Thoughts and observations at the midway point of spring football practice

With seven of Mississippi State’s 15 spring practices in the books – and four more this week – this is about as close to a midway point of spring football as we’ll get it.

425014_483240348355119_1187940702_nThis seems like as good as a time as any to share a few observations. I’ll have more extensive reactions after the spring is done following the Maroon-White game in Davis Wade Stadium on Super Bulldog Weekend, but we’re far enough in to have learned at least a few things.

Risers

Perhaps no one has received more attention, and deservedly so, as junior receiver Jameon Lewis. The speedy slot receiver has had the both the good fortune and poor luck of being behind MSU’s all-time leading receiver Chad Bumphis in his first three years on campus.

Now, it’s Tubby’s turn in the spotlight and he appears as ready as he’s ever been. He’s always had talent, but what’s different now is his [apparent] comfort level on the field, his chemistry with quarterback Tyler Russell and his knowledge of the playbook.

Bumphis, while watching one of the practices, turned to me after Lewis made a nice catch and told me he won’t be tackled until week two. Assuming Bump doesn’t mean Lewis won’t get a catch in week on,e he’s expecting big things.

Between both the starting tackles graduating and Kaleb Eulls switching inside form his previous of end, the defensive line has a significant amount of turnover. Early returns, however, may prove that to be a good thing. The surprise lineman of the spring has been sophomore end Ryan Brown. He played last year as a true freshman, mostly in mop-up duty, and did well when given the opportunity. Now, he appears poised to challenge junior Preston Smith for the starting spot opposite Denico Autry. Brown is big and powerful, and now he’s had almost a full year under strength Coach Matt Balis.

On the inside, the trio of tackles P.J. Jones (a junior), Quay Evans and Nick James (both true sophomores) looks promising. All have tremendous talent, though each needed to mature on the field last year. Based solely on what I’ve seen in seven practices, all three have done so, particularly Jones, who seems to be taking ownership of his age and position.

At linebacker, the biggest surprise – to me anyway – has been rising senior Chris Hughes. He showed flashes on the field as a true freshman, but was never able to crack the lineup for significant playing time. Not only has he been all over the field this spring, he’s spent a significant amount of time working with the first team linebackers. In Saturday’s scrimmage he even managed to block an extra point on special teams.

For whatever reason, Will Redmond’s name seemed to be forgotten when assessing the future of MSU cornerbacks after the exodus of the top three at the position from last year. However, the freshman who redshirted last year has, without being too dramatic here, made a statement. The corners have rotated extensively, but the athletic Redmond has spent as much time as anyone with the first team and has proved himself both able and excited to fill the role. The competition at corner will be fun to watch, as fellow freshman Cedric Jiles is as athletic and talented as anyone on the roster, without even mentioning veterans like Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun, as well junior college transfer Justin Cox, who we’ll get to soon.

On the offensive line, we’ll say MSU returns four-and-a-half of its starters from last year, with Justin Malone at right guard. But there may be a new starter in the mix as junior Damien Robinson has been spent the better part of the last week working as the first team right tackle.

I won’t call him a wise man, but someone once told me to forget about offensive linemen for three years after they sign. It’s been three years since the highly-touted Robinson signed with MSU out of high school, so the timing is right for him to make a move.

New Faces

Perhaps the most impressive newcomer has been junior college transfer cornerback Justin Cox, as we mentioned. He’s still learning and he’s certainly behind others in the playbook, but his talent is impossible to miss. He’s big, fast, smart and quick on the ball. This is by no means a real stat, but from my observations, he’s had an interception in the 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 portions of all but one practice.

He’s not technically a newcomer, but defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is in a new position now, and he’s loving it. It’s an extreme cliché to talk about new defensive coordinators going after the ball or being faster around the field, but it appears both are true as he runs this unit with his ‘Mayhem’ branding. I’ll have a longer story on this soon, but two things about Collins have stood out to me. First, and this may be a function of how many starters graduated, the rotation on defense is constant at every position with new players coming in and out almost non-stop. Second, Collins himself is everywhere. He doesn’t just stay with the linebackers, a position he remains the coach of, but roams from group-to-group offering instruction and encouragement to lineman and defensive backs, too.

One immediate thing you notice when watching team drills is the change in look at wide receiver. They’re not experienced yet, but it’s a big group. One who stands out is junior college transfer Jeremey Chappelle. Coming from Tyler, Texas, Chappelle is a tall 6’3” (is that such a thing?) according to the roster and he offers Russell a big target. Like Cox, he’s behind on the playbook and timing, but given another five months to take care of that, I’d expect Chappelle to be a reliable playmaker on the outside for the Bulldogs.

Like Collins, this one may not technically be a newcomer, but for as much as anyone talked about him as a freshman he might as well be. Freshman safety Deontay Evans, who redshirted last year, was one of the quiet stars of early bowl practice in December and has continued on that upward path in the spring. He seems to have a nose for the ball and has been reliable in coverage. There’s a lot of experience and talent on the depth chart, but Evans is on pace to earn himself time on the field at safety in the fall.

General Observations

  1. Tyler Russell, as the only healthy scholarship quarterback, has been sharp and consistent, making it through the entire Saturday scrimmage without an interception. He looks like he’s in mid-season form, and that’s with a whole new set of receivers.
  2. The receivers and the cornerbacks – two positions which lost all their starters from last year – have provided a good bit of optimism. There will undoubtedly be early growing pains, but the depth, talent and measurable are plentiful for each.
  3. The defensive line, which was a tough underwhelming in the sack department last year, shows a similar potential. Denico Autry is talking like a completely different person, brimming with confidence and saying he’s aiming for a 13-sack season. I won’t be the one to tell all 6’6” of him no, nor do I imagine many offensive lineman will find it easy to stop him.
  4. After a few changes and new faces, the coaching staff seems to meld together well. Communication – at least form my perspective – flows easily and there appears to be a good bit of synergy in message and approach between the group and to the players. That’s good.
  5. I’ve enjoyed the increased usage of tight ends by the offense. MSU has run with two tight ends on the field pretty frequently and it seems to be working well, not to mention the huge jump in depth at the position.
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