Entering spring practice, Dan Mullen had a number of questions about his 2011 squad. Exiting spring practice, he said a few of those questions remain, but he has found the answers to some, and he thinks he'll find the answers to the rest once the season starts.
The main issues are the offensive line and linebackers, as the Bulldogs have to replace Derek Sherrod, J.C. Brignone, Chris White and K.J. Wright.
Like any coach, Mullen is optimistic about his team's overall talent and potential. However, he said there is one part of his team in particular that concerns the now third-year Mississippi State coach.
"I guess the thing that concerns you is the offensive line," Mullen said. "Not so much the ones as, as soon as you take one guy out, there's not an experienced guy coming in. It's gonna be a rookie coming on the field."
The good thing, Mullen said, is that with two starters - Tobias Smith and Gabe Jackson - sitting out all or most of spring practice, those "rookies" got valuable practice reps with the first team line.
"You take two returning starters out, the trickledown effect becomes huge in that there's not a lot of experience with the backups," Mullen said. "It's great for the backups. Templeton Hardy got a lot of work with the ones. Dillon Day got a lot of work with the ones. Those guys have not played a lot of football for us. They need to grow up fast. James Carmon and Blaine Clausell have not played left tackle in a game, in an SEC football game. They have to grow up fast. If we can stay healthy with the ones, then you start to feel good about the depth, because they will get their time to slowly develop and not be forced to be the starter."
Speaking of Carmon and Clausell, Mullen is more optimistic than most about their battle to replace Sherrod at left tackle.
Before spring started, Mullen said, "All things going in the right direction, James Carmon is going to be our starter." At the end of spring practice, he said it is more of an open competition between the converted defensive tackle and the freshman Clausell.
"I think the great thing between the two is there is competition," Mullen said. "As soon as there is competition, that's when you see better improvement. I want to continue to see that. Hopefully guys are still stepping forward. We'll make that decision the Wednesday night before we play Memphis. Maybe we'll play both of them to see who performs at a better level."
On to the linebackers, Mullen said that while he is concerned about the experience, he's not worried about the talent level of the guys who will be on the field.
In fact, Mullen said that, given the circumstances, he was most impressed with the linebackers of all the units on the team.
"Just because there was inexperience, there's still a lot of unanswered questions there," Mullen said. "I didn't doubt the talent level we have there. The biggest question is the experience level we have there. When you get into that live-game situation and the crowd is going crazy. You're playing an offense with some talented players and they're motioning guys all over the place, all of the sudden you've got to make that read, hit the gap and make the tackle on a Heisman trophy candidate tailback, that's when you're going to get to see it."
Mullen is confident he has players with that ability, even if they haven't done it in a real game just yet, and he is not as worried as he once was about replacing Wright and White.
"I do think that guys stepped forward," Mullen said. "I do think we have a bunch of SEC linebackers here. We've got to make sure they're SEC-ready this September, not just that they're SEC-caliber players, but that they're ready to perform at that level come this September. That's still got a long way to go."
One thing Mullen has always bemoaned in his short time at MSU is the lack of depth at wide receiver. Now, he thinks he finally has that. In fact, the man who was hired to spark some life into MSU's 'O' said he is the most comfortable with his offense now than he ever has been at State.
In addition to receiver depth, Mullen said he is confident in the offense because the quarterbacks - mostly Chris Relf - are finally comfortable. He said that is particularly helpful because Relf can help the inexperienced offensive line make up for their mistakes.
Mullen noted the lack of depth at running back, particularly after Nick Griffin's injury , but said he is happy knowing he has two guys who have seen significant SEC action.
One thing Mullen feels is lacking from his offense is a big-time receiver, but he still said he feels very optimistic about the offense.
"Yeah, I do, because of the receivers," Mullen said. "There's some depth there and experience there. I'm comfortable there. I still don't know if we have the go-to playmaking wide receiver, but I think that we have multiple ones that are gonna be comfortable in game situations."
Likely the biggest question, and the question that logically follows after all others are answered, is if MSU can find its way out of the cellar in the SEC West.
As he leaves his team for the summer, Mullen said his biggest concern is finding a way to win the west.
"That's always been our goal: find a way to get ourselves to Atlanta," Mullen said. "That's it."