STARKVILLE, Miss., - For the first time in Dan Mullen's tenure at Mississippi State the Bulldogs entered the offseason coming off a loss.
In fact, MSU might want to erase most of the last half of the 2012 slate. The Bulldogs began the year reeling off seven straight victories but struggled down the stretch losing five of their final six games including a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
"This is the first year we hadn't won our last game of the season," Mullen said. "I do think with a lot of guys here, it is a motivating factor for them coming into spring. They are not pleased with how the last year ended. "Sometimes it will put a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. They got a little more 'umph' to them out there on the field because they kind of have that chip on their shoulder with how last year ended."
The good news is that expectations have certainly changed under Mullen's watch. State had only been to 13 bowl games before his arrival in 2009 but has been to three straight, winning two.
The Bulldogs have also invested $100 million in two major facility upgrades for the program. The $25 million Seal football complex opened its doors in January and construction is underway on a $75 million renovation to Davis Wade Stadium set to be completed by the 2014 season opener.
Mississippi State's work this spring was hindered by several injuries to key personnel, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Back-up quarterback Dak Prescott and second string running back Nick Griffin both missed the entire spring while recovering offseason surgeries. Tailbacks LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson also missed a chunk of practices due to injury as well.
Rising senior Tyler Russell was the only scholarship quarterback available this spring with the second and third team reps going to walk-ons Sam Cowart and Josh Hand. MSU signed two signal callers in February in four-star Cord Sandberg and three-star Damian Williams and hope to have both in camp this fall. Sandberg is considered a top MLB prospect and is likely to be selected high in June's draft.
The spring gave the Bulldogs a chance to implement some defensive changes brought on by new full-time coordinator Geoff Collins. Collins shared the role with Chris Wilson for the past two seasons before Wilson departed for Georgia.
"We've come out here any played in the scrimmages with a lot of juice and that's been positive," Collins said. "We've thrown a lot at them this spring schematically and they've picked it up well. The biggest thing is just playing hard, being physical and having energy and enthusiasm. That's what we've been preaching. Some days it's been better than others and we've got to get that to be a consistent theme of the defense."
The defensive staff changes also included bringing back former defensive line coach David Turner from Kentucky and also two-time Super Bowl champion Deshea Townsend to coach the cornerbacks.
Mullen also added Billy Gonzales on the offensive side of the ball as the wide receivers coach. Gonzales worked alongside Mullen on Urban Meyer's staffs at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT MISSISSIPPI STATE
What's the biggest things you learned about the Bulldogs this spring?
Mississippi State's defense will be much more aggressive when it takes the field in the fall.
With Collins now calling all the shots the Bulldogs got after the quarterback with blitzes from many new and different looks this spring. MSU only generated 19 sacks in 13 games last season but have both leading pass rushers - Preston Smith and Denico Autry - back at defensive end.
Kaleb Eulls, who started at defensive end the last two seasons, has bulked up and moved inside to give most of a pass rush up the middle along with talented sophomores Quay Evans and Nick James and juniors P.J. Jones and Curtis Virges.
Add several redshirt defensive linemen along with five-star defensive end signee Chris Jones to the mix and the Bulldogs will definitely be deep along its front.
Collins also utilized some of his bigger safeties such as Deonte Evans, Quadry Antoine, Dee Arrington and Zachary Jackson close to the line of scrimmage like linebackers similar to the "Dawg safety" position former coordinator Joe Lee Dunn used in the late 90's in Starkville.
What is the biggest question Mississippi State answered during spring ball?
It has taken Mullen his whole tenure to build the type of depth from a numbers standpoint to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Outside of quarterback, the Bulldogs are deep at every position due to Mullen's plan to redshirt and develop a vast majority of his signing classes.
There were several players who either missed the entire spring or spent time in the injury pit during the spring but MSU was able to carry on practices without missing a beat.
At one point, three running backs - Perkins, Griffin and Robinson - were all sidelined leaving Derrick Milton as the only scholarship player available in the backfield. Just to give all three offensive units a running back during that time, redshirt freshman wide receiver Brandon Holloway was brought in to take some handoffs.
Holloway, a former high school track sprinter, blew past the Bulldogs defense on numerous occasions with his elite speed in practice and was the leading rusher in the spring game with 12 carries for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Mullen stated that Holloway will likely be utilized in multiple ways on offense based on his versatile performance this spring.
What are the questions still lingering around MSU after the conclusion of spring practice?
Two positions were decimated due to graduation after last season - wide receiver and cornerback. The Bulldogs lost six senior receivers as well as three cornerbacks including NFL second round draft picks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
State has several young receivers - Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow - who have had a limited role in the past but were asked to be the main targets for Russell this spring. JUCO signee Jeremey Chappelle progressed throughout the spring and finished with eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown during the spring game.
The Bulldogs signed six wide receivers in February to help replenish the depth at the position.
Rising junior Jamerson Love is the only cornerback with any significant playing experience returning. Taveze Calhoun missed all of spring due to injury giving reps to talented but unproven corners Will Redmond, Cedric Jiles, Justin Cox and Kivon Coman. Cox and Coman are a pair of mid-year enrollees who signed with MSU twice during the recruiting process.
Which players stepped up during the spring?
Holloway's versatility and blazing speed should give Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning a weapon to use in multiple ways both on offense and special teams. At only 5-foot-8, 165-pounds, Holloway brought new meaning to 'you can't tackle what you can't catch.'
Chappelle showed steady improvement as a midyear enrollee at receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder was brought in to bridge the gap at the position and will play right away.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Beniquez Brown was among the top three tacklers in each of the Bulldogs three major spring scrimmages. Brown's nose for the football not only caused him to rack up his share of stops but also several interceptions as well. He finished those scrimmages with 20 tackles, three for loss, two pass breakups, two interceptions including one for a 28-yard touchdown.
Who are the players who need to step up during the summer?
With the losses at receiver the Bulldogs need Morrow to exhibit the same playmaking ability he showed during his redshirt season in 2011. In eight games last fall he caught only five passes for 53 yards during his first year on the field.
For two years now Morrow at 6-foot-4, 210-pounds has been only wideout of his build on the roster. That number will increase to five receivers 6-foot-3 or taller in the fall with the addition of the 2013 signing class. Morrow has the experience edge on the incoming receivers but will have to be more consistent to keep his spot atop the depth chart.
Michael Carr could also help the Bulldogs at wide receiver. The former four-star prospect left the program eight games into his sophomore year in 2011 for personal reasons and was not enrolled at MSU last fall. Carr reached out to the coaching staff during the offseason and returned to the school and football program as a walk-on during January with two years of eligibility remaining.
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