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MSU football coaches believe Bulldogs improved


Danny P Smith



STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State''s football coaches believed the team progressed in all phases of the game during spring practice, but the common opinion throughout the program is that there is much improvement yet to be made. 


The Bulldogs spent 15 NCAA mandated practices in the spring, mainly trying to install the spread offense. 


On the defensive side, coordinator Carl Torbush liked going against the spread in practice and said his unit benefited from having many things thrown at it. 


"Offensively, we''re very multiple so it gave us a chance to make adjustments and understand concepts, coverages and fronts versus the spread," Torbush said. "We do a lot of things out of a spread offense so I don''t know how much more we''ll see next year than what we saw this spring which is great. We were able to adjust and adapt to a lot of different things." 


MSU head coach Dan Mullen wasn''t seeking perfection in the spring, while introducing a new offense, defense and special teams. 


He believed mistakes were going to be made, but wanted the Bulldogs to give a great effort while learning. 


"It was a giant learning curve for our guys," Mullen said. "It was a new style and way of practicing. When you look at those things, there was a lot on these guys'' plates. As long as we gave great effort every single day, we felt we could walk off the practice field taking a step forward." 


After a slow start, Mullen said practices really began to pick up once the players learned the expectations of the coaches. 


MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning worked with wide receivers and running backs on the staff of Rockey Felker with the Bulldogs from 1986-89. 


Now he''s been given the responsibility of making all aspects of the spread offense work under Mullen. 


From the first practice of the spring to the 15th, Koenning saw the Bulldogs learning the terminology and schemes more and more. 


Koenning hated to see the end of spring come because of the progress that was made. 


"Like any coach, we would have liked to have had four more weeks," Koenning said. "We were seeing multiple looks from our defense and it was great teaching from that on film. Toward the latter half of the spring, the receivers were running the routes, the right depths and to the right places." 


After transferring from East Mississippi Community College, wide receiver Leon Berry enrolled at midterm and became one of the primary receivers in practice. 


Brandon McRae, MSU''s leading receiver from last season, was still out recovering from a broken leg so that gave Berry a chance to work with quarterbacks Tyson Lee, of Columbus, and Chris Relf. 


"Everything was new so we tried to get the timing down," Berry said. "We didn''t have that chemistry of working, but as the spring went on, we connected on a whole lot of stuff. We plan to spend time in the summer getting our timing down." 


Berry, who caught passes out of the spread in his last year at EMCC, led all receivers in the Maroon-White Game with eight catches for 125 yards. 


Lee, who was 19 of 33 for 251 yards in the game, called it an average spring for the Bulldogs and plans to work during the summer to develop a better chemistry between he and the receivers. 


MSU passing game coordinator Mark Hudspeth said the offensive coaches weren''t able to get the complete package of the spread put in during the spring, but a large portion and the most important was. 


Mullen is satisfied that a foundation has been laid for the direction he wants the program to go. 


Here is a position-by-position breakdown of what the coaches thought about the Bulldogs this spring. 




n Quarterbacks: Lee and Relf got a crash-course on how to run the spread. Mullen, Koenning and Hudspeth all agree that the work the signal callers do during the summer is crucial. "I thought they improved and in the first half of the spring game, Chris Relf did about as well as he has shown to this date," Hudspeth said. "I thought Tyson threw a nice ball throughout the spring game and looked pretty comfortable back there." 


n Running backs: The new coaching staff found out what many surrounding MSU already knew and that is Anthony Dixon is a good tailback. The key is getting injured tailbacks Christian Ducre (shoulder) and Arnil Stallworth (knee) back to provide depth. Koenning calls fullback Sylvester Hemphill the surprise of the spring. "He is a strong, physical young man and (Patrick) Hanrahan did a good job for us too," Koenning said. 


n Wide receivers: Berry and O''Neal Wilder appeared to emerge from the spring as the top two receivers for the Bulldogs.  


O''Neal was a relative newcomer after recovering from a knee injury. Koenning believes Berry can get stronger. "I don''t think O''Neal is as strong as he was before his injury," Koenning said. "He realizes he needs to get in the weightroom and get after it." Getting McRae back and bringing in the February signees should give the offense additional receiver options in the fall. 


n Offensive Line: Koenning said the unit gradually picked up the philosophy with protection and run schemes of the spread.  


Lowndes County products Derek Sherrod and Tobias Smith were solid in spring. Addison Lawrence, J.C. Brignone, Quentin Saulsberry and Phillip Freeman were all singled out by Koenning. At tight end, Starkville native Thomas Webb made strides along with Kendrick Cook. The key to that position will be the health of Marcus Green, who has been nursing hip and groin injuries. "If we can get Green back, it will be a big asset for us," Koenning said. "Green has got some potential." 




n Defensive backs: Torbush saw Marcus Washington and Charles Mitchell become leaders. "It''s hard to believe he is just a sophomore," Torbush said of Mitchell. "All of the coaches and players look up to him just because of his maturity level and what he does." 


n Linebackers: The starters coming out of the spring are Jamar Chaney, K.J. Wright and Chris White. Torbush credits Chaney of returning from a broken leg, suffered in last season''s opening game, to get the work he needed in the spring. Torbush also liked the work of Jamie Jones, Karlin Brown, Bo Walters, Terrell Johnson and Mike Hunt. "All of those guys have opportunities to make contributions defensively as well as special teams," Torbush said. 


n Defensive Line: Young and inexperienced describes the Bulldogs up front, but Torbush liked the progress and said "the last six or seven days they really stepped it up and did some really nice things." Torbush said junior college transfer Pernell  


McPhee has "a motor that runs all of the time and has a chance to be a special player." Sean Ferguson also had a good spring and showed the ability to record sacks. The main concern for Torbush is bulk and size at tackle. "We just don''t have a lot of big SEC-type guys, but I do think we have some good players who are athletic," Torbush said. 


Special Teams 


n Kickers-punter: Under the direct attention of Mullen, junior college transfers Sean Brauchle and Derek Pasquale finished up with a strong effort in the spring game. They made field goals from 37, 42, 47 and 52 yards. "It''s big to have the kickers do that in a live situation in front of the fans," Mullen said. Junior college transfer Heath Hutchens seems to have a lock on replacing Blake McAdams as the punter next season. 


n Kick returner: The Bulldogs must identify someone to take over for Derek Pegues. There is no shortage of candidates, especially if all become healthy, and that question may not be fully answered until the fall. With the shortage of receivers due to injury, Mullen chose not to allow returns in practice and the spring game. There also may be someone emerge from the February signees. 




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