Blue Ribbon Preview: Mississippi State
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 120 FBS teams. To order the complete 2011 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern. This information is up to date as of June 25.
These are heady times that Dan Mullen has cultivated in two full seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State, that's for sure.
The Bulldogs are coming off a demolition of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, State's first January bowl game in 12 years. And though they were hardly a speed bump in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference Western Division last year, they were still a tough out. (Though the LSU and Alabama losses weren't exactly close, State lost to Arkansas in double overtime and to national champion Auburn by a field goal.) To cap off the season, Mullen's Bulldogs went to Oxford and delivered a 31-23 win over Ole Miss -- or, to hear Mullen call it in the lingo that has spiced up the Magnolia State's bitter rivalry, "The School Up North."
But it doesn't end there. In the off-season, on the strength of a string of consecutive sellouts, increased donations and a generally momentum-filled fan base, the Bulldogs unveiled plans to build a new football complex and designs of what Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field would look like if it seated 75,000 fans. No doubt, State fans are as optimistic as they have been in quite some time.
That's nice and all, but how does that impact the product Mullen and the Bulldogs will roll out on that field this fall? Probably not much. But the factors that go into whether State will be successful this fall continue to paint a rosy picture.
The Bulldogs return 15 starters, including a senior quarterback, Chris Relf, who only continues to ascend toward one of the all-time best to play the spot in Starkville. A talented defensive front returns almost en masse, and State is able to pull the rare trick of returning five defensive backs who started at some point last season.
And while the offense showed room for improvement in 2010, consider this: State returns its top nine rushers, its top six receivers, all of its quarterbacks and the players who accounted for all but two of its touchdowns last fall. Vick Ballard, a senior, returns to the lineup after setting the school record for touchdowns last season (19).
Mullen's coaching staff took a couple of hits, but the way he engineered things means there probably won't be much of a drop-off. Manny Diaz, last year's defensive coordinator, is now in that role at Texas. But Chris Wilson, the new defensive coordinator, was a co-coordinator last year. Mullen hired Geoff Collins from FIU as co-coordinator and linebackers coach.
"The stability of what we do on the defensive side of the ball is really not going to change," Mullen said.
And when Mark Hudspeth left to become the head coach at Louisiana, Mullen turned to graduate assistant Angelo Mirando.
Yep, the facts sure do Mullen quite a few favors as he looks to duplicate last year's success.
The negatives? Well, some of those departed players were pretty good. Graduation depleted essentially all of the Bulldogs' linebacking corps, stole its All-Southeastern Conference left tackle (Derek Sherrod, a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers) and a center, J.C. Brignone, who was one of the team's leaders. Recruiting wasn't earth shattering in February, and the Bulldogs still compete in the toughest division of the toughest conference in the nation.
But if there's one thing Mullen has shown, it's that he's seemingly able to adapt his plan to whatever situation his roster presents him.
Maybe that's why they're so wild about him down in Starkville these days.
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (Ursinus '94)
Record at School: 14-11 (2 years)
Career Record: 14-11 (2 years)
• Les Koenning (Texas '81) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Chris Wilson (Oklahoma '92) Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line
• Geoff Collins (Western Carolina '94) Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
• John Hevesy (Maine '94) Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Tony Hughes (Southern Miss '80) Safeties/Recruiting Coordinator
• Greg Knox (Northeastern State '86) Running Backs
• Angelo Mirando (Case Western '08) Wide Receivers
• Scott Sallach (Ursinus '94) Tight Ends
• Melvin Smith (Millsaps '82) Cornerbacks/Nickels
As a junior last year, Chris Relf (6-4, 245) was hard to stop. He completed 59 percent of his passes, threw 13 touchdowns, tossed just six interceptions, passed for 1,789 yards, rushed for 713 yards and ran for five touchdowns. There wasn't anybody else close.
Which makes the following post-spring synopsis of the Mississippi State quarterback race by Mullen all the more curious:
"The competition to me is wide open right now," he said. "Chris Relf, obviously, did a great job this spring. I don't know if he's separated himself from all the other guys, but he also has the experience and has played in the games, and has done nothing to not be our top quarterback at this point."
In all likelihood, this is Mullen's way of continually motivating Relf, who emerged from being all but lost under Sylvester Croom into being a dangerous player who basically burst onto the scene with his carve-'em-up play in a 2009 Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss. Relf developed as a better passer last year; his pass efficiency was seventh-best in the league. Relf has a tight end's body, which makes him all the more dangerous on the run.
