- Alex Scarborough, SEC reporter
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen likes his team. While pundits might be down on Mississippi State’s chances in 2015, he sees a squad with the potential to compete in a stacked SEC West. Looking at all the other teams in the division, he can’t see a game in which someone would say his Bulldogs don’t have a chance to win.
Alabama has to break in a new quarterback, LSU can’t decide between its two signal-callers and Auburn and Texas A&M are still trying to discover what defense is. Ole Miss could be good, but Chad Kelly is a wild card, Laquon Treadwell is coming back from injury and their running game is a question mark. Arkansas, for all its momentum, is still a team that won seven games last year.
So why not Mississippi State? Why not the team with the best returning starter at the most important position on the field, quarterback Dak Prescott?
But of course, it’s not that simple.
Mullen knows this. All he has to do is look at his spring depth chart. There, in black and white, is the issue. In the bottom right corner of the page, it says that all names in bold are returning starters. There is a grand total of six bolded names on offense and defense. The list of injured players includes two starting DBs, safety Kendrick Market and cornerback Taveze Calhoun.
Mississippi State made it to No. 1 in the polls last season due in large part to its depth. The two-deep was littered with juniors and seniors. Underclassmen came off the bench with little pressure and made plays. But now players such as Richie Brown, Chris Jones and Jamaal Clayborn are starters. Now, in addition to how the first-time starters will handle the increased responsibility, the question is whether the Bulldogs are deep enough to play well into the second half of games and survive a few inevitable injuries.
Prescott, who said he loves the attitude of this team, has noticed a different tone at practice.
“We’ve got a younger team kind of stepping up and maturing a little bit,” he said. “We’ve had a good spring. Every practice has been great. ... Everybody has bought in.”
Watching players step into new roles has been fun, Prescott said.
“We’re getting the younger guys ready,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to learn that when they’re tired they have more left in them to go hard, stay focused and be disciplined. It comes with spring ball. ... It’s good watching guys who have never even played on a Saturday before feel themselves and get in their rhythm and get in their mode and become big-time players.”
But while Prescott is a source of constant optimism, his coach delivers a dose of reality.
Entering his seventh season at Mississippi State, Mullen knows it’s difficult to project how things are going to play out with younger, more inexperienced players.
“Where with older guys you want to see a steady increase,” he said, moving his hand in horizontal line. Then his gestures became more erratic. “With younger guys it’s up and down.”
Take the middle linebacker position, for instance.
“Richie Brown played a lot last year, which is good for Richie,” Mullen said. “The problem becomes is that you’re going from Benardrick [McKinney] to Richie Brown last year to Richie Brown to Gerri Green this year. Gerri Green has zero career reps.
“Now it doesn’t mean [Green] is not as good as Benardrick. He looks like Benardrick. Physically, he’s a monster. But he just hasn’t played a whole lot.”
It makes for a lot of learning and a lot of teaching this spring, Mullen explained. He and the staff have to be patient, reminding themselves the season is still several months away.
“It’s not that we don’t have the guys, they’re just young,” he said. “The twos are talented. So that’s the scary thing. I like our O-line, but I may like it more next year.”
The defense has some growing up to do, but the offensive line might be the biggest point of concern for the Bulldogs this offseason. Starters Dillon Day, Ben Beckwith and Blaine Clausal are all gone. Not only will Prescott have a new center delivering him the football, he’ll have a new lineman protecting his blind side.
“It’s been rough,” said Justin Malone, who has 16 career starts. “It’s been a lot of work when you only have two returning starters. It’s a lot to kind of move people into those spots. The returning starters have to get better and help people, and sometimes it’s a hard job. Sometimes you have bad days, but you can’t have bad days. You have to get everybody on the same page and working together and get the best five.”
Whether it’s Rufus Warren stepping in at left tackle, Jamaal Clayborn at center and Devon Desper at right guard, as the depth chart indicates, remains to be seen. The starting five could change from Saturday, when Mississippi State holds its final practice of the spring.
With so much youth on both sides of the ball, projecting anything about the Bulldogs this soon is a fool’s errand.
In an up-in-the-air SEC West, they’ll compete. But things will have to break their way.
“The team that’s going to win is going to play at a very high level, isn’t going to have many injuries, are going to get into close games and find a way to pull those out,” Mullen said. “Whoever does that is going to take it.”
In other words, you have to be a little lucky.
Mississippi is breaking in as many new starters as anybody, but they also see a lot of talent.