Mississippi State found itself feeling the pressure of high expectations heading into the 2011 season, and the pressure proved too much to bear. The Bulldogs logged a 6-6 regular season and failed once again to beat any SEC West team other than Ole Miss. This year, the Bulldogs are flying under the radar again – probably better for the team’s psyche in the long run – thanks largely to changes in the offense that will be needed to accommodate a passing quarterback. But this is a team with an above-average defense and in improving talent level. State could surprise.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, FL, LG, C)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, RDT, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 8-4 (UA, ARK, LSU, AU)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (UA, ARK, LSU, AU)
Projected SEC West Record: 2-4 (UA, ARK, LSU, AU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Fr
Recently, State has been a pure spread-option team based around the running quarterback Chris Relf and tailback Vick Ballard. Neither player is here in 2012, though, and the Bulldogs are making the transition toward more of a passing spread-option attack with three receivers full-time. Opening up the offense might prove to be a challenge for head coach Dan Mullen, who has shown a tendency to be over-conservative in some situations. Fortunately for Mullen, he has a veteran wide receiver corps, good offensive line and good talent to replace Relf and Ballard in the backfield.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av; 4th SEC West, 8th overall)
Tyler Russell has been the savior-in-waiting for this team ever since he signed out of high school, but so far the results have been mixed. Russell undoubtedly has a major-league arm, but he doesn’t always make the best decisions, and until now was forced to work out of an offense not really built to suit his strengths. The latter will change in 2012; Mississippi State hopes the former does, too. Talented redshirt freshman Dak Prescott will be the backup, and that ends the quarterback discussion. The Bulldogs have no other scholarshipped quarterbacks on campus, leaving Jamil Golden and Steven Swindle as the only other options. If things get down to either of them, the Bulldog season is off the rails.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg; 4th SEC West, 6th overall)
Even with the loss of Ballard to the NFL, the Bulldogs return good talent at the position. LaDarius Perkins was one of the best reserve tailbacks in the SEC the last two years and the transition to starter should be an easy one for him to make. He has good size, better speed than Ballard did and is a weapon in the passing game. Depth is good behind him with Nick Griffin the primary backup. Since the Bulldogs won’t use the fullback as much in 2012, look for Sylvester Hemphill to work more as the short-yardage back. Hemphill is a capable blocker and receiver. Redshirt freshman Derek Milton comes with high expectations.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 6th SEC West, 11th overall)
There’s a lot of experience here, but the Bulldogs need to start closing the deal on game day. Too many dropped passes in crucial situations recently have all eyes focused on this group, particularly with the recent departure of wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando for “personal reasons.” MSU will move full-time to a three-wide starting alignment, which gets Arceto Clark, Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith onto the field simultaneously. Bumphis is the best of the three thanks to his abilities as a runner, receiver, Wildcat quarterback and kick returner. Smith is the biggest receiver of the bunch, while Clark has good straight-line speed. Brandon Heavens and Ricco Sanders provide experienced depth, but redshirt freshman Joe Morrow is the name to watch. Morrow is 6’4” with a strong build and had a superb spring. If Clark and Smith continue to drop passes, Morrow could find himself starting sooner rather than later. Jameon Lewis adds depth. At tight end, Malcolm Johnson may be sidelined for a good part of the season due to injury, and that leaves a significant hole. Sophomore Brandon Hill is probably the starter until Johnson can return, with Marcus Green and true freshman Gus Walley backing him up along with redshirt freshman Rufus Warren.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 4th SEC West, 7th overall)
The Bulldogs have steadily improved their offensive line situation under Mullen, and this year’s unit has good quality among the starters and decent depth. Left guard Gabe Jackson is the best of the bunch, and center Dillon Day also returns from 2011. Despite breaking in three new starters, all three projected starters – left tackle Blaine Clausell, right guard Tobias Smith and right tackle Charles Siddoway – have plenty of game experience. Siddoway was a two-year starter in junior college, while Clausell and Smith were key parts of the Bulldog offense last year. Depth is in good hands with Templeton Hardy backing up the inside positions along with Dylan Holley and Ben Beckwith, while sophomores Archie Muniz and Damien Robinson and senior Joey Trapp hold down the tackle positions. Robinson is continuing to push Siddoway for the starting job.
The Bulldogs work from a 4-3 alignment, and the strength of the defense this year is unquestionably the secondary. Athleticism has always been an issue for MSU, and in the front seven it’s still a big issue this year. But better recruiting is closing the gap, and the Bulldogs should be one of the strongest teams in the country against the pass.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 4th SEC West, 7th overall)
The biggest question here is whether tackles Josh Boyd and Curtis Virges can pick up the slack left by the departure of Fletcher Cox to the NFL. Boyd and Virges are big enough for the job, but neither is a real playmaker. Depth is decent, with Devin Jones, P.J. Jones and Dewayne Cherrington available, along with Quay Evans. The news is a little better at end, where Kaleb Eulls is beginning to make a name for himself. Across from him, there is spirited competition between senior Shane McCardell, who is steady if nothing else, and JUCO transfer Denico Autry, who Mississippi State coaches think is a breakout waiting to happen. Preston Smith adds to the numbers there. If the tackles get better at stuffing the run, the Bulldogs could have a pretty stout unit.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av; 5th SEC West, 7th overall)
Cam Lawrence tries hard, but he’s the best player in a group of linebackers that would be bench players at the SEC’s elite schools. He’ll start on the weakside opposite another returning starter, Deontae Skinner. Chris Hughes and Matthew Wells provide depth, but there is a noticeable drop-off from the starters. Middle linebacker belongs to either Ferlando Bohanna or Benardrick McKinney. McKinney has potential, but is only a freshman.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC West, 3rd overall)
This unit has speed to burn, good depth all around and all upperclassmen in the starting lineup. The cornerback combo of Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield is probably the best tandem right now in the SEC. Free safety Nickoe Whitley is underrated, while the only new starter is a senior with experience, strong safety Louis Watson. Darius Slay gives the Bulldogs an experienced nickel corner, while Dee Arrington and Jay Hughes back up the safety positions. The only question mark is the other reserve corner opposite Slay; freshman Taveze Calhoun held the job coming out of spring. Jamerson Love adds depth at corner, while redshirt freshman Kendrick Market is available at safety. Walk-on Rishunn McCaleb has good size and could help out as well. Overall, few concerns at undoubtedly this team’s finest unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC West, 10th overall)
Punter Baker Swedenburg should be fine, as he would be one of the conference’s best in any other year thanks to the deep collection of talent in the SEC at his position in 2012. Everything else is a question mark. Brian Egan looks set to take over for Derek DePasquale at placekicker. Egan, State’s kickoff man last year, has the leg strength but his accuracy will be what makes or breaks him. The Bulldogs essentially had no return game last year and need someone to step up at kickoff and punt returner, plus work on the blocking schemes to free up returners after the change of possession.
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