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Stories Written by Logan Lowery
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State liked its quarterback situation heading into last season.
The Bulldogs returned fifth-year senior Tyler Russell as the starter and had a talented backup in Dak Prescott. The plan was to alternate both signal callers throughout games.
However, that idea had to be scrapped when the duo missed eight games due to injuries last fall with Russell sidelined for six games and Prescott missing two. The injuries also forced Damian Williams into action as a true freshman.
The positive repercussion from an injury plagued 2013 was that Prescott received seven starts and has now emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference’s budding stars. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior is a Preseason All-SEC selection and considered by some to be a dark horse Heisman candidate.
“It’s been cool I guess, and in a way it’s been surprising,” Prescott said. “I don’t feel like I’ve played near my best ball here yet. It’s good though that people are noticing what I can do and have high expectations for me. That just raises my personal expectations for myself.”
Prescott went 4-3 as a starter leading MSU in both rushing and passing. He completed 58.4-percent of his throws for 1,940 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions while rushing 134 times for 829 yards and 13 more scores.
The Haughton, La., native hopes to take the offense to new heights even after a record-setting 2013 season.
“I think we’ll be an explosive offense,” Prescott said. “We’ve got guys all around me and it starts with getting them the ball to open up my game.”
Williams returns to backup Prescott behind center. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from New Orleans had a memorable ending to last fall by running for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown in overtime at Arkansas and also starting the Egg Bowl.
“He’s a lot more comfortable and confident in what we’re doing as an offense,” said quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. “You can see he’s had some experience and is gaining some of those leadership qualities. He’s done a good job and you can tell he’s becoming a more mature player.”
The Bulldogs signed a pair of quarterbacks in the 2014 class in Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley.
Fitzgerald was an early high school graduate and was able to get a head start participating in both bowl and spring practices. Staley is a 6-foot-6 southpaw who also intends to play basketball for State.
“Both of those young guys have a ton of talent,” Johnson said. “They still have a ton of progress to make but they’ve done a nice job so far.”
The quartet of quarterbacks have built a strong relationship with Johnson, who is in his first season in Starkville replacing Les Koenning. The 27-year old former Utah quarterback and offensive coordinator was also recruited and coached by Dan Mullen.
“He’s like a dad, brother and a friend,” Prescott said. “It’s good to have him coaching me.”
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – During the spring, Mississippi State had both of its starting defensive tackles out of action.
Seniors P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls were both held out of team drills while recovering from ankle and foot injuries. However, that time provided some of the Bulldogs’ younger interior defensive linemen to get first team reps which will only help their cause this fall.
MSU’s defensive tackles have a wealth of talent consisting of a five-star, three four-stars and and four three-star prospects.
“The talent isn’t an issue here,” said sophomore Chris Jones. “The issue will be to stay healthy. If everyone is healthy then the sky is the limit for us.”
The Bulldogs’ returning defensive tackles notched 103 tackles last season including 15.5 for loss and five sacks.
Jones led that group with 32 stops and was tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss and had three sacks. But despite his success, the former Houston standout is still listed as a backup behind P.J. Jones and Eulls.
“I was a backup last year and if coach (Dan) Mullen feels more comfortable with me coming off the bench then that’s what I’ll have to do,” Jones said. “I’m going to go out there and make plays no matter if I’m a backup or a starter.”
Chris Jones, along with Nelson Adams and Grant Harris, will work as both defensive tackles and ends depending on the play call and situation.
Curtis Virges is back for his senior campaign.
The West Point native is determined to make an impact this fall after averaging 10 tackles a year in his first three seasons.
“I see him working harder and trying to do a little bit better,” said defensive line coach David Turner. “That’s good and is only going to make our group stronger.”
Nick James was a highly touted recruit from Long Beach and played as a true freshman in 2012. The decision was made to redshirt the 6-foot-5, 325-pounder last season to get in better shape both mentally and physically.
“Nick’s wanting to play just as much as I do,” Jones said. “He’s trying to compete every day and is a hard working guy. I feel like he’ll come out and have a great year.”
The Bulldogs ventured across the state line to sign Alabama prospects Braxton Hoyett and Corey Thomas from the Birmingham area. Both were three-star prospects and have impressed in fall camp although Turner hopes to redshirt both.
“Those young guys have had flashes,” Turner said. “Braxton Hoyett and Corey Thomas have done some good things. Thomas. Big Corey moves well and is probably quicker than he looks. I’m real pleased with them.”
