The following was a combined effort from Coach 34 and The Ghost of Hank Flick.
Once again the thrill of a new football season is upon the Mississippi State faithful. The 2013 season brings the usual excitement, but with it lot of questions and concerns about how things will be handled both on the field and on the recruiting trails going forward. We will find out what is in store quickly as the season starts off with a bang against high-powered Oklahoma State at the Texas Kickoff in Houston.
The 2012 season was the best of times and the worst of times. That old saying describes Mississippi State football best for its results last fall. The best of times as State started off 7-0 and Bulldog Nation was extremely hopeful and excited. The worst of times as the Bulldogs lost 5 of their last 6 games including the Egg Bowl, which left some fans with a feeling of gloom and doom. Where does that leave State heading into 2013? Can Mullen get the ship back on course and lead the Bulldogs to their 4th straight bowl game – a feat that has never been done in Mississippi State history?
This year’s offense should see some changes from 2012. The Bulldogs plan to put 5th year Senior quarterback Tyler Russell under center in some new formations in an effort to try and bolster the run-game. This will also get more tight ends on the field for the Bulldogs – a position group that has a lot of talent. In addition to helping the run-game, this should also make the play-action passing game tougher to defend this season.
Offensively, there are plenty of reasons for optimism with 7 starters returning (if RG Tobias Smith plays in his 6th year of eligibility). At QB, Tyler Russell returns as the starter after breaking many school passing records in 2012, passing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns. Russell is a borderline draft pick for the NFL and is hoping to have a good season to help his cause. He is very accurate on short to medium passing zones, but needs work throwing the ball down the field. He also needs to work on getting rid of the ball a little quicker. The hard-working Russell had a really good spring and hopefully made strides on those weaknesses. Russell is backed up by Sophomore Dak Prescott. Dak is the more prototypical Spread QB, and is biding his time behind Russell. Dak accounted for 8 TD’s last season (4 running and 4 throwing).
At running back, State returns the whole herd. 5th year Senior LaDarius Perkins is the leader of this group. Perkins rushed for 1,024 yards last season and scored 10 TD’s (8 rushing, 2 receiving). Perkins is also a borderline NFL draft pick hoping to work his way into next April’s draft. The shifty Perkins (5’-10” 195) is a very good runner outside of the tackles and has great hands in the receiving game. Many are looking for him to be more involved in the passing game in 2013 because of his impact there. Perkins is backed up by ‘bowling ball’ Josh Robinson (5’-9” 225), Derrick Milton and Nick Griffin. Robinson showed flashes of being a very good RB, but needs to work on being consistent and his pass blocking. Milton is a natural runner but needs work on ball security and pass blocking. Griffin is a tough runner who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career in Starkville. His return from knee surgery would be a big, big plus.
Wide Receiver is a huge question mark for the Bulldogs offense going into the year. This group has no starters returning. The most experienced returnees are Juniors Robert “RoJo” Johnson and Jameon “Tubby” Lewis. These two guys look to be the leaders of the receiving corps in 2013. Johnson (17 catches for 164 yards), looks the part at WR and the time is now for him to show that he can be a playmaker. Lewis (10 catches – 108 yards) is small but lightning quick. Lewis has worked hard to be more consistent and improve ball security and should be counted on heavily in 2013. He is also electric in the kick return game. WR Jeremey Chappelle comes in from the juco ranks to push for playing time and should play a good bit. Other WR’s factoring in will be Sophomore Joe Morrow and Redshirt Freshman Fred Brown, plus highly touted true Freshman Fred Ross.
The Tight End position at State returns some very talented players. The leader of this group is Junior Malcolm Johnson. ‘MoJo’, as he has been nicknamed, has very good hands and could be a real force in the passing game. He has gained a little weight also to make sure he can do a better job of blocking in the run game. Another junior factoring in at TE is Brandon Hill. Hill is the better blocker of the two, but he has good hands also. Christian Holmes moved to TE from the defensive side of the ball and has found a new home. Rufus Warren and Gus Walley also look to factor in, making this one of the best groups of TE’s in the SEC.
Finally – a look at the big boys up front that make having a good offense possible. The Bulldogs return not only 5, but 6 starters on the offensive line from last season. Senior leader Tobias Smith is eligible to play his last season in a limited role to help the team as much as he possibly can. Tobias has battled injuries his entire career, but when healthy, he is a real road grader upfront. Having him back on the field and in a leadership role would be huge for this OL, but we know he’ll at least be on the sidelines for sure. He will be sharing time with Sophomore Justin Malone at Right Guard. Malone started a few games last year and played in all 13. At Left Guard is a Senior and our other leader – Gabe Jackson. Gabe is one of the country’s best guards and will be a high draft pick in next April’s draft (potentially 1st round). At Left Tackle is Blaine Clausell, now starting for his 3rd season. Clausell has gotten better every season and should have a good junior season. Right Tackle will be manned by Charles Siddoway, who started last season even though he played hurt a lot. Damien Robinson is a junior that could factor in and see significant playing time there also. At Center will be 3 year starter Dillon Day. Day does a great job making calls and plays with a mean streak. Back-ups on the OL include Justin Senior, Ben Beckwith, Dylan Holley, and Archie Muniz. State’s OL should be one of the better groups in the SEC this season.
