April 16, 2010 9:39:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Depth, experience and leadership have topped Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen''s checklist for offensive improvements this spring.
Prior to Mississippi State''s Maroon-White game on Saturday, his list hasn''t changed much.
Mississippi State''s receiving corps, offensive line and running back stable have had mixed rotations this spring and with that Mullen has seen performances fluctuate.
The tone of spring practices has been set by the defense, especially the defensive line.
With the graduation of Tyson Lee, who took the majority of the snaps last season, Tyler Russell and Egg Bowl hero Chris Relf have split first-team duties.
To add to breaking in Russell, who red-shirted last season, having two less receivers from last season has given Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry the opportunity to step up as the primary pass catchers.
With the team''s offensive line, which paved the way for the nation''s 12th-ranked rushing offense last season, four starters return along with promising sophomore Tobias Smith, of Columbus.
After the first wave, though, Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy are in agreement that the unit''s performance has been inconsistent with youth comprising the second string.
More of a concern to Mullen, however, has been establishing depth at wide receiver.
Bumphis led the team in catches and yards last season as a true freshman, but as Mullen noted after Thursday''s practice, having an established go-to receiver can be a blessing and a curse.
"You can have any go-to receiver you want, but I can go double him the entire game and he''s not going to win," Mullen said. "In the spread offense, you better have three go-to guys. If our guys work on it like they need to, everyone''s going to have that timing down.
"Bumphis, Heavens, Chris Smith, Leon Berry -- that''s four but we need to have eight to even get through a game. We''ve got four who can step on the field right now and we have to find four more before September 4th."
Having been pleased with the tempo of practice and the rate at which receivers have processed plays and applied to the field this spring, Mullen is just as keen to avoid regression over the summer.
"We can''t take one step backwards in knowledge," Mullen said. "We can''t repeat something in August that we learned this spring. All of our receivers, you need to work year round on timing and do it on your own time. Hopefully they''ll get that way over the summer."
The two-quarterback system used by the Bulldogs last season figures to be the case for the spring game and for the fall, though Russell has proven to be a capable runner.
There''s no denying Relf''s impact on the running game, which lost 1,749 yards with the departure of Anthony Dixon, Christian Ducre and Arnil Stallworth.
Robert Elliott, who''s bulked up significantly since last season, and junior college transfer Vick Ballard figure to split carries at running back, so Relf''s big-play impact on the ground game will see the junior remain a staple in the offense.
Russell, a Parade All-American, has the weight of Bulldogs fans on his shoulders as he carries the perceptions of the prolific passing quarterback Mississippi State''s never had.
His high school teammate and current Bulldog receiver, Chris Smith, knows him better than anyone else and has seen tremendous improvement.
"Between the receivers, what they''ve got, every route and all his steps -- he''s looking good out there," Smith said. "Being a quarterback, you''ve got to understand everything about the offense, not just what you do. He''s there and getting better every day.
However, he says the same about Relf and warns not to sleep on the "running" quarterback''s arm.
Relf throws a tight spiral and can launch the ball down field and because of the experience from last year and his improved mechanics, Smith said there isn''t a drop-off when the two quarterbacks rotate or get uneven reps with the first team.
"We know Tyler can throw it, and Relf can run it, but Relf''s gotten way better at throwing the ball," Smith said. "The comfort level is pretty even right now. During the season is when we''ll tell though. Who''s going to be the go-to receiver, who''s really going to just make big plays because of the chemistry. Teams are going to start picking that up and start doubling whoever the quarterback is going to, and coach Mullen is a smart person and will start opening things up for other guys."
With Russell lacking action against live Southeastern Conference defenses, Mullen explained the advantages of playing two-quarterbacks in relation to in-game coaching.
Hence, expect to see more of it.
"I think the advantage, especially if they have a different skill-set, it opens up a wide range of offense for you and puts a little bit different pressure on the defense," Mullen said. "It also gives me the opportunity to coach them during the course of the game, and not just that, I don''t have to wait until the end of the series to coach them up about what I want them to look at."