Mississippi State's 2010 season will likely be defined by how it replaces two of its biggest stars in 2009. All things considered, that's not a bad place for coach Dan Mullen to be heading into his second year.
At least on defense, replacing the leadership and play of middle linebacker Jamar Chaney shouldn't seem to be that big of a deal. State has a new defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz, and four weeks worth of spring practice taught onlookers that his style is coordinated aggression -- and lots of it. State also returns a handful of budding stars on defense.
All things considered, State's defense stands poised to deliver quite a bit of improvement in 2010 after a season that saw it give up yards in bunches at times last year. The Bulldogs' most talent-laden position is most likely at defensive line.
The other replacement job might be a little tougher. Anthony Dixon set all kinds of school records last year as State's running back; he departed along with two other seniors and didn't leave a clear-cut replacement.
Junior college transfer Vick Ballard looked impressive and had the most carries and yards of any of the tailbacks in the April 17 spring game. But redshirt freshmen Montrell Conner and LaDarius Perkins had strong showings, and junior Robert Elliott brings the most experience.
Fans are even more concerned with who will hand the ball off to them. It still appears as if Tyler Russell and Chris Relf will both play quarterback this fall, but Relf closed the spring clearly ahead.
Throw in an easier schedule from last year's 5-7 campaign and State fans are optimistic that a bowl game, the school's first since 2007, awaits.NOTES, QUOTES
--Defensive end Pernell McPhee is the leader on the defensive side of the ball, if only because he brings the most impressive resume back. McPhee had five sacks last year and was named to the all-Southeastern Conference team. He's quite quotable, too, and has the potential to be a star.
--Robert Elliott, a tailback, signed with State to great fanfare in 2007 but has yet to deliver. He redshirted his first year, ended his season early in 2008 with a knee injury and played sparingly behind Anthony Dixon in 2009. Elliott would figure to be the heir apparent to Dixon in 2010, but he wasn't the sole topic of conversation in the tailback debate this spring.
WR Brandon Heavens -- The 5-foot-10, 170-pound wide receiver is making the most of a thin depth chart at wideout for Mississippi State and was quite the mover in spring practice. Behind Chad Bumphis, he might be the most reliable threat for State -- at least he's tied with senior Leon Berry.
TE Marcus Green -- It's not that he moved up, it's that he stayed healthy and thrived in the absence of a bevy of wide receivers. Green signed with State as a running back out of high school but has since emerged as a tight end around whom there is much promise.
S Nickoe Whitley -- The redshirt freshmen stepped up enough for State's coaches to move around some previous safeties and try them out at other spots. That's a testament to Whitley, who didn't play his senior year of high school after enduring a tough knee injury.
RB Montrell Conner -- He overcame a knee injury early in the spring to post a strong closing week. In the spring game, he got nine carries. Conner is a downhill type, a strong, bruising tailback in the Dixon mold who can thrive.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Not in this offense. It's going to be a bunch of guys, because you're going to be doing a lot of running, a lot of spreading over the field. You're going to get winded." -- RB Montrell Conner on whether there will be a feature tailback for State.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: State showed improvement and excitement in 2009, but it still didn't translate into a bowl berth. Too many close calls resulted in a 5-7 season. But State, in Year 2 under coach Dan Mullen, has what appears to be a more lenient schedule and a tougher defense. The defense has two new coaches, including a new coordinator, and a handful of players who could be stars in the SEC. The question is on offense, and whether the Bulldogs can keep up the improved numbers they had in 2009. State will have to find dependability at quarterback in order for that to happen.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Chris Relf will likely take over as State's go-to quarterback this year, but note that the word "starter" wasn't used. Yes, he'll likely trot out for the first play, but look for the Bulldogs to continue to use the two-quarterback system they used last year with Relf and Tyson Lee. The "other guy" would be Tyler Russell, who appears to be a true pocket passer but had his struggles in the spring. Of greater concern will be a lack of depth at receiver, lack of a proven tailback and an offensive line that took it lumps in the spring.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: State doesn't have far to go to post improvement in this area, which was an Achilles' heel at times in 2009. A new coordinator, Manny Diaz, has arrived from Middle Tennessee State and has promised a more attacking style. It helps that he has two veteran linebackers in Chris White and K.J. Wright and an all-SEC defensive end in Pernell McPhee. The secondary, too, should be much improved as it returns two all-SEC freshman team members.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: State may use a variety of returners like Leon Berry, Brandon Heavens and Chad Bumphis. But the kickers should remain the same. Heath Hutchins returns as punter and Derek DePasquale and Sean Brauche look to share placekicking duties.
RB Vick Ballard -- State needs an immediate infusion at running back, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound speedster from junior college might be an answer. Aside from junior Robert Elliott, the remainder of contenders for the starting tailback job will be freshmen. This gives Ballard a leg up.
DT James Carmon -- At 6-foot-7, 345 pounds, Carmon has drawn comparisons to Alabama's former hole-plugging defensive tackle, Terrence Cody. Carmon could emerge as the same type of player for State.
QB Dylan Favre -- Don't sell this guy short, not with that last name. Though much of the hype in the spring centers around Tyler Russell and Chris Relf at quarterback, look out in the fall when Favre, who rewrote the Mississippi record books, gets a chance. (As for that last name, he is Brett Favre's nephew.)
--Defensive end Sean Ferguson was arrested prior to the spring for misdemeanor marijuana possession but participated in spring drills. The job at defensive end opposite Pernell McPhee is open; Nick Bell appeared to be the top contender at the close of spring.
--Free safety Zach Smith participated in spring drills after openly talking about giving up football back in November. Smith had suffered a series of concussions that were forcing him to re-evaluate his future.
--Cornerback Corey Broomfield was limited in contact action this spring after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Reserve center D.J. Looney was limited after offseason knee surgery, too.
Previous Report: 04/11/2010