The Bulldogs were one of the surprise teams in the SEC, if not the entire country, in 2010. Mississippi State finished the season 9-4 and nearly knocked off eventual national champion Auburn in Week 2. The Bulldogs will sneak up on no one this year, though, and there are some holes that need to be either filled or at least patched over. MSU still doesn’t have the depth of the best teams in the conference, but there are plenty of veterans on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of room to move up in the SEC West this year.
Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, FL, WR, LG, C< RT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (LDE, RDT, LDT, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 8-4 (UA, Ark, LSU, UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (UA, Ark, LSU, UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 2-3 (UA, Ark, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Pr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Vg
Mississippi State runs the spread-option, but it’s more the Florida/Urban Meyer variant than what Auburn runs. The Bulldogs lean heavily toward the run, a necessity given that the team’s passing game is not up to conference par. This year’s team needs to develop another reliable target in the passing game, but the big question mark is left tackle. Without fixing these two issues, the Bulldogs will continue to come up short against better teams.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC West, 6th overall)
Credit head coach Dan Mullen and his staff for making Chris Relf a viable SEC quarterback. Relf’s passing only works in an offense such as this; he’s a one-read QB whose second option is typically to take off running. But given that he’s 6’4”, 245 pounds, that’s not a bad second option to have. Relf rushed for 713 yards and 5 touchdowns on 194 carries (3.7 avg.) in 2010, which also reflects yardage lost to sacks. The big issue with Relf is that if Mississippi State finds itself in a situation in which is has to pass the football, Relf becomes a huge liability. Until that point, however, he’s a tank in the backfield. Tyler Russell is the so-called “passing quarterback” of the team and played quite a bit in 2010. His raw skills as a passer are undeniable, but he threw an interception once every 11 passes in 2010. That has to be fixed. Dylan Favre, the nephew of you-know-who, is in competition with signee Dak Prescott for the third-string position. Favre is undersized, but Prescott needs a redshirt.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg, 3rd SEC West, 4th overall)
Vick Ballard scored 19 touchdowns in 2010 and proved himself to be a more-than-capable SEC running back. The unfortunate fact for MSU is that Ballard has just one more season to work his magic. He’s a tough runner, hard to bring down and always seems to know where the extra yard is. LaDarius Perkins is plenty capable as Ballard’s backup. He’s smaller, but faster. Robert Elliott gives the Bulldogs another experienced player in reserve, although Elliott lacks the skills of the two players ahead of him. Mississippi State doesn’t use a fullback full-time, but Sylvester Hemphill and William Shumpert are available for situational work, along with Adrian Marcus. There may not be room for signees Josh Robinson and Derek Milton with all the experience in front of them. This is a good group.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Fr, 5th SEC West, 10th overall)
Were it not for the presence of junior Chad Bumphis, this group would be sorely lacking. Bumphis caught 44 passes for 634 yards (14.4 avg.) in 2010, almost doubling the production of his nearest competitor. The other two starters at the position, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark, return, but that’s not necessarily an advantage for the Bulldogs. Both Smith and Clark had several critical drops in 2010, with the Auburn game being lost almost directly because of one of them. Brandon Heavens and Ricco Sanders were slated to be the top backups. Heavens is a decent possession receiver, while Sanders has more upside, but Sanders suffered a knee injury and could miss the season. Michael Carr rounds out the top group. Sam Williams and Asian Ruff add depth. But the real buzz surrounds signees Devin Fosselman and Joe Morrow, a pair of signees. Morrow in particular is intriguing due to his height (6’5”). Tight end could be an issue; senior Marcus Green will start, but depth is a problem. Converted receiver Malcolm Johnson, a freshman who barely tips the scales at 220 pounds, could be it. True freshman Rufus Warren might have to play.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av, 4th SEC West, 8th overall)
If it were possible to look at this unit without considering the left tackle position, things would be fine. Gabe Jackson returns at left guard, Quentin Saulsberry is back at center and Addison Lawrence holds down the fort at right tackle. The new right guard, Tobias Smith, hasn’t been healthy lately but he has plenty of experience and talent. And then left tackle rears its ugly head. Bulldog coaches tried to put a good face on the battle between converted defensive tackle – and “The Next Terrence Cody” – James Carmon and freshman Blaine Clausell, but their words ring hollow. The fact of the matter is that Carmon is too slow-footed to play the position and Clausell is too raw. Clausell’s body type resembled a young Aaron Douglas at Tennessee, which means he’s roughly 20-30 pounds too slight at the moment. Carmon is huge but will struggle in pass protection. Aside from guard Templeton Hardy, the rest of the two-deep is a freshman parade. Dillon Day backs up center, Damien Robinson left guard and Eric Lawson right tackle. Archie Muniz is also available.