Look for the Bulldogs to employ a much more aggressive scheme on defense in 2013 than 2012 under new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. Former DC Chris Wilson liked to play a “read and react”, bend but don’t break defense the last two seasons, but that will be thrown to the scrap heap. Collins wants his guys to get in there and create “defensive mayhem”. With a more aggressive style, a better pass rush, and talented LB’s it’s hard not to project the State defense as being a very improved unit in 2013.
The Bulldogs return two starters to the defensive line – end Denico Autry and former end but now tackle Kaleb Eulls (6’-4” 290). Autry really played well the final third of the season after transferring in from the juco ranks. He should be competing for All-SEC honors at the end of this season. Eulls makes the move from DE to DT. He has done a good job playing the run, but his pass rush skills have been lacking and the defensive staff feels his game will fare better on the inside. Joining him at DT will be PJ Jones. Jones is talented player that had some growing up to do after a 4 game suspension in 2012. All indications are that he has matured and has been working hard to have a good 2013. Rounding out the DL at weak-side DE will be Junior Preston Smith. Smith led the team in sacks last season in limited playing time. After having a great spring practice, many feel like Smith could really be a breakout player for the Bulldogs’ defense this season. Sophomore Ryan Brown, R-Freshman AJ Jefferson, and true Freshman Chris Jones look to get playing time at DE also. Jones was one of the country’s top recruits for 2013, but he will have to work hard to steal playing time from Brown or Jefferson. Other DT’s in the mix for playing time are Nick James, Quay Evans, and Curtis Virges. The whole DL should be vastly improved in 2013 under the new leadership of David Turner.
Linebacker is another real strength for the Bulldogs in 2013. State returns 2 of 3 starters here. Freshman All-American Benardrick McKinney is the man in the middle. McKinney had a stellar freshman season and is a freakish athlete for his size (6’-5” 235). He plays the run extremely well, but had to work hard this spring on pass coverage. Everyone is expecting big things from him this year. He is backed up by Junior Ferlando Bohanna who is an extremely solid back-up. At Sam (Strong) LB this season will be Deonte Skinner (6’-2” 250) who will be a 3rd year starter for the Bulldogs – but his 1st at ‘Sam’. This is a more natural position for him and he should excel there in 2013. His back-up will be either Beniquez Brown or Richie Brown – both of whom redshirted but were highly-rated coming out of high school. Matthew Wells (6’-2” 215) will be the 3rd starter at LB – playing the weak or ‘Willie’ LB position. Wells is a hybrid LB/Safety type of player with a lot of speed. He should help the Bulldogs match-up much better with Spread teams this season. He will be backed-up by Sophomore Zach Jackson. This group of LB’s is worthy of being in the top 5 of the SEC this season.
The Bulldog Secondary only returns 1 starter, but still has some experience. Free Safety Nickoe Whitley returns for his Senior season. He is considered to be one of the top 5 Free-Safeties in the country, and should be a mid-round draft pick this coming April. He is backed-up by Junior Dee Arrington. At Strong Safety, Jay Hughes is the starter. Hughes all but wrestled the position away from Corey Broomfield the last few games of last season, but is still short of being called a “returning starter”. He will be backed up by hard-hitting Sophomore Kendrick Market. While Safety is a much more known commodity for the Bulldogs, Cornerback has its questions. The Bulldogs lost Darius Slay and Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks to the NFL draft last year, and had to spend this spring finding replacements for those big shoes. Juco transfer Justin Cox won the job at one spot, while last year’s nickel defender, Junior Jamerson Love, won the other. These two guys are talented but must be ready to play from the opening snap with Big 12 opponent Oklahoma State coming up. Also fighting for playing time at CB or Nickel defender will be Cedric Jiles, Taveze Calhoun, and Will Redmond (after his five game suspension).
MSU will have one of the best special teams in the SEC this year. Many prognosticators have already said it will be the best. One of the strengths is the punting game where Junior Baker Swedenburg returns. He doesn’t have the biggest leg but was extremely effective in preventing return yardage last year and was very consistent in getting off 40-45 yard punts. Devon Bell returns as the placekicker. As a freshman Bell struggled early but really came into his own as the season progressed and ended the season hitting 14 of 21 field goals. Even better numbers are expected as he now has a season under his belt, and his big leg will be needed on kickoffs to make sure the Bulldog defense is starting on the opposing 25 yard line.
