Jo’quavious Marks doesn’t mind sharing a backfield.
The Mississippi State sophomore running back knows he’ll be splitting time with fellow sophomore Dillon Johnson for the Bulldogs in 2021. Neither rusher would have it any other way.
“He’s going to tote the rock, I’m going to tote the rock, we’re going to be proud of each other, and we’re going to score touchdowns,” Marks told reporters Thursday.
Johnson called the pair of backs “lightning and thunder” — Johnson a power back who often proves elusive, Marks a speedy rusher with significant burst.
“I think we complement each other just great,” Johnson said.
Though Marks received more touches in the running and passing games in 2020, the two backs posted remarkably similar per-touch numbers. Marks averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per reception; Johnson was just below at 4.4 yards per carry and 4.4 yards per catch.
And now, Johnson said, both sophomore backs have made a big offseason leap after their true freshman seasons.
“I feel like we both made a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2,” he said. “I think it’s because we’ve been in the system for a year, so I feel like both of us are comfortable. We feed off each other and we just love competing, so I think that’s what it is.”
The duo is part of a five-player running backs room that has formed a close bond. Marks said he, Johnson, redshirt senior Omni Wells and redshirt juniors J.J. Jernighan and Jacquez Terrell all go out to eat on Sundays, their days off, talking about practices and scrimmages and having fun together.
Johnson and Marks both said they’ve become accustomed to catching the football, a key part of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. Marks’ 60 catches led the Bulldogs in 2020, and he and Johnson will be counted on to do the same this fall.
“We’re going to be out there in open space,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be able to make the first man miss and just do our thing.”
Johnson said he expects both backs to deliver a good season and produce “great things” for the Bulldogs.
“We’re going to be explosive,” he said. “We’re the dynamic duo, man. We’re going to do something special together. We really are.”
Offensive line looks Sharp in spring
Offensive line coach Mason Miller knows he made a mistake in his allotment of playing time in 2020.
Miller admitted Thursday he should have given senior LaQuinston Sharp, a Columbus High School and East Mississippi Community College product, more snaps for the Bulldogs.
“He’s a guy, to be totally honest with you, I should have played more last year,” Miller said. “I’m kind of mad at myself that I didn’t.”
Knowing now that Sharp would eventually use his extra year of eligibility to return to Mississippi State, Miller said he was somewhat glad he didn’t play Sharp more lest he turn pro and leave Starkville early. The fifth-year senior has become one of the Bulldogs’ vocal leaders along the O-line, and Sharp said the entire unit has taken steps in maturity this spring.
“I feel like we’re progressing a lot,” Sharp said.
Sharp said it felt right for him to return in 2021, and he has received first-team snaps on an offensive line that struggled last season. Miller attributed to the struggles to bad coaching and a young, inexperienced team, but the Bulldogs have been determined to improve.
“One thing I’ve noticed this offseason is that they all wanted to get better,” Miller said. “… I think we’ve got a long way to go. I like the room because we’ve got a bunch of guys who are invested together; again, doesn’t mean we’re anywhere near where we need to be, but I like their attitude a little bit more.”
Miller also addressed the Bulldogs’ struggles against three-man rushes, saying time spent with strength and conditioning coach Tyson Brown will help Mississippi State answer for the standout defensive linemen of the Southeastern Conference.
“If you’ve got five people and they’ve got three, you’re not supposed to lose,” Miller said.
Hughes likes experience among nickelbacks
Associate head coach and nickelbacks coach Tony Hughes also knows the strength of the conference schedule the Bulldogs will face.
“The SEC’s a big-boy league,” Hughes said. “It’s not a little-boy league. You have to be willing to stand up and put on some big britches every week.”
Hughes thinks he has a group of players ready to do just that. Last year, senior Fred Peters, redshirt freshman Dylan Lawrence and freshman Janari Dean all suffered season-ending injuries, and senior Marcus Murphy opted out of the 2020 campaign. Now, the first three Bulldogs of that group are back.
“It was a very, very difficult trial and situation that we had to work through, but we’re grateful to have those guys back,” Hughes said.
Texas transfer Jalen Green, junior Collin Duncan, redshirt junior Shawn Preston and redshirt senior Londyn Craft will also be part of Hughes’ nickelbacks room this fall.
The coach said the expertise of the group should play a major role against the toughest competition the Bulldogs will face.
“Anytime you can have that in-game experience in big stadiums in this conference, I think it’s going to make a major difference for your players down the road,” Hughes said.