By BRAD LOCKE / NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – The loss of Leon Berry is felt across many fronts for Mississippi State.
Berry, who underwent surgery on Monday for a dislocated ankle suffered during last week’s 47-24 win at Houston, is out for the season. He might get back for a bowl game if MSU (4-2, 1-2 SEC) makes one – but until then, he leaves several holes to be filled.
For starters, he’s the only senior on a thin receiving corps. Berry has caught eight passes for 188 yards and a touchdown, averaging a team-best 23.5 yards per catch.
He’s also one of the best kick return men in the SEC, with his 26.8-yard average ranking sixth in the SEC. He had a 97-yard return for touchdown against Alcorn State two games ago.
“He’s a senior, he’s a leadership committee member, he’s the leader of the wide receiver position, the most experienced receiver we have,” coach Dan Mullen said. “Obviously a great kickoff returner. And he is a major factor for our team. So you lose him more than one way with him being gone.”
As the Bulldogs prepare for a trip to No. 22 Florida (4-2, 2-2) this week, Mullen will be looking for some young receivers to fill the void as best they can.
Sophomore Chris Smith, who drew his first career start last week and had two catches for 13 yards, will be one of those youngsters.
He’s fifth on the team this year with 79 yards on eight catches, and the players ahead of him, besides Berry, are all sophomores: Arceto Clark (11 for 163 yards), Brandon Heavens (12-187) and Chad Bumphis (32-431).
“That’s part of the situation you’ve got to deal with. That’s what makes the SEC so tough,” Mullen said. “For us, we just need some younger other guys that are going to have to step up.”
Stepping in for Brignone
n Mullen is hoping that center J.C. Brignone, who suffered a sprained left knee against Houston, will be ready to play Saturday.
He’s not going to be able to practice before Thursday, though, so the Bulldogs have to plan as if he won’t be available.
Quentin Saulsberry, normally the starting right guard, moved to center when Brignone went down, and things went smoothly for the offense.
If Brignone can’t go Saturday, line coach John Hevesy doesn’t expect that to unhinge the front five.
“It’s not going to be an alarming thing for these kids to walk in and say, oh, what do we do now?” Hevesy said. “It’s just they’re going to get more reps at one position than they got before.”
Hevesy told Saulsberry on Monday that “you’re the captain of this crew,” and Saulsberry, a junior and third-year starter, is embracing that role but expects everybody to help.
“Every man’s got to look himself up in the mirror and say, I’ve got to step my game up,” he said. “If he’s not going to be there, I’ve got to step up and be a vocal leader, too.”
n MSU is riding its first three-game winning streak since 2007, while Florida is in the midst of its first two-game losing streak since the same season.
The Bulldogs haven’t won four in a row since 1999, when they went 10-2. The Gators haven’t lost three straight since … 1999. Those losses came against Florida State, Alabama in the SEC title game, and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
“I don’t know that it’s more of a hornet’s nest than any time you walk into the Swamp on a Saturday night to play a football game,” Mullen said. “I’m sure they’re going to get things turned around, they’re going to get things fixed right there.
“They lost to two top-10 teams. It’s not like they’ve lost to any lesser teams.”
n This week’s game is Florida’s homecoming. The Gators have won 21 consecutive homecoming games, with the last loss, 16-0 to Auburn in 1988. … Cornerback Corey Broomfield had a 27-yard interception return for touchdown last week, his third career pick-six, which set a school record. … MSU ranks ninth in the SEC in punting average (40.1 yards per kick) but third in net punting (38.7).
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or email@example.com