Mississippi State begins bowl practice this afternoon, but as Dan Mullen pointed out, the first week is far less about the bowl, and far more about the young players on the team. With the amount of practice time a team gets for making a bowl, it’s like having another spring camp. And in this instance, classes are done and football is all these guys have to worry about.
The next handful of practices (all five open to the public) will be a chance for freshmen to shine, as well as an opportunity for us to see them. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one freshman at each position who is worth keeping an eye on.
Defensive Line – Cory Thomas, defensive tackle
Thomas was listed at 6’5”, 273 pounds back in August, a weight measurement he has likely outgrown. Watching him in fall camp, I honestly thought he might play as a true freshman this season, but the depth at the position rendered that unnecessary.
However, MSU loses three defensive tackles (including two starters) to graduation after this season, so there is room for a youngster to move up. Someone as big and talented as Thomas seems a likely candidate.
Linebacker – Gerri Green
Built like predecessors KJ Wright and Benardrick McKinney, Green has the look of a future star at linebacker for MSU. He arrived at MSU at 6’4” and 221 pounds, but he’s still a growing boy. He impressed coaches (and me) in fall camp, as he’s got athleticism not often seen for someone his size. State’s linebackers are deep as can be, but Green demands attention with his size and skill.
Defensive Backs – Brandon Bryant, safety
Here’s another one who a lot of people thought might play as a true freshman, including coaches. It wasn’t an easy decision to redshirt Bryant, but it will likely prove valuable down the road. Listed at 5’11”, 194 pounds, it’s not Bryant’s stature that makes him so impressive.
To use a cliché, Bryant is a ball-hawk. Watching in practice, he just has a natural feel for where the ball will be and getting himself in position to either knock it down, catch it or scoop it up. His nose for the ball is reminiscent of former MSU safety Nickoe Whitley.
Quarterback – Nick Fitzgerald
Think of it this way: Fitzgerald has already gone through one set of bowl practices, an entire run of spring practice, a full summer of workouts, all of fall camp and now the length of the regular season. He’ll add another set of bowl practice, another spring, summer and fall camp, all before he sees the field for the first time as a Bulldog.
Plus, he seems to be really good. MSU took a chance on him, as his numbers in high school were nearly non-existent because of the offense he played in. Now that he’s on campus, you see why Mullen liked him. 6’5”, 220 pounds, huge arm and very mobile. Fellow freshman QB Elijah Staley is worth watching, as well, but Fitzgerald has more than twice the experience to this point.
Offensive Line – Elgton Jenkins, Kent Flowers
Might be a cop out picking two guys, but the amount of young talent co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy has amassed is impressive if you haven’t been paying attention. Combine that with that fact that MSU is losing three starters from its offensive line after this season, and we’ve got a need to keep an eye on the trenches.
There are several more we could name, but reports on these two have been particularly positive.
Running Back – Dontavian Lee
Had I not picked two people for O-line, I’d have done it here and also mentioned Aeris Williams. Word from practice is that both of the redshirting running backs have been impressive. But, forced to pick, I’ll go with Lee, largely because his style is different from anyone else MSU has right now.
A long-limbed runner, Lee is impressive in the receiving game and has a sort of gliding style that reminds people of former Bulldog great running back Jerious Norwood. He offers a size-skill combo no one else on the team has and could be a weapon next year.
Wide Receiver – Jesse Jackson
At 6’2” and 201 pounds, Jackson would have been one of the biggest receivers on the roster just a few years ago. While he blends in a little more now than he would have then, Jackson still has the skills to stand out. Strong, physical, fast and disciplined, he’s got most all the qualities you’d want in a receiver.