Mississippi State sophomore catcher Gavin Collins burst onto the scene in his first year on campus, becoming the first catcher in school history to earn All-SEC Freshman honors.
The Lake Forest, CA native started 42 games last season behind the plate, making the most of every opportunity. While he struggled at times defensively, he more than made up for it with his bat.
Collins hit .304 for the season with 19 RBIs, eight doubles, and a home run. He was tops on the team in SEC play with a .456 slugging percentage. His average was .324 over the span of those 30 games.
Even with all of that, possibly the feat that made him a fan favorite among MSU baseball fans came on April 12th. In front of the largest crowd ever to attend a college baseball game, Collins delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the 10th inning to defeat rival Ole Miss. It finished off a four-run inning and an amazing comeback that Bulldog fans won't forget for a long time.
After that stellar 2014 season, expectations couldn't have been any higher coming into Collins' sophomore campaign. Fans will have to wait longer than expected to see if he can meet those expectations after Collins suffered a hand injury that will keep him out at least three to five weeks.
Replacing your starting catcher is never an easy task, especially when he was an All-SEC Freshman. There's no mistaking what Collins' presence meant to the team last season. The Bulldogs' record was 22-4 in games where Collins recorded a hit.
John Cohen said that Collins has the potential to be not only one of the best catchers in the SEC, but the entire country.
Whether they were prepared for it or not, replacing him is exactly what they will have to do come opening day. The two options that Cohen has to use in place of Collins have very little experience.
Senior Cody Walker only played in 18 games last season, appearing at the plate just 27 times. He hit at a .222 clip and drove in five runs. Like Collins, Walker also had a walk-off RBI, his coming against Tennessee.
The other catcher that will split duties with Walker during Collins' absence is junior college transfer Josh Lovelady. He hit .360 his freshman year at Shelton State before breaking his jaw as a sophomore. Lovelady stood out in fall practice with his ability to block balls in the dirt.
As cut and dry as it is for most other positions, the battle for the catcher spot will come down to more than who can hit and defend the best. John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson have always wanted catchers who can call the right pitches at the right times and keep pitchers in a rhythm.
Much like a quarterback and wide receiver in football, chemistry is one of the most important elements when it comes to pitchers and catchers.
That's where Walker likely has the upper hand in the competition. He's been with these pitchers for two years now, and although he's played in few games, he at least has gotten his feet wet.
As young as the Bulldog pitching staff is, a catcher who has been in the system and knows the grind of this level of baseball will be crucial to their development.
This marks the second year in a row the Bulldogs will have question marks at catcher going into opening day. Last year, Collins, Walker, Daniel Garner, and Zack Randolph all had zero experience at the Division 1 level before the start of the season.
Garner and Randolph are no longer on the team, so the injury to Collins assures the starting spot will go to either Walker or Lovelady, at least until Collins is healthy. Hopefully one or both of them can emerge as a surprise player, much like Nick Ammirati did when Mitch Slauter was injured in 2013.
The situation is not ideal. You never want to lose one of the best offensive players on your team, even for a few weeks. But when it's all said and done, you will have an eager Gavin Collins ready to terrorize opposing pitchers and two players behind him who will be more than ready to step in when their name is called on in SEC play.