The still-young coach isn't exaggerating about having ‘so many' older Bulldogs around . It goes back to Coach Dan Mullen's immediate emphasis way back in 2009 to start stocking up an incredibly thin receiver roster. Not only did Mullen ink as many pass-catchers as available his first spring but that fall most of them were—literally—thrown onto the field immediately. At the time it meant a lot of offensive frustrations.
Today? Those growing pains are paying off handsomely with a well-seasoned catching corps which ought to be at its playing prime. The three nominal wide receiver positions each show a senior topping the summer depth chart(s) with another upperclassman in the rotation and a pair of proven juniors. Another gauge of program progress is that the ten players listed at those three slots post-spring game had a total 18 varsity letters amongst them.
Mix in some talented redshirts, and beyond that allow for incoming August speedsters, and at last Mississippi State is jussssst about up to what Mullen wants from his wideout positions.
Setting the pace are those old Dogs. Three of them—Chris Smith, Arceto Clark, and Chad Bumphis—did so on the stat sheet last season already as the top three targets. Between them this trio accounted for 90 catches and 1,111 yards, as well as nine of the 19 touchdown receptions in 2011. Actually a bigger and better number is 94.5%. That is, what portion of balls caught by a true wideout last season can be counted among a returning receiver. The only wideout missing is Michael Carr, finally excused from the squad.
Numbers are what fans and writers study. Coaches seek intangibles too, and Mirando has seen good signs here. "Chris and Arceto are starting to take control of the group a little bit. They are the vocal leaders of the group and they are making sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to do both on and off the field. This spring I saw some good things from both of them." A lot of good things. Whether scrimmaging or practicing Smith and Clark were so relentlessly efficient running routes and coming down with catches that it was almost news if a ball got by them. Maybe some seniors would have been tempted to take their last spring easy, especially after their '11 season accomplishments. Smith jumped to the top of the catch-list with 35 grabs, 330 yards and two scores; while Clark had his own breakout year of 30 catches, 442 yards, and four touchdowns.
There wasn't a hint of slacking by either in spring though. If anything both Dogs only upped the intensity seen during real games last fall. "That's what we're here for, man," Smith explained. "We're here to make plays like that. So we have to get better every day, as a team, as a unit, as a group. We ain't proved nothing to nobody."
Well, to nobody except the three people whose opinions count: head coach, coordinator, and position coach. All give these veterans glowing reviews after their spring efforts.
"Arceto really worked hard," Mirando said. "Arceto and Chris graded out as two of the highest among the group." Note he said ‘of the' and not ‘the' highest. That status falls to another senior. "I thought that Chad had his best spring overall, in the weight room and on the field."
Now that was a good word indeed. Bumphis is a classic college case of a freshman who shows up strong, then seems to settle into a routine. After a 32-catch rookie year he did improve to 44 the soph season despite missing six quarters with a broken shoulder, and yards-per-catch climbed from 11.7 to 14.4. But in 2012 while the per-catch tally stayed close enough at 13.6, he only had 25 receptions. So there was the inevitable questioning: had Bumphis peaked already, or was he being surpassed by teammates who were continuing develop? A post Music City Bowl incident in his home town marred the name a bit, too.
But all Bumphis did in his senior spring was work like someone with something left to prove. He retained starting status at the slot (H) receiver position, and those off-season issues were addressed to everyone's satisfaction as well. What his senior season numbers will be is impossible to predict given upgrades all around the air game. His impact on defensive gameplanning is easier to guess, though.
If Bumphis needed any other motivations, he got it from a long list of other slot-candidates demanding their practice turns. Such as the fourth senior on this roster. "Brandon Heavens did a really good job during the spring," said Mirando. "We look for him to do some good things for us this year." Heavens had ten catches with a touchdown last season and looks at last to get out of Bumphis' slot-shadow as Mississippi State schemes up more four-receiver sets, not counting the tight ends.
Then there is the even-younger slot man with spectacular potential. It is hard to imagine a more remarkable debut game than the short catch Jameon Lewis turned into a 80-yard touchdown at Memphis last year. He only caught five more balls, for 63 yards, the rest of the season. Still that one big breaker showed what the cat-quick catcher ought to be capable of as he learns the entire offense. And his nine-catch spring game was another proof of progress.
On the outside(s) there is extra experience, such as steady junior Sam Williams working on Smith's end. Junior Ricco Sanders (15 catches, one touchdown) was Clark's immediate backup last season and beginning spring. But by the Maroon-White Game a younger candidate had jumped into the mix. Literally jumped in one sense as redshirt freshman Joe Morrow put on a camp show either going up, going long, just playing going and getting passes. Often during the course of 2011 Mullen commented that had everyone known how fast Morrow would come along he might have cracked the varsity rotation as a rookie.
Now, he is in the mix for sure as the ‘big' sort of wideout Mullen has needed since day-one. "Joe is different than everyone else because of his length, how tall he is and how long his arms are," Mirando said. "We see him as a ‘jump ball' kind of guy, a guy who can jump up over the guy that is defending him and make a play." Which Morrow did in spring, and not just going up in one direction for a high catch. Early in camp there was a goal line lob that seemed sure to carry too far.
Not for Morrow. Despite having a defender leaning on him, he bent backwards to get one, then both hands on the ball for a touchdown that left everyone buzzing. Six spring game grabs only increased such volume. Mirando does inject the cautionary note now.
"We just have to make sure we do things with him that he does very well. We are still figuring that out with him. We are having to do that with every player, learning their strengths."
Ditto for soph Robert Johnson, who has struggled to turn a great 2011 spring game into real game opportunity. He did get four balls last fall for a 10.5-yard average, and in spring drills looked much more comfortable in the overall offense. "I thought that Robert did some good things in the spring, Jameon did some good things and Joe did some good things," Mirando said. "They have the talent but they just have to figure it out."
"The young guys still have a long way to go. And, hopefully, this summer the older guys are working with them and making sure they are doing everything the way we expect from the weight room, conditioning to everything else." Mirando might have added ‘and everyone else'. Because come August true frosh like Brandon Holloway and Frederick Brown begin fighting for their own places in the depth chart.