State runs a 4-3 defense that last year was superb against the run but porous against the pass. The Bulldogs also lost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas, which might be the biggest loss of all from the 2010 team. The job now rests in the hands of former Bama staff Geoff Collins and Chris Wilson, promoted from defensive line coach a year ago. Diaz loved blitz packages and taking chances, but personnel losses at linebacker might restrict what the Bulldogs are capable of doing.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 4th SEC West, 8th overall)
Losing Pernell McPhee might be one of those insurmountable occurrences for Mississippi State. At times, he was the only good thing the Bulldogs had on the defensive line. Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox return at the tackle positions, but while both (Cox especially) drew headlines last year, the fact was neither player was consistent enough. Cox in particular has more talent than he has shown up to this point. The Bulldogs need a breakout season from him. Boyd is mostly a placeholder. Sean Ferguson gets the call at weakside end, moving over into McPhee’s old slot. The other position could be a nightmare scenario. No one stepped up in the spring out of a group that included Shane McCardell, Trevor Stigers and Kaleb Eulls. Eulls may eventually eat his way to tackle, while McCardell and Stigers look like a redux of Ferguson – solid, nothing special. Corvell Harrison-Gray might eventually be the answer. He’s a smaller player, but quicker. P.J. Jones and Devin Jones figure to get most of the action at tackle. P.J. Jones was MSU’s most highly-ranked signee of the 2011 class. Curtis Virges will also see some time.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC West, 12th overall)
The starting lineup changes every day, and each starter is new. Spring ball was not completely encouraging. Most thing Clemson transfer Brandon Maye will eventually get a starting job, but for now, Cameron Lawrence, Chris Hughes and Brandon Wilson look like the most likely trio, Deontae Skinner and freshman Matthew Wells aren’t far behind. Special teams stalwart Jamie Jones could also get in the mix. The one underlying theme here is “inconsistency,” and on top of everything else, the position coach (Geoff Collins) is new to the team. It may take a few games before the Bulldogs find out exactly what they have.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Fr, 4th SEC West, 9th overall)
All four starters return, but this is a unit that ranked 91st in pass efficiency defense and 51st in pass efficiency defense in 2010. Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks will start at corner, with Charles Mitchell at strong safety and some combination of Nickoe Whitley and Wade Bonner at free safety. Broomfield has a habit of getting burned at absolutely the wrong times, while the Whitley-Bonner combination at safety lacks athleticism. Banks is probably the best player, but would seem better suited to safety given his size. He can struggle against smaller, quicker receivers. Depth is in good hands with Marvin Bure and Louis Watson at corner, as well as Damein Anderson. There could be a problem at strong safety, where Dennis Thames was dismissed from the team. Jay Hughes, a freshman, is the most likely option. Simply put, this group just needs to get better overall.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Vg, 2nd SEC West, 5th overall)
Placekicker Derek DePasquale had a fine 2010 and returns to the team. Backup Brian Egan will kick off. The Bulldogs have a plethora of options at kick returner, including LaDarius Perkins and Chad Bumphis. The only question is at punter, where the strong-legged-but-wild Baker Swedenburg replaces Heath Hutchins. Mississippi State covers punts with the best of them, though, so Swedenburg can take his time to develop.
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