Dan Mullen told us that Mississippi State's fall training camp is just now hitting the tough part as the Bulldogs approach their Sept. 1 opener against Memphis.
However, the part of training camp that was open to the public and media has just ended, and it is likely the last time any of us journalistic folk get to watch a practice until MSU starts preparing for a bowl in December (if they are bowl-eligible, of course).
Logan, Michael and Bob got to watch the first six days of practice, some in just helmets, some in shells and one in full pads at the South Farm. It is early in practice and many players were working with and against the second, third and fourth teams, so with this little full contact, all observations were made and taken with a grain of salt.
But having watched all of spring practice and kept up with the team over the summer, we were able to make some observations in MSU's fall training camp (with salt grains in hand). You've seen our extensive and sometimes exhaustive practice notes throughout the last week, now it's time for us to share our opinion.
Call it an awards show, call it a top-performers list or even call it bogus if you like, but here are who we think the best players were in what we saw of fall camp.
Top Offensive Newcomer (true freshman or transfer):
Bob: I'd say it's likely we all pick the same guy, but it has to be 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Joseph Morrow. He never looked like a freshman, was very active in 11-on-11 drills and we all heard about his 80-yard touchdown over Johnthan Banks. I'll be surprised if he doesn't play (and play well) in 2011.
Bob's Honorable Mention: I was actually very impressed with freshman tight end Rufus Warren. He had one particularly impressive day early in camp and he clearly has the ability to both block and catch. Give him a year under Matt Balis and he will be a good one.
Michael: Honestly, because of where Mississippi State is right now with talent development I don't see many newcomers stepping in to help immediately… except for Joseph Morrow. After seeing him in camp he is much bigger than I remember during his recruiting visits. He has the size to add a new dimension to the MSU passing attack. Certainly he has a lot to learn, but he certainly passed the eye test during the early portion of camp.
Logan: I'd have to agree with Michael and Bob that Joseph Morrow is hands down the top true freshman I've seen. I expected Morrow to come in and contribute immediately simply because the Bulldogs didn't have a receiver like him on their current roster. But what I didn't know was just how solid a route runner and how good Morrow's hands were. He's a definite mismatch at 6-foot-5 with his speed and leaping ability.
Logan's honorable mention: - I know I'm kind of breaking the rules a little bit with this pick but I'm going with senior left tackle James Carmon (hey he's a newcomer to offense right?). Carmon is leaps and bounds better than where he was during the spring. His technique and overall understanding of the offense and what to do is much improved. He won't be the Derek Sherrod that fans are used to but I think as the season progresses Carmon will turn into a solid offensive lineman.
Top Defensive Newcomer:
Bob: I had a tough time not picking JUCO cornerback Darius Slay, but as athletic and strong as he looked, I was blown away by Clemson transfer linebacker Brandon Maye. Seeing him on the field for the first time, he immediately looked like he belongs in the SEC. He is quick to the ball, moves all over the field and was directing the linebackers and defensive line by his second day.
Michael: This selection almost isn't fair because he is a veteran. Brandon Maye was the most impressive newcomer simply because of the leadership he brought to the table. He spent much of his time running with the third team simply because he had to earn his way up the ladder…he wasn't afraid of that either! I'm not going to say he is the most talented of the linebackers, just that he brings exactly what State needed…experience.
Logan: I'd have to say the newcomer that has impressed me the most is junior cornerback Darius Slay. He's exactly what you look for in a shutdown cover corner. I watched him shutout former four-star wideout Patrick Patterson last year in junior college so I had no doubt he could get it done in the SEC as well. During camp I've watched Slay come up with several athletic interceptions.
Top Offensive Redshirt Freshman:
Bob: Had he not missed the last two days I saw practice, it would have been tight end Malcolm Johnson, who was impressive despite a couple drops. But now, I'll go with another tight end Brandon Hill, who was just as good as Johnson and is certainly the more natural of the two at tight end, Johnson having switched over from wide receiver.
Bob's Honorable Mention: Left tackle Blaine Clausell was impressive throughout the practices I watched and he rarely got beat. He knows the protections and footwork, he just has to keep getting stronger. It should be noted that receiver Randy Moulds was also a showout in practice.
Michael: I was hoping this award would go to Nick Griffin, but given his injury the obvious choice in my mind is Jameon Lewis. Bottom line… the kid just flat out makes plays. He is electric with the ball in his hands. This is the one guy State fans will be surprised with when he gets into the action this fall.
