Five things to watch as spring football begins

The warm weather showed up just in time for football. Mississippi State begins spring practice this afternoon, its return to the field after the breakout 2014 season under Dan Mullen.

unnamedWith practices open to the public, we’ll get to watch together, so with that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of five things to be keeping track of the next several weeks.

  1. The return of Manny Diaz

The fact that Diaz is back as MSU’s defensive coordinator is old news, but now we’ve got a chance to see at least a little bit of what his return means. After several years in other places, neither the Bulldogs nor Diaz are the same as they were when he left in 2010. He’s matured as a coach and person, presumably learning new techniques and drills. MSU has grown as a program with new facilities, new players and high expectations.

With Diaz, we can expect some exotic looks, heavy blitzing and players moving all over the field regardless of position. We’ll see how much of that takes place in the spring.

  1. Who steps in at running back?

With Nick Griffin graduated and Josh Robinson declaring early for the NFL, MSU has a pretty big hole to fill at running back. However, they’ve got plenty of options to take the proverbial torch. Unlike the children’s game of putting the right-shaped pieces of plastic into the right-shaped plastic holes, there is more than just one piece that can fit the hole in the backfield for MSU.

Rising junior Ashton Shumpert performed well down the stretch last year when Robinson’s touches waned, and he likely begins the spring as the top back. However, a pair of redshirt freshmen will push him. Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee were both impressive on the scout team throughout the fall and will vie for carries immediately. Lee, in particular, has drawn rave reviews. We can’t forget speedy sophomore Brandon Holloway, either, the converted wide receiver and change-of-pace option.

  1. New players

There are a fair few early enrollees, from both junior college and high school, and it seems many of them will have the chance or even the expectation to contribute immediately. We’ll start with three JUCO transfers who all have the possibility of being starters.

Martinas Rankin was the top-rated JUCO offensive tackle in the country when he signed with MSU and seems a likely candidate to step in for the graduated Blaine Clausell at left tackle. Defensive end Jonathan Calvin comes with positive reviews from defensive line coach David Turner and has a similar opportunity to replace a graduated starter in Preston Smith. Then there’s Donald Gray, a slot receiver and return man who strength coaches have been impressed with since his arrival in January. He’s got the talent and mindset to step right onto the field and take Jameon Lewis’ role in the offense.

MSU’s also got three high school players in running backs Malik Dear and Deddrick Thomas and offensive lineman Michael Story. Coaches told me back in February that Dear is one of the most explosive athletes they’ve recruited and that he will be working at both running back and receiver. MSU has a lot of depth at those positions, but his early arrival combined with his touted abilities may pave the way for him to get on the field.

  1. Different linebackers in the spotlight

Over the last five years, guys like Jamar Chaney, KJ Wright, Chris White, Cam Lawrence and Benardrick McKinney have [rightfully] been the center of attention when it comes to the linebackers at MSU. With all of them off to or already in the NFL, the next generation of backers, so to speak, is about to step into the spotlight. Rising juniors Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown have already earned attention as supporting actors for their roles last year, and some scouts in town for the Pro Day told me Beniquez stood out on tape as much as anyone when they studied guys like McKinney.

Beyond the Browns, redshirt freshman Gerri Green might be the player people are most excited to see. He’s built like McKinney with all the speed, size and strength of the SEC’s most seasoned linebackers. He’s a name MSU fans will quickly grow familiar with.

  1. Who replaces Malcolm Johnson?

After basically four years as MSU’s starting tight end, Johnson’s collegiate career has come to an end. Who steps in for him? Junior Gus Walley has shown flashes as a talented pass-catcher and has a strong rapport with Dak Prescott both on the field and off. He’s the favorite to start the spring, but there are a few other names to watch.

Senior Darrion Hutcherson is a giant of a human in the mold of so many NFL tight ends who switched from basketball to football. Coming in from junior college last year, 2014 was a learning year for Hutcherson at one of the most mentally-involved positions on MSU’s roster. He’s got the tools to be a big-time threat. In addition to those two are converted wide receivers BJ Hammond and Shelby Christy. Christy is an intriguing option, a high school track star who has grown into his bigger frame but has been held back by injuries since getting to campus.

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