The day has finally arrived.
It’s not the first game, but actual football, real players at a real practice with coaches and drills and water breaks, returns today.
Mississippi State will have its first practice of the fall tonight at 5 p.m. and it’s open to the public, should you like to join.
In preparation for practices and the coverage we’ll have here at HailState.com in the coming weeks, a hopefully-straightforward run-through of the roster seemed an appropriate thing to do as we re-familiarize ourselves with this team.
We’ll go by position with two topics for each: The Obvious and What To Watch For.
Let’s start with the big guy himself.
The Obvious: Tyler Russell returns for his second year as the starter, now a fifth-year senior. He broke nearly every single-season passing record MSU has last year and is on pace to break a few career marks before Homecoming of this fall.
What To Watch For: Two things of note here, both of which have at least a little to do with formation and scheme. In the spring, Dan Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning experimented with a more pro-style offense, employing two tight end sets and moving Russell under center rather than the shotgun. It certainly seems to highlight the strengths of the team with a deep group of tight ends and a strong pocket passer like Russell.
Behind Russell is redshirt sophomore Dak Prescott, a more Relf-ian style runner who offers a change of pace with his mobility and isn’t a big drop-off from Russell in terms of passing. He’s young, of course, but just as Russell played significantly as a sophomore before starting as a junior, it seems natural to look for a similar role for Prescott before he takes over next fall. More than just getting experience, Prescott is a big weapon in short-yardage and redzone situations and makes defenses account for a new element when he’s in, whether it’s a QB keeper, an option or a quick pass.
The Obvious: John Hevesy’s group returns five starters from last year, and could even hit six if right guard Tobias Smith, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, decides to play. In terms of experience, this is the most veteran group MSU has had in a few years, highlighted by left guard Gabe Jackson and center Dillon Day, two of the top interior linemen in the SEC and even the country.
What To Watch For: Talented youngster Justin Malone was a part-time starter with Smith last year, and he’ll be stepping into a more permanent role. He has chemistry with his teammates as well as plenty of talent, but must prepare himself for a bit more strenuous season. At right tackle, Charles Siddoway is the incumbent starter entering his senior year, but highly-touted Damien Robinson challenged the veteran in spring practices. If there’s a battle on the offensive line, this is it.
Last year, Russell did a good job of not inurring too many sacks, but he certainly took a lot of hits. Much of it was, as Mullen says, due to him holding the ball until the last second, but the O-line keeping opposing defensive lines from getting pressure off the edge will be big for the Bulldogs.
The Obvious: Potentially MSU’s deepest position, Greg Knox’s group is stacked with talent, beginning with senior LaDarius Perkins, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year in his first season as the starter.
What To Watch For: We all know what LDP can do (a lot), but how the shuffle behind him mixes out will be interesting to watch the next few weeks. Junior Nick Griffin is huge, fast and strong, but two knee injuries have prevented him from playing as much as he would like. He’s likely not 100 percent through with recovering from the last one, but reports say he’s progressing well and may be ready to practice. Sophomore Josh Robinson, a bowling-ball of a running back, got the majority of the backup snaps last year, while fellow sophomore Derrick Milton, a great pass-catcher with a galloping stride reminiscent of Jerious Norwood, was in and out of the mix. New to the group is freshman speedster Brandon Holloway, a track star and return specialist in high school who has at least partially moved to running back from receiver. He may not be used a traditional bell-cow back, but he offers a new wrinkle to the offense I’m not sure we’ve seen under Mullen.
Wide Recievers and Tight Ends
The Obvious: Every single starter is gone. All of ‘em. Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and Marcus Green, many of whom started three or four years at State, are out the door.
What To Watch For: The replacements, obviously. They can be sorted into two groups, beginning with the returning players. Guys like Jameon Lewis in the slot, Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow on the outside and Malcolm Johnson at tight end have patiently waited their turns. Now, Lewis and the two Johnsons are juniors, each of which is likely to start and have had plenty of in-game experience. Malcolm has been on the Mackey Award watch list for the nation’s top tight end the last two years, but injuries have prevented him from playing as much as he would like. Now, he’s healthy, experienced and motivated, paired with vets Brandon Hill, Rufus Warren and linebacker-turned-tight-end Christian Holmes.