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State lost its top tailback, LaDarius Perkins, to the NFL, and Derrick Milton transferred to McNeese State.
Yet the Bulldogs do not seem to be worried about their running game at all.
Quarterback Dak Prescott returns as the team’s leading rusher. But MSU also has a bevy of quality backs including four who chewed up 783 yards and scored seven touchdowns on the ground a season ago.
“I don’t know if I’ve had this many quality backs in a while,” said running backs coach Greg Knox. “The two freshmen have come in and shown they can play in this league and the veterans coming back are solid. Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway are all playing well right now. We’ve got competition at that position.”
The four returning backs, along with true freshmen Aries Williams and Dontavian Lee, have all split time in the backfield during training camp.
“They are all getting equal amounts of reps right now,” Knox said. “But as we start to prepare for a game then it’ll cut down.”
Knox mentioned the Bulldogs running out of two- and even three-back sets some this fall.
Griffin is the veteran of the group. The fifth-year senior has had major surgeries on both knees during his career but finally seems healthy entering his final campaign.
“I’m really motivated,” Griffin said. “I’ve been slowed down by injuries but this year that’s not the case. I’m real excited to see what I can do.”
The injuries have limited the 6-foot, 226-pounder to just 72 career carries for 427 yards and three touchdowns over 31 games.
Robinson returns as the Bulldogs leading back having gained 459 yards and three scores last season on 78 attempts. The junior also hauled in 12 passes for 115 yards and earned a pair of starts.
“I’ve dropped my body weight down so I’m a little bit faster,” Robinson said. “I’m getting smarter about the game. You have to have a passion for this game so I’ve got to continue to do what I do to move forward.”
Shumpert, a former Daily Journal Offensive Player of the Year at Itawamba AHS, also started two games as a true freshman last season. The 6-foot-2, 218-pounder rushed 46 times for 190 yards and scored three times in 2013.
Holloway split time between running back and receiver last fall. This year he will be in the backfield full-time and is the fastest player on the Bulldogs roster.
“I feel like Holloway is one of the most electrifying players on this team, if not the whole conference,” Griffin said. “He’s crazy fast and has a whole arsenal of moves. We’re excited to get him on the field.”
State signed a pair of power backs in February in Williams and Lee. Williams was Mississippi’s Mr. Football last season at West Point while Lee led Forrest County AHS to a Class 4A state championship.
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State returns three veteran defensive ends with plenty of playing experience.
Preston Smith is back for his senior campaign along with junior Ryan Brown and sophomore A.J. Jefferson. Now the Bulldogs are in search of a fourth defensive end to complete the rotation.
“Preston Smith, Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson have all had a really good camp so far,” Turner said. “If I can get a fourth guy that I feel real good about then that only helps us as a unit.
“Right now we’re trying to mix and match and figure out who’s going to fit where and what’s best for us.”
Smith totaled 44 tackles with 6.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. The 6-foot-6, 270-pounder was named defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl with a team-high six tackles and one quarterback hurry.
“It let me know what I needed to work on,” Smith said. “I need to come into every game focused like I was in the bowl game. Now I can roll that game into this first game and the rest of the games this season so I can be more consistent with my play.”
Brown appeared in all 13 games and made his first career start last season. The 6-foot-6, 262-pounder recorded 13 stops, 2.5 for loss and a sack.
“Ryan Brown’s a guy that you probably take for granted,” Turner said. “He just shows up and works hard every day and never says a word. He only gets better and better.”
Jefferson made 17 tackles as a redshirt freshman last fall including four tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and forced a fumble.
Four other players are bidding for the fourth spot in the rotation, including a pair of players with the ability to play inside as well.
“Torrey Dale, John Harris and we’ve moved Nelson Adams and Grant Harris out there,” Jefferson said. “Grant plays hard but still has to learn the plays. Nelson’s been looking real good out there. The competition between them, John and Torrey can go either way. Those guys are really pushing each other to get better.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones will again get some reps at defensive end in certain packages.
The Bulldogs signed Tyler Junior College three-star defensive end Will Coleman in February but he is only allowed to practice with the team and will have to redshirt his initial season at MSU.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder made 66 tackles, eight for loss, four sacks and forced and recovered a fumble as a sophomore last year. Coleman will have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2015.
“Will’s done some good things and he’s practicing like he’s a junior college guy,” Turner said. “He comes out of a good program at Tyler. He’s starting to feel more comfortable with the group.”
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Enduring two-a-days during training camp a month before the opening game can get repetitive.
Mississippi State found a way to break-up the monotony with a few outside-the-box activities.