Returning kicks could be a number of players including Jameon Lewis, LaDarius Perkins, Robert Johnson or Brandon Holloway. Lewis and Holloway are small but extremely fast and may take over the role permanently as Perkins and Johnson look to have key roles in the offense this year.
*starts last year in parenthesis
QB – Sr. Tyler Russell (13), holds 7 of the 8 major passing records for a single season in MSU history / So. Dak Prescott (0), 4 TD, 0 INT as a freshman
RB – Sr. Ladarius Perkins (12), rushed for 1,024 yards in 2012 / So. Josh Robinson (0), 335 yards rushing / So. Derrick Milton (0), 179 yards
WR – Jr. Robert Johnson (0), 17 catches for 164 yards in 2012 / Jr. Jeremey Chappelle, 3-star juco transfer
WR – So. Joe Morrow (0), 5 catches for 53 yards, 4-star recruit in 2011, 6’-4” / RFr. Fred Brown, 3-star in 2012 class
Slot – Jr. Jameon Lewis (0), 10 catches for 108 yards, / RFr. Brandon Holloway, 5’-8” with 4.3 speed
TE – Jr. Malcolm Johnson (1), 10 catches for 171 yards, 2 TD / Jr. Brandon Hill (0), 5 catches for 46 yards
LT – Jr. Blaine Clausell (13), 17 career starts / RFr. Justin Senior, 3-star from ’12 class
LG – Sr. Gabe Jackson (13), pre-season 1st team All-SEC pick / Jr. Ben Beckwith (0), played in 23 out of 26 career games
C – Jr. Dillon Day (13), 19 career starts / Sr. Dylan Holley (0), played in 12 games as a juco transfer in 2012
RG – So. Justin Malone (4), 6’-7” 320 / Sr. Tobias Smith (9), injury plagued career – hoping to return for a 6th year of eligibility / Jr. Archie Muniz (0), played in all 13 games last year
RT – Sr. Charles Siddoway (13), full time starter in ’12 out of juco ranks / Jr. Damien Robinson (0), has all the tools but looking to put it together
DE – Sr. Denico Autry (10), 5-star player out of EMCC / RFr. A.J. Jefferson, 4-star recruit from 2012 class
DT – Jr. Kaleb Eulls (13), started all 23 games in his career at DE / So. Nick James (0), 6’-5” 345 monster in the middle
DT – Jr. P.J. Jones (2), looks to get back on track after troubled year in ’12 / Jr. Curtis Virges (2) could potentially be starter as well / So. Quay Evans (0), 5-star from ’12 class
DE – Jr. Preston Smith (0), led team with 4.5 sacks in a backup role / So. Ryan Brown (0), played in 7 games last year / Fr. Chris Jones, rated No. 2 overall prospect nationally by 24/7 for 2013 class
WLB – Jr. Matthew Wells (4), LB/S hybrid, 34 tackles, 3 passed defended / So. Zach Jackson (0), same size as Wells, played in all 13 games last year
MLB – So. Benardrick McKinney (10), freshman All-American, 102 tackles / Ferlando Bohanna (1), extremely solid backup
SLB – Sr. Deontae Skinner (13), 21 career starts, 62 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 PD / RFr. Beniquez Brown, 4-star from ’12 class
CB – Jr. Jamerson Love (2), 1 INT, 3 PD, 25 tackles / So. Cedric Jiles (0), played in 3 games as a true freshman before breaking his hand
FS – Sr. Nickoe Whitley (13), career: 31 starts, 10 INT, 14 PD / Jr. Dee Arrington, slow start to career but 4-star talent
SS – Jr. Jay Hughes (2), played in all 26 career games, 32 tackles, 2 PD last year / So. Kendrick Market (0), 1 INT, played in 12 games as a redshirt freshman
CB – Jr. Justin Cox, 4-star juco transfer / So. Taveze Calhoun, played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, 24 tackles
PK – So. Devon Bell, full time kicker as a true freshman, 14 of 21 FG, 43 of 44 PAT / RFr. Evan Sobiesk
P – Jr. Baker Swedenberg, attempted all 57 punts for MSU last fall, 41.1 yard average / RFr. Mike Mordecai
KR – Jr. Jameon Lewis, 25.9 yard average, 1 TD / Sr. LaDarius Perkins, 20.3 yard average / RFr. Brandon Holloway / Jr. Robert Johnson, 21.8 yard average
MSU has played some tough non-conference games in the past against teams like West Virginia, Georgia Tech or even Oklahoma State and Texas in the 1990s, but not too often have they kicked off the year with such a high-profile game as they do this year with Oklahoma State. The game will be before a national television audience on a neutral field in Houston. OSU is expected to have another good team and it will be a great challenge for State. Many Bulldog fans were not happy about scheduling a team like Oklahoma State as the schedule is daunting in 2013, but a win in this game would put MSU on the map early in the season. The youth in the secondary will be tested early but State also has some advantages against the Cowboys as well so it may not be as one-sided as some experts might have you believe.
