2009 PREVIEWS--Mississippi State Bulldogs: Team Overview
Mississippi State Bulldogs: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 28, 2009
Mississippi State’s new marketing slogan is “Spread the fun – this is going to be exciting!” If your definition of exciting is watching a BCS conference team sputter, make mistake after mistake and get fairly well obliterated on defense, then this could be the most exciting year of football in Mississippi State history. The Bulldogs return seven starters on offense – seven starters recruited for the West Coast offense, that is. MSU now runs the spread. On defense, three returning starters dot the landscape of a unit outsized by some Division-II schools.
The Bulldogs will start the year with virtually no chance against four of the five teams in the SEC West. It is amazing how far Mississippi State fell in just one year. Anything north of three wins would be considered quite an accomplishment, and a postseason appearance would probably get new head coach Dan Mullen some consideration as SEC coach of the year.
The spread-option offense, which Mullen helped build at Florida, was originally instituted to cover up talent deficiencies. As opposing defenses have caught on, the spread-option is now talent-dependent, and teams that don’t have the talent to run the offense tend to get mowed down with regularity, as Auburn found out in 2008. Mississippi State’s problems begin at the quarterback position, continue through a running back position ill-suited to the offensive platform, and culminate in a wide receiver core lacking talent. Mullen has his work cut out for him.
QUARTERBACKS Tyson Lee proved quarterbacks could put up OK numbers without having to be strong, tall brutes. Lee barely tips the scales at 5’10”, 195 pounds, yet he was by far the best Bulldog quarterback in 2008. But given that Lee was 153-for-260 (58.9%) for 1,519 yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, “OK” is about the only way to describe his season. Lee is decently mobile and can throw the short passes, which means he should be fine in the spread-option. The real question mark here is depth. True freshman Tyler Russell figures to eventually get the job, because Chris Relf isn’t the answer. Russell’s arrival in Starkville has been heralded by Bulldog fans who believe they have Tim Tebow-lite on their hands. Junior college transfer Aaron Encalade offers depth behind this group. Look for Russell to play a lot.
RUNNING BACKS Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre are as effective a 1-2 punch as you’ll find in the SEC, but the question is whether they can make the transition to the new offense. Ducre will probably have an easier transition. Dixon is a big, powerful back who does best when he’s going head-up on defenders. If Florida’s recent records are any indication, that’s not the type of running back that thrives in the spread-option offense.
Arnil Stallworth offers more experience behind the starters, but that’s pretty much where the discussion ends. Mississippi State won’t use a fullback in its base set, but Stallworth or Alabama transfer Patrick Hanrahan could be called upon in short-yardage situations as a blocker much the way Florida made use of Billy Latsko.
This group isn’t terrible (yet), but the year is young. One starter returns at receiver, Brandon McRae. McRae caught 51 passes last year, but averaged barely more than 10 yards per catch and scored only three times. MSU needs more playmaking ability. The other two starters at receiver are anyone’s guess. JUCO transfer Leon Berry figures to be one of them, while the third slot is open to competition from as many as six different players, the most likely of which include Delmon Robinson, Terrance Davis and Chad Bumphis. Robinson has limited abilities, Davis is fast as lightning but has stone hands, and Bumphis is a true freshman.
O’Neal Wilder and Tay Bowser could also get into the discussion. Thomas Webb leads a group of candidates at tight end, including Kendrick Cook and Brandon Henderson. Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens add depth at receiver. The Bulldogs desperately need about five guys to step up alongside McRae, and they also need McRae to get better.
Four of the seven returning offensive starters play along the line, giving the Bulldogs some hope. The question is how steep will the learning curve be upon moving to a new offensive scheme. J.C. Brignone returns at center flanked by Craig Jenkins and Quentin Saulsberry, last year’s right tackle,at the guard slots. Derek Sherrod returns at left tackle, but has been banged up recently and must get healthy. The new guy on the block is right tackle Addison Lawrence, a sophomore who is built somewhat like a guard and not a tackle.
Redshirt freshman Tobias Smith is challenging Jenkins for a starting job, however. Depth is in pretty good shape with Mark Melichar on the inside along with D.J. Looney, and Chris Spencer backing up both tackle slots. Another big upperclassman, Phillip Freeman, adds depth inside and out.
Mississippi State will stay with a 4-3 alignment under new defensive coordinator Carl Torbush. Torbush is familiar with the scheme and, as the linebackers coach, likes defenses that feature the linebacker corps. Fortunately for Torbush, and for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs could very well have the No. 2 or 3 linebacker group in the conference this year if injuries hold off. Unfortunately for Torbush, the line is undersized and understaffed, and the secondary is practically all new.
The Bulldogs have been buzzing about JUCO transfer Pernell McPhee, who probably would have ended up at Alabama if not for a numbers crunch. He stepped onto the MSU campus automatically the best lineman the Bulldogs have. At Alabama, McPhee would probably have been a tackle/end combo player. At Mississippi State, he’ll be expected to play inside almost exclusively, and the question then becomes whether he’s big enough for the task.
Kyle Love and Charles Burns are continuing to fight it out for the other tackle slot, but neither player is near the athlete McPhee is. Defensive end may be a big mess. Sean Ferguson has plenty of experience as a swing reserve, and will be asked to start in 2009. The other slot will come down to Devin Jones, Nick Bell or Trevor Stigers, with Brandon Cooper also in the mix for the job.
True freshman Fletcher Cox could also get into the discussion. LaMarcus Williams adds depth to the tackle rotation. McPhee and Stigers figure to be the names to watch, although Cox could be a fast riser. The success of this group depends heavily on McPhee’s ability to bring his play up to the big time.
If middle linebacker Jamar Chaney is recovered from a leg injury, the Bulldogs won’t give up anything to anyone here. Outside linebackers K.J. Wright and Chris White are massive, bigger than a couple of the Bulldogs’ defensive ends. Reserve middle backer Bo Walters has the personality of a man who eats nails for breakfast.
Karlin Brown, who backs up the outside slots, is a pest to offenses but is smaller than both starting cornerbacks. Terrell Johnson adds depth. Chaney was set for an all-world season in 2008 before injuries took hold, so if he’s back to 100 percent, he’s the best linebacker nobody’s talking about. Lateral speed from Wright and White isn’t the best, but the Bulldogs figure to be tough to handle in short-yardage defense.
DEFENSIVE BACKS Marcus Washington returns at one cornerback slot, and he must feel like the kid who gets held back in ninth grade having to show all the junior high school graduates the ropes. The rest of the MSU secondary looks nothing like last year’s fine unit. Damein Anderson starts at the other corner slot, and after that, it’s a collection of guys without the requisite size, speed – or sometimes scholarships – expected of a top-level secondary.
Zach Smith seems to have the free safety slot nailed down, while Charles Mitchell will be the new starting strong safety. The reserve safeties should scare Bulldog faithful: Wade Bonner and Emmanuel Gatling. Louis Watson and Corey Broomfield are both freshmen but they’re all MSU has got for reserve cornerbacks. Athleticism runs high but that’s not enough in the SEC.
Mississippi State special teams in 2008 would be most kindly labeled as an outright joke. State couldn’t kick off, couldn’t return kicks, couldn’t punt, couldn’t cover, couldn’t do anything. Two new kickers arrive from the JUCO ranks, placekicker Sean Brauchle and punter Heath Hutchens. Brauchle has a bigger leg than last year’s kicker, Adam Carlson, but he’s yet to taste SEC pressure. He should at least be better at kicking off. Hutchens, however, has impressed coaches with his powerful leg. The return and coverage units are still mysteries, however, and the real problem is simply that Mississippi State is short on athletes.