Still, Mullen and offensive coordinator/position coach Les Koenning have shown to be no stranger to running a two-quarterback system. That's where sophomore Tyler Russell (6-5, 225) and redshirt freshman Dylan Favre (5-10, 190) come in. Russell was a heralded recruit out of Meridian High in 2009 but has yet to display the all-everything potential he was deemed to have. Playing sparingly last year either as Relf's backup or as a change-of-pace option, Russell threw six interceptions to five touchdowns, even though his completion percentage was essentially the same as Relf's.
Favre, the nephew of former NFL great Brett Favre, is Bulldog fans' most intriguing prospect. He came to Mississippi State because it was about the only major school to offer him a scholarship, thanks in no small part to his size. Since arriving in Starkville, he has made a name for himself with a gun-slinging, fearless style -- sound familiar?
Favre further boosted his name among fans by going 17-for-26 for 199 yards and a touchdown and interception in the Bulldogs' spring game. (But Russell's stats were almost the same.)
Regardless of who throws the ball or who catches it (more on that later), the passing game is a real area where improvement could be made under Mullen. At 237.8 yards per game, the Bulldogs had just the ninth-best passing offense in the SEC last year.
In the backfield, the Bulldogs return their most productive player, senior Vick Ballard (5-11, 215). In his first year at State out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Ballard set the school record for touchdowns, 19, and was good for 5.2 yards per carry.
Nothing suggests he won't have that capacity again this year. He might have a little extra motivation, too: He was 32 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season last year.
Ballard is a no-nonsense, hard-nosed type of runner. That style is contrasted with another returning productive member of the Bulldogs' backfield, sophomore LaDarius Perkins (5-10, 190). A bit of an afterthought member of Mississippi State's stellar 2009 recruiting class, Perkins is just what his size would suggest: a shifty, burst-of-speed tailback who represents a change of pace from Ballard.
In fact, Perkins is just as dangerous as a receiver. He caught nine passes last season, but three of them were for touchdowns. One went for 81 yards.
Depth is of no short supply for position coach Greg Knox, who has an intriguing option in senior Robert Elliott (6-0, 210). Mississippi State fans have waited and waited on Elliott, one of the top recruits in the Southeast in 2007, to make an appearance in a maroon uniform. Finally given an equal playing field last season to compete for the starting job, Ballard wound up winning decisively, which might be more of a testament to Ballard's sheer talent more than anything else.
Still, Elliott ran 60 times last year, so it's not as if the Bulldogs' No. 3 option at tailback -- if that's how you want to characterize him -- is green. Sophomore Adrian Marcus (5-9, 225) and junior Sylvester Hemphill (5-11, 235) are the Bulldogs' options at fullback. As a pair, they accounted for just 16 of the Bulldogs' 619 rushing attempts last year.
When Mullen arrived in Starkville after the 2008 season, he talked of wanting loads and loads of wide receivers to be able to contribute to his offense, and do so with regularity. His proclamations got some weird looks from Bulldog fans who hadn't seen much in the way of an aerial attack in the half-decade under Sylvester Croom.
Slowly, Mullen is getting to the point of having what he wants in his program, though.
"I wish we had some real go-to, primo wideouts, but we have a group of solid players right now," said Mullen, who plans to play "about eight" receivers in the course of a game. "No one has taken the step to be that kind of star player."
If anyone is close to doing that, it's junior Chad Bumphis (5-10, 200). One could argue that he's already there and that Mullen said what he did just for motivation. Bumphis did, after all, catch 44 passes for 634 yards and five touchdowns last season, no underachieving numbers, especially given that he missed the final game of the season after suffering a collarbone break in the Egg Bowl. Bumphis worked in spring practice but then was said to have sprained his ankle shortly afterward. It's not expected to impact his availability this fall.
Junior Arceto Clark (5-10, 180) has taken a long path to get to be a starting wide receiver, one that included a brief stint as a defensive back. Yet he was State's second-leading receiver last year, catching 25 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
Depth will be provided by junior Chris Smith (6-2, 205), junior Brandon Heavens (5-10, 175), sophomore Ricco Sanders (5-11, 190) and sophomore Michael Carr (6-1, 195). Especially look out for Carr, who got a late start to his freshman season. He possesses the speed and raw talent to emerge as a star.
As will probably be the case every year the Bulldogs run Mullen's spread attack, receiver is a prime spot where a true freshman could come in and contribute immediately. Devin Fosselman (5-10, 190) and Joe Morrow (6-5, 200) will be the most likely candidates to do that.
