Two-a-Days rolls on with our third installment, in which we take a closer look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Mississippi State in a flash:
Head Coach: Dan Mullen, second year
2009 Record: 5-7 (3-5 SEC)
2009 Stats: Total offense, 371.92 ypg (7th SEC, 65th nationally); Total defense, 366.00 ypg (10th SEC, 58th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Former MTSU DC Manny Diaz replaces Carl Torbush as defensive coordinator and LBs coach; Chris Wilson serves as co-DC and takes over the D line from David Turner after serving as line coach at Oklahoma previously.
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (8), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: RB Anthony Dixon, QB Tyson Lee, LB Jamar Chaney
Big Games: at LSU (9/18), Georgia (9/25), @ Florida (10/16) and @ Alabama (11/13)
Non-Conference Slate: Memphis (9/4), Alcorn State (10/2), @ Houston (10/9), UAB (10/23)
Dan Mullen had a solid rookie campaign as head coach at Mississippi State, winning five games and coming close to knocking off LSU and Florida. But the schedule gets tough in 2010, and Mullen will have to replace his starting quarterback and the school's all-time rushing leader to boot.
To learn more about the West's Bulldogs, I checked in with Mississippi State beat writer Brad Locke of Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal to get some details on spring practice…
David Hale: Quarterback Chris Relf had a solid spring game, and from the looks of it, a good spring overall. Is he settled as the starter now or might we see a bit more to this battle with Tyler Russell in the fall?
Brad Locke: Relf, a junior, has the upper hand right now, but the battle is far from over. For one thing, coach Dan Mullen believes in keeping the competition open as long as he needs to. Secondly, Russell, a redshirt freshman, is too talented not to be in the mix. He's a better pure passer than Relf, and he can run the ball well enough to allow Mullen to use a good bit of the playbook. Likely, both will see playing time this fall, and their differing styles could give defenses trouble.
DH: Anthony Dixon was the foundation of Mississippi State's offense last year, but he's gone now. Who are some of the playmakers on that side of the ball that appeared ready to step in to fill the void this spring?
BL: Running back is a wide-open position right now, with JuCo transfer Vick Ballard, redshirt freshman Montrell Conner and junior Robert Elliott the leading candidates. Ballard and Conner had a better spring game than Elliott, but throughout the spring, Elliott got a ton of first-team snaps and might finally be coming into his own. When you say "playmaker," though, you think of sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis. He was SEC all-freshman last year and led the team in receiving. He's got speed and moves and can hold onto the ball. He should be the Bulldogs' best offensive player, but another guy who can make things happen is athletic tight end Marcus Green, who was second on the team in receiving.
DH: The defense was problematic for much of last season at MSU. That meant changes on the coaching staff, with Manny Diaz coming in from Middle Tennessee and Chris Wilson arriving from Oklahoma to overhaul the unit. What changes have they implemented, and who seems to be benefiting the most from the new blood?
BL: Diaz brings with him a reputation for fielding aggressive but well-balanced defenses. Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith compared Diaz's schemes to what Joe Lee Dunn used to run at MSU, only a more "modern" version. By that, Smith means that Diaz doesn't put all the "stress" on one group, like Dunn did with his cornerbacks. MSU has a legit sack master in senior Pernell McPhee and is beefier up front, and the addition of Wilson should make them better, if you look at the stats his units put up at OU. And linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright are big enough and fast enough to get into backfields via an array of blitzes Diaz will call.
DH: Between James Carmon, Pernell McPhee, Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd -- does Wilson have a bit more to work with on the defensive line than most people around the SEC realize? Seems like it could be a pretty scary group.
BL: The potential is certainly there. McPhee had five sacks last year, but he'll have better help this year with Carmon (6'7", 345) and the promising sophomores, Boyd and Cox, who combined for 46 tackles last season. Also, Wilson should be able to get the most out of Nick Bell and Sean Ferguson at the right end spot.
DH: Mississippi State drew more than 34,000 to its spring game, and obviously the Bulldogs made some nice strides in Dan Mullen's first year that has fans excited. How was this spring different than last year? Is Mullen's plan coming together with Mississippi State ready to take the next step, or is this still very much a work in progress?
BL: Spring was different mainly regarding the installation process, for obvious reasons. Except for a handful of early enrollees and walk-ons, everybody knew the system pretty well. Plus, there was the added buzz of a quarterback competition with two viable candidates (sorry, Tyson Lee). As to your second question, yes on both counts. The Bulldogs seemed poised to take a step forward from last year's 5-7 finish, but a lot of needs must be addressed, mainly depth.
***Big thanks to Brad for all the great info. You can read his MSU coverage for the Daily Journal HERE, check out his excellent Bulldogs blog HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE .
So, what do you think is in store for Mississippi State in 2010? Can the Bulldogs be a player in the West with a bowl bid in sight or the rebuilding project going to last at least another year?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at email@example.com.
NEXT UP: Auburn this afternoon.