August 22, 2019 8:54:45 AM
STARKVILLE -- Offensive line coach Marcus Johnson is excited.
Entering his second season at Mississippi State following six years on David Cutcliffe's staff at Duke, Johnson is tasked with developing an offensive line he expects could go as many as eight or nine players deep in its rotation.
"It's a tough group," he said. "It's a physical group. They hold each other accountable."
Speaking with the media Wednesday, Johnson said Tuesday's practice was among the best the offensive line has had this offseason after he got a chance to go back and watch the film.
And while the practices have been promising, Johnson's task of sorting through an experienced, yet newly positioned group remains difficult.
After a standout career at guard, senior Darryl Williams has moved even further inside to center. A team captain this year, Johnson said the vocal component of the position suits Williams.
"I think he kind of wanted to be in that role," Johnson said. "Very communicative, high football IQ, gets it and knows the game, knows when to make adjustment call and he does a great job putting the five (lineman) on the right page."
Senior left tackle Tyre Phillips is another of the veterans who've impressed in fall camp. Tasked with protecting either Tommy Stevens or Keytaon Thompson's blindside, the 6-foot-5, 345-pound mauler is pegged for a breakout season.
"I expect a big year out of Tyre," Johnson said. "He's a big athlete that I think is going to hold his own and I think a lot of people are going to recognize who he is this year."
While the unit remains a bit of a work in progress just a week away from MSU's Aug. 31 season opener against Louisiana in New Orleans, Johnson is ready to see his group in action.
"You don't know (what you have) until the spotlight comes on and once that football is kicked off next week," he said.
Three horse race at running back
Junior Kylin Hill is the unquestioned starter heading into the 2019 season, but don't be surprised if three running backs factor into the equation this year.
MSU running backs coach Terry Richardson sang the praises of backups senior Nick Gibson and freshman Lee Witherspoon Wednesday.
Gibson, who enters his fifth year in the program, offers a rugged running style that nicely complements Hill's speedy, change-of-direction-type play.
"Nick is a dog," Richardson said. "He's a hit it and get it guy and that's his game."
Witherspoon is the main mystery of the bunch. Despite being just a freshman, players have compared his ability to that of former Georgia running back Nick Chubb -- a 2018 second round NFL draft pick and former first team All-SEC performer.
"Already, Nick Chubb?" Richardson said through a laugh. "He's a good kid. He's a hard worker. He's a tough kid. He's talented. Obviously you don't run for all those yards he ran for if you don't have any talent."
While Hill remains healthy and prepared for a heavy workload, injuries happen. With a stable of capable runners behind him, Richardson is confident in MSU's backfield depth.
"We're doing what we're supposed to do," he said. "We're following the process. That's really all I can say -- once we start playing games we'll see what our production is. But right now I'm pretty pleased."
Same group, different year at linebacker
Of all the talent MSU lost from last year's top-ranked ranked defense, the linebacking corps is virtually identical.
Junior second team All-SEC performer Erroll Thompson is back alongside classmate and Starkville native Willie Gay Jr. Senior Leo Lewis also returns after totaling 45 tackles, three tackles for a loss and one pass defended in 2018.
The lone major change is the man in leading the group -- first year linebackers coach Chris Marve. After five years on Derek Mason's staff at Vanderbilt, Marve takes over the veteran group and has liked what he's seen thus far.
"They work extremely hard," Marve said. "Very mature group, pretty good natural leadership and so it's been fun to be around them and watch them be really detailed about what they do and how they go about their business. We're excited."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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