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By MATTHEW STEVENS
The goals have not changed for Mississippi State football despite having major question marks exiting the 2011 spring football workouts.
After shocking the Southeastern Conference with a nine-win season and a New Yearâ€™s Day bowl bid last season, Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen didnâ€™t see anything that dissuaded him from suggesting bigger and better things were to come in his third season in Starkville.
â€śOur goal is to win the SEC West and get to Atlanta,â€ť Mullen said. â€śThatâ€™s what we can control. You canâ€™t really control anything beyond that â€“ thatâ€™s the life of college football. Weâ€™ll go with winning the West and then every reward that comes after that, weâ€™ll go from there.â€ť
The offensive left tackle position remains a huge question mark heading into the summer as senior James Carmon or redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell failed to distinguish themselves in their hope of replacing future first round selection and All-SEC honoree Derek Sherrod as the backside protector of senior quarterback Chris Relf for the 2011 season.
â€śThe trickle-down effect becomes huge in that thereâ€™s not a lot of experience in the backups,â€ť Mullen said. â€śTempleton Hardy played a lot of football for us, Dillon Day played a lot of football for us (and) Blaine Clausell and James Carmon havenâ€™t played an SEC game at left tackle for us. They have to grow up fast and if you can stay healthy with the ones, because you feel good about your depth, they will get the time to develop and not have to be thrust into the starting job right now.â€ť
Another question that got answered is how MSU would try to replace two likely draft picks (K.J. Wright and Chris White) at the linebacker position. While new linebackers coach Geoff Collins may use a committee solution to the problem, it is clear that the depth at that position is not an immediate drought as the preseason experience numbers would seem to suggest.
â€śI didnâ€™t doubt the talent level there but the biggest question is the experience level,â€ť Mullen said. â€śI think we have a bunch of SEC talented linebackers here (but) we've got to make sure theyâ€™re SEC ready this September. Thatâ€™s still a long way to go development wise.â€ť
While calling last weekendâ€™s Maroon-White spring game a â€śrewardâ€ť for the older players expected to contribute early and often in the 2011 season, Mullen was surprised at the lack of mistakes that were made by the underclassmen and first-time members of the MSU squad especially on special teams.
â€śI wouldnâ€™t have been shocked to see long snappers snap over the heads of guys, fumbling kick snaps, whiff on a punt and our specialists did a great job,â€ť Mullen said. â€śEven the quarterbacks were very efficient.â€ť
One of those quarterbacks was redshirt freshman Dylan Favre as the former Mr. Football selection in the state of Mississippi completed 17-for-26 for 199 yards and a touchdown through the air.
While it was his one of his first long stint of playing time at Davis Wade Stadium, Favre continued his gunslinger mentality that led to several less-than-ideal throws and one interception in the second half of the contest.
â€śI love confidence (and) he can make a lot of throws,â€ť Mullen said. â€śIâ€™d rather have a quarterback with a lot of confidence and I've got to pull the reins back than I've got to try and get them going. Thatâ€™s what Dylan has. Throughout his development, weâ€™re continuing to continue to watch (and say) donâ€™t change your playmaking ability. What weâ€™re going to do is limit your mistakes. Thatâ€™s the development of a quarterback right there.â€ť
Summer practices will begin for Mississippi State on August 4 and in the meantime, the only coach that is allowed under NCAA rules to have immediate contact with the players is strength coach Matt Balis.
â€śThatâ€™s a long time and football is the only sport like that where you have no access to your players,â€ť Mullen said.