The Bulldogs' biggest rebuilding job on their roster has to be here, and it's not because of the numbers. Mississippi State lost only two starters from its offensive line, and truth is that the staff will shuffle some experienced players over to fill at least one of the gaps.
But it's who they lost that has Mullen's attention.
Left tackle Derek Sherrod is gone, taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. And center J.C. Brignone is gone; he'll likely wind up signing a free agent deal if the NFL solves its labor woes. Sherrod and Brignone were two of the entire team's leaders; they play the two most important positions on the line.
Senior Quentin Saulsberry (6-2, 300), a journeyman of sorts on the offensive line in recent years, shifted over to take Brignone's spot at center. He'll also be good at replacing the leadership void that was opened when Brignone departed. But behind Saulsberry, well, that's where you start to see State's worry. Dillon Day (6-4, 285), a redshirt freshman, would be next in line.
Sherrod's departure produced one of the more interesting battles of the spring, one that Mullen says will spill over into the summer. Senior James Carmon (6-7, 330), who earned headlines last year simply for his size when he transferred to State, moved there in the off-season after failing to completely crack the team's rotation at defensive tackle. But redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell (6-7, 295), who was recruited as an offensive lineman, is battling Carmon for the spot.
Mullen hopes for separation by the end of August.
"They both made some huge gains, but I think a lot of that was because they had a long way to go," Mullen said.
Fortunately for State, the rest of the narrative on the line isn't as interesting. That's because senior Addison Lawrence (6-4, 290) returns at right tackle, junior Tobias Smith (6-3, 305) comes back at right guard and sophomore Gabe Jackson (6-4, 310) returns at left guard.
Smith has had a hard time staying healthy during his career, so look at his backup, junior Templeton Hardy (6-3, 300) or another guard backup, redshirt freshman Damien Robinson (6-8, 310). Robinson was one of the top recruits in the state in 2010 and will be expected to perform.
State enters the fall with a core of solid juniors manning the interior. In tackles Josh Boyd (6-3, 295) and Fletcher Cox (6-4, 295), there's experience. The pair combined for five sacks, 14 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and even two blocked kicks last year. In a league that's deep with defensive linemen, neither made postseason accolades, but that could change this year.
As usual, the concern is with depth. Senior Jeffrey Howie (6-4, 295) and junior Devin Jones (6-0, 255) are listed as backups.
The Bulldogs have the most to fret about when it comes to their ends. Pernell McPhee was a stalwart there the last two years, and even though his 2010 season wasn't statistically spectacular, he still provided a presence.
Senior Sean Ferguson (6-3, 250) will be counted upon at one of the end spots. Experience isn't his problem; he even started his first game at end as a true freshman and has largely contributed ever since. But keep a look out for the player behind him -- redshirt freshman Kaleb Eulls (6-4, 275). He was a top 2010 recruit and will probably see significant playing time this year.
Juniors Trevor Stigers (6-5, 245) and Shane McCardell (6-5, 255) are vying for the other end spot.
Could there possibly be a more worrisome position for the Bulldogs than the middle of their defense? Three of their top linebackers from last year's team are gone, two of them drafted into the NFL. Adding to even more uncertainty, the Bulldogs will have a new linebackers coach, their fifth in five years, Geoff Collins.
Collins will get to start largely from scratch. He will get some help, though, in the form of Clemson transfer Brandon Maye (6-2, 235). After graduating from Clemson in the spring with a sociology degree, he will seek his sports administration master's degree at Mississippi State, and thus be in line to play immediately given the NCAA's graduate student transfer exemption.
At Clemson, Maye started 33 times and racked up 233 tackles. That's the kind of experience that's something of a gift for the Bulldogs, given all the experience that departed.
Maye is most likely a middle linebacker. At that spot, he'll have to go up against senior Brandon Wilson (6-0, 235), who arrived at State as a non-scholarship player, and senior Jamie Jones (6-0, 240), who has played occasionally but never in a consistent starting role.
Junior Cameron Lawrence (6-2, 225), the younger brother of Addison Lawrence on the offensive line, brings some experience to one of the outside linebacker roles. He is a converted safety.
Two sophomores, Chris Hughes (6-0, 215) and Deonte Skinner (6-2, 235) will compete for the starting job at the other outside linebacker position.
