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Tight ends could play bigger role for Mullen's Bulldogs


Brett Hudson



STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen looks around his meeting room and can't help but feel a little older than his 44 years old. 


It's the curse of a coach who has done it long enough to hire former players as assistant coaches. 


"Holy cow I'm getting old. But it's great," Mullen said. "You just take pride on seeing the success that these guys have as they move forward in life and knowing that maybe you had a little something to do with that. It's great seeing those guys on a nightly basis, knowing you helped get them there." 


That is the case with D.J. Looney, MSU's new tight ends coach, who takes over what Mullen expects to be a pivotal unit for his offense. 


"We need them to become playmakers," Mullen said. "We had a really young group last year. We've got a couple of guys that have played some football now. We have to use it. 


"We have some great mismatches there with their size and athleticism. They have got to become a bigger part of our offense." 


Redshirt freshman tight end Dontea Jones estimated that comment to mean more for MSU's tight ends in the passing game, which is notable given Mullen's limited use of tight ends in his time at MSU. In the Mullen era, MSU tight ends have accounted for less than 12 percent of the team's total receptions. In each of the last two seasons, tight ends have made 10-11 percent of MSU's receptions. In 2014 and 2013, MSU tight ends made 13.4 and 14.6 percent of MSU's receptions, respectively. 


Those most recent four years are the most reliable estimate after Mullen's first three years in Starkville. In Mullen's first year, Marcus Green accounted for all but one pass caught by tight ends, as the position group accounted for 18 percent of receptions. Green was the team's No. 2 receiver. In 2010 and 2011, that number dropped below 8 percent. 


Jones and Mullen feel the Bulldogs' experience and depth at tight end with redshirt freshman Christian Roberson, junior Justin Johnson, sophomore Farrod Green, and senior Jordan Thomas will help those players earn an expanded role. 


"I think what he's saying is passing plays, getting out in the boundary -- we're all athletic, we can catch and run," Jones said. "I think that gives us more threats on the field. We have so many tight ends and we're all so young, the next step is to try to get everybody on the field." 


Looney knows he is fortunate to inherit a tight end group with this much potential. He also realizes it is his job to help those players realize their opportunities so they can add another dimension to the offense. 


"They're helping me out with some of the stuff. I've got some good cats in that room," Looney said. "Justin has come out to me and been a leader since I've been here. I think he's going to be a great player. He's got to get better at some of the details. Farrod has been good, Jordan, those three are really standing out to me." 


Looney also has made an impression on his players, who said they have noticed how his demeanor changes when practice begins. 


"From the meeting room to the practice field, it's a big jump," Jones said. "He's real playful in the meeting room. He'll make sure everything's broken down, make sure we ask questions. When we get on the field, it's balls to the wall. We have to go strong, go hard." 


Looney's knowledge of Mullen's system matches his energy. Looney played offensive line for Mullen in 2009 and 2010 and then coached for him as a graduate assistant in 2011. While Mullen and Jones seemed excited to incorporate more options for the tight ends in the offense, Looney downplayed the idea of significant foundational changes to make that happen. 


"We're going to be the same offense you guys have seen on tape," Looney said. "We might get more reps. We expect more out of the guys because they have more experience, but I don't expect much to change." 


n In related news, 19 former MSU football players will showcase their skills today in front of dozens of NFL scouts at MSU Pro Day.  


Players will have an opportunity to go through six measurable drills -- 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and shuttle run -- and then conclude the day with position workouts.  


Fourteen members of the 2016 squad will be in attendance, including NFL Combine participants Fred Ross and Justin Senior. Former Bulldogs Fred Brown, Boobie Dixon, Jay Hughes, and Josh Robinson also are scheduled to participate. Dixon has played six NFL seasons, including most recently with the Buffalo Bills in 2015.  


Today will provides an opportunity for defensive leaders Richie Brown, Johnathan Calvin, Kivon Coman, and A.J. Jefferson to work out. Brown was the Bulldogs' leading tackler in back-to-back seasons, posting more than 100 tackles in his junior and senior campaigns. Calvin led the squad with 11 1/2 tackles for loss.  


Jefferson, a team captain, underwent shoulder surgery following the Egg Bowl. He finished his career third in all-time tackles for loss (35). 


n Alabama holds first practice of spring: At Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Alabama football team began spring practice Tuesday afternoon with a two-hour workout in shorts and helmets on the Thomas-Drew Practice Fields. 


It marked the first of 15 spring practice sessions that will include to closed scrimmages and the annual Golden Flake A-Day Game at 2 p.m. April 22 (ESPN). 


The Crimson Tide welcomed 16 mid-year enrollees to the practice field including OL Elliot Baker, DL Isaiah Buggs, LS Thomas Fletcher, RB Najee Harris, WR Jerry Jeudy, OL Alex Leatherwood, DB Kyriq McDonald, LB Dylan Moses, WR Tyrell Shavers, QB Tua Tagovailoa, TE Major Tennison, QB Mac Jones, DB Xavier McKinney, RB Brian Robinson Jr., DB Daniel Wright and RB Chadarius Townsend. 


Alabama also saw three new coaches take the field including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll, special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio, and the promotion of Michael Locksley to co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. 


The Crimson Tide returns a total of 13 starters, including six on offense, six on defense and All-America punter JK Scott. The offense welcomes back sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts and offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman, Ross Pierschbacher, and Jonah Williams along with junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Junior Da'Ron Payne returns to anchor the defensive line, while Shaun Dion Hamilton, returning from injury, will lead the linebackers. The secondary returns four starters from a season ago with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Ronnie Harrison, and Tony Brown. 


The team will return to the field Thursday and Saturday. 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson 




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