August 25, 2009 12:31:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- With a new head coach and a new spread offense in the works, the Mississippi State football team this season has the potential to surprise some people, assistant coach Rockey Felker told the Starkville Rotary Club Monday afternoon.
"Nobody is giving us much praise, but after a bad year you''re not going to get much praise," Felker said of last season''s 4-8 record. "I think we''re going to play a lot better than people think we are."
Former University of Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was hired last year to replace Sylvester Croom and brought his spread offense with him. The Bulldogs have worked hard in practice to master the new offense, which relies on spreading the field and using multiple wide receivers and skill position players. (Croom used an offense that was built around the running game.)
MSU''s first real test will come Sept. 5 in the season opener against Jackson State.
"The players are really excited about the new offense," Felker said. "They really like it. It''s going to give them a lot of opportunities to be creative."
But he also called the new offense "a work in progress."
"Mainly getting real game experience, that''s going to be the key," he said.
The team has had its difficulties. Freshman quarterback Tyler Russell, of Meridian, was expected to contend for the starting job, but he missed practice all last week due to illness, Felker said.
Tyson Lee, of Columbus, and Chris Relf, of Montgomery, Ala., are showing progress at quarterback, he said.
Offensive lineman Tobias Smith, of Columbus, is expected to miss "a few weeks" because of an injury, Felker said. Smith missed all of 2008 with an injury.
Running back Anthony Dixon has been suspended for the first game against Jackson State after his arrest in July for DUI.
The Bulldogs also must contend with a tough home schedule that features five game against teams ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25.
Mississippi State plays No. 11 LSU on Sept. 26, No. 15 Georgia Tech on Oct. 3, No. 1 Florida on Oct. 24, No. 5 Alabama on Nov. 14, and No. 8 Ole Miss on Nov. 28. The only home games against non-ranked opponents are Sept. 5 (Jackson State) and Oct. 10 (Houston)
Felker said the home schedule is "something to be excited about."
If fans pack the stadium each game and impress recruits with the atmosphere, the team is more likely to get more top-end players coming out of high school, Felker said.
Felker coached the Bulldogs from 1986-90. These days he''s director of player personnel/high school relations.
The university has had "very successful" recruiting years in each of the past two seasons, he said. Mississippi State had the 23rd-ranked recruiting class in the country this offseason, but was ninth in the Southeastern Conference, according to ESPN.com.
"If we fill our place up, we''re going to be OK," Felker said of the recruiting potential.
Felker credited new strength coach Matt Balis for getting the team in fine physical shape this offseason, and feels it will be ready for Sept. 5.
"(Balis) has really gotten them in shape," Felker said. "He''s been working them hard. The offseason is going to come back and be a big benefit to us later in the season."
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