The second group is the newbies, led by junior college signee and early enrollee Jeremey Chappelle, who made a big impression in the spring and looks like he could be in the driver’s seat for the third receiver position. Redshirt freshman Fred Brown got great reviews last year and true freshman Fred Ross has reportedly already made an impression in summer workouts and is one who could potentially see some very early playing time, along with fellow freshmen Shelby Christy, Gus Walley and DeRunnya Wilson.
The Obvious: Entering his senior season Denico Autry headlines this group at defensive end with a goal of double-digit sacks in 2013. A smorgasbord of big names and talent fill out the rest of the roster at D-line.
What To Watch For: Everyone not named Denico Autry. Ready for this? Junior Kaleb Eulls moved to tackle after starting the last two years at defensive end, while junior Preston Smith led the team in sacks last year as Eulls’ primary backup, but sophomore Ryan Brown made a late-season and spring-practice push to make sure Smith has competition for the starting gig. Both were good enough to play as true freshmen, and speaking of, Chris Jones comes in behind them as one of the best players in the country in the 2013 signing class, regardless of position, and most expect him to play in his first season, possibly with a significant role. On the inside, Eulls is joined by P.J. Jones, a super-talented junior who missed most of last year due to suspension, and they’re backed up by two of the biggest players around (both literally and figuratively) in true sophomores Quay Evans and Nick James, a pair of massive and surprisingly nimble tackles, along with 315-pound junior Curtis Virges. The crazy thing? That’s not even everyone who’s likely to play a bunch this year. Wild depth on the defensive line for new coach David Turner.
The Obvious: Freshman All-American Benardrick McKinney returns as a sophomore at middle linebacker, next to big-time and NFL-hopeful outside linebacker Deontae Skinner, a pass-rush and run-stuffing specialist.
What To Watch For: Who will lay claim to that third spot? Junior Matt Wells probably enters camp as the favorite, a fast and athletic linebacker who excels in coverage and his displayed a knack for the finding the ball. But plenty more will be lined up behind him, including talented redshirt freshmen Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown (no relation) both of whom had strong springs, in addition to vets like Zach Jackson and Ferlando Bohanna (what a name).
The Obvious: Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are gone, both being selected in the second round of the NFL Draft, as is the versatile and dependable Corey Broomfield.
What To Watch For: Like receiver, who takes over these open spots? Junior college transfer Justin Cox was one of the stars of the spring and it’s hard to imagine that with more time to practice and learn he won’t lock up one of the starting spots. Jamerson Love enters his junior year as one of the fastest players on the team and is, by far, the most experienced corner returning for MSU, while sophomore Taveze Calhoun is next behind him in terms of game experience. One of the players I’ll have my eye on most these next few weeks is freshman Cedric Jiles, who initially was good enough to play last year as a true freshman, but suffered an early injury and ultimately had to redshirt. He’s received incredible reviews from anyone who watches him, whether it’s teammates, coaches or folks standing on the sideline observing. He’s young, but very athletic and plenty intelligent, and his freshman counterpart at the position Will Redmond is uber-talented and will certainly find a way on the field later in the season.
The Obvious: The two who finished last season as starters return, headlined by senior Nickoe Whitley who seems to finally be healthy, and when he is, he’s one of the best around with a nose for the ball and no fear.
What To Watch For: Will Whitley play all season like he did in the Gator Bowl? Injuries hampered him for the majority of 2012, but the Whitley we saw in Jacksonville is the kind of player you expect to see in the NFL this time next year. MSU is hoping he stays healthy and maintains that form. Alongside him, Jay Hughes enters his junior year as a seemingly-underrated starter, a player with good range, soft hands and who isn’t afraid of contact. Of course, if either is to falter, junior Dee Arrington, sophomore Kendrick Market and freshmen Deontay Evans and Quadry Antoine have all shown an aptitude for the position, making it a challenge for coach Tony Hughes to find a way to get all his talent on the field.
What To Watch For: The return game. MSU has struggled at times returning kicks and punts, finishing the last two seasons in the lower half of the SEC in both categories. Jameon Lewis was All-SEC last year as a kick returner, however, and guys like Perkins, Holloway and likely a few others offer some intriguing possibilities at the positions. Of note, both of MSU’s punt returners last year (Banks and Bumphis) must be replaced.