At the risk of downplaying the present, it’s difficult not to take at least take a peek ahead at the future of Mississippi State football as the lull between regular season and postseason hits.
Though, in a year like this, the extra weeks of practice in the now are of great value to the not-so-distant then of next year, as well as the years following.
Dan Mullen pointed out a few weeks ago that MSU’s two-deep has missed over 100 collective games due to injury this year. The result of those health troubles, along with a large senior class from 2012, has been a great deal of youth on the field for the Bulldogs.
In fact, MSU’s depth chart entering the Egg Bowl featured 28 players in the two deep who were either freshmen or sophomores or in their first year as starters.
None would try to make it an excuse, but it does at least partially explain the story of MSU’s 2013 season, struggling early, but improving every week down the stretch and finishing with two-straight overtime wins to secure bowl eligibility.
It’s a process and experience now-junior left tackle Blaine Clausell is plenty familiar with, having been thrust into action as a freshman himself.
“You don’t really don’t know what to expect until you get out there and go through it,” he said. “It’s a big thing to get experience, and once you get that, you can start learning football.”
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is of similar mind, that practice in the offseason can only do so much when compared with real in-game playing time.
“The little experiences that you have all add up week-in and week-out,” he said, “and you see the rewards of that over the course of the season and at the end.”
The tough part for the young crew is to not look ahead too much and so forget to learn what they can now.
Defensive lineman Chris Jones, one of the best true freshman in the conference and country this season, immediately made an impact when he got to campus, drawing double-teams barely halfway into his first season and regularly getting into opponents’ backfields.
“He’s one of the biggest, most physically gifted kids I’ve been around,” Collins said when asked if Jones compares to anyone he’s been around before. “I was gonna say Calvin Johnson when I was at Georgia Tech. Completely different dynamic, but that same kind of physical presence at that position. He’s the Megatron of Starkville.”
“I feel like this year is just a building year for us group of guys,” he said. “I feel like next year we’re gonna have a good shot at being a top-five team.”
It’s big talk, especially from a freshman, but to this point he’s backed up any talking he’s done – and he’s nearly as talented speaking as he is playing.
He’s not the only one who sees it, though.
Mullen has talked about it. Dak Prescott, just a sophomore despite his heroic status, has allowed himself a glance to next year.
Sophomore Josh Robinson was one of the young stars over the final third of the season, rushing for more yards and touchdowns with every week and he, like Jones, is not afraid to talk big, presenting himself as one speaking for most of his team.
“It started this year. We’re gonna change the whole Mississippi State history,” he said after MSU’s overtime win at Arkansas. “We already know what type of team we’re gonna have next season. We’re gonna have an amazing team that could win a National Championship. That’s our goal in the offseason, work hard.”
Projecting a bit, MSU’s roster in 2014 will include, in addition to Jones, Prescott and Robinson, every single receiver and tight end from this year’s team, the leading tackler, three out of four starters in a secondary that went from weakness to strength over the course of the season, a backup quarterback with game-winning experience and a front seven losing only two players from its 14-man two-deep.
New players will arrive, and certainly holes left by guys like Gabe Jackson and Nickoe Whitley need to be filled, while more young or unheard of players are likely to earn roles.
The balance is rarely perfect, and may not be in 2014, but one thing MSU seems confident in is the development of its players over the course of seasons and careers, due in great part to that quality which is typically not so easy to come by – experience.
It’s a bit long, but Mullen’s explanation on that growth and maturation is revealing.
Think of players like Taveze Calhoun in this scenario, a sophomore corner and first-time starter when the season began, who twice picked off a Heisman finalist by the time the season was in its later stage.
Mullen’s description of growth through experience, in fact, came before MSU’s win over Arkansas and Ole Miss. Not to call his words prophetic, but they at least foreshadowed what was coming the next two weeks as he talked about having so many young guys on the field.
“I think it’s important for us as we’re building the program and continue to build the program in the future,” he said. “There are a couple of things I want when you have young players. One is you have to get them to understand to expect to make the plays. Don’t look around for other guys to make the plays.
“I go back to last season on defense,” Mullen continued. “A lot of times, guys would be looking around at a key moment of the game. One that really jumps out to you from the whole season is when Tennessee got all the momentum. They’re making play, after play, after play. And then there’s Johnthan Banks, ripping the ball out, recovering the fumble and doing everything all on his own. And everyone thought, ‘that’s why you’re the captain. That’s why you’re here.’ He’s the guy to make the play.
“And I think young guys sometimes are looking to find who is that guy, instead of saying, ‘hold on, that guy is me. I’m the guy that is going to make a big play to win the game and I expect to do that.’
“That is a step that you come forward. I do think with our young guys, that also is important. They look at this, and again it might sound funny, as we’re 4-6 and saying that we’re not that far off; I think our guys look and are realizing we’re not that far off.
“They’re starting to think, ‘stop looking for somebody else. I’m the one that needs to make this play.’ And when a young team starts thinking that way instead of getting discouraged, instead of saying what the problem is, when they look and can say, ‘we’re really not that far off and I’m going to be the guy to expect to make the plays moving in the future,’ great things can happen to you. I do think that shows a bright future for us as we continue to build the program here.”
On one Monday late in the season, Collins brought in all the young guys during their downtime, just to talk about their roles, both currently and in the future, and to go over tape of what they’re doing, both good and bad as they grow.
He watches film and sees a sophomore in Benardrick McKinney as one of the SEC’s best linebackers. Jones jumps out to anyone, Ryan Brown earned starts as a true sophomore defensive end, freshmen Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown not only filled in but kept the pace up at linebacker when injuries took a temporary toll on the group.
On offense, coordinator Les Koenning returns his top receiver, but just as importantly, he watched true freshman De’Runnya Wilson become one of his top threats in only his third year of even playing football at all. He had another true freshman in Fred Ross good enough to get on the field immediately, as well as a true freshman running back in Ashton Shumpert.
A lot of yards and records walk out the door with guys like Tyler Russell, LaDarius Perkins and Gabe Jackson, but he can’t help seeing the potential in what returns.
Particularly the youth and those like Wilson.
“It really is remarkable,” he said.
While those in the program are staying in the present as they prepare for the Liberty Bowl, their minds, when allowed, have trouble avoiding excitement for the future as the green players become experienced vets.
And it’s not just 2014.
“Those young guys,” junior defensive tackle P.J. Jones said, “man, they’re gonna be something special. I just can’t wait to see them in a couple years when all those young guys are seniors and juniors. It’s gonna be a site to see.”