At seven days and four practices into Mississippi State football’s spring period, we’ve only seen the Bulldogs in full pads once, so making an attempt to break down the two deep for the fall of 2014 would be a bit premature, if basing it off the last week.
But there is still plenty to glean from the practices on MSU’s new turf field, and the biggest one is of the intangible type.
At times last year, particularly in the middle during the rough stretch of the 2013 season, MSU didn’t often seem particularly positive. So many young players on the field, combined with injuries and mounting losses, had State at a rough mental spot at points in the season.
By the end of the year, that turned around. The Bulldogs finished with three-straight wins, including two overtime SEC victories, one of them the Egg Bowl, then ending with a big win in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
The good vibes from those games, rather than the frustrated ones from early on, are what have carried over into the spring.
Rather than taking a third party observer’s word for it, rising sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones was asked about the difference.
“If I’m wrong, tell me,” the reporter began. “But it seems like y’all are just so happy out here.”
“The chemistry is a lot better,” Jones said. Much of it, from both the observer’s eye and that of those on the inside, seems to come from Geoff Collins, the second-year defensive coordinator who runs around practice yelling, talking, awarding juice points and generally enjoying himself. “Coach Collins preaches to have fun in what you’re doing,” Jones continued. “You can’t just be out here trying to do something. You’ve gotta have fun in what you do. We do it so much and we’re gonna spend so much time here, you’ve gotta have fun. You’ve got to enjoy the process of it.”
Collins wants the entire team to have fun, but he finds it particularly important with Jones, who has only been under the tutelage of coaches for nine months, despite his rising stardom in the SEC.
Collins and defensive line coach David Turner had a meeting with Jones before the third day of practice to give him a simple message.
“‘Chris, let your personality come out,’” Collins says they told the big man. “Because he’s got a huge personality. He’s 6’6”, 308, but his personality is even bigger than that. But I don’t think we’d seen that. He’s got such a big persona. If he lets that come out, it’s gonna be dangerous.”
The issue, as it often is with young players, is that Jones was thinking too much. Talent can only take a player so far, Mullen said when asked about Jones. Technique, skill and determination are what can fully mold the talent into production. Desperate to get better, Jones worked on those little things his coach preaches as so important, though it sometimes made things tough.
In his relative youth, those techniques are growing on Jones, even if they aren’t quite second nature.
But, even with just a few months of offseason work, it’s improved a great deal.
“I feel a lot better, man,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of stress. When you first get in here, it’s like, they’re just running plays and you don’t know what it is, then coach tells you to get in the game and you don’t know what to do. You gotta learn different sets and formations. It was a great first year, but now I’m trying to progress. Knowing things now, I can play and have fun.”
In his continual effort to improve, Jones is down to 290 pounds, saying he played most of the 2013 season between 310-315 pounds. His eventual playing goal is 285.
“I’m able to move around a little swifter now,” Jones said, as he expects to play more on the outside as an end in 2014. “I can carry my body better.”
“I believe the sky is the limit for us,” he said. “All of us on the same page, we work toward the same goal: be the best defense in the nation.”
Check out the video above for highlights and recap of week one, while below we’ll have continually updated breakdowns by position of what’s happening in spring practice.
This section needs relatively little description, as MSU is as set at the position as it has ever been. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned leader of the team, while backup Damian Williams was key in both of MSU’s overtime wins.
What’s new is the coach, Brian Johnson. Only about six years older than Prescott, Johnson has the personality to connect, but he brings the experience – both as player and coach – to help make his players better.
One noteworthy item: he stresses ball security very seriously. At the beginning of every practice, the QBs run through drills not dissimilar to ones you might see on a basketball court: catching the ball with one hand, weaving the ball around their backs and between their legs, as well as taking turns trying to strip the ball from each other mid “tackle.”
Two items of note here. 1. Dan Mullen seems to be all in on Josh Robinson as the starter in replacement of LaDarius Perkins, a role the rising junior enjoys. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry in relief of Perkins last year.