Friday night, during the Bulldogs’ regularly scheduled team meeting, a special guest arrived. Cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend secretly snuck in his friend and former teammate with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jerome Bettis, to speak to the team.
“His whole speech was basically what we tell our guys on a daily basis about hard work, sacrifice and commitment,” said coach Dan Mullen. “If you’re willing to work hard and sacrifice then you’ll have success and that’s the path he followed.”
Townsend and Bettis were both part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL squad.
On Sunday, MSU was treated to a steak dinner by the Mississippi Cattleman’s Association in the fourth annual “Beefing Up the Bulldogs” event. The players interacted with livestock that was brought to the Leo Seal Football Complex including cows, goats and horses.
Several players went horseback riding including 330-pound defensive tackle Nick James, who was featured in a video on ESPN’s College Football Live.
James later knocked off three-time defending champion Kaleb Eulls in the hay bale toss. James heaved a bale 24 feet, 10-inches in a tiebreaker.
Robinson tears ACL
The Bulldogs’ plans to start Damien Robinson at right offensive tackle took a bad turn when the senior tore his ACL during Friday’s scrimmage and will miss the 2014 season.
The 6-foot-8, 320-pound former four-star prospect from Olive Branch has appeared in 37 career games.
Robinson was listed as a co-starter along with junior Justin Malone. Mullen mentioned Cole Carter, Justin Senior and Rufus Warren as contenders for the position as well.
Walk-on no more
Sunday was also a day to remember for Mississippi State’s DeAndre Ward.
During a routine team meeting, Mullen recognized Ward as being the walk-on most valuable player during training camp then surprised the sophomore linebacker by handing him an envelope containing a message that read “you are now on scholarship.”
Ward got a standing ovation from his teammates.
“He’s a guy that’s done a good job working hard in the classroom, had an unbelievable work ethic in the weight room and found a role on our special teams during this training camp,” Mullen said.
The 6-foot, 210-pounder from Wetumpka, Ala., began his career as a safety and appeared in two games for the Bulldogs last season.
Cooper to Co-Lin
Former three-star linebacker Deshon Cooper went through camp at MSU but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
The 6-foot-2, 209-pounder from Atlanta has enrolled and will play at Copiah-Lincoln Community College for the next two seasons.
He’ll be teammates with Bulldog commitments Donald Gray, Jonathan Calvin and Lashard Durr with the Wolfpack.
Mullen said tight end signee Ravian Pierce is working to become eligible in the spring.
When I moved to Starkville in 2006 upon graduating from college to start covering Mississippi State athletics, the Bulldogs were well behind the rest of the Southeastern Conference from a facilities standpoint.
But the job done by aggressive athletic directors Greg Byrne and Scott Stricklin during that span have helped MSU catch up in a hurry.
If you haven’t been on campus in a while, there’s a possibility you might not even recognize it.
Let’s go through some of the changes that have taken place just during my time here.
The first addition I remember was the opening of the Templeton Athletic Academic Center. The $10 million dollar, 34,000-square foot facility houses study facilities for all Bulldog athletes.
The $6.1 million 5,217 square foot high definition jumbotron – or MooTube, as I like to call it – was added to Davis Wade Stadium in 2008 and ranks eighth in the country in square footage. It’s still hard to imagine that they’ll be another one on the opposite side this fall.
The W.O. Spencer Stadium and Carl Maddox Track both underwent a $3.2 million renovation in 2011 and now plays host to several SEC and high school track events.
A much needed addition to Humphrey Coliseum came around that same time in the $11.2 million Mize Pavilion. The 57,611 square foot facility houses both the men’s and women’s basketball team as well as practice courts for both adjacent to their home floor. Both teams received new locker rooms prior to last year.
The Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex opened its doors in January 2013 at a cost of $25 million. The 80,000 square foot facility is home to all things football. Before its construction, the locker room, coaches’ offices, weight room and cafeteria were all located in separate buildings. Now it’s all under one roof.
On Aug. 30, the Bulldogs will open the 2014 season in the newly expanded Davis Wade Stadium. The $75 million project will increase capacity to 61,337 and create much more club seating in the newly bowled in north end zone. More elevators, restrooms, concession stands and plenty of brickwork were also incorporated into the project.
It’s quite the facelift for the second oldest Division I stadium.
In June it was announced that headquarters for the men’s and women’s golf teams would be moved to Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point. The $2.2 million project will include a driving range, putting greens and a 6,300-square foot clubhouse complete with indoor hitting bays.
