Every team in college football will have position battles and questions that need answered before they can confidently put out a starting lineup on opening day. After all, that's what practice is for. The players go straight from spring practice to summer workouts to the dreaded hours of two a days in 90 degree heat. Welcome to fall camp, and in Mississippi State's case, you can say welcome to the farm.
Dan Mullen takes all 105 of his players every year to the farm on MSU's south side of campus for full padded practices and two a days. For this portion of camp, the team usually stays together at a local hotel. It's his way of getting his players away from all distractions, where they can come together as a team and focus solely on football.
It's not always the most popular time for some of the players. In quarterback Dak Prescott's words, "It's hot. It stinks and it smells like cow." While it may not be easy and there's plenty of other places a bunch of 18 to 21 year olds would rather be, it is certainly beneficial. Getting out of their element and out of their comfort zones will reveal plenty about their character, especially for freshmen going through it for the first time.
Mullen hopes his players can push through the harsh conditions and figure some things out before the opener against Southern Miss. There are still some positions up for grabs, not only for starters but for back up roles. Here are five questions that need to be answered before the end of fall camp:
I think you all know where I'm going to start with this list. Yeah, you guessed it...
1. Can the kicking unit be anywhere close to reliable? It's no secret that special teams last season was a complete disaster. From what seemed like a thousand missed field goals to way too many punting debacles in the back of the end zone, fans cringed every time either of these units stepped on the field. Several steps were taken that should improve special teams as a whole going forward. Dan Mullen gave up the position of special teams coordinator and granted that to running backs coach Greg Knox. Devon Bell is being relieved of his duties at placekicker so he can focus only on punting, which is what he was recruited to do. J.J. McGrath was added to the mix at kicker, after transferring in from Michigan. As of a few days ago, Evan Sobiesk had only missed one field goal in all of fall practice. It will be a battle to the end between him and McGrath. Bell will probably never attempt another field goal but he is really, really solid at punter. He should be even better than last year, now that he can put all his eggs in one basket. With all of that being said, the kicking game has a chance to be light years ahead of where it was last year. They don't have to be perfect. They just need to be reliable in pressure situations.
2. Who will be the primary ball carrier and every down back? This one doesn't make the list because it's a concern for MSU, but mostly because it's an intriguing situation. None of these running backs have ever had to be "the guy." It's likely that none of them will have to consistently put out 20 plus carries a game. But one guy will get that label as starter and get more carries than the rest of the bunch, even if by a few. Who will that be? Obvious answer says Josh Robinson, and I won't argue with that. He's as explosive as they come. All I'm saying is don't be surprised if Nick Griffin or Ashton Shumpert emerges as the #1 back. The truth of the matter is we really don't know what Griffin is capable of. We haven't seen him healthy for a long enough period of time to get a feel for him. Shumpert has the highest ceiling of the three and it's just a matter of putting it all together and the game slowing down for him. He's still young and learning, but it's easy to see the ability is there. Mullen will probably rotate all three in and out and go with the hot hand in the second half of games. The production of the running backs will be key this season. It's simple... the better they perform, the less Dak has to carry the football and take hits. I'm excited to see if and how much they run the diamond. A formation with Dak, Josh Robinson, and Ashton Shumpert all in the backfield at the same time could be absolutely lethal. Defenses won't know who to key on. It may not be known yet who will get most of the workload but one thing is for sure... the running game as a whole should be one of the better ones in the SEC.
