At exactly-ish 4 p.m. today, the 2014 Mississippi State football season sort of officially begins as spring practice gets underway. This first practice – as mandated by the NCAA – will only have players in shorts, shirts and helmets, with full pads coming this weekend.
As we wait for practice to begin, I offer five submissions for top storylines to watch over the next several weeks.
1. New quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson
Last year, MSU was breaking in a new corners coach, a new receivers coach, a new defensive line coach and a new defensive coordinator. This year, the only turnover on the staff comes at quarterback coach, where former Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson is taking the reigns from the departed Les Koenning.
The good news is plentiful, as MSU already has a budding star at the position in Dak Prescott, who pairs nicely with a rising coach in Johnson. For the first time since Dan Mullen got to MSU, all of his quarterbacks have the same style of play, with Damian Williams and true freshman early enrollee Nick Fitzgerald both dual-threat players.
Two things which help Johnson: he himself was a mobile quarterback playing in a spread, and he was also coached by Mullen back when he was a player at Utah, so the familiarity with everything involved is already there. This is far from starting from scratch.
2. Who will lead them?
Last spring, I witnessed a moment I’ve had stuck in my mind ever since. There was a small scuffle during team contact drills and in the heat of the moment, we found out who the leaders were. When Tyler Russell, Prescott, Malcolm Johnson and Nickoe Whitley ran forward to diffuse the situation and calm the involved teammates, it became clear where the leadership in the locker room came from.
As spring begins, I’ll be interested to see who steps up into those roles. Prescott is already a known quantity when it comes to the intangibles, and safety Jay Hughes has often been referred to as a coach on the field. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney and center Dillon Day are certainly leaders, as well.
But which youngsters will step up the way those veterans before them did? Some people have natural qualities and charisma making people want to follow them. Prescott is an example. Someone like rising junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun seems a similar personality.
More times than not, the greatest players become leaders early in their career, which leads me to sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones. He was already a vocal and encouraging teammate as a true freshman, so now will he become the all-around leader, on the field and in the weight, film, training and locker rooms? I’ll be watching.
3. Position changes
Some of these are known, while others are guessed, but all will be kept track of. We know big-bodied Rufus Warren is switching from tight end to left tackle, where athleticism is at a prime. In bowl prep, freshman receiver B.J. Hammond worked at tight end with mixed results, but he’s got the frame for it to be a fit.
The two I’m most interested in: Brandon Holloway and Justin Cox. A rising sophomore, the diminutive Holloway was a track star in high school and has seen snaps at receiver, but has practiced at running back in the past. With the graduation of LaDarius Perkins, the Bulldogs have no game-breaking speed threats in the backfield, nor do they have a proven pass-catcher. Holloway would be far from an every down back, but his skills could certainly be utilized at running back.
As for Cox, he was one of the top junior college defensive backs in the country when he signed with MSU, though his first season on campus as a corner relegated him to spot duty. Switching to safety for the bowl – the position he played in JUCO – worked well for him and if the switch sticks, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him wrap up a starting job and have a breakout senior year in 2014.
Elsewhere, Dee Arrington has switched from safety to linebacker, offering some athleticism at the position, and it sounds as if jack-of-all-trades junior Christian Holmes will be at linebacker rather than tight end, though that could certainly change.
4. Offensive linemen
Outside of Day at center and Blaine Clausell at right tackle, nothing on the line is guaranteed. The upside is that all candidates for the open spots are already on campus, as the Bulldogs must replace All-American left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Charles Siddoway.
It would seem Jamal Clayborn, a mauler-type who spelled Jackson at times as a freshman last year, would have the inside track at left guard. At right guard, Justin Malone narrowly edged out Ben Beckwith to earn the starting gig last year, but Beckwith took over for him and performed admirably all season after Malone was injured early on.
Right tackle may be the biggest question mark, where JUCO transfer Jocquell Johnson, incumbent backup Damien Robinson and perhaps even redshirt freshman Jake Thomas will be competing for the open spot.
While there are three battles, the good news is that at least one of them is guaranteed to be won by someone who has started multiple SEC games, while the other two are likely to be filled by players who at least have a fair bit of experience, even if it isn’t of the starting variety.
5. Will continuity carry over?
Last year with a young team replacing a boatload of talented seniors, spring practice was an important time for teaching and learning. This year, Mullen’s team returns a high level of experience at nearly every position, as well as the previously mentioned coaching staff.
The Bulldogs have an established quarterback, strong offensive and defensive lines, a potential All-American middle linebacker, a surprisingly experienced and deep secondary, the top returning receiver in the SEC (in terms of yards), the only tight end to twice earn Mackey Award Player of the Week honors last year, a stable of running backs and a sixth-year head coach who has a roster completely built by him and his staff.
In theory, MSU shouldn’t have to be overly worried about installation these next few weeks. Players already know Geoff Collins’ defense, every starter but Prescott has the same position coach and Mullen has been running the offense since he got to town. All of it could mean that, instead of learning the basics, a deep and talented team can worry about fine-tuning, improving weaknesses and accenting strengths, rather than spend the spring just building a base.