Logan: The one redshirt freshman that has stood out the most to me isn't even on scholarship. Randy Moulds, son of former MSU star receiver Eric Moulds, has had an excellent fall camp. Last year Moulds did not get many opportunities at practice and the few times he did left a lot to be desired. This fall though he looks like a much improved player. He has hauled in several tough catches and also shown the ability to get vertical as a deep threat as well.
Top Defensive Redshirt Freshman:
Bob: The versatile Matthew Wells was probably the most impressive of all the redshirt freshmen. I was amazed by his combination of size, speed and skill level after only one year in the system. There are signs of youth on occasion, but he will play a lot in 2011. The kid has talent.
Michael: Matthew Wells was around the football a ton. I think he has the size and mental capacity to really help MSU this season. He will get his share of the action in the aggressive scheme State appears to be gearing up for.
Logan: Throughout his recruitment I never expected Matthew Wells to be at linebacker but that's exactly where he's at. He has bulked up to 215-pounds and still maintained the speed that made him one of the top running backs in the state. Wells has long arms and legs which seem to just wrap around ball carriers. He's just simply tough to get around with his unique speed and reach.
Bob: I mentioned Brandon Maye as a guy who was better than I expected early on, but left tackle James Carmon runs away with this award. The difference between where he was in the spring and where he is now is both tangible (about 20 pounds lost) and visible, as he rarely got beat and held his own against defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd in full pads.
Bob's Honorable Mention: Running back Robert Elliott looked like a new man the last week. He told me he slimmed down, and you can tell. He was leaner, quicker and appeared to be more confident. He's still third in the rotation but I was surprised at how good he looked, the best I've ever seen him.
Michael: It isn't often that a player can come in and play right away on the defensive front, but P.J. Jones might have a chance to do that. P.J. is my surprise player not because he was the most outstanding performer I watched… but because he has a better skill set than I anticipated. He has size and speed and really seems to be very coachable. I'm not sure what the season will hold for Jones, but I know that he will have his share of opportunities.
Logan: The biggest surprise to me is the resurgence of senior running back Robert Elliott. I thought after two sub-par seasons that Elliott's best days might be behind him after suffering that devastating knee injury at LSU as a redshirt freshman. But the former four-star prospect is looking as good as ever and seems to have his burst back. Elliott just seems to be a step quicker than he has been the past few years and will only aid in the Bulldogs explosive backfield.
Logan's Honorable Mention: Sam Williams has been a steady, sure-handed receiver since his arrival in Starkville as a walk-on but he's turned it up a notch during camp. Williams seemingly caught everything that came his way and took several bone-jarring shots from Nickoe Whitley in the process but held onto the ball each time. Williams shows no signs of his knee injury from last spring and would be one of the first guys I'd look for as a quarterback on third down.
Top Three Overall Offense:
Bob's No. 1: Sophomore quarterback Tyler Russell was probably the sharpest player I saw over the last week. There were times when he looked like he was the best quarterback on the team, not just the best backup. He finally looked confident and natural and was very accurate in sessions I saw. His decision-making skills seem to have improved and he was more willing to check down rather than throwing it deep every time (which he does well).
Bob's No. 2: Senior center Quentin Saulsberry was the driving force in everything he did. If it was 1-on-1, he dominated. If it was 11-on-11 scrimmages, no one got past him. He may be too obvious of a choice, but sometimes it is that easy. I only recall seeing one snap that wasn't right on the money and Saulsberry overpowered every person who lined up against him.
Bob's No. 3: This may seem like a better pick for surprise player, but I was very, very impressed by sophomore wide receiver Sam Williams. He clearly gained a lot of muscle over the summer and while he's not the most overall talented or electric receiver, he may have been the most consistent. He ran his routes right on nearly every play, got open often and almost never dropped a pass, as he was targeted often, especially by Russell.
Bob's Honorable Mentions: Wide receivers Michael Carr and Arceto Clark also performed admirably in what I saw and at least two defensive backs told me Clark was the receiver who stood out to them.
Michael's No. 1: Chris Relf has certainly improved throwing the football, but I really think he will be an improved runner this season. Last season he didn't always make great decisions on where to run, but his experience and increased knowledge appears to really help him improve his game all around.