3. Can young guys step up to provide depth along the offensive line? Most of the backups don't have enough experience for you to feel comfortable with them being on the field. Justin Senior did start one game and played sparingly in some meaningful games, so he isn't completely lost out there. But he, Devon Desper, and Damein Robinson mainly got nothing more than garbage time last season. I guess a little experience is better than none. Senior has the best chance to start out of the three, and he may end up as the starting right tackle. That would only happen if Justin Malone stays at guard instead of moving to tackle. While that's not likely, there have been some rumors of that possibility. Although Damien has a massive body and was a big recruit coming in four years ago, he has just never lived up to his potential. Kent Flowers and Jake Thomas were highly touted in state players out of high school, and both red shirted their freshman season. On paper they look like two solid backups, but the fact remains that they haven't played a down of college football. Rufus Warren will need breaking in as well after moving offer from tight end. Offensive line coach John Hevesy will be looking to get all of the young guys on the field early in the first three games, assuming the score gets out of hand. You have to be extremely fortunate to make it an entire season without any injuries on the line, and MSU will need to have two's that are ready to go. Until they get out there and get their feet wet in the non conference games, there's no way you can have confidence playing them against the big boys. The offensive line is the least deepest position on the field for MSU, at least starting out. The good news is the five starters have been there and done that, and a big season is expected out of that unit. The backup guys just need some playing time in the first three games before you can feel good about the offensive line as a whole.
4. Who is the slot guy if Jameon goes down? Not only that, but Lewis can't be on the field for every play. He's going to need a breather every now and then, and State will need to find a capable replacement for him. Brandon Holloway is no longer in the slot, as he will mainly be at running back this season. Gabe Myles is in the best position to win the #2 spot here. He redshirted last year but has really impressed in the spring and fall. He doesn't have to be another Jameon, but they would like it to be as small a drop off as possible when he comes into the game. Another guy I would like to see get some snaps here is Fred Ross. If you remember correctly, he was committed to play at Oklahoma State before flipping to Mississippi State and signing with the Bulldogs. He was a Parade All-American out of high school. The guy is talented and has everything you want in a receiver. He has plus speed and very good route running ability. The outside receiver positions have a little more depth right now than slot, so don't be surprised if you see him lining up inside. In the mix as well for some slot snaps will be Jamoral Graham. He's only a freshman, so for him it will be all about how fast he can grasp the playbook. He has excellent speed and is a playmaker with the ball in his hands. A lot of people are already calling him the next Jameon. If he can learn the plays and learn how to block, he will be a good option to have off the bench. The #2 inside receiver position is much like the offensive line. I think the coaches feel good about it, but they want to get these guys some game action as soon as possible.
5. Can the safeties produce on the back side of the defense to compliment the cornerbacks? We all know the cornerback spot is going to be a strength for the Dogs, but that will all go to waste if the safeties are not as effective. This concern is not because of talent, or even experience for that matter. The concern is that you have two players in Justin Cox and Jay Hughes that are going through a position change and the other that is coming back from injury. Cox was hyped up by fans more than any other player going into last season, and the first few games were a disappointment. He came into his own later in the year, however, and really showed why everyone was so high on him. He made an unbelievable interception on the sidelines during the egg bowl, the kind you don't see the average player make. He is returning to the position he knows best, the one he played his two years of junior college. You would think this could only be a positive thing, but it could go the other way as well. He spent his entire first season on campus learning how to play cornerback, not safety, at the D-1 level. And while he's more comfortable at safety, it's just a different animal from junior college to the SEC. I mean come on, every position is. If the transition is a smooth one and he understands where he needs to be and when, he could finish the season as an All-SEC candidate. Jay Hughes, on the other hand, probably has a steeper hill to climb. He tore his achilles a few plays into the season against Oklahoma State. Before last season if you asked any coach who the leader of the secondary was, they would tell you Jay Hughes. The guy is sharp, understands the game of football, and makes everyone around him better. Having him back on the field will be HUGE if he is back to 100 percent. That's a very tough injury to come back from and one that takes longer to heal than most. The good news is that when Hughes went down last year, Kendrick Market stepped up bigtime. So the coaches know what they have there. Market was quietly one of MSU's best defensive players last season, even though Chris Jones and Benardrick McKinney got all the love. If Hughes and Cox come through, this will be one of the best secondary's in not only the SEC, but the country.
Here's to hoping all these things come together, and that the players survive the farm. We're only three weeks away folks. It's been a long offseason, but you can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.