March 24, 2009

Mullen faces tough task at Mississippi State

Mississippi State went to a bowl in the 2007 season, and the hope among the Bulldogs faithful was that the program had turned the corner.

But the Bulldogs regressed in 2008, finishing 4-8, and coach Sylvester Croom was fired.

An anemic offense was the biggest problem. Enter Dan Mullen as the new coach; he had been offensive coordinator at Florida and faces the tough task of getting the Bulldogs' offense to even the mediocre level.

Here's a look at the Bulldogs as they open spring practice.

miss. state AT-A-GLANCE
Coach Dan Mullen will be extremely busy during his first spring at Mississippi State.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dan Mullen
Last season: 4-8, 2-6 SEC
Spring dates: March 24-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): C J.C. Brignone, RB Anthony Dixon, TE Nelson Hurst, G Craig Jenkins, QB Tyson Lee, WR Brandon McRae, T Quinton Saulsberry, T Derek Sherrod.
Defense (2): CB Marcus Washington, LB K.J. Wright.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

Mississippi State's linebacking corps should get a big boost from the return of Jamar Chaney, who missed most of the 2008 season with a knee injury after earning second-team All-SEC honors in '07. Chaney will join forces with K.J. Wright, who recorded 72 overall tackles and nine tackles for loss last season. Bo Walters, Terrell Johnson, Karlin Brown and junior college transfer Chris White should provide plenty of depth at linebacker. Mississippi State ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing ahead of only South Carolina and averaged only 3 yards per carry last season. However, the return of running back Anthony Dixon and four starters on the offensive line should allow the Bulldogs to run the ball more effectively this season. Dixon has rushed for 1,935 yards and 21 touchdowns over the past two seasons, though he only reached the 100-yard mark three times a year ago.

Help is needed

Mississippi State has a severe lack of experienced receivers beyond Brandon McRae, who led the team with 51 catches for 518 yards last year. The Bulldogs also suffered major graduation losses in the secondary, where Marcus Washington is the only returning starter. The Bulldogs need to solidify the quarterback position after struggling in that area throughout Croom's tenure, though Tyson Lee offered at least some reason for hope late in the season.

Keep an eye on

LB Jamar Chaney: Mississippi State's defense last year took a step backward as soon as Chaney suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Bulldogs' opener. The Bulldogs' chances to regain their 2007 form depend at least in part on whether Chaney, a senior, is able to play as well as he did two years ago.

TE Marcus Green: Green showed his big-play ability with a 50-yard reception against Southeastern Louisiana last season, but he didn't catch another pass all season because of a hip injury. Now that he's back in action, Green a sophomore should get a chance to thrive in Mullen's pass-oriented offense.

WR Delmon Robinson: After catching five passes for 63 yards in a season-opening loss to Louisiana Tech last year, Robinson had just seven more receptions the rest of the year. Mississippi State lacks experienced wide receivers, so Robinson a sophomore should get plenty of opportunities. He's a guy who could enjoy a breakout season while playing in Mullen's system.

His time is now

Although he's a returning starter on the offensive line, Craig Jenkins may need to step up his game to avoid getting pushed out of the lineup. Mississippi State is seeking improved performances from its guards this season. The Bulldogs likely will move Quinton Saulsberry from tackle to guard this spring, and a number of redshirt freshmen also could challenge Jenkins, a senior, for playing time.

The buzz

Mullen's arrival eventually will mean a switch to the spread offense, but the move might be gradual. Mullen, the former Florida offensive coordinator, plans to run an offense that plays to the strengths of the players on his roster - though he surely will incorporate elements of the spread. This spring should give the Bulldogs a look at how certain offensive players are faring as they try to bounce back from injuries. McRae broke a leg in the Egg Bowl last season, running back Robert Elliott suffered a knee injury against LSU and Green is coming back from a hip problem. The Bulldogs certainly need all their skill-position players to be at full strength as they try to spark an offense that ranked 115th in the nation and last in the SEC in scoring last season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.




 

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