Throughout the early months of 2013, Dan Mullen mentioned regularly his desire to feature tight ends more in Mississippi State’s offense.
Based on the early observations of spring practice, Mullen is a man of his word.
The Bulldogs’ use of two tight end sets borders on exclusivity, and that’s exactly how they want it as a part of MSU’s new passing game.
Entering his senior year and second as a starter, Tyler Russell lost five senior receivers from last year – including all the starters – but he’s gained a treasure chest full of young talent, he’s now working more from under center and, of course, he’s got those tight ends.
Part of the change is to get Russell NFL-ready. However, most of it is pretty simple. Mullen is playing to the strengths of his team.
And for the first time since he got to Starkville, those strengths include the tight end position. Not because he hasn’t had talent, but because of injuries and slim rosters he just hasn’t had depth.
“It helps,” Mullen said. “If you’re trying to develop a package and all of the sudden one guy gets hurt and you just have, really, one guy in a whole package, it doesn’t make you feel comfortable. When you have a group of guys and you put the package in and you know there’s a pair and a spare there to take the reps, you feel a little bit better about it.”
Last year, Mullen thought he’d have a finally-healthy sixth-year senior Marcus Green and pre-season Mackey Award watch list member Malcolm Johnson to feature at the position. But, just as has happened nearly every year, someone got hurt. Last August, it was Johnson.
But now, Johnson is healthy and can be a serious weapon. Junior Christian Holmes has switched from linebacker to tight end, sophomores Brandon Hill and Rufus Warren now have a little experience under their belts, Gus Walley is ready to play after redshirting last year and Artimas Samuel joined the team in January after a semester at Hargrave Military Academy.
“It’s nice to have to think about who’s going in and getting what reps,” tight ends coach Scott Sallach said, “as opposed to just hoping you have enough to fill out the roster. It’s a good problem.”
The depth at the position also helps alleviate the loss of so many receivers, giving Russell experienced weapons and taking some of the pressure off of receivers who have either never played at all or only done so sparingly.
Of course, the receivers MSU will use now are a bit different, too. Juniors Robert Johnson and Jeremy Chappelle (a junior college transfer), along with sophomore Joe Morrow, give Russell three outside targets – and three potential starters – who are 6’3” or taller.
Last year, Russell only had one starting receiver over 5’10”.
The new blood at receiver paired with Russell going under center “adds a new dimension,” according to Mullen.
That dimension will at least resemble a pro-style offense. Mullen was and is known for his innovative spread offenses, but the changes also show he’s not stubborn.
He’ll play to his strengths.
Along with the new style and new players comes a new receivers coach in Billy Gonzales. He’s not totally new, however, as he worked with Mullen at several stops when both were assistants under Urban Meyer.
Now, at MSU, he’s got a new set of receivers and says all of them have a clean slate.
“It’s a fresh start from earning my respect. What I know about you is your work ethic,” he said. “I think, right now, they’re still trying to figure out, ‘What do I have?’ Just go, man. I want guys who are going, guys who are playing fast. I want guys who are strong and aggressive. I want frickin’ mean football players.
“I want toughness. I’ll teach them the other stuff.”
Along with his big guys on the outside, Gonzales will have speedy slot receivers Jameon Lewis – who has had an excellent spring so far – and Brandon Holloway, a high school track star in Florida.
The hopefully moldable talent is certainly there for Gonzales and Russell, and the hope is for the new-look offense and deep group of tight ends to help them get there.
And those tight ends will be a big part of it.
“We have them now,” Mullen said. “They’re kind of growing up, they’re a strength of the team. We have depth. We’ve gotta keep everybody healthy, but I see them having a much bigger role this year.”