NOTE: Mississippi State is picked to finish No. 4 in the SEC West by Scout.com publishers/writers.
But in a good way. After a 5-7 debut season spent setting things in place, the 2010 campaign produced a Bulldog breakthrough. Nine wins, a 4-4 SEC mark, another victory over Ole Miss, and a Gator Bowl rout of Michigan produced a final No.15 ranking. Good, even very good.
Which is why returning players and redshirts found signs proclaiming “From Good to Great” as the next stage in Mullen’s schedule.
“And that’s one of the hardest things you deal with. These guys have worked really hard, got to see some success, people are patting them on the back. They need to understand they have to work even harder now.”
The good news is, based on off-season efforts, the 2011 Bulldogs were working for greater things. If a couple of vacated positions are re-filled Mississippi State can have a great say in how the SEC, and thus the BCS, picture looks come next January.
It’s been many, many years since a Dog team had so much proven personnel in offensive skill positions. Senior quarterback Chris Relf thrived in his first season as a starter, and capped it as Gator Bowl MVP. Perhaps the most-improved player, at any position, in modern MSU memory, Relf has become a productive passer (59 percent, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions) to go with proven running skills in Mullen’s spread schemes. But while Relf had to win the Egg and Gator bowls on a bad hamstring, State won’t hesitate to put sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt Dylan Favre on the field this fall.
Whoever takes snaps will hand off to physical senior Vick Ballard. As a juco transfer he smashed the school scoring record with 20 touchdowns, gaining 968 yards. He might not reach 1,000 yards this year either, because sophomore LaDarius Perkins will share carries (566 yards, 3 TDs last season) and is even more dangerous turning short throws into huge gains.
Mullen loves letting receivers run, too, on sweeps and reverses. This season targets like Chad Bumphis (44 catches, 634 yards, 5 TDs), Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, and Brandon Heavens will try to stretch defenses more than the past two years. They’ll be rotated a lot because spring showed at least nine capable receivers, and four talented true freshmen will join them. State also hopes tight end Marcus Green stays healthy this senior season to create matchup nightmares blocking or route-running.
The big, literally, questions are replacing left tackle Derek Sherrod and center J.C. Brignone. Center should be in good hands with Quentin Saulsberry, who will start at guard or redshirt Dillon Day. If either converted defensive tackle James Carmon or redshirt Blaine Clausell can cover Relf’s blind side, the offense is set for great things.
The defense is excellent up the middle. True junior tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox are as potent a pair as any in the league with two more years together, and depth is excellent with redshirt Kaleb Eulls coming on strong. The starting end jobs are unsettled and not a worry with plenty of choices and combinations of size and speed for line coach and newly-promoted coordinator Chris Wilson.
All three linebacker starters graduated, two to the NFL. But restocking went well with Brandon Wilson filling the middle. Cameron Lawrence and Chris Hughes are former safeties who are physical enough to play the outside spots with coverage and blitzing speed. Mullen likes how youngsters Matthew Wells, Deonte Skinner, Christian Holmes, and Ferlando Bohanna are maturing.
And the secondary is the best-stocked part of the squad, built around senior safeties Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner with sophomore Nickoe Whitley. Corey Broomfield, Johnthan Banks (a safety alternate as well), Marvin Bure, and Damein Anderson make for all sorts of blitz- and cover-play packages.
Derek DePasquale is back to place kick and kickoff with redshirt Baker Swedenburg now punting. Mullen expects more big return plays this fall as well.
In fact, he expects more of everything in year three. Beginning with more effort to improve on 2010 success.
“That is what is needed for us to take the next step, and I think they have,” he said. “We have to see how this team gels and how this team is molded into hopefully a championship caliber team.”