CFN SEC Bloggers: 5 Thoughts On MSU's Spring
Mississippi State QB Chris Relf
Mississippi State QB Chris Relf
Posted Mar 6, 2011

With spring ball kicking in, we start to roll out the thoughts and the analysis from each key team's off-season sessions. Check it out as CFN's SEC Bloggers give you five different perspectives on some key questions facing the Mississippi State football team this spring. Can Chris Relf and the offense take things to another level? Coming Monday, the 50 Top Non-Conference Games of the 2011 season.

Billy Gomila: On Chris Wilson taking over the defense

Manny Diaz's aggressive style of defense helped cover for a lack of talent at times for Mississippi State, and one has to imagine Chris Wilson will continue that style. State's defense brought pressure from all angles and on any down, and that unpredictability was pretty hard for league offenses.

However, the Bulldogs will miss defensive end Pernell McPhee and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright. Pressure packages are only as good as the players running them, and as much as State lived by the blitz, they died by it a few times as well - WITH McPhee, White and Wright.

Russ Mitchell: On what position is undergoing the biggest overhaul?

Anyone got a linebacker they're not using?

Outside of perhaps Georgia, no other team in the SEC finds itself in a tougher spot at the linebacker position than the Bulldogs - West side variety. State lost all three starters from last year, including arguably two of the conference's best in Chris White and K.J. Wright.

The good news is that the Bulldogs have Cameron Lawrence, who shared time as a starter on the outside. After that, it's mostly youth/inexperience. Sophomores Chris Hughes and Mike Hunt will compete with red-shirt freshman Christian Holmes and Felando Bohanna. Someone - scratch that - sometwo better show up.

All of which just rubs salt into the wound caused by super-prep C.J. Johnson's 11th hour defection to rival Ole Miss this recruiting year.

Gabe Harris: On MSU's biggest strength in 2011

The biggest non-tangible strength the Bulldogs have coming back is confidence off of a 9 win season and romp over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Dan Mullen exudes a persona that no one can beat him on a level playing field, and that spills over to his team. However, that maxim will be tested in 2011 due to the coaching and player changes MSU is going through this spring.

But as you can't measure confidence, what is MSU's on-field strength? No doubt it's the backfield threesome of QB Chris Relf and RBs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Owens. The three combined for 2,247 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns in 2010, and they look to build on that in 2011.

Relf will never be mistaken for Cam Newton or Tim Tebow, but his up and down passing statistics began to trend up and eventually stabilize by the end of the season. If he can continue his progression this spring/fall then it will help the rebuilding job for the other offensive positions. The 1-2 punch of banger Ballard and speedster Owens should help keep defenses honest and pressure off the passing game.

Barrett Sallee: On Chris Relf v. Tyler Russell

While Aaron Murray will get a lot of the hype this offseason, it's hard to find a quarterback in the SEC that had a better finish to his 2010 season than Chris Relf. He capped off last season with a spectacular performance in the 2011 Gator Bowl, completing 18-of-24 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns in Mississippi State's 52-14 thrashing of Michigan.

With a full year as a starter now under his belt, Relf has become familiar enough with Dan Mullen's offense to lead the Bulldogs into SEC West contention in 2011. I'm not suggesting the Bulldogs will contend, but the play at quarterback won't prevent them from contending as long as it's Relf at the helm. It's his job to lose.

Tyler Russell is an outstanding talent - maybe the best recruit to ever land in Starkville out of high school. But it's not his time yet. Charlie Sheen would tell you that it's all about "winning," and that's what Relf proved he's capable of doing last season. Until he proves otherwise, the job is his.

Brian Harbach: On how much talent is there in Starkville, really?

Fans (and many sportswriters) tend to react to the most recent events of a program; for example, preseason polls are voted on with a heavy bias from the previous season's results. With that in mind, the MSU talent level might worry MSU fans, as the 2011 recruiting class left much to be desired. And that might be putting it nicely. It certainly wasn't Mullen and staff's best effort after a very successful 2010 season. You can blame it partly on the departure of DC Diaz to Texas, or negative recruiting stemming from the Cameron Newton situation. Regardless, most agree it was a let down. But that was just one season and doesn't paint a complete picture.

This shouldn't be a discussion of MSU's hypothetical recruiting class rankings, but rather an opinion of the players expected to contribute. Like most SEC programs, the Bulldogs are solid one deep on both sides of the ball. But Championship teams in the SEC must have difference makers at the backup positions as well.

The talent level in Starkville hasn't drastically changed from when Sylvester Croom was in charge of the program. There are players with All-SEC potential like RB Vic Ballad, DB Jonathan Banks, DT Josh Boyd and DT Fletcher Cox just like there were four years ago. But MSU still must rely on the perfect storm like 2010, with very few injuries to key players. A healthy MSU team can compete with most SEC programs and finish the season with a good bowl game. However, there's little room for error; an injury to one or two key players drastically changes the fabric of this team, and turns them into at best a .500 team. Or worse this year, given they play in the West. Mullen is bringing in good players just like Croom, but not enough of them. Recruiting has to be taken to another level before MSU can expect to compete for the SEC West.

Please follow Russ Mitchell on Twitter @russmitchellsec, Brian Harbach @harbabd and Barrett Sallee @barrettsallee.

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