October 17, 2012 9:39:58 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen listens to everything coming his way from the fan base.
The Bulldogs fourth-year head coach takes questions every week during the season on his radio show and said this week he tries to answer queries from his e-mail box as often as possible. The question that comes up the most in the first month of the season goes in a way like this: Why are you playing so many freshman and backups on the depth chart?
Mullen's answer in that particular question involves pointing to the results of some of those contributors in the last two months of their first active year on campus.
"Early in the season sometimes people wonder why do we force feed guys on the field," Mullen said Sunday. "It's because they need that experience and they need that development. They need to be able to grow."
The first example of this growth and development Mullen talks about can be spotlighted at quarterback where redshirt freshman Dak Prescott has seen action in five of the first six games of the 2012 season.
Prescott, a former three-star recruit from Haughton, La., is slowly being given more and more responsibility throughout the offense in order to solve a two-fold problem for the 15th-ranked Bulldogs. The first issue is allowing Prescott, a physical 230-pound runner immediately help MSU (6-0, 3-0 in Southeaster Conference) in short yardage situations by plowing forward for a first down while starting quarterback Tyler Russell and Mullen talk about the next play.
The second solution to getting Prescott on the field is getting him prepared to be the starter if Russell were to ever suffer an major injury as he did at the end of last season that kept him out of the 2011 Music City Bowl win over the Wake Forest University in Nashville.
"He knows he is going to get in the game and has to prepare for the whole game plan in case he has to be the guy," Mullen said. "It can give him confidence as we go because now he's played in some big moments in an SEC game. As the season goes forward, it will allow him to grow how we need him to grow."
Prescott has been used in four third and fourth-down situations four times and each time Prescott has been able to rush for the first down when the defense has at least nine players near the line of scrimmage expecting the running attack.
"I learn from everything (Russell) does and it's given me a new perspective on the position," Prescott said. "We go over things in the film room all the time about what he saw here and there to get me prepared for when it's my time to lead this offense."
And then Saturday MSU pulled the switch on the University of Tennessee by allowing him to fake the draw run and throw a 13-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open tight end Marcus Green.
Russell and Prescott have discussed how their path in terms of playing time has been nearly identical and the redshirt freshman has been told how important this time in his college career is for him to learn the intricacies of arguably the most important position on the field.
Russell was one of the first MSU players off the bench to congratulate Prescott in the end zone after his first career touchdown pass Saturday.
"I really don't think he was supposed to be out there but he beat me to the end zone," Prescott said. "That just shows how close we are and he's just like a brother to me."
The net element to the development of the MSU offense is the continued playing time for the backup running backs behind junior starter LaDarius Perkins. In Saturday's 41-31 victory over Tennessee, it was redshirt freshman Josh Robinson getting the spotlight by gaining 41 yards on six carries and his first career touchdown.
After earning scoring 52 touchdowns in his final two seasons of high school action in Franklington, La., Robinson turned around immediately after his 10-yard touchdown in the first quarter Saturday with little idea what to do next.
"I would've liked to jump in the stands if I could've," Robinson said Tuesday about his first score. "I'm going to save those cleats that I scored in I'll promise you that."
Robinson is one of four MSU tailbacks, which he refers to as "a stable" averaging 3.5 yards per carry including Perkins, sophomore Nick Griffin and redshirt freshman Derrick Milton.
"We expected to get a lot of playing time and we just learn from each other," Robinson said. "Derrick runs like a stallion, Nick runs like an angry rhino, Perkins is the quick little rabbit and me well, I'm the bowling ball."
On a year where the defensive play has been dominated by experience, MSU has relied on redshirt freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney at a critical position of middle linebacker. Through each of the first six games, McKinney has reached a career high number of tackles and had a game-high 14 against the Volunteers Saturday.
McKinney was named Co-SEC freshman of the week by league officials after posting 12 tackles,including 10 solo stops two weeks against the University of Kentucky. McKinney currently leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 50.
"I was working hard in practice during the spring and in the weight room to have a big impact but I never thought it would result in this role, this soon," McKinney said.
As the season continues on, Mullen and the MSU coaching staff are at the point where they can start evaluating which young players they want to put in critical situations. The message is simple: don't be surprised if a freshman or sophomore is given the chance to make big plays against quality SEC opponents.
"As the season goes on, they're ready to perform," Mullen said. "Our guys showed that. More and more guys are able to step up and make plays. You're going to need a lot of them as the season goes along."