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Mississippi State spring game: Five things to watch

4/17/2015

After riding high as the nation's No. 1 team for five weeks last season, Mississippi State ultimately fell, losing three of its final four games before finishing the season ranked 11th in the AP poll.

Now, picked by many to finish in the bottom half of the SEC West in 2015, the Bulldogs feel like underdogs again. It's a familiar tone for a program that relishes playing with a chip on its shoulder.

Will that attitude show up on Saturday when Mississippi State holds its spring game? That remains to be seen, but we do have five other areas for you to watch when the Bulldogs take the field.

1. Return of Manny Diaz: In terms of continuity, coach Dan Mullen couldn't have found a better replacement for defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left for the same position at Florida. Diaz, who was Mullen's coordinator in Starkville in 2010, already knows what's expected of him. The scheme isn't expected to change dramatically. The "Psycho Defense" attitude isn't going anywhere either. But that doesn't mean Diaz isn't looking to make improvements. Because while Collins' defense was aggressive last season in forcing turnovers and getting plenty of sacks, it ended up surrendering an average of 424 yards per game, a number that ranked 12th in the SEC. With a bunch of new faces to work with this season, it will be interesting to see whether Diaz can harness the defense's attitude and create a more fundamentally sound unit that fares just as well between the 20s as it does in the red zone.

2. No more 1A and 1B?: Mississippi State had the comfort of being two-deep at every position on defense last season, prompting Collins to refer to the two units as 1A and 1B. It's part of why the Bulldogs played so well in the second half of games. They simply didn't miss a beat. But with only a handful of returning starters on that side of the ball, that luxury could be gone. The 1As will be fine because of all the experience they gained last season. Ryan Brown returns at defensive end, and stud recruit Chris Jones finally steps into a starting role. Richie Brown, who made his fair share of plays last season, steps in for Benardrick McKinney at inside linebacker. But the real question is who their backups will be. The staff is high on freshman linebacker Gerri Green, who has been compared to McKinney in terms of his athleticism. With starting DBs Kendrick Market and Taveze Calhoun out with injuries, we'll find out a lot about the depth on the back end of the defense where safeties Kivon Coman and Deontay Evans are hoping to make a name for themselves.

3. Prescott's next step: He's a fifth-year senior and Heisman Trophy finalist, but at the end of the day, this is only Dak Prescott's second spring as Mississippi State's starting quarterback. So his development is far from over. The strong, athletic QB was one of the best playmakers in the country last year, but his numbers took a significant dip the second half of the season. Why? Some of it was due to injuries, but there were other issues at play. Turnovers cropped up, revealing some flaws in his decision-making and mechanics. Mullen says he's seen a noticeable improvement in both of those areas this spring. With De'Runnya Wilson, Joe Morrow and Fred Brown all back at receiver, Prescott has some weapons to work with. Junior-college transfer Donald Gray could be a difference maker at receiver, as well. If Prescott takes the next step as a passer, he could find himself right back in the Heisman conversation.

4. Rebuilding the O-line: The two Justins return -- Justin Malone and Justin Senior, that is -- but three other spots on the offensive line must be filled this offseason, including arguably the two most important positions of center and left tackle. With Dillon Day, Ben Beckwith and Blaine Clausell all gone, the Bulldogs could be in trouble. Players have given good reviews to first-team tackle Rufus Warren and guard Devon Desper. The jury is out on center Jamaal Clayborn, however, as the junior continues to make the difficult transition from guard. There's plenty of talent among the offensive linemen on campus, but the question is whether they'll come together in a hurry this season or if they're another year away.

5. Bye, bye Bowling Ball: Josh Robinson came from nowhere last year to rank among the top-three of the SEC in rushing yards and yards per carry (min. 150 attempts), earning the nickname of "Bowling Ball" because of his short stature and ability to topple defenders like so many pins. But Robinson was ultimately a one-hit wonder, declaring for the NFL draft after his junior year, and now Mullen must find his next great running back. Thankfully for Mullen and Bulldog fans alike, there's a history of little-known backs stepping up in Starkville, whether it's Robinson, LaDarius Perkins, Vick Ballard or Anthony Dixon. This year it will be either Ashton Shumpert, Dontavian Lee or Aeris Williams. It could be all three, depending on how things go. Williams, the former Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi, might have the biggest upside, but Shumpert is the most seasoned of the three after having played in every game as a true freshman last season.