The A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre and softball field will both be receiving upgrades starting in May.
Last week, renderings for a $40 million overhaul on Dudy Noble Field were revealed. Stricklin stated that project would begin as soon as half the funds were raised. Once completed, it would give the Diamond Dogs arguably the top on-campus stadium in college baseball.
These upgrades made in just the last eight years have closed the gap considerably between the Bulldogs and the rest of the league. It has allowed the coaching staffs to sell their facilities to recruits and increase the talent pool in each of these sports.
Now that MSU has taken the necessary steps to compete in the SEC arms race from a facilities standpoint, will it translate into success? Now that the SEC Network is finally here, we will all be able to see if that transpires.
Logan Lowery (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs daily at InsideMSUSports.com.
By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s plans at strong safety changed drastically on the sixth play last season.
Jay Hughes ruptured his Achilles tendon and was lost for the year, forcing a shakeup in the secondary the rest of 2013. Although Hughes is back and healthy, he is now locked in a battle with junior Kendrick Market to regain his starting spot.
“We’re working and nobody is satisfied,” Jay Hughes said. “Everybody is hungry and everybody has that look in their eyes.”
Market, a junior from South Panola, started the final 12 games and finished third on the team with 62 tackles. Jay Hughes’ injury kept him out most of the spring as well but his father – the Bulldogs’ safeties coach, Tony Hughes – considers them both starters at the position now.
“We’re not afraid or worried about who’s in the game at any certain time because there’s no step down or drop in performance,” Tony Hughes said.
MSU lost the nation’s active interceptions leader in Nickoe Whitley to graduation at free safety and are banking on senior Justin Cox making the move from cornerback to fill the vacancy.
Cox switched to safety during Liberty Bowl practices last season, moving back where he was considered the nation’s No. 2 safety and a four-star prospect at East Mississippi Community College.
“The transition has been very smooth for him,” Tony Hughes said.
Cox made 31 tackles and had an interception in 2013 as a corner. The former West Point standout picked off 11 passes during his two seasons at EMCC as a safety.
Tony Hughes hopes having his son and Cox entering their final year together will give each that extra enthusiasm to lead not only the safeties but the defense overall.
“The thing you see with seniors like Jay and Cox is desperation,” Tony Hughes said. “This is it for them. It’s their last year and they want to go out winners so they’re going to work hard and do everything they can.”
The Bulldogs have three sophomores working their way into the rotation in Kivon Coman, Deontay Evans and Quadry Antoine. Brandon Wells also returns after a redshirt freshman season last fall.
State signed a pair of in-state safeties in February bringing in Rosa Fort’s Brandon Bryant and Clarksdale’s J.T. Gray. Tony Hughes is expecting both to have a bright future ahead of them.
“They have the work ethic, attitude, athletic ability and everything it takes,” Tony Hughes said. “They’re learning every single day from the older guys because they have experience. They’re going through the learning process right now.”
BY LOGAN LOWERY
Football may be on the horizon but the Southeastern Conference managed to work in some hoops news late Friday afternoon with the release of the men’s basketball league schedule.
Ole Miss will begin conference play on the road for the 13th time in the last 17 years as the Rebels travel to Kentucky on Jan. 6 for a game on the SEC Network at 6 p.m. Mississippi State tips off SEC play the following day, hosting Tennessee at 8 p.m. That’s also on the SEC Network.
Ole Miss and MSU will clash in Oxford on Tuesday, Jan. 28, with the return game in Starkville on Thursday, Feb. 19.
The two teams split the regular season series last year and Ole Miss ended the Bulldogs season with a 78-66 win in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
The Rebels also have home-and-home meetings with LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida while the Bulldogs meet Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Arkansas twice.
Home and away
Ole Miss hosts South Carolina, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Vanderbilt in Tad Smith Coliseum and also travels to Missouri, Auburn and Alabama.
State welcomes Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky to Starkville and also makes road treks to Florida, Auburn and South Carolina.
The Rebels are coming off a 19-14 season under Andy Kennedy and went 9-9 inside the SEC. Ole Miss opens the 2014-15 campaign on Nov. 14 at home against Charleston Southern.
The Bulldogs went 14-19 last year including a 3-15 league mark. They’ll open Rick Ray’s third season Nov. 14 at home against Western Carolina.
BY LOGAN LOWERY
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State tight ends coach Scott Sallach has plenty of options this season.
Sallach’s squad features five scholarship tight ends ranging in size from 6-foot-2, 231-pounds all the way to 6-foot-7, 260-pounds and showcasing a wide range of skill sets.