Michael's No. 2: There is a reason you rarely see freshmen quarterbacks in the SEC… they're just not ready. That was certainly the case with Tyler Russell. Now however, if he needed to step into a game I think he would be just fine. He was clearly the most accurate QB in throwing the football and seemed to really perform well in making his reads and going through his progressions. When his time comes he will be ready to take the field.
Michael's No. 3: Things really seem to start to click for Michael Carr. Last season he was lost, as you might expect a freshman to be. This season he is much more of a complete receiver. He may be the most gifted of all State's receivers and this year his time spent studying the playbook appears as if it will pay off.
Logan's No. 1: The most consistent player I've seen on offense is sophomore quarterback Tyler Russell. It seems like he gets it now. He's no longer dropping back and thinking what to do but now just reacting to what he sees. Russell doesn't have that deer in the headlights look and seems confident in every throw that he makes. While I fully expect Chris Relf to be the starter all season it only helps MSU in the future to have Russell making the strides he has in the offseason.
Logan's No. 2: I think everyone on here by now knows I'm a little partial to sophomore wideout Michael Carr since I've covered him from the ninth grade until now. A redshirt would have done Carr good last season to learn what to do and how to be a true receiver. Everything you saw him do in 2010 was based on how athletic he is. Now it seems Carr is getting the offense and becoming an all-around receiver. Whenever he gets it all put together he's going to be dangerous.
Logan's No. 3: I know I've already picked him as my surprise performer but Robert Elliott really has been that impressive during the camp practices I've seen. I did not see a single negative play from him at camp. He's experienced and understands the offense. Elliott's attitude is exactly what you'd want from a back splitting his time and when he's been given carries during practice he's made the most of every one of them.
Top Three Overall Defense:
Bob's No. 1: Safety Nickoe Whitley showed me why Johnthan Banks called him the best athlete on the team. The sophomore is all over the field and he truly has a nose for the ball. He is a big play waiting to happen every time he steps on the field. His tipped pass (then caught as he fell out of bounds for an intercerption) might have been the best play I saw all week. It's going to be hard for coaches to keep him off the field, and I doubt they'll want to.
Bob's No. 2: Middle linebacker Brandon Wilson took a step forward in the spring, but he appeared to take a leap forward over the summer. Brandon Maye is a great talent, but I was immensely impressed by Wilson, both on the field and off, as he is an intelligent guy who speaks honestly and says the right things about his role on the team. If I were a coach, I would trust him with my linebackers.
Bob's No. 3: The first two picks were easy for me, but this one was harder. That's why it's going to two people: defensive ends Sean Ferguson and Shane McCardell. Defensive linemen more than any other position were tough to judge in the sessions we were able to watch, but going back through my notebook it seems that every note I made about a defensive lineman was about one of these two. I had real questions about MSU's pass rush in 2011, but these two showed up bigger than ever and more talented, by the look of it.
Michael's No. 1: Corey Broomfield was simply the most consistent corner during the early days of fall camp. Broomfield stood out against a background of veteran defensive backs and that will bode well for MSU this season.
Michael's No. 2: How could you have a list of top anything and not have Fletcher Cox on it? The guy is just a beast. If he plays the way he practiced during the early portion of camp…this will be his last season at MSU.
Michael's No. 3: Brandon Wilson is a guy that can really help MSU fill the void left by the departure of a couple of NFL linebackers. He has great anticipation and that seems to make him a step faster on the field.
Logan's No. 1: My top defensive performer has to be hands down sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley. He is an absolute terror to receivers coming across the middle. He is physical enough to blast you hard enough to knock your helmet off or jar the ball loose and also athletic enough to leap in the air for an interception as well. Whitley is still getting the defense down but he's got incredible instincts which is why you saw make all those amazing plays last year.
Logan's No. 2: They done come much better than senior safety Charles Mitchell. He's an all-around combination of what you look for in a leader as well as a superstar on defense. Mitchell is setting an example every practice to the younger players of what it takes to play at a high level in the SEC. He may not be on many preseason lists but I can assure you that Mitchell might be the most important players on the MSU roster.
Logan's No. 3: I know he gets overshadowed a lot playing next to Fletcher Cox but Josh Boyd is having yet another solid camp. He is getting in the backfield on a regular basis despite MSU's experienced interior offensive linemen. Boyd doesn't say a whole lot out there but he is every bit as effective at defensive tackle as Cox. That duo is the best in the conference in my opinion.