Alcorn State makes the short trip to Starkville a week after the Texas Kickoff. This should be an easy win for MSU and it is a good sandwich game between the tough non-conference opener and the SEC opener the following week at Auburn. The Tigers and Dawgs have really developed the rivalry in recent years and this early season test is always crucial for both teams – and it could go either way this year. Auburn will be desperate to prove they are back under Gus Malzahn while State wants to erase the memories of what happened on the Plains two years ago (Chris Relf, 6 inch line).
After the Auburn game MSU comes home to play Troy. The Bulldogs have a shaky history with the Trojans which includes a 21-9 loss during a tornado in 2001, an 11-8 win the following year, and a narrow escape last fall in Troy, Alabama 30-24. Without a doubt MSU should win this game, and win rather easily – but they’ll have to play hard and not look ahead to their plans during the open date or the LSU game which follows it.
State will not play during Week 5 and that is a good thing as they’ll have a full week to prepare for LSU. The Dawgs haven’t beaten the Tigers since 1999 and only once in the last 21 years. But if there was ever a year for MSU to win, it might be this one. LSU loses a bunch of talent on defense, they are coming to Starkville, this is in the middle of a tough stretch for them (at UGA before, vs. Florida after), and State has a bye the week before. It will be a very tough challenge, but Mullen has faired slightly better than his predecessors in his four previous losses vs. the Bayou Bengals.
Homecoming brings in Bowling Green. They won’t be a pushover as they welcome 19 starters back from an 8-5 team. After a second week off Kentucky will come to Davis Wade on a Thursday night. Dan Mullen is 4-0 against the Wildcats and there is no reason to believe he won’t make it 5-0…and he will need to as the schedule is wretched up a notch after this game.
Once again the last five games of the year will be a brutal stretch. At South Carolina is followed by a trip half way across the country to play at Texas A&M. That’s the best defensive player in the country, Jadeveon Clowney, followed by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. If the Bulldogs can manage to win just one of these two games it will make most of the maroon faithful very happy.
Two-time defending national champions Alabama will follow that tough road stretch when they come to Starkville. MSU hasn’t beaten the Tide since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year as head coach. Week 13 features a game at Arkansas, a place Mississippi State has never won….literally. There was a tie (13-13) in 1993 but that is as close as the Dawgs have come, either in Fayetteville or Little Rock. But there’s a kicker – MSU has also never lost to a first year head coach of Arkansas, and this year Bret Bielema takes over. In fact, State’s only wins against the Razorbacks in the last 18 years have been against 1st year Arkansas coaches (1998, 2008, 2012).
The final game of the year might be the biggest – the Egg Bowl. This rivalry has had new life breathed into it with the emergence of Dan Mullen and now Hugh Freeze. 2012 was the first year since 2000 that both MSU and Ole Miss went to bowl games in the same year. 2013 looks to accomplish the same feat, which sets this game on a higher pedestal. What’s more, the game returns to Thanksgiving night where it once had a national stage from 1998-2003. The game should be as intense as ever, and will have huge implications on bowl positioning, recruiting, and of course bragging rights. Starkville will play host this year – the home team has won 12 of the last 14 (2003, 2010), and 15 of 22 since it moved away from Jackson in 1991.
Dan Mullen has been able to produce a consistent winner at Mississippi State during his four years on campus. After a string of losing seasons (2001-2006) that brought MSU football to its lowest depths, he currently has a chance to bring State to its fourth consecutive bowl appearance for the first time in history – all done within his first five years on the job.
More great news is ahead – Davis Wade Stadium is being expanded and renovated, the new Seal Football Complex opened in January, recruiting has continually gotten better each year, and now 2013 brings Mullen’s most talented team to date.
Despite great talent, however, you almost must look at what the SEC will throw your way with regards to scheduling. And this year, the road is awfully tough for MSU. Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina are all expected to compete for the SEC Championship (which also means national championship), and they are all on the docket for MSU. Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky are expected to trend up in 2013. The non-conference slate features Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State, a tough MAC team and always pesky Troy.
When compiling all the information for this version of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, one can really only expect a return trip to a bowl game. Competing and staying in games will be a mark to look for, and it could lead to the elusive “statement” game Mullen has been looking for in recent years. With predictions comes a lot of unknowns for each team, but we expect MSU to be at least 7-5 in 2013.
It should be a great and exciting year of football. Hail State!
This MSU football preview will be featured in the September issue of Town and Gown Magazine to be released September 1st.