STARKVILLE, Miss. - A year ago, all focus around the Mississippi State football program centered around "firsts." The Bulldogs were beginning their first spring practice under first-year, first-time head coach Dan Mullen. Players and coaches alike were unsure about what to expect when the team hit the field for the first time.
As Coach Mullen leads his team into the 2010 season, beginning with this afternoon's practice, the questions have moved from "what do we expect?" to "what's next?" The "firsts" have given way to routine, and both returning players and coaches know exactly what to expect when the whistle blows at 3:45 p.m.
But just because the schedule will be familiar and routines have been set does not mean there is a lack of intriguing questions and storylines for Coach Mullen's second Mississippi State squad.
So as we enter 15 days of spring practice, we'll look at 15 issues the 2010 Bulldog football team has lying ahead. Throughout spring practice, MStateAthletics.com will take a closer look at position groups, new coaches, new players and other items of interest, so check back often.
1.) Year Two - How different is it?
Obviously there's a comfort level for returning players with the experience of having gone through a spring and fall under Coach Mullen. Not just the routine (practice schedule, meetings, pace, etc.) but also the scheme and structure of workouts.
"I just think there's a whole different comfort level when you get out to practice," Mullen said. "This year, guys will know what to expect when they get on the field."
The Bulldogs will know what to expect when they hit the field, so you can expect the coaches to expect more out of them. The learning curve has been removed.
2.) Replacing A.D.
Last season Anthony Dixon rushed for an SEC best 126.5 yards per game, and 12 touchdowns. Replacing Mississippi State's all-time leading rusher will be a challenge, but running backs coach Greg Knox hopes veteran Robert Elliott and junior college all-American Vick Ballard are ready to step up to the challenge. Elliott rushed 44 times for 221 yards last season (5.0 ypc). Ballard ran for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and his 144.0 yards-per-game average ranked fourth nationally.
3.) O-Line Consistency
The Bulldogs led the Southeastern Conference and finished ninth nationally in 2009 averaging 227.6 rushing yards per game. State returns four starting offensive linemen from last year's squad. Anchored by seniors Derek Sherrod and J.C. Brignone, the offensive front should again be a strength for State. Tobias Smith, injured for much of the '09 campaign, will look to take over for the departed Craig Jenkins at right guard in the only switch from last year's front heading into spring.
4.) Breakout Wideouts
Last season saw five Mississippi State wideouts catch their first collegiate pass. Sophomore Chad Bumphis had a stretch of four games in the middle of the season in which he pulled in 17 of his 32 receptions. Leon Berry, Brandon Heavens and Chris Smith all made their Bulldog debuts in 2009 and will be looking to make a leap in 2010. They will be joined by redshirted players Charles Bailey and Ricco Sanders will both get looks this spring.
5.) Signal Caller
A topic that will likely be headline grabber. Any time a team is replacing its two-year starting quarterback, it's going to be a story. Junior Chris Relf enters the spring atop the depth chart, and will compete with redshirt freshman Tyler Russell for the quarterback job.
If junior Chris Relf's 500 rushing yards and five touchdown passes in spot duty during the 2009 season got some fans attention, his 131 yards rushing yards in the season ending win in the Egg Bowl put squarely on the map. Relf executed the option masterfully as he helped lead the Bulldog offense to over 300 yards rushing in the season finale as State rolled its rival 41-27.
Russell may be the most highly-recruited quarterback prospect ever to sign with Mississippi State. The Meridian, Miss., native was the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and named a Parade All-American after leading Meridian to the state 5A title. Russell wasn't ready to help a season ago, but his development throughout the year brought encouragement from coaches.
6.) New Manny on Defense (and a Chris, too)
Following the departure of a pair of defensive assistants, Coach Mullen hired a pair of attacking defensive minds to guide the Bulldog front seven. After four seasons at Middle Tennessee in the same role, Manny Diaz will serve as the defensive coordinator and mentor the linebackers. Chris Wilson, who spent the past five seasons tutoring defensive lineman at Oklahoma, will coach the defensive front and serve as co-defensive coordinator.
In 2009, the Bulldog defense finished 104th nationally in quarterback sacks and 89th in tackles for loss. Diaz' Middle Tennessee unit finished sixth and second nationally in those two categories, while Wilson's front four ranked sixth and ninth in those columns.