“I’ve got a nice mixture of older guys and younger guys,” Sallach said. “I’ve also got the whole spectrum of body types in my room now, which is a good thing.”
Seniors Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill provide veteran leadership to the group while sophomore Gus Walley is returning from injury. B.J. Hammond is back after a redshirt season and junior college transfer Darion Hutcherson joins the team this fall.
“We’ve all got our own unique skill set specifically,” Hill said. “Malcolm’s more of the receiving tight end and I’m more versatile. Gus is more of a wideout tight end and B.J. Has a background as a receiver too. ‘Hutch’ is that big body tight end that’s 6-foot-7. Everybody brings something different to the table.”
Because Dan Mullen’s spread offense can use so many sets, the tight ends are asked to share many differing roles within it. Sallach feels his unit can adapt to any situation due to the versatility of the group.
“In coach Mullen’s offense, it’s a very unique situation because they have to have the ability to block defensive ends, linebackers and cornerbacks,” Sallach said. “They have to understand the run game, pass game, picking up blitzes, coverages, protections and routes. The only person that has to know more than them is the quarterback.”
Johnson returns as the Bulldogs’ top receiving tight end, having hauled in 30 passes last season for 391 yards and two touchdowns. He will again be the focal part of the passing game at the position.
“He has to have a huge role for us to be successful this year,” Sallach said.
Hill, a native of Columbus, is the only other tight end to catch a pass at the Division I level but has made just eight grabs for 102 yards in his career.
Walley redshirted his true freshman season in 2012 and missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Hammond shifts to tight end after working as a receiver last fall.
‘Big, athletic kid’
Hutcherson arrived during the summer from Copiah-Lincoln Community College and quickly rose to second on the preseason depth chart.
“He’s a big, athletic kid,” Sallach said. “I like to think I’m a pretty good coach but I can’t coach him to be 6-foot-7. He’s got great feet but at the same time he’s in his first year in the program. It’s a matter of him learning the language and going against SEC players. He’s got the skill set, it’s just a matter of getting him up to speed.”
MSU also has a talented walk-on working at tight end. Rashun Dixon, a former four-star signee in 2008, returns to football after spending six years in the Oakland Athletics farm system. He’s the younger brother of Buffalo Bills running back Anthony Dixon.
BY LOGAN LOWERY
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State was the second worst field goal kicking team in the country last season.
The Bulldogs saw just 10 of their 21 attempts split the uprights in 2013 finishing just ahead of UTEP for 123rd in that category.
MSU’s primary kicker last fall, Devon Bell, was 6 of 14 and has since been regulated to punting and kickoff duties. Now the placekicking responsibilities fall at the feet of three walk-ons.
Sophomore Evan Sobiesk kicked in seven games last season and while newcomers Westin Graves and J.J. McGrath are also battling for the job.
“We are all three very good kickers,” Sobiesk said. “You can’t be bad kicking in the SEC West. It’s going to come down to who can do it when it matters the most in pressure situations.”
Sobiesk converted three of his six field goal tries last fall with a long of 38-yards against South Carolina.
The Hattiesburg native also booted the game-tying 36-yard field goal with 2:21 remaining in regulation of the Egg Bowl but missed a potential game-winning 39-yard try as time expired in the fourth quarter.
“It’s a pressure situation whenever you’re out on the field,” Sobiesk said. “You really don’t think of the fans looking at you. It’s you, the snapper and the holder. You just do what you’ve done a thousand times over and over again.”
Sobiesk made just 4 of 10 during three scrimmages inside Davis Wade Stadium this past spring but is hopeful he can turn things around this fall. He has spent the summer working on both accuracy and consistency.
“If I kick the way that I know I can kick and stay confident in myself and have a good camp then I will be the guy,” Sobiesk said.
Graves connected on two of his four kicks during spring scrimmages and is trying to win the job as a true freshman out of Jackson Prep.
McGrath transferred to MSU during the summer after redshirting at Michigan as a freshman last fall. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound left-footer was a preferred walk-on for the Wolverines.
“All of them are extremely inexperienced at the placekicking position,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen. “We’ll see how it all plays out in training camp. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to simulate the pressure you are going to feel on a Saturday in the stadium. You can try as hard as you want to simulate it, but there is no simulation for it.
“We’ll see how they perform during training camp and then in the season. I don’t know if we’ll have starter Week 1, because that’s our first opportunity to put some of those other guys in where they are playing live in a stadium.”