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April 18, 2011

Breaking down the spring

Dan Mullen may feel like his players do, at times. As Charles Mitchell, Chris Relf and Vick Ballard are inching closer to exam week and tests full of questions, Mullen is in the same boat, having to answer multiple questions about his team.

I wanted to wait a week to try and evaluate spring practice so I could really take in everything I've seen, without focusing on the spring game or what Mullen had to say. There were a lot of questions coming into spring practice, and I'd like to take a look at the ones we've had answered, as well as the ones we haven't. Later, we'll have a story with all the thoughts I could gather from Mullen on how he believes the big questions were answered, or not answered.

Let's start with the questions I believe Mullen and the gang did manage to find an answer to.

What will happen to a linebacker unit that lost K.J. Wright and Chris White?

To be perfectly honest, I felt like this was a bigger issue than replacing Derek Sherrod before MSU went through the spring. Looking at it, I saw the same things everyone else did: the luck of having a stud JUCO transfer in White to replace Jamar Chaney, and being able to pair him with Wright, leaving the Dawgs a little bit of wiggle room at the other linebacker spot. Then, I saw all of those things disappear, including the wiggle room, when the 2010 season ended.

Mullen said last week what I recognized over the last month and change - MSU has plenty of SEC-caliber players at linebacker, they just haven't played yet. He's right. These guys look good, even if they are inexperienced, particularly Chris Hughes, Ferlando Bohanna and Christian Holmes. The only reason I recognized Brandon Wilson was because of his name and number, and he may be the leader of this unit. Even before the addition of Brandon Maye, I'm optimistic about this bunch. I also have to think the linebackers will be aided greatly by a strong defensive line.

Will MSU finally have a deep and talented wide receiving corp.?

The answer is, undoubtedly, yes. There still isn't a stud guy - which I'll get to soon - but for the first time since Mullen got to Starkville, it's more than just Chad Bumphis. We saw the light finally come on for both Arceto Clark and Ricco Sanders at the end of last season and in the Gator Bowl, something that had not happened for the majority of 2010. Those two, along with Bumphis, will be very important, but four more in particular I think will have a major impact. Those guys are Michael Carr, Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson and Malcolm Johnson.

It's relatively well-known that Carr arrived in fall camp out of shape in 2010. Not Renardo Sidney out of shape, but still not in prime condition. I believe that now he is driven by his struggle to play and make an impact throughout the 2010 regular season. We saw flashes in the Gator Bowl, and Carr looked like a totally different person in spring camp compared to last fall. The talent is there, and I think the motivation is now, too. Lewis has been consistently impressive to me since he first arrived at MSU, and he must have been to the coaches, as well, since he simulated Denard Robinson in Gator Bowl prep. If Bumphis doesn't watch out, Lewis could challenge him for playing time. And the two Johnson boys will find a way on the field, somehow. Neither is a just an all-out burner, but both are big, talented and not scared to fight for the ball. Also, don't underestimate what the return of tight end Marcus Green will do to spark the offense.

Can the secondary turn experience and athleticism into consistency on the field?

I felt this was one of the bigger issues for the Bulldogs in 2010. Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield were coming off stellar freshman seasons and Charles Mitchell was back to lead the way. But that never really panned out. The secondary wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. The unit certainly needs to step up in 2011 with some questions at linebacker and defensive end, and I think it will.

Much like Banks and Broomfield needed to mature (and I think they finally have), the same can be said now for Nickoe Whitley and Dennis Thames, two different situations of course. But, both of those guys look incredibly athletic moving around the field and both seem to have a strong - or at least stronger - mental grasp on what they're supposed to be doing and how to read the offense. Add Jay Hughes, Jamerson Love, Damein Anderson and the yet-to-arrive Darius Slay to the mix, and there is some serious athleticism and speed in the secondary. Perhaps the most positive sign I saw throughout the spring was the consistency with which this unit created turnovers. It is spring practice, of course, but this looks like a group that will keep the interceptions coming even in SEC play.

Now, for the unanswered questions. Some questions we thought would be resolved in the spring, and some we just have to wait to see unfold when the season starts.

How does Mississippi State replace Derek Sherrod?

So far, the answer seems to be, "ineffectively." I've spent a lot of time talking to and watching James Carmon since he got to campus, and I like him. A lot. Maybe that blinded me a bit when I felt confident in his ability to switch to left tackle. He's got the size, strength and athleticism, after all. But now, I am no longer confident. I'm optimistic that he can improve, but the spring was not great for him. When defenders run straight at him, he's unstoppable, but that won't happen every play. If rushers line up out wide or come from a different direction than straight ahead Carmon struggles, and more than a few times I saw him come off the snap and charge forward blocking nothing but air. It will be up to Carmon to spend every free moment he has this summer memorizing the playbook and working with teammates to learn the footwork.

