August 13, 2014 11:01:32 AM
STARKVILLE -- At its peak under then-offensive coordinator Dan Mullen from 2005-08, the Florida football team's offense featured scoring threats at each skill position, ranging from Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow to multi-purpose wide receiver Percy Harvin.
But Mullen's best offenses at the school always had a wealth of talent and production at tight end, which provided the fuel for an offense that led Florida to two national championships.
Now in his sixth season as coach at Mississippi State, Mullen returns nine offensive starters. In that group, he could have his new Tebow (quarterback Dak Prescott) and his de facto Harvin (wide receiver Jameon Lewis). But will MSU's production at tight end match what Mullen built at Florida, which peaked with a 96-catch, 1,358-yard season from tight ends in 2006?
That answer could make or break the Bulldogs' quest to join the Southeastern Conference's elite.
Behind senior Malcolm Johnson, who finished third on the team with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns last season, MSU tight ends coach Scott Sallach believes the Bulldogs have the talent and bodies to make a difference.
"Malcolm is the kind of player you want in your room as a position coach," Sallach said. "He's a good player who works hard, sets the example for the younger guys."
Behind Johnson, MSU tight ends were responsible for 37 catches that resulted in 514 yards and four scores last season. Even though MSU returns more experience than any other team in the SEC, the tight end spot has seen plenty of movement around Johnson. Backup Artimas Samuel left the team in the spring, and former tight end Rufus Warren moved to tackle. The moves leave Johnson and classmate Brandon Hill, a West Lowndes High School product who posted two catches for 53 yards, and sophomore Gus Walley. The Bulldogs also have newcomers Darrion Hutcherson, a 6-foot-7 junior college transfer, and 24-year-old freshman Rashun Dixon, the younger brother of Anthony Dixon, MSU's all-time leading rusher. Anthony Dixon is a member of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
Rashun Dixon, who signed with MSU out of Terry High in 2008, spent six seasons in minor league baseball after the Oakland Athletics selected him in the 10th round of the 2008 Major League Baseball draft. Now enrolled at MSU, the 6-1, 210-pounder is listed at tight end, where he brings maturity and a new level of athletic ability to the position.
"He's been through a lot more. He's not coming off the high school field to practice," Mullen said. "He's coming off professional fields to practice. I think he has a little better grasp of what it is to be a pro and how to handle your business."
With Dixon at 6-1 and Hutcherson at 6-7, the Bulldogs have options in all shapes and sizes at tight end.
"You've got a whole spectrum of body types in my room, which is a good thing," Sallach said.
And while production on the level of Mullen's time in Gainesville might prove difficult to replicate, Sallach believes MSU's tight ends possess a wealth of skills that will benefit the offense.
"It's a very unique situation," Sallach said. "They have to understand the run game, they have to understand the pass game, blitzes, coverages, protections, routes. The only person who has to know more than them is quarterback."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat