STARKVILLE — The question this season for the Mississippi State football team”s coaching staff isn”t where it will put players but how many positions those guys will play.
Whether they”re on offense or defense, versatility is a key term when bringing student-athletes to Starkville.
“That”s great for our development within the program,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “When you”re looking at having to play a SEC schedule you”d better have some guys that are ready to jump in the fire and go play. That”s going to help us at different positions.”
The versatility may start with all-everything athlete LaDarius Perkins. MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning will try to get the sophomore the ball on handoffs, pitches, and passes as a slot receiver. Perkins also has been working with the punt and kick return units.
“They”ve got to have a flexibility to run the football because that”s why they signed up to come here,” Koenning said. “Receivers came here to catch the ball, and we want to give them plenty of opportunities to make plays. That”s our job.”
Perkins, who is seen as more of a speed threat than senior tailback Vick Ballard, led MSU last season with 1,110 all-purpose yards. He capped his season by outrunning the University of Michigan defense en route to an 81-yard pitch-and-catch out of the backfield in a 52-14 victory in the Gator Bowl on New Year”s Day.
“(Perkins) grew up as the season went on,” MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said. “I think he”s still learning the blocking schemes (but he) became a better back as the year went on. People don”t understand running backs coming from high school are clueless on blocking.”
Perkins and Ballard could play in the backfield together this year to maximize Ballard”s ability to run through the tackles and to make defenses worry about Perkins as a dump-off passing target.
“When (defensive backs coach) Melvin Smith and I went down to Louisiana to recruit him, we said we would utilize him,” Koenning said.
Junior Chad Bumphis and sophomore Michael Carr had carries on end-around plays or reverses last season. The thought is redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis could be a danger in that regard, too.
“Chad Bumphis can play anywhere on the field for us, and can even play quarterbacks, can throw it just as well as any of our other guys,” Mullen said. “We want to create mismatches on the field, and guys that can do multiple things have that ability.”
MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson also plans to get into the mix. His amoebae defense will utilize several players in multiple roles, including lining up in the front four with a hand on the ground or starting standing up and rushing the quarterback or playing coverage.
“The secondary allows us to be whatever we need to be up front in disguises and moving guys around to create chaos,” Wilson said. “If you”re not solid up front in the league you”ll struggle quickly.”
One of those hybrid-type players is junior Trevor Stigers, who had three tackles for loss in 11 games as a reserve last season.
“We really have picked up off where we started in the spring and the bowl game,” Stigers said. “We”re not really lacking anything. All of our guys are really strong and fast.”
MSU linebackers coach Geoff Collins is trying to preach that his players know and understand each of the three spots in the team”s 4-3 defense so they will be able to play all three positions in the Sept. 1 season opener at the University of Memphis.
“The big things with defending the spread offense is finding a guy at linebacker you don”t have to substitute as much and playing this game with the same people, but just in maybe different spots,” Collins said. “I expect there to be six guys in that (linebacker) room that can help us in multiple ways to win SEC football games.”
Mullen would welcome a veteran playing on both sides of the ball.
“If we have a talented athlete who can help you or make you better on the other side of the ball, I think it”s great,” Mullen said. “If we have talented defensive players, find a way to put the ball in their hands if they”re special that way.”
Former East Webster High School standout and MSU junior cornerback Johnthan Banks joked last week that while he hasn”t spoken to Mullen about playing both ways, he would accept a role on offense before he leaves school. Banks had 1,740 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior.
“I think I”m pretty dynamic with the ball in my hands,” Banks said. “Every time I had it in my hands I did something with it. I feel comfortable with the ball in my hands, and if coach (Jimmy Carden) didn”t trust me, he wouldn”t have had me out there.”