MSU Spring Football Primer

Mississippi State started spring football practice yesterday, a day earlier than scheduled because of the inclement weather that’s forecast for today. But it’s certainly not too late to offer y’all a spring primer, and it’s actually helpful to do so after the Bulldogs have hit the field, because we learned a few things from that first practice.

We’ll work that knowledge into this humble little entry.

Locked in: Coach Dan Mullen likes to say all position battles are open competitions, and I won’t contradict him, but it’s going to take a dramatic turn of events for Chris Relf not to be the starting quarterback again this year. Entering last season, it seemed he and Tyler Russell would share the duties all fall, but Relf’s vast improvement made him hard to take out.

Russell played in nine games and did not see the field in the final two regular-season games. He threw no passes in the Gator Bowl, of which Relf was named MVP. Russell completed 58.2 percent of his passes and made some really good throws, but Relf’s dual-threat abilities and experience give him the edge.

Locked out: Whatever the reasons – injury, fumbling issues, etc. – once-promising tailback Robert Elliott has been shuffled way down the depth chart and, barring a rash of injuries, the senior is stuck there. Vick Ballard came in as a juco transfer and tore it up (968 yards, 19 TDs), and LaDarius Perkins, a rising sophomore, was a great change-of-pace back who could run between the tackles, unlike Elliott.

Best position battle: This could also be the most important battle (although I contend below that another battle holds that distinction): linebacker. All three 2010 starters are gone, and eight or nine guys will be vying for those roles. Looking at my pre-spring position notes, I couldn’t tell you who will win out, but here are some leading candidates: At will, Michael Hunt and Deontae Skinner; at middle, Brandon Wilson, Jamie Jones and Ferlando Bohanna; at sam, Cam Lawrence and Chris Hughes.

And redshirt freshman Matt Wells worked some at sam yesterday, as well as nickelback. Most of these guys are Mullen recruits – Hunt and Jones signed with Sylvester Croom, while Lawrence was committed to Croom and stuck with Mullen, as I recall.

Anyway, MSU wants at least six guys it can count on at those three spots, and I’d expect the depth chart there to fluctuate greatly between now and Sept. 3.

Most important position battle: The best player on the Bulldogs last year was left tackle Derek Sherrod. Trying to replace him is a handful of interesting players: senior James Carmon, a former defensive tackle; redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell, who like Carmon is huge (6-7, 305) but was, as one colleague put it, a revolving door in practices last season (he never saw the playing field); and junior college transfer Joey Trapp, who the coaches somehow found way out in Los Angeles.

None of those guys are Sherrod quality, but few are. To me, this only strengthens Relf’s hold on the QB job because you’ll want a guy who can escape blindside pressure. Carmon has a lot of work to do technique-wise, and I’m just not sure how ready those other two are. I’ve heard some buzz that the versatile Quentin Saulsberry, the presumptive successor at center, might be moved to left tackle.

Biggest question mark: Can MSU generate a pass rush with its defensive ends? Pernell McPhee is gone, and that’s a big loss. Senior Sean Ferguson hasn’t shown himself to be a huge threat to quarterbacks, and it’s hard to say what you can expect from Trevor Stigers, Shane McCardell and Corvell Harrison-Gay, although I thought Stigers, a fourth-year junior, showed some promise last season (19 tackles, 4.5 TFL in 11 games).

Redshirt freshman Kaleb Eulls, who was a four-star recruit out of Yazoo County, should get a shot at making an impact. He could play some tackle, too. Also, junior Devin Jones, a backup tackle last year, worked at end some yesterday.

What else to watch for: The cornerback position is pretty crowded, which explains why Louis Watson was spotted working at safety yesterday. Speaking of safeties, I’m interested in the battle between senior Wade Bonner and sophomore Nickoe Whitley. The latter started the first 10 games of last season, then Bonner started the last two regular season games, then it was Whitley again in the bowl game.

I might be reading too much into that, because with the multiple looks MSU puts out there, being on the field for the first play doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the main guy. Both will play a lot this year.

We can’t forget about the wide receivers. Only Leon Berry was lost, so MSU returns 90 percent of its wide receiver production from last season. There’s finally some depth at that position.

There you go. Practices are open to the public, and the next one is Saturday, time TBD due to weather. So wear your rainboots and go watch.