Mississippi State’s first practice of fall camp is tonight, just under a month out from the season-opener against Southern Miss.
There is plenty we’ll be keeping track of over the next several weeks, but as we begin, let’s break it down with quick hitters at each position. Some are more obvious than others.
Of course, one non-player note worth mentioning: the all new practice fields MSU will be using for the first time. Over the spring and summer, State completely re-did the grass fields, bringing in new grass, erecting new lights and towers and enhancing what they have available, in addition to the turf field right next to the Seal Complex.
Over the course of camp, we’ll have video features, blogs and plenty more as a means of staying connected with the team.
Quarterback: For as much talk and hype as he’s received (and deservedly so), this will be Dak Prescott’s first camp as the starter. Behind him, I’m intrigued to get a first look at true freshman and dual-sport star Elijah Staley.
Running back: Dan Mullen anointed Josh Robinson as the starter in the spring, but minor injuries kept him from being in that role full-time in practice. Can senior Nick Griffin – huge and finally healthy – make a push? I’m also excited to see true freshman Aeris Williams, who could be a stud sooner rather than later. Oh, and what will speedster Brandon Holloway’s role be? We may have to wait until the season to find out. MSU’s had a long and successful line of starting running backs, and the next one begins his time at the top today.
Wide receiver: This is, far and away, the deepest and most talented group of pass-catchers Mullen has had at MSU. The only person I’m confident in saying can’t lose their starting job is Jameon Lewis, the SEC’s leading returning receiver. There’s too much talent on the outside for any starter to feel safe and not be pushed. I’m particularly interested in seeing if De’Runnya Wilson makes a jump from freshman to sophomore year.
Offensive line: Everything I’ve heard from players over the summer is that true sophomore guard Jamaal Clayborn is a beast and future star as he replaces Gabe Jackson. The biggest question, to me at least: who steps in at right tackle? My guess is the tall and athletic Justin Malone slides over from guard, but I’ve often been wrong.
Tight end: We know plenty about senior Malcolm Johnson, one of the best tight ends in the league, so I’ll have my eyes on the newest and oldest freshman on the team: Rashun Dixon, younger brother of Anthony Dixon. Having just finished his career in pro baseball, he’s in great shape, is clearly athletic and is far more fully-grown and developed than any other freshman. I don’t know if he’ll stay at tight end, but that’s where he’s starting out in camp.
Defensive line: Hearing Chris Jones talk yesterday, he may be the most improved player on the team, which is an intimidating thought for offensive linemen across the southeast. He was thrown in last year and thrived on talent alone. This year, he says, he’s actually learned how to watch and break down film and has learned technique, in addition to shaping his body (a lean 308 pounds). MSU will have packages where Jones lines up on the outside, but he’s a tackle for coach David Turner.
On the outside, senior Preston Smith is the leader who decided not to go to the NFL and he says the competition at end is fierce. Junior Ryan Brown figures as the other starter, but sophomore A.J. Jefferson may have had the best spring of any defensive lineman.
Linebacker: Let’s look for folks not named Benardrick McKinney. He’s one of the best defensive players in the country, but who will line up next to him? Sophomore Beniquez Brown came on huge at the end of last year, and senior Matt Wells has quietly been one of MSU’s most consistent playmakers. My pick for surprise player here: freshman Dez Harris. Geoff Collins loves him and he’s the next in the family tree of freaky athletic linebackers after McKinney and KJ Wright.
Cornerback: Taveze Calhoun was the surprise breakout star of the secondary last year alongside the speedy Jamerson Love. Beyond those, I’ll be interested to see what junior Will Redmond does in camp. He’s only got half a season to his name, but he might have as much as raw talent as anyone in the defensive backfield for State. He could easily be MSU’s nickel corner, though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he pushes for a starting gig by season’s end. I’m also keeping an eye on sophomore Cedric Jiles, one of my favorite athletes on the team who has been slowed some by injury.
Safety: The two most important players here only played one game at the position last year: senior Justin Cox, who spent the regular season as a corner, and senior Jay Hughes, who was injured in the first game and missed the rest of the year. Hughes is the leader of the defense and as a coach’s son is a legitimate coach on the field. Cox struggled some last year at corner, but coaches think safety is much more natural fit for the player with the best combination of length and speed in the secondary. He seemed to do well in the Liberty Bowl when he made the switch.
Special teams: Greg Knox took over as the singular special teams coach in the spring, so I’m interested to see the benefits of what should be a more streamlined and consistent special teams operation. Devon Bell is set as punter, and is a supremely talented one. Evan Sobiesk – Sobes, as Mullen likes to call him – seems to have the field goal kicking job locked down, though Michigan transfer JJ McGrath could push him with a strong camp.