2. Former receiver Brandon Holloway has switched to RB. Easily the fastest and smallest on offense at the same time, it seems to be a good fit. When he gets any space at all, he’s off.
John Hevesy has an odd combination. On the one hand, this is the deepest his group has ever been. On the other, he’s replacing two starters and only has two guys he knows for sure will be starters. He’s operating under the same style he always has, saying the five best linemen will be on the field, regardless of position, and he likes for his guys to be able to play all positions.
Sophomore Jamaal Clayborn seems to be set to take over for Gabe Jackson at left guard, leaving the guard and tackle spots on the right side of the line open. We’ll have more on this after more work in pads, naturally.
It seems we’re seeing the fruits of a full year under receivers coach Billy Gonzales. Last spring, as MSU replaced four seniors, their coach and all the starters, we frequently saw guys running the wrong routes, not knowing when the ball was coming or making other miscues.
Now, after Gonzales being able to get his hands on them for an extended period of time, those simple mistakes are far less common, if not close to eradicated. There’s still the occasional dropped ball, of course, but the second-year coach for MSU seems to have his receiving ship running very tightly.
This position is about as steady (and perhaps underrated) as it comes for MSU. Malcolm Johnson enters his senior year as one of the Bulldogs’ best weapons and a leader of the team.
Off the field – sideline technically – Johnson was a part of one of the cooler things I saw this week. The athletic training staff is testing out a new cooling vest that a few players, including Johnson, wore in practice. It’s a thin, low weight vest that goes on underneath their pads and has a hook up for a hose at the collar. On the sideline, the staff has a cooler full of ice water, which they run through hoses and into and out of small pockets lining the vest as a means of lowering internal temperature in the Mississippi heat.
In a Venn diagram of people who are big and people who run the most, you’d find Johnson and guys like middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the middle. As such, those were two of the experimenters for this new device.
Like Gonzales, Turner is another coach who hasn’t received enough credit and praise for the job he’s done. We know the talent returning with guys like Jones, Preston Smith, Ryan Brown, P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Nelson Adams, Jordan Washington and a handful of others, and Turner has developed them into what could possibly be the best defensive line in the SEC.
The wildcard in this has been the progression of sophomore tackle Nick James. The uber-talented and gargantuan-sized James redshirted last season, and the year of learning and working seems to have done him good. Where he used to tire after two plays in a row, he can now stay on the field without getting winded. He’s still gigantic, but he’s trimmed down and is relatively lean for someone so large. This group is already great, and a player of James’ caliber could be the proverbial icing on a 300-pound cake.
Benardrick McKinney is the star, and is only getting bigger and better, so the storyline here is the replacement of outside linebacker Deontae Skinner. Rising sophomore Beniquez Brown, based on these practices, looks more than ready to take the job. As much as anyone can be a star through four practies, the big and athletic Brown has been, making tackles, batting down passes, even intercepting some, and showing a great deal of energy. Or juice, I should say.
Guys like Jay Hughes, Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are known quantities. But two others seem to be candidates for emerging stars. Senior Justin Cox has made the switch from corner to safety, which appears to be a much more natural fit for him. The way he’s playing, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to end up a starter.
At corner, it’s junior Will Redmond who is doing everything he can to get on the field. Like Brown at linebacker, Redmond has made a quick and big impression in the spring with interceptions, pass break-ups and compliments from his offensive teammates.
Running backs coach Greg Knox received his new and additional title as special teams coach. I was told it would be the case, and observation has backed up the claim that this was not merely a promotion in title. It’s actually happening. Every time special teams sessions are taking place, Knox is running them.
Certainly, other coaches are involved. Gonzales works with returners, Hevesy directs the line on field goals, Collins and Tony Hughes work with the punt and field goal block units, but Knox is in charge of it all. The special teams are his show, which the players seem to like.