is quietly one of the most reliable punters in the country.
Just a guess here, but I’m thinking the special teams coach probably isn’t on the hot seat, either.
Guys I’ll Be Watching
- Justin Cox, DB
- Richie Brown, LB
- Robert Johnson, Fred Brown, Jeremy Chappelle, Brandon Holloway, WRs
- Cedric Jiles, CB
- Quay Evans, Nick James, DTs
- Geoff Collins (DC/LBs), Deshea Townsend (CBs), Billy Gonzales (WRs)