College football is never really “over,” but with the conclusion of spring practice, we can at least call it dormant as it hibernates for the hot summer months ahead.
Mississippi State’s football team finished the spring with its annual Maroon-White game in Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday afternoon in front of 21,000 people who are likely all sporting red foreheads and farmer’s tans at work today, so now seemed like the appropriate time to offer a spring review.
I’m going to do this by position group, breaking it up into offense and defense in two separate posts. I’ll offer my thoughts, along with my paraphrasing and summarizing what coaches have said the last few weeks, so if there’s a Star Wars reference calling a defensive linemen an angry, indestructible Chewbacca, those are my words, not Dan Mullen’s.
Coach’s Take: Dan Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning said going into the spring that A) they were giving Tyler Russell more control of the offense and B) he was taking it. In addition to his command and leadership as a senior, the coaches have worked on tailoring the offense more to fit his strengths, implementing two tight end sets and even putting Russell under center, getting him more comfortable with a pro-style offense before he heads to the NFL next spring.
Bob’s Take: As the only healthy scholarship quarterback in the spring, Russell was naturally pretty busy, and he seemed to like it. The upshot of his heavy workload is getting time to build chemistry with his new receivers. Perhaps it’s a function of the spring practice atmosphere, but the most noticeable thing about Russell was his comfort and command in practice. He was in charge and he knew it, and so did his teammates. His accuracy and anticipation is unchanged, but the mental side of his game appears to have taken another step up, at least a little bit.
Coach’s Take: Greg Knox loves the depth he has at running back with all four guys from 2012 returning, plus the at least partial addition of slot receiver Brandon Holloway to the backfield. When LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson had to sit with minor injuries, the coaches moved Holloway to his old high school position just to have someone back there, then they realized they might want to keep him there.
Bob’s Take: Perkins was out for probably half of the spring, but MSU knows what it has in him and got a chance to look at the younger guys. Sophomores Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton are about as fun a pair of reserves to watch as any. Milton is the bigger of the two and one of the faster guys, running with a striding gallop not unlike Jerious Norwood. Holloway’s addition was a great surprise for the position and one I’m expecting will stick in at least some capacity. He’s one of the fastest – and smartest – guys on the team and MSU has to find a way to get the ball in his hands and let him do fast person things. Running back seems to be a good place for that. The offense made a point of getting the running backs into space throughout the spring, throwing passes to them regularly, which seems to play to the strengths of this group.
Coach’s Take: John Hevesy is excited about returning what is basically the entire starting line for the first time since he got to MSU and he’s hoping to see the fruits of that experience. He appears very happy with the left side of the line from left tackle to center, but wants to see sophomore Justin Malone get a bit more aggressive at right guard. And while Charles Siddoway returns as last year’s starter at right tackle, Hevesy isn’t just giving the senior the job. Damien Robinson, entering his junior year, got plenty of rotation at both tackle spots and for the better part of two weeks ran with the first team at right tackle while Siddoway practiced with the second team.
Bob’s Take: The key to the whole idea of returning starters is the expectation that they will all improve and grow. Left guard Gabe Jackson is an All-American candidate who could’ve left early for the NFL and center Dillon Day has consistently improved with every year, game and practice, becoming one of the top centers in the SEC. At those two spots, MSU is as strong as anyone in the country. The hope is to improve enough at the tackle spots to allow Russell the time and room to run the type of offense the coaches would like. Certainly the chemistry and experience are there and MSU’s running backs had great numbers in the spring game, but with no live-tackling of quarterbacks and mostly vanilla defenses, the offensive line may be the toughest position to judge in the spring.
Coach’s Take: Mullen and positional coach Scott Sallach told us before the spring how they planned on employing a now-healthy and deep arsenal of tight ends by using two tight end sets and finding a way to get them involved. Not that I thought they were, but neither was lying. As long as he’s been at MSU, Sallach has had injuries prevent him from having a ton to work with at the position. Now, he’s got almost too many weapons with a good combination of big bodies and athletic pass-catchers. MSU used tight ends in a similar role to slot receivers, controlling the middle of the field with quick passes aimed at moving the chains. The heaviest usage, however, came in the redzone, with far more short-yardage touchdown passes going to tight ends than any other position.
Bob’s Take: Sallach has tight ends split into the bigger, blocking group and the more athletic pass-catching group, but just about everyone among them has the ability to run routes and has shown good hands. Over the course of a few months, the tight ends somehow went from one of the most horribly depleted positions to perhaps the deepest unit on the team. Junior Malcolm Johnson is the kind of mis-match weapon Mullen covets, while Christian Holmes – who switched from linebacker – plays the Marcus Green role nearly perfectly, providing a short-yardage and redzone threat who is unafraid of contact. Sophomore Brandon Hill has proven himself a reliable threat over the course of the spring and sophomore Rufus Warren is, by a fair bit, the biggest non-lineman on the team standing around 6’6” and 265 pounds, with far better hands than you’d expect.
Coach’s Take: New receivers coach Billy Gonzales has said he wants “mean” receivers, and that style seems to fit. His group is severely lacking on experience, but it has something MSU hasn’t had in years: size. Between Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and JUCO transfer Jeremey Chappelle, Russell and the coaches have a bevy of big targets on the outside, while Jameon Lewis has had one of the best springs by any individual player as he replaces Chad Bumphis in the slot. Lewis and Chappelle have been the stars of spring, catching pass after pass and scoring touchdowns seemingly on repeat.
Bob’s Take: MSU lost all of its starters from last year, including perhaps the best receiver to ever play for the Bulldogs in Bumphis, but despite the lack of experience, this group has the potential to be better than any Mullen has had in Starkville. That said, it also has the potential for serious growing pains. Early returns suggest chemistry is building quick between Russell and the receivers, and while few have had significant game action, most have been in the program for several years and have a full working knowledge of the playbook and system. Three of MSU’s top four receivers stand 6’3” or taller, while Russell’s biggest starting target last year was 6’2” and he was the only one over 5’11”. Combined with the tight ends, MSU will have a full array of speedsters, downfield threats and reliable chain-movers, presuming they’re ready to play in real games.