7.) Dominant Defensive Front
Looking at the numbers compiled by Diaz' and Wilson's defenses last season, it's reasonable to expect increased production from the defensive front just from scheme alone. Add to the mix a talented group including All-SEC defensive end Pernell McPhee and a loaded sophomore group of Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd, Devin Jones, Josh Jackson, Shane McCardell, Nick Bell and Trevor Stigers, and the potential for the Bulldog is unlimited. Junior college big man James Carmon and redshirt freshman Johnathan McKenzie could also play a large factor in the Bulldog rotation.
8.) Linebacker Shuffle
The top three tacklers for Mississippi State in 2009 were linebackers Jamar Chaney, K.J. Wright and Chris White. With Chaney's departure to the NFL, Diaz will look to replace his productivity in the middle. White will get the first look this spring at middle linebacker, but walk-on Brandon Wilson could see time there as well. Sophomore Cameron Lawrence begins the spring moved from his defensive back position to an outside linebacker spot, and K.J. Wright is expected to be on every pre-season All-SEC list at the other OLB position. Juniors Terrell Johnson, Jamie Jones and Karlin Brown will all look to make their mark on the field this spring as well.
9.) Young Corners Take Over
With the graduation of senior Marcus Washington, who started 31 games during his career, cornerback will be an interesting position to watch during the preseason. Four players - Maurice Langston, Damein Anderson, Louis Watson and Corey Broomfield - earned at least one start at cornerback during the 2009 campaign, and only Anderson had played a snap for State prior to the season. The four of them are expected to battle for the two starting spots throughout the offseason. Add Arceto Clark, who redshirted last year, to the mix and cornerback may be one of the more interesting position battles on the field.
10.) Safeties Making Plays
Junior Charles Mitchell is one of the best safeties in the Southeastern Conference. Sophomore Johnthan Banks was a consensus selection as freshman All-SEC a year ago. The two safeties combined for eight interceptions (with three returned for touchdowns) in 2009. Banks and Mitchell look to solidify the defensive backfield with big plays again in 2010, and Wade Bonner and Zach Smith return to provide depth. A pair of redshirt freshmen - Nickoe Whitley and Dennis Thames - will also have a chance to make an impact at the safety position.
11.) Breaking the Big One
The Bulldogs were "oh-so-close" so many times last season to taking a punt or kick return to the house. With Leon Berry and Chad Bumphis returning kicks and punts, the possibility of a big play is always in the minds of fans and teammates alike. Mississippi State return units will work this offseason to continue the solid work, and add the one key block to spring the electric Berry and Bumphis this fall.
12.) Depth at place kicker
Not many teams in college football can say they have the utmost confidence in not just one, but two placekickers. After Sean Brauchle suffered an injury midway through the 2009 season, Derek DePasquale connected on 10-of-12 attempts and solidified the position. Brauchle and DePasquale will battle during the offseason for the job, but when it comes time for a clutch field goal, both will have the full confidence of the staff and their teammates.
13.) Newcomer Impacts
In his first season in Starkville, Coach Mullen relied on a large number of players making their collegiate debuts. Mullen has often stressed playing the 11 best players, regardless of classification, and lived up to that promise in 2009. This spring, three newcomers join the team and all three will have a chance to make an immediate impact. Vick Ballard at running back, James Carmon at defensive tackle and Blaine Clausell on the offensive line will all begin the spring getting repetitions with the top two groups.
14.) Walk-on Wonders
Last season, walk-ons Marvin Bure, Chris Cameron, Derek DePasquale, Patrick Hanrahan, Sylvester Hemphill and others all made significant contributions during the fall. Several walk-ons will get their chance to make a lasting impression on coaches that could lead to their playing a key role on the 2010 team.
15.) Protect Our House
This will be a recurring theme for the 2010 Bulldogs. In 2009, the team won its first and final home games, but suffered heartbreaking setbacks in the others. This season, coaches and players alike have placed an emphasis on winning at Davis Wade Stadium.
The first time the team will go to Davis Wade this spring will be on April 17th, so look for an increased intensity as the Bulldogs look to take the first step toward protecting their house in the fall.