Now officially just past the midway point of the spring, Mississippi State has more than gotten into the groove of the offseason practices. Dan Mullen’s football team has a strong group of returning starters, veterans and leaders, but most of those are known quantities.
This time of year, and at this point in the spring, we can gather some information on the young players who will step into bigger roles. Last spring, for example, Taveze Calhoun was just a young, backup cornerback. All eyes were on the receivers as they had to replace their top four pass catchers. Josh Robinson was muddled in with several others backing up LaDarius Perkins and even Dak Prescott himself was second string.
We can’t predict all the future stars this far in advance, but the spring is an opportunity to at least have some ideas of who is making moves.
Position by position, we’ll break down the action of week two, which included the first scrimmage of the spring for the Bulldogs.
With the top three defensive tackles sitting out of the scrimmage, it should be at that position where we talk about youngsters. While Nelson Adams and Nick James certainly have produced enough on the inside to be talking points, it’s actually on the outside at end where one of the big stories has popped up.
Sophomore defensive end A.J. Jefferson has quietly but forcefully made a push to be the third defensive end in the rotation behind Preston Smith and Ryan Brown. With how much MSU substitutes, that spot is just as important as nickel corner.
Said defensive line coach David Turner about Jefferson, “There’s a young man who has really started to mature in terms of how he approaches meetings and practice. A.J. was kind of the class clown and I had to get on him a little bit about that. He understands now. He’s a little more focused and zeroed in on practice. He is in meetings, studying tape, he knows what to do. He’s probably been the most consistent guy this spring, which is a welcome surprise. Hopefully he’ll continue to develop. I like what he’s doing right now.”
The same way we currently look back and wonder how it was that Benardrick McKinney redshirted, we may eventually ask the same question about Dez Harris. Like McKinney, Harris arrived on campus both extremely athletic and extremely raw, in need of a year of development.
After redshirting last year, the long, speedy and instinctual Harris is making a push to be the first linebacker in after the starters.
“The kid’s awesome,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “One of the fastest kids on the team. He’s the first one in the building and the last one to leave. Every time Beniquez is in there, he’s like a sponge watching him.”
Harris’ interception returned for a touchdown in the scrimmage only further cements his potential break-out status.
There are several candidates, but junior cornerback Will Redmond may be the star of the spring. He’s making a very clear push to be the No. 3/nickel corner, and if he continues at this rate, he may even make a case to become a starter, though he’ll certainly get plenty of reps in the third spot if that’s where he ends up.
“He’s been looking really good,” junior corner Taveze Calhoun said. “It’s great, because we cant have everybody playing 90 reps a game. He’s probably stood out the most in the spring.”
After missing, basically, half his career, Redmond finally got on the field for the second half of last season. With a little bit of experience under his belt, the promise and potential he’s had since signing with MSU is starting to be realized.
Dak Prescott remains Dak Prescott, so there’s not much new to report here. However, it’s certainly worth noting that freshman early-enrollee Nick Fitzgerald has made substantial strides. He’s plenty athletic, but his arm has improved with seemingly each practice gone by.
The story here, without question, is Nick Griffin. The senior has blown out each of his knees, never being truly healthy at MSU. Now, he may finally be. With Josh Robinson out in the first scrimmage, Griffin racked up 74 yards on 11 carries, including a 53 yard touchdown run.
That single run may be what says the most about where he’s come. Griffin outran the entire first team defense for more than half the length of a football field on his way to the endzone, exhibiting the speed he had pre-injuries. Mullen said he still sees some hesitation out of Griffin, but if health can catch up with talent, the big-bodied back could be in for a surprising senior campaign.
“Nick is as high character a guy as we have on our team,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium.
Sophomore receiver Fred Brown has been impressive throughout the spring, piling up over 100 yards Saturday, including a 70-yard touchdown pass from Damian Williams on broken coverage by the second team defense.
To this point, offensive line coach John Hevesy seems pretty happy with Blaine Clausell at left tackle, Jamaal Clayborn at left guard, Dillon Day at center and Ben Beckwith at right guard. The question has been right tackle. Damien Robinson has likely drawn the most reps with the first team, but Rufus Warren, Cole Carter and Jocquell Johnson have all found their way into the rotation at different points, as well.
Like so many other positions on this roster, there are several qualified players vying for a single open spot. It will be interesting to see who earns the gig, and we’ll also be tracking where Justin Malone fits in at either guard or tackle when he regains full health.
Two returners looked particularly effective in Saturday’s scrimmage: Will Redmond and fellow DB Justin Cox. They are two of the quicker and more nimble players on the team, so it certainly makes sense.
The field goal unit had two attempts blocked, though Mullen said his confidence in the actual kickers remains high. Mullen also heaped praise on Devon Bell and his punting, saying he’s carried over well from his duties at the end of the season.