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Spring Practice Primer: Mississippi State

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer

Spring football is in the air, and with our Spring Practice Primers the Eye On College Football Blog gets you up to speed on what to look for on campuses around the country this spring. Today we look at Mississippi State.

Spring Practice Starts: March 23? After the Bulldogs scheduled their first practice for Thursday, the Starkville weather had other ideas.

Spring Game: April 21

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 specialist

Three Things To Look For:

1. Can the Bulldogs revive that "up-and-coming" feel to the program? Dan Mullen's seat isn't even lukewarm yet, much less hot -- taking over in the immediate wake of a 45-0 Egg Bowl thrashing, then routing the hated Rebels three times in three tries will do that for a Mississippi State coach -- but there's little doubt that State's disappointing 2011 has given way to a sense of Now what? in 2012. The Bulldogs still have yet to beat any SEC West team that isn't Ole Miss under Mullen, and the personnel losses from last year's failed "breakout" team (Chris Relf, Vick Ballard, Fletcher Cox, James Carmon, etc.) are substantial. More than anything else this spring, Mullen must find both the players and the morale to restore the sense of "future SEC West contender" inevitability that 2011 flushed away. Coming out of spring with the belief within the program that last year was a hiccup rather than an illustration of the program's ceiling is essential for actually making it that hiccup. Otherwise, this is will be a team firmly stuck in the neutral gear of 6-6, 7-5 seasons.


2. Is Tyler Russell the answer at quarterback? Some good news for the Bulldogs is that the loss of Relf (not to mention third-stringer Dylan Favre, who made more waves with his last name and Twitter feed than his arm during his abbreviated stay in Starkville) may be addition by subtraction if Russell can stay healthy and assume full command of the offense. The two-season tug-of-war under center between Relf and Russell occasionally allowed Mullen to call an audible if one or the other came out cold (see Russell's swooping in to save the day vs. UAB last season) but more often seemed to prevent either quarterback from ever getting truly comfortable in charge. Assuming he can fend off the challenge of redshirt freshman Dak Prescott, making Russell the unquestioned focal point of the offense should allow both the rising junior to find his on-field rhythm and his staff to sharpen their offensive game-planning. (That Mullen never seemed sure what he was going to get from his quarterbacks seemed to take some of the edge off of his usually shrewd play-calling.)

Of course, this also assumes Russell can overcome an MCL sprain in his left knee. If not, look out--he and Prescott are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the spring roster.

3. Can the Bulldogs find a pass-rushing defensive end? Even without projected first-round defensive tackle Cox, most of the pieces are in place for State to reprise their surprising defensive success from 2011; Josh Boyd should be ready to fill Cox's shoes in the defensive interior, Cameron Lawrence and Deontae Skinner should continue the Bulldogs' recent trend of playmaking linebackers, and Johnthan Banks should rank among the nation's best cover corners after electing to return for his senior season. There's just one thing preventing State from maintaining -- or even improving on -- their 13th-place finish in FBS yards allowed per-play*: their defensive ends. The Bulldogs finished seventh in the SEC in sacks in 2011 despite Cox and Boyd combining for an impressive 9.5 from the tackle spot, and starting end Sean Ferguson has graduated. If someone doesn't emerge on the edge to take the pass-rushing pressure off of Boyd, those 2011 numbers could get even worse ... and a defense that should by all rights be one of the nation's best could find itself surprisingly vulnerable on third-and-long.

To check in on the rest of the SEC and other BCS conferences, check out the Spring Practice Schedule.

*Amazingly, this was only good enough for sixth in the SEC, the league whose teams hogged five of the national top eight spots in this statistic.

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