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Seniors take lead at early bowl practices

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Coaches, administrators and analysts always chatter about the importance of bowl practices getting a team ready for the following season.  

 

Mississippi State is no different and Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen has essentially 11 new assistant coaches with the seniors that will be participating in the 2013 Liberty Bowl on New Year's Eve (3 p.m., ESPN).  

 

"This is a bonus right now, these (first) couple of days," Mullen said Saturday. "A lot of these guys right now maybe haven't been running the reps or getting a ton of reps. They are going to in spring ball. Next year there are going to be guys called upon to be in the rotation. So this is them kinda jumpstarting being in that rotation for the spring." 

 

MSU doesn't start actually planning for Conference USA champion Rice, its Liberty Bowl opponent, until the practices become closed to the public Wednesday so the first four practices will be about seeing how the 2014 Bulldogs roster will look like with eight projected starters returning on offense and 10 starters returning on defense.  

 

"Like I told them, we get the opportunity to see where they are at, where they're at with their assignment and technique, where they're at running our offense or defense," Mullen said. "It's not scout team work a lot. It's getting extra reps and a lot of opportunity." 

 

In the second full-team bowl practice Saturday morning, Mullen is insisting on senior leaders such as tailback LaDarius Perkins and offensive guard Gabe Jackson teaching the younger players in their position group because the repetitions they are getting now will translate into first-team snaps when spring practice arrives.  

 

"The main thing is making sure I'm staying in shape and working on my technique while the young guys work out there," Jackson said. "People don't understand that if you ignore your job for just a week then you'll be completely out of sync when the seniors get the reps back. Bowl games are a long stretch in between games." 

 

This is why fans saw Saturday morning less prominent players getting repeated opportunities to shine on the practice field including 18-year old quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who last week was completing his final exams in high school at Richmond Hill, Ga. 

 

"When we told him of the opportunity, his eyes got really wide and said 'oh, that sounds neat'," Mullen said. "Then I said you're going to be the No. 2 quarterback and that's when the eyes got really wide open. But you know what, what an unbelievable opportunity for him to come out here and get a couple of reps. 

 

Fitzgerald is being watched intensively by not only offensive coordinator Les Koenning but also by sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott. Despite only being on campus for three years, Prescott has taken over leadership roles. He and Mullen know that after the injuries that occurred in the 2013 season, getting Fitzgerald prepared mentally and physically to take snaps against Southeastern Conference foes is essential.  

 

"It wasn't too much fun to watch practice but it was and is important to help teach those younger guys today at practice," Prescott said. "My job today was to motivate my guys to have a great practice so that's what I tried to do the best I could, just like if I was on the field playing." 

 

After all the injury concerns, especially with his quarterback position, Mullen joked Thursday that Prescott is "healthy today" but he continues to worry about him doing anything for the rest of the month.  

 

"We've got some time, a lot of practice between now and (the Liberty Bowl) and with how this year has gone...we've got to watch him walking to class taking final exams with all those curbs around campus," Mullen said. 

 

The MSU coaching staff had no intention of playing true freshman quarterback Damian Williams when he signed in February. However, it was Williams, the 6-foot-1 signal caller, in November scoring the game-winning touchdown at Arkansas and making his first career start in the Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss.  

 

Williams was the No. 1 quarterback in practice Saturday leading a offense that he was used to seeing as a scout team player throughout the 2013 season. 

 

"Like I told them, we get the opportunity to see where they are at, where they're at with their assignment and technique, where they're at running our offense or defense," Mullen said. "It's not scout team work a lot. It's getting extra reps and a lot of opportunity." 

 

Despite safety Nickoe Whitley (knee) and quarterback Tyler Russell (shoulder) both being medically ruled out for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, 11 other MSU seniors were suited up Saturday to prepare for the final game of their college careers.  

 

The difference in the eyes of the seniors is the emotional high the Bulldogs (6-6) are arriving back on the practice field after back-to-back overtime wins to get into a postseason game.  

 

"I do feel different as a player because we're on a two game winning streak," Perkins said Saturday when asked about the difference of bowl week last year to this season. "If everybody has high expectations like we do right now as a family then I'm more than confident we can come out with a victory and get younger players better for the future." 

 

Mullen even admitted Saturday doing some tinkering with positional changes for youthful players including moving former Starkville High School star Gabe Myles to wide receiver. MSU also has temporarily moved Dee Arrington from safety to linebacker and BJ Hammond from wide receiver to tight end. 

 

"That is just to see how some guys handle it and if they fit in and it picks up naturally," Mullen said. "You've kinda seen what guys do at other positions before. So it was good to see and Dee is now up to 230 (pounds) and he's still not at 100 percent, though. So he is just trying to work himself back in.."  

 

As he returned to his sanctuary of the practice field, Mullen was energized to see a football program eager with fresh, young faces to continue the tradition of what is now a unprecedented four straight bowl appearances at MSU. 

 

"A lot of people didn't expect us to be here," Mullen said. "So the guys are happy to be out here playing football and having fun at the end of the year. So far it's a positive note and we'd like to end the year on a real positive note. I think the guys just enjoy playing football and this is a fun week for them." 

 

Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.

 

 

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