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April 22, 2011Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen utilized his spring practices in much the same way he did bowl preparation in December to develop his inexperienced players.
The only difference is now he expects the young talent to contribute starting in the fall.
"We had a great spring," Mullen said. "It's always good to be back out there on the field practicing and trying to improve. We have a lot of young players on our roster right now so the more practice time we get with them the better and the more time being in the system. We need to have a great summer and those young guys need to develop because a lot of them are going to step on the field and play for us next year."
At the conclusion of spring Mullen was able to evaluate several position groups where his young stars began to shine.
"There are some young linemen that got a lot of reps that developed," Mullen said. "They still have a long way to go but they improved. I was pleased with some of our young receivers that are continuing to grow and develop to add depth to the program. On the defensive side of the ball the linebackers kind of stepped up but they still have a long way to get there. And then you have some of the young d-linemen like Kaleb Eulls and Curtis Virges who need to step on the field and make an impact this season."
Losing a potential first round draft pick at left tackle in Derek Sherrod would hurt any roster. But it leaves MSU with two players competing for the spot that have never played a down at that position in senior James Carmon and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell.
"They both have a long way to go," Mullen said. "They both made some huge gains but I think a lot of that was they had so far to go. There is a lot of inexperience and not used to being out there at that position. I am pleased with the progress they are making. The key is the progress they make over the next three months when I can't be with them."
The Bulldogs are also losing an All-SEC defensive end Pernell McPhee. While they do return some experience at that position the losses of Nick Bell and Johnathan McKenzie leave that group thin in depth.
"We have some guys that are taking steps but we are still young at that position," Mullen said. "Pernell is a guy who is now going on to play in the NFL so you don't always replace those guys with somebody else. You hope with the development of the program that the next guy does step up. The hardest part is that Pernell's backup going to the future was Nick Bell who passed away from cancer. When that happens it just knocks you out of the development of what your program is all about.
"We'll see if guys continue to develop at defensive end with Shane McCardell, Trevor Stigers and Sean Ferguson. Those are some guys that can take that next step. They have the potential to we're just going to have to see how they develop over the next couple of months."
State remains relatively young at receiver as well but the difference is most of the wideouts have been playing since their arrival gaining valuable experience.
"I wish we had some primo wideouts to go to but we have a group of solid players right now," Mullen said. "No one has really taken that step of being the star player. For us it is good. We're usually in some spread sets and have a minimum of three receivers on the field. We play about eight receivers during the course of a game so having that depth and being comfortable with those guys go onto the field and perform at a high level is an advantage to us as we go forward.
"We are still really young. We don't have any seniors on next year's roster at the receiver position. Even though we have some depth now we are still young at that position. It's taken us a couple of years to get to this point where we are comfortable with our depth."
The Bulldogs do have the luxury of having senior Chris Relf returning under center. Relf started all 13 games last season accounting for 2,502 yards of offense and 18 touchdowns. He ended spring atop the depth chart at quarterback but is getting a strong push from Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre.
"The competition to me is wide open right now," Mullen said. "Chris Relf obviously did a great job this spring. I don't know that he separated himself from the other guys but he also has the experience playing in the games and has done nothing to not be our top quarterback at this point."
The quarterback battle will continue throughout the summer and fall camp for Russell and Favre attempting to dethrone Relf.
"Going into the summer Tyler and Dylan are still competing and still improving," Mullen said. "They took big strides this spring. There will be a long time until we have to play so it will be interesting to see the improvement that these guys continue to make on their own."
Much was made about the departure to Texas of co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Manny Diaz following the Gator Bowl. But the Bulldogs retained the other co-coordinator Chris Wilson as well as appointing Geoff Collins to Diaz's former post.
As fans were able to see during the spring game the defensive scheme remains aggressive and attacking along with several new unorthodox looks.
"Chris was a co-coordinator last year so really our defense doesn't change," Mullen said. "One of the reasons we do that is to develop coaches. One of my jobs is to make sure I'm developing coaches to get the most out of them and also keeping the most stability in our program. It's good to bring in a Geoff Collins with different ideas. It's good to have fresh ideas and try some new things but the stability and what we do on the defensive side of the ball isn't going to change much."