April 20, 2010 10:17:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team''s Maroon-White game showcased the Bulldogs'' young talent that could become the household names of the future.
Running back Montrell Conner, though slowed by a knee injury during spring practice, looked like the next Anthony Dixon on Saturday with 60 yards on nine carries.
Conner wasn''t the only fresh face to make an impact in the spring, as defensive end Johnathan McKenzie could start in the fall opposite Pernell McPhee.
Defensive tackle James Carmon, who has lost 40 pounds since arriving from junior college, will form a potent middle rotation with Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox.
More than any other unit this spring, MSU''s defensive line flashed moments of dominance this spring in Manny Diaz''s "attack and read" system. The unit has only picked up more steam this spring with the addition of former Oklahoma defensive line coach Chris Wilson.
MSU''s defensive line progression was expected, as Boyd and Cox arrived highly regarded recruits. McPhee was a Southeastern Conference standout as a junior, and the end position will get another boost when Kaleb Eulls steps on campus this summer.
Experience difference at quarterback
Following Saturday''s scrimmage, MSU coach Dan Mullen said experience was the difference between quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell.
Relf had been on the field before in front of thousands of people at Davis Wade Stadium and other SEC venues.
Russell, MSU''s highest-touted quarterback to step on campus since perhaps, Kevin Fant, threw two interceptions and struggled to keep the chains moving.
"That''s the biggest difference we saw today between the two. It''s a long time before we have to play a game," Mullen said. "Our job is to keep developing those guys."
The soft-spoken Relf, who worked hard in the offseason, said all spring he was a better passer than he showed last year, while Russell has buried himself in the playbook to learn "why" to do things after mastering what to do and how things Mullen asks his quarterbacks to do.
But no one emerged from the spring as the clear-cut starter based on the spring game or their performances in spring practice.
Both had their moments, and both struggled with interceptions and timing issues against defensive line pressure.
Overall, though, the position improved and both quarterbacks grew more comfortable with more repetitions.
For now, the tandem-quarterback system seems to be the future.
Offensive line has questions behind starters
This is an area that showed tremendous improvement last season and returns four starters for 2010, but plenty of questions remain behind the starters.
"Drop off" is the term Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy have used to describe the depth behind starters Derek Sherrod, J.C. Brignone, Quentin Saulsberry, Addison Lawrence, and Tobias Smith.
The lack of depth was evident Saturday in the spring game, as four starting linemen made up the Maroon team''s front.
Russell and the White team never gained traction, while running back Robert Elliott, who joined Conner and junior college transfer Vick Ballard in getting first-team repetitions in the spring, rushed the ball just once.
Hevesy, however, isn''t so much concerned with having an entire second wave established as he is with having three lineman who can step in at any position.
Injuries to Templeton Hardy and D.J. Looney set the group back, but Hevesy is keen to see redshirt freshman Gabe Jackson and senior Phillip Freeman become substitutes in the fall.
"I want the first five, then six, seven, eight, and nine," Hevesy said. "The next best player is going to come in. If we''ve got to move guys so be it. If the next best player is the backup center, then center is going to guard and guard is going to tackle. I''ll just plug guys in and move guys around if need be."
MSU''s offensive line avoided serious injury last season, starting the same five for all 12 games.
Secondary returns with experience
A year after making 17 interceptions and returning five for scores, MSU''s young secondary returned this spring with everyone back.
The playmaking ability was obvious last season, and the likes of Charles Mitchell, Johnthan Banks, and Corey Broomfield figure to have plenty more opportunities with a stouter defensive line.
Despite the interceptions, MSU ranked second-to-bottom in overall pass defense.
The key for the secondary in the spring was establishing depth, and Maurice Langston emerged as a starter opposite Louis Watson, who filled in for the injured Broomfield.
At safety, Zach Smith returned after missing the second half of last season due to concussion problems. Redshirt freshman Nikoe Whitley also made an impression on Mullen.
"I kept noticing Nikoe Whitley and Dennis Thames, which is great for us at the safety position," Mullen said. "The more depth we have back there gives us the luxury to move John Banks around as we have those young safeties develop."