For all the depth and experience questions the Bulldogs have with their front seven, they don't seem to exist in the defensive backfield. State will start with senior Charles Mitchell (5-11, 205), a strong safety with a solid work ethic and a straightforward persona. Mitchell might be the best player on the team, and he's certainly one of its leaders and examples. Statistically, he's not too shabby, either: He was the team's third-leading tackler last year with 93, but will want to nab more interceptions than he did in 2010 (zero).
A pair of highly touted athletes, sophomore Dennis Thames (5-11, 190) and redshirt freshman Matthew Wells (6-0, 205), will be the backups. Those guys will compete for the starting job next year and will be better for it by working behind Mitchell.
Either senior Wade Bonner (5-10, 190) or sophomore Nickoe Whitley (6-0, 200) figure to take over the starting job at free safety. Both have starting experience; Whitley had three interceptions in 2010.
And remember that 2009 season, Mullen's first, when Johnthan Banks (6-2, 185) and Corey Broomfield (5-10, 180) both had multi-interception games and were freshman standouts in the SEC? Well, both players are juniors now, and both are likely to be the starters at corner. They each had three interceptions last year.
Thanks to solid recruiting efforts on the speed front in recent years, State shouldn't be at too much of a deficit of trying to find guys to return punts and kicks.
Bumphis, the now veteran wide receiver, had all but one of the Bulldogs' 17 punt return attempts last year, and there's no reason he shouldn't be counted on to do the same this year, unless Mullen is concerned about what that does to his in-game conditioning. If so, think about Carr, Perkins or redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis (5-8, 170). And the options might not even end there.
Perkins took over for the injured Leon Berry as the main kickoff return option last year, but those duties could also go to Bumphis or Carr or even Ballard.
No contest anymore at place-kicker: Derek DePasquale (5-8, 180) is the man. After two seasons of battling Sean Brauchle for the top spot, the walk-on who transferred to Starkville from the Colorado School of Mines appears to be the lone occupant of the role.
DePasquale is 10-for-12 in his career and has successfully made a field goal from as long as 48 yards.
After two years of solid punting by Heath Hutchins, a senior who graduated, sophomore Baker Swedenberg (6-0, 190) will finally get his turn.
Inexperience at this position will probably be a source of concern for the Bulldogs throughout the season, because Hutchins handled all 59 of the Bulldogs' punts last year.
In Mississippi last year, much of the news surrounding Mississippi State's recruiting class was more about who the Bulldogs didn't get, not who they did. But that doesn't mean they didn't land some players who can play immediately.
At receiver, Fosselman, Morrow and perhaps Kendrick Market (5-10, 180) could contribute as true freshmen.
P.J. Jones (6-3, 260) could work his way into the rotation on the defensive line; he was a sleeper pickup about which State was happy.
And the early enrollments of defensive lineman John Harris (6-6, 230), quarterback Dak Prescott (6-3, 225), offensive lineman Nick Redmond (6-5, 305) and offensive lineman Joey Trapp (6-5, 285) suggest that they'll have a head start on the rest of their teammates and could vie for time sooner rather than later.
And then, of course, don't forget about the linebacker Maye. He's about as far away from a wide-eyed recruit as there is, but he'll still be new to this team, and that's something for which the Bulldogs have to be grateful considering what they had at linebacker exiting the spring.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
State's 2010 season proceeded pretty much as the schedule predicted it would: There were no real upsets, no real letdowns. This year's schedule, given the way it's laid out, might present more of an obstacle course.
State opens at Memphis on Sept. 1 before going to Auburn on Sept. 10 to face what will certainly be a hostile crowd, given the Cam Newton drama from last year that intimately involved Mississippi State. Then, just five days later, a Thursday night home game against LSU awaits. After a "breather" of sorts at home against Louisiana Tech, State hits the road again to Georgia and UAB. That's four road games among the first six, or five among the first eight, depending on how you're counting.
After having Florida as the rotating opponent the last two years, State gets South Carolina, but doesn't get the Gamecocks in a down spell. They might be in a zenith under Steve Spurrier. Rivals Alabama and Ole Miss, in November, are at home at least.
Point being, Mississippi State still has enough holes at certain spots that its margin for success or failure isn't as wide as some of its most optimistic fans think it might be. But maybe that's where Mullen excels, being able to drive home that point to his players to get that much more out of them.
With Chris Relf at quarterback, Vick Ballard at running back and some experience in the secondary, these Bulldogs aren't primed for a letdown, either.
BLUE RIBBON: SEC PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2011 season for each SEC school. Take a look: