March 24, 2012 10:50:14 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen acknowledges he hasn't had a standout tailback in two of his four spring football practices at the school.
Mullen admitted this week this is one of those seasons.
MSU will use its spring practice to find a replacement for Vick Ballard, the school's single-season touchdown leader and 10th all-time leading rusher. Ballard, who participated last month in the NFL draft combine last month and in pro day workouts, averaged 84.1 yards per game and had eight touchdowns last season.
In 2012, it remains to be seen who will produce similar results. All Mullen has to do is look back two years ago to find a possible answer. In Mullen's second season following a 5-7 finish, some felt MSU would take a step back with the graduation of Anthony Dixon, the school's all-time leading rusher.
"We hit a 'fear factor' a couple of years ago when Anthony Dixon left, and suddenly we didn't have that fear factor as the next guy stepped up and did the job," Mullen said.
In 2010, Ballard, a transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, emerged and went on to rush for 968 yards and a school-record 19 touchdowns. His production fueled a team that capped a nine-win season with a victory against the University of Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl.
MSU has several options that could be the next Dixon or Ballard. Junior LaDarius Perkins and sophomore Nick Griffin have seen game action, but neither have been go-to players in college. Last season, Perkins was second on the team with 422 rushing yards (on 87 carries) in 13 games, while Griffin rushed for 108 yards (16 carries) in five games.
"(Perkins) built his body up and is healthy enough to showcase that," MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said. "It's a very similar (process to 2010) because we're trying to get guys that have not done it as much understanding first what's going on."
"I'm trying to get them a lot of carries, and the more repetition we
give them, the better it is for us to evaluate them right now. Nick looks the part, but we have to get him to the point where he understands what's going on in the offense. We need that big plus for him mentally."
With Ballard out with an injury against the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2010, Perkins rushed 18 times for 131 yards and a touchdown in a 29-24 victory. Perkins has been used more as a change-of-pace runner at MSU and as a threat in the passing game, but he has recorded double-digit carries seven times at MSU.
"We trying to share the load between us, but a big part of our job is making sure the young guys understand what to do now, too," Perkins said. "It's a new thing for guys like me is the leadership role this spring."
Griffin redshirted in 2010 and then tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last spring.
"(Perkins and myself) are pushing each other, and whoever gets it is fine, but we're competing for (the number one spot) definitely," Griffin said. "I don't see why we can't be the best running back duo in the Southeastern Conference."
Griffin said this spring is the first time he has planted his foot to cut and not had second thoughts about the knee.
"I don't even think about (the knee) anymore," Griffin said. "I just need more opportunities to get better because I'll take any chances I can get."
Redshirt freshmen Josh Robinson and Derek Milton, of Louisiana, also are receiving repetitions with at least the second-team offense.
Mullen said the coaches will examine statistics and examine film to determine if any players gain an edge. He hopes Robinson and Milton also make the most of their opportunities.
While MSU might not have its depth chart at running back set by the end of spring practice, Mullen can take comfort in that he and his coaches know what to do when replacing a go-to running back.
"We'll see what these running backs can do," Mullen said. "I think there is so much up in the air of the exact direction we're going to take, but our vision is slightly different than it has been in the past."
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