February 5, 2011 9:42:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- The balance is where John Cohen wants it.
The Mississippi State baseball coach believes he has the perfect mix of veterans and newcomers to get the Bulldogs back to postseason play.
In his first two seasons at the school, Cohen''s primary goal was to get the players he wanted and to get them on the field immediately.
The approach has led to an up-and-down experience in the past two seasons, especially last year when the Bulldogs finished 23-33 and 6-24 in the Southeastern Conference.
Cohen feels more comfortable this preseason, due in part to having more experienced pitchers and having enough players who know what he wants.
"There''s a difference between having a coaching staff teaching and having older kids helping you teach the process," Cohen said Thursday. "When I was fortunate enough to play baseball at Mississippi State, there was a process by which older guys were teaching younger guys. It''s helped out dramatically."
MSU appears to have a chore replacing five of its top seven hitters from a year ago. Standout first baseman Connor Powers, who led the team in batting average, RBIs, and home runs last season, graduated and left one of two voids at the corner infield spots.
A 34-game starter last season, senior Ryan Collins will replace Powers at first base. Playing primarily as an outfielder last season, he hit. 271 and drove in 22 runs.
While Collins admits the move to the infield has helped him feel more involved defensively, he''s realistic about replacing one of MSU''s all-time greats.
"First base is probably our biggest question mark," Collins said, "especially when you''re trying to replace somebody like Connor. You''re not really gonna replace a guy who got drafted and hit a ton of home runs."
At third base, Jarrod Parks and Nick Vickerson are the top options. Parks missed all of last season after having back surgery, while Vickerson hit .328 and started 48 games in 2010.
"Nick is a proven offensive player," Cohen said. "Then you have Jarrod, who we just missed dramatically a year ago. We''re gonna have to find room for both those guys to play."
Whomever Cohen plays at third, they''ll be part of a quick-footed lineup built to defend and to run the bases.
To adjust to new bat regulations that decreased the exit velocity, Cohen has recruited faster players in the past two seasons.
The likes of infielder Sam Frost, outfielder Jaron Shepherd, and freshmen Demarcus Henderson and Adam Frazier should help the Bulldogs play to the dimensions of Dudy Noble Field.
Collins said he expects the Bulldogs to hit to the gaps well and to utilize their speed.
"We have a big ball park by SEC standards," Cohen said. "We feel like speed is a really important component. I wouldn''t say we''re ridiculously fast; I would say we have a lot more speed than what we''ve had in recent years."
Cohen''s third recruiting class was headlined by Florida Player of the Year CT Bradford and Alabama Mr. Baseball Daryl Norris.
Bradford and Norris were two of five signees selected this summer in the Major League Baseball draft. Meridian Community College''s Corey Dickerson, who was drafted in the eighth round, was the only one who turned professional.
Shortstop Taylor Stark (42nd round), Henderson (43rd), Norris (46th), and Bradford (48th) turned down the chance to go pro.
Cohen said Norris is a talented hitter who has great ability to focus and to stay on breaking balls. He provides more flexibility at first base, but he also will pitch this season.
Bradford also will pitch and play outfield as one of Cohen''s many speedy players.
"It''s amazing because I think this recruiting class was one of the best in the country though it wasn''t ranked as such," Cohen said. "From a balance standpoint, it''s as good as the recruiting class ranked eighth the year before. Those two kids are very good players."
While Norris and Bradford are freshmen, Cohen doesn''t feel like playing the field, hitting, and pitching will be too much to ask of them. He expects both players to benefit from having 13 upperclassmen on the team, and he is confident they''ll contribute this season.
"It''s difficult because playing in this league is difficult," Cohen said. "But it just gives them another way to get on the field. Both of them will help us in different areas. In the era of having 27 guys on some form of (financial) aid, I think the guy who can pitch, hit, and play more than one position is extremely valuable."
MSU will begins the season Feb. 18 at home vs. Akron.