Outside of Carmon, it's a mixed bag. Blaine Clausell is almost on the same level with Sherrod mentally. After talking to him a number of times, this kid has the attitude a left tackle has to have. He refuses to get beat, and if he does he swears he will never get down on himself. He knows the playbook, he knows the steps and he knows his teammate's tendencies. He just lacks the brute size and strength of Carmon or Sherrod, and that may haunt him. A year ago, I thought the 6'8", 330 pound freshman Damein Robinson would replace Sherrod, and while he has perhaps the highest ceiling of anyone on the offensive line, he's not there yet.

Can Mullen find a big-time, play-making wide receiver, and who are the next "It" guys on this roster?

Ah, a two-parter. I hate these on tests. Let's start at receiver. The casual observer may say, "What are you talking about? Bumphis is the playmaker." Well, if you really watched last year, he wasn't. He was consistent, and consistently good, at that, but he was no all-star. Relf will be aided tremendously by finally having a deep and talented group to throw to, but this offense could really hit the top with an x-factor kind of guy. I'm talking Alshon Jeffrey, Greg Childs, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, even Percy Harvin. Did you see that guy this spring? I didn't. I see a lot of talented guys, but not at that level. Carr may be the one player who has the potential to be that guy for this offense. I'm not saying he will be, but his ceiling is incredibly high. Maybe he or someone else steps up in the fall, and the offense will likely be OK if no one does, but at the moment, Mullen does not have that big-time, play-making receiver.

For the "It guy," I mean who are the big names who will step up and have everyone talking? The linebackers have had great history the last six years with Chaney, Wright and White, but who's the next "It" linebacker? I'm not sure, though I do see a lot of potential. The same for left tackle in Sherrod's absence. Bumphis seemed to be the next big MSU receiver - figuratively big, of course - after his freshman year, but I'm not so sure that has happened yet. Charles Mitchell has been great at safety, and he could take a big step in becoming feared and respected across the SEC in his senior year.

All of that said, I do think Relf has a great chance to become the next "It" guy at MSU, and if Ballard isn't there already he's darn close. However, if Mullen and co. really want to win the SEC West, they need to have big names outside of just the backfield. Which brings us to my last unanswered question…

Can Mississippi State make the jump from just competing in the SEC to becoming contenders in the conference?

If this team were in the Big East or ACC, you could pencil them in for a BCS bowl. But you know as well as I do how difficult the SEC West is going to be next year. Realistically, MSU should finish ahead of Auburn and Ole Miss. I just don't see how either of those teams can be very good next year. That's not homerism, that's honesty. But Arkansas, LSU and Alabama fans all have reason to believe their team could win the National Championship next season, and I find it hard to argue with any of them. If a SEC West team does not win it all, it will be because they beat each other up.

MSU is, in my mind, more talented now than it was coming off a nine-win season that included, obviously, a Gator Bowl thrashing of the Michigan Wolverines. However, I think LSU and Arkansas will both be better than they were last year, and both were in contention for a BCS game in the final weeks, with Arkansas making one. If A.J. McCarron is as good as some say, 'Bama might be better, too.

I think MSU will do better in the conference than it did last year, but it's still hard to make the case they'll finish any higher than fourth in the division. I'd love to see Mullen prove me wrong - it'd be fun to watch and cover - but boy is it a hard road, without even mentioning South Carolina and Georgia.

Extra Notes: Here's a few more thoughts I had coming out of spring practice.

• I'm not totally sold just yet, but my fears for the defensive ends have been relieved. There may not be the big name like McPhee, but I think stellar play from the tackles will help the ends tremendously.

• I'm iffy on what happens if Relf goes down for an extended period of time. It'd be better than last year if Tyler Russell steps in, because he'd have better receivers, but I think MSU would have to be really nervous, and I question how much Mullen would change the offense for Russell.

• I'm still trying to figure out the defense scheme-wise. This is mostly because it's hard to tell in the spring what it'll be like in the fall. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson says the defense will be "mostly" the same as it was in 2010, but I haven't heard the words "multiple" and "blitz" near as much as I did from Manny Diaz, though that may mean nothing. I think it will still be aggressive, but it was tough to glean much from the spring.

Dylan Favre is fun to watch, but I'm not buying the hype just yet. Right now, I don't think the results of him as a full-time starter would be pretty.


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