STARKVILLE — By the time he reached the end of the field, Eric Mele was out of breath.
Mississippi State’s running backs coach had run quite a ways in the wake of sophomore Dillon Johnson, who broke through the Bulldogs’ defense to score a touchdown during Tuesday’s preseason practice.
“I ran out of wind chasing (Johnson) 70 yards down the field,” Mele said.
The assembled Bulldogs had just four words for their coach, exhausted in the summer heat: “Play the next play.”
The phrase has been Mississippi State’s “message” for more than a year now, Mele said, and its usage Tuesday — after good plays and bad plays alike — is just another sign the Bulldogs’ running backs room is coming together in preseason camp.
“You score a touchdown, the only thing that matters is the next play,” Mele said. “So they’re doing a good job with that.”
With a duo of starting-caliber rushers, two experienced backups and a pair of skilled freshmen, Mississippi State’s running backs might just be as balanced as they are talented — and they’re still getting better.
“It’s definitely improving from the spring to the fall camp at this point,” Mele said.
That starts at the top, where both Johnson and Jo’quavious Marks have made necessary changes that mirror each other almost perfectly.
Johnson said he has sacrificed weight in an effort to gain more elusiveness, getting faster to escape from Southeastern Conference defenders.
Marks, meanwhile, gained the weight he needed to handle the hits that come with playing in the tough, physical conference. The Atlanta native said that weight gain came from learning to cook, which was thanks to recipes sent to him by Pamela Bartz, Mississippi State’s director of sports nutrition.
“He took some shots last year,” Mele said. “Now you’re starting to see his explosiveness showing up a little bit more at the second level.”
And both backs are now at their ideal weight with a few weeks to go until the Bulldogs’ season opener.
“We’re just trying to balance, try to help each other be better each and every day,” Johnson said.
Behind them, the duo of J.J. Jernighan and Omni Wells provides similar balance. Both rushers had solid outings in the Maroon and White spring game April 17 and offer depth behind Johnson and Marks when needed.
“Those are my dogs,” Johnson said. “I love those guys. Just to have them here, they push me to be better and I push them to get better.”
And freshmen Ke’Travion “Bull” Hargrove and Simeon Price offer considerable upside despite their inexperience. Johnson said the pair’s evident talent has “shocked” him.
“Throughout the whole summer, they’ve been working hard since they got here,” Marks said.
Johnson and Marks both praised the speed of Hargrove, who hails from Ruston, Louisiana; Mele said the high school track star ran the 100 meters in 10.38 seconds at state championships and has been clocked at under 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“Once he gets that playbook up and once he can play fast, as fast as he can run, he’s gonna be a problem for some people,” Mele said.
Price, meanwhile, is a physically imposing back at 215 pounds. Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. discovered the Pensacola, Florida, product and helped bring him on board.
Perhaps that’s fitting: In Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense, running backs will often be counted on in the receiving game. Mele said it’s about “touches, not rushes” when it comes to spreading the wealth.
“Let’s get the guy the ball in a bunch of different ways,” he said. “Let’s get him good matchups. We get a big old linebacker on them, let’s put those guys in space and see if they can tackle them.”
Showing those skills, Mele said, will help Mississippi State’s running backs get ready for the professional ranks, where they must be “three-down backs” who can run, pass protect, and catch the ball.
“It’s absolutely going to prepare you for the NFL,” he said. “They’re going to showcase all three of those skills.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.