Against a high-scoring, pass-heavy offense like Oklahoma State’s, two things would seem pretty obvious for Mississippi State tomorrow: they need to slow down that air attack and be ready to keep up with one of their own.
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said earlier this week the pass rush is the key to the game, and I certainly won’t begrudge him his point, but cornerbacks on defense and wide receivers on offense may be the biggest positions to keep our eyes on tomorrow afternoon.
Chad Bumphis and Johnthan Banks left MSU for the NFL as possibly the best in Bulldog history at their positions. Darius Slay, Arceto Clark, Corey Broomfield and Chris Smith have been stalwarts of the Dan Mullen era.
Now, they’re all gone. Every starting receiver and corner is out the door, just in time for MSU to open the season against this Cowboy offense.
What’s interesting, though, is the perspective on those who step into their places on the field. Both coaches and the now-former stars at each position have said these new groups have the potential to be better than the previous ones ever were.
Of course, as any coach will say, potential means very little once someone is actually on the field.
In the realm of play and live action, actual real skill and ability means far more than a lottery ticket waiting to find out if it holds the key to millions.
As Collins and offensive coordinator Les Koenning await kickoff, they’re hours away from finding out what they hold.
“The challenge has been since the start of January,” Collins said, “Banks and Slay are gone, somebody’s gotta step up. Not two guys, but three, four or five guys.”
As game week began, junior Jamerson Love and sophomore Taveze Calhoun, the two most experienced veteran corners on the team, were listed as starters. Certainly, that could change by tomorrow afternoon, but as a pair, they make sense as replacements for Banks and Slay.
In fact, last fall, Love was clocked as the fastest player on the team. Not Slay, who ran the best 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine among defensive backs. So there’s the speed.
Ask Calhoun what makes him good and he’ll tell you, he’s plenty fast, sure, but his length gives him an edge.
Opposing quarterbacks – and even Tyler Russell – would say the challenge of Banks was his length, using his extended arms to close windows that passers would have against anyone else.
Not to say Love and Calhoun can step in and immediately erase Banks and Slay from anyone’s memory, but the fit seems pretty natural.
Then there’s Cedric Jiles, who Bumphis and Broomfield both referred to as a future superstar, Broomfield going so far as to call him “a three-year player.”
Jiles was good enough to play immediately as a true freshman last year, but an injury ultimately led to a redshirt year.
Now, he’s anxious to get back on the field not just as a backup, but as one of MSU’s key defensive cogs.
After all, Collins conceded very little stock should be put into the depth chart at certain positions, making Jiles as good as a starter.
“In practice, you don’t hear us call out the ones and twos,” he said. “We have the one-As and one-Bs.”
“Cedric Jiles,” junior safety Jay Hughes said, “he’s been hungry ever since he got here. I’m excited to see him play.”
Hughes described OSU’s offense as “very vertical,” and while Dan Mullen opined on the need to limit big plays in this game, Hughes isn’t particularly concerned.
“I think we’re gonna be good,” he said. “It’s hard to run away from our corners, man. Any of them. Taveze has a long stride, Jiles is fast, Love is fast. It’s not easy.
“It’s gonna be a big test. We’ve got a lot of chances to kinda show the country what we can do.”
Practicing against a tall, fast and athletic group of receivers in practice everyday, Collins said, has helped prepare them, as well.
“We’ve got some great receivers and a great quarterback in Tyler,” Collins said, “So they’ve already faced some challenges in the preseason. With the confidence and the attitude that Coach Townsend has, it’s kind of rubbed off on them. If they have a bad play, it doesn’t turn into a bad day.”
Those receivers, of course, are the offensive side of MSU’s potential vs. production question and the need for immediate performance as they replace every starter.
“But they’ve had the unfortunate position of being behind Chad and Chris and Arceto,” Koenning said.
Now, Koenning continued, they have to take the lessons learned from those veterans and apply it to their own ability.
Lewis, nicknamed Tubby, has spent three years watching Bumphis, studying film with him, going over routes and gleaning the little things that make a receiver consistent and reliable.
Now, even in practice against those who see him every day, Lewis seems to make at least one or two defenders miss every time he touches the ball.
Perhaps because he knows the responsibility now lies with him or maybe just because he’s older, Lewis has been noticeably different both on the field and off. More confident and mature. A leader, not a follower. And the ability he’s always had, still there.
“It’s just time for us wideouts to go out and show the nation,” Lewis said.
While he and others may be new to the starting lineup, they’ve been working with Russell for years.
And they’ve transitioned from eager youngsters to the veteran leaders like those who came before them.
“They’ve come along really well,” Koenning said. “They’ve been great teachers to the young guys. We’re relying on them to help us.”
And some of those young guys will play, both tomorrow and the rest of this season. The key for them, Koenning said, is knowledge.
Junior college transfer Jeremey Chappelle seems to have at least a fair bit of that, breaking down OSU’s defense already last week.
“They’ve got some pretty physical cornerbacks and they like to bite on a lot of slants and hitch routes,” he said. And Chappelle sees the same thing the coaches and alums do. “We’ve got a lot of potential. August 31, we can show the world what we can do.”
Along with Chappelle, true freshmen Derunnya Wilson and Fred Ross have made significant enough impressions to appear as if they will play immediately.
Wilson in particular, at 6’6”, has been the surprise of fall camp.
What exactly has he done?
“Get open and catch the ball,” Koenning said with a smile. “It’s pretty obvious. When you throw him the ball, he makes plays. When the ball is in his vicinity, he catches it. That’s a pretty good thing as a receiver.”
Lewis offered praise for Wilson, as well, saying he uses his size perfectly to make catches at the high point of the ball and block defensive players from getting in his way.
Having worked with them over the summer and now in camp, Russell said it’s the little things the young receivers do well. Identifying blitzes, running routes, timing.
They’ve done everything he’s asked.
So, will all the potential at receiver and corner pan out? The signs are promising, certainly.
Though as Mullen has said all season, we’ll know a lot more at the end of tomorrow.
“They’re gonna enter that game inexperienced,” Mullen says. “By the time we get on the plane back, they’ll be experienced.”
The hope is for a good experience.
And they seem pretty confident it will be.