Editor's note: This is the ninth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
STARKVILLE, Miss. | There were a lot of unanswered questions going into the spring of last season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Head Coach Dan Mullen and his crew were left with one scholarship quarterback as sophomore Dak Prescott was on the mend and were very precise on the work they did with fifth-year senior Tyler Russell.
This season, all of those concerns seem to have gone by the wayside. MSU practice all spring with a healthy starter in Prescott and two very capable scholarship backups, one of which was forced into immediate playing time as a true freshman.
There were many unknowns last year for the Bulldogs as the team was coming off of a uninspiring finish to the 2012 season in which it finished 1-5 after a perfect 7-0 start. With a young secondary and brand new wide receiver corp, there was concern abounding across the fan base but MSU played far above expectations coming up short on the road at Auburn, at home against LSU and Alabama and knocking off rivals Arkansas and Ole Miss to finish the season with bowl eligibility for the fourth time in a row.
As Mullen mentioned last season, the Bulldogs still managed to make history despite just a seven win season and many concerns were put to rest for this season as the expectations now reach an all-time high. The spring backed that up for Mullen's sixth Bulldog class and work was done to move towards the next step.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT MISSISSIPPI STATE
SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
What's the biggest thing you learned about Mississippi State this spring?
This is the most talented group of Bulldogs in Mullen's tenure and quite possibly, in MSU history. Mullen and his staff have done a great job evaluating and developing talent and that's been seen from former two-star projects like Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay who each were drafted and started for NFL teams last season.
Mullen has taken heat for finishing towards the bottom of the SEC most years in recruiting but the staff has left no stone unturned around the staff when looking for talent. The key component on this team is the athletic ability and the positions that players have been placed. The defensive line is the one exception of the group with lots of already evaluated talent like five-star sophomore Chris Jones who made the All-SEC freshman team a year ago.
There are certain athletic freaks across the board at several positions that evaluators missed along the process and they've been put in good spots to succeed. De'Runnya Wilson is a basketball player-turned receiver and made his presence known at times last year catching passes and using his huge frame. As he begins to develop mentally, he should be a big surprise around the SEC.
Other proven players like former high school quarterback Benardrick McKinney have high draft stocks for next year. The junior middle linebacker is another genetic freak that was morphed in his redshirt year and has blossomed in the middle of the field and even off of the edge at times. Redshirt freshman linebacker Dez Harris showed this spring that he's going to make a similar transformation at that position.
What is the biggest question Mississippi State answered during spring ball?
MSU had many concerns in the secondary last season as they lost their top two corners to the NFL, a safety to graduation, the top safety in the opening game of the season and talented sophomore corner Will Redmond for the first five games for NCAA sanctions. A lot of these questions were answered during the season as the Bulldogs struggled early but saw younger, more inexperienced players step up and got a boost from Redmond when he entered mid season.
In the spring, MSU returned all of its secondary with the exception of four-year starter Nickoe Whitley at safety. Luckily for the Bulldogs, former JUCO All-American Justin Cox shined at safety late last year after moving from corner and is poised to contend for an All-SEC spot back there as a senior. MSU didn't see the full return of senior safety Jay Hughes who missed all of last year with an Achilles injury, but Kendrick Market stepped up to the plate most of the season and is a reliable defender back there if Hughes isn't ready for the fall.
Cornerbacks are as solid as they have been with senior Jamerson Love back another year and junior Taveze Calhoun leading the secondary on the field. He emerged last year as one of the Bulldogs' top defenders at any position and is one of the most reliable players on the field. Redmond and sophomores Kivon Coman and Cedric Jiles are right behind and help MSU not miss much of a beat if the starters go out.
What are the questions still lingering around Mississippi State after the conclusion of spring practice?
Is Mississippi State ever going to have a consistent kicking game? The Bulldogs struggled to hit even the easiest of field goals in the spring and worried fans once again after several games were in danger because of special teams the last two years.
After Devon Bell lost the field goal job and began to shine as punter and kickoff specialist, Evan Sobiesk was delivered the chance. He nailed the game-tying field goal late in the ball game against Ole Miss but had a chance to win it just two minutes later and sent it wide right as the two teams went to overtime. Such has been the case for MSU kickers over time as consistency has been the issue.
Throughout all of spring, the Bulldogs saw kicks blocked, shanked and even flat out missed by the kicker's foot. In the spring game alone, Sobiesk did nail two of his three field goals missing from 49 and hitting from 42. Backup Westin Graves missed from 44 but hit from 47 at the end of the first half as time expired. Consistency is the key as the Bulldogs have the legs for long distance.
Offensive line could be a problem for MSU as well as they need to keep everyone up front healthy. Three-year starter at center Dillon Day was one of only two proven players on the line as Blaine Clausell has been there as long as he has at left tackle. Day went down with an arm injury late in spring and MSU doesn't have much of a backup plan at center. Right tackle is unproven with senior Damian Robinson taking four years to develop there before he's finally seen the field. True sophomore Jamaal Clayborn is the heir to All-American guard Gabe Jackson and looked fine in the spring.
What players stepped up during spring?
Sophomore wide receiver Fred Brown was easily the most impressive player on the team in the maroon/white spring game. The athletic and lengthy Brown showed his skills with 10 catches and 219 yards with two touchdowns but had been steady all of spring as a downfield threat. He's a part of a roster full of big, physical receivers that help balance out the speedy inside guys like Jameon Lewis and make the offense really tough to scheme.
Speaking of inside guys, redshirt freshman slot Gabe Myles found his niche at wide receiver after coming to Starkville as an athlete with no label and playing corner. Myles has speed and play making ability that helped the Starkville High squad to a 5A State Championship as he manned the offense as the quarterback and played defense. He's a major threat down field and on screens and should get on the field this year.
Senior running back Nick Griffin also comes to mind as a guy that really took a step forward this year. Griffin has been through two knee surgeries in five years and has fought through that to get back on the field near 100%. This spring, he was one of the more dominant players on the field and he'll give Josh Robinson a push at the starting running back slot.
Sophomore quarterback Damian Williams looked to have made a major step in the next direction as a leader and a decision maker on the field. As a true freshman last year, Williams was forced to get on the field with injuries to Russell and Prescott and won the ball game against Arkansas in overtime with a 25-yard touchdown run. He followed that up as a starter in the Egg Bowl and though he didn't finish the game, he seemed to have grown into a different player in that game and managed the ball game as well as he could. He is now a fully capable backup to Prescott the next couple of years and has the athletic ability and arm strength to be a threat.
Who are the players who need to step up heading into the summer?
Offensive linemen like Robinson need to be big for the Bulldogs to have success next year. There are still questions there at right tackle and if Robinson can't get the job done they have a former tight end in Rufus Warren that could be the next choice. JUCO transfer Jocquell Johnson was limited most of the spring with a shoulder injury and they're expecting a lot out of him mostly at guard. If he falls behind, it's another JUCO lineman casualty that Bulldog coaches have fallen prey to.
Sophomore defensive tackle Nick James has all of the physical tools to be a force but hasn't gotten it mentally until now. After a full season redshirted to help him find his "drive", James stuck it out and looked much more inspired at practice. Whether that is temporary or a change for the better remains to be seen, but he will be needed in the coming season.
Running back Robinson looked just fine in the spring and should hang on to the job, but Griffin has been more consistent in attitude and effort. If Robinson lets up, there might be a new horse running the race. Either way, the Bulldogs have good problems at running back with significant depth and talent.