Without doubt, MSU running backs' coach Greg Knox saw a different-looking group this spring. But it was a good different, particularly in the experience area.
Last spring the Bulldogs were relatively young and inexperienced in the backfield as Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins went through their initial spring session in Starkville. But with those two backs returning as well as veteran senior Robert Elliott, experience was on the Bulldogs' side.
"I thought we really got better as spring went on and our experience really showed at times," said Knox. "Plus, we got a lot smarter and if you are doing that then you are getting better.
"And from a production standpoint, there isn't much difference in them and the most productive will play. All of then can catch the ball, too, and we like to do more with our backs than just hand it off to them. Anytime we can match them up with opposing linebackers it is a big advantage for us."
In Ballard's first year at the SEC level, he may have been the biggest surprise among all SEC running backs. He rushed for 968 yards and set a school mark with 19 rushing touchdowns.
"Vick was more relaxed this spring as far as knowing what he was doing," said Knox. "We also saw a more confident Ballard. He knew how to do things and when to do it. We also saw his leadership role. When you have more knowledge and confidence then that is when the leadership starts to show.
"Plus, we as a staff are now more confident. Unlike last spring, we know we have a guy that can tote the load and give us everything he has. And the team knows when Vick comes to work he is going to give all he has."
In 2010 Perkins also proved he was a valuable threat - in the running game and the passing game - and he did most of his damage down the stretch of the schedule. Perkins rushed for 566 yards and three touchdowns and also had nine catches for 247 yards (27.4 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
During the spring, Perkins noted he felt he was quicker in his breaks. Yet Knox noted his experience on the field may have aided what appeared to be increased quickness.
"I am not sure if he was any quicker," said Knox. "But with Perk, I think it was his experience that made it look like that. He was thinking less so he knew more of when to cut. The game started to slow down for him to where it saw more and wasn't thinking as much. It is like a freshman quarterback being out there and the bullets are flying 100 miles an hour. With Perk, he was able to slow down the speed of the game and that made him look quicker cause he was more experienced with his cuts."
The most experienced back among that group is the senior Elliott, who rushed for 228 yards last fall. The former highly-touted prospect from Okolona (Miss.) has yet to make a huge impact in the ground game but still offers a solid option, said Knox.
"Robert had a solid spring," said Knox. "He wasn't flashy but a guy who feels comfortable in the offense and he knows what we are doing and is able to execute. We were hoping for a bit more flash this spring but he still gave us a solid performance."
Knox is hoping to add another back to the mix later this year as well. Halfway through spring drills, redshirt freshman Nick Griffin suffered a torn ACL and is expected to miss close to six months. Before his injury, Griffin showed good signs of being another option in the running game.
"We're hoping Nick will be back by the start of the season but you don't know yet," said Knox. "It all depends on his rehab and how hard he works at it. We really missed him late in the spring and we're hoping to get him really involved in the offense. We hope he gets back soon because he showed us in the fall and the spring that the ability and potential are there."
Knox and the offensive coaches are expected to add two new faces to the position later in the summer with 2011 signees Derrick Milton and Josh Robinson.
"We're just waiting on them to get here," said Knox. "We will see how quickly they pick things up and then get them up to speed to add to our depth."
Where the Bulldogs do lack experience is at fullback with last year's starter Patrick Hanrahan now graduated. But Knox feels that junior Sylvester Hemphill and sophomore Adrian Marcus may combine to fill that void.
"Hemp and Marcus both had solid performances and they picked up where Hanrahan left off," said Knox. "And Hemp is very similar to Hanrahan and both are smart and sound at fullback. Marcus gives us more of a running threat whereas Hemp is more of a blocking threat. They both competed good and both worked hard and they also compete well together.
"They both understand about hard work and they both know their roles. Hemp knows his role is limited to blocking and he knows how to use those things to his benefit and he knows what he struggles with. Then Marcus is able to pick up in the areas where Hemp struggles. And Marcus got better because he understood what we were doing. That is when the game starts to slow down and he started becoming a good receiver, too."
The Bulldogs also have another fullback in the mix with sophomore William Shumpert. However, Shumpert was limited this spring and missed all of last year with a back injury.
"We're still waiting on Shump to get 100 percent," said Knox. "He was able to do some things this spring but didn't face much contact. He is a powerful back and what you want at fullback. But he still needs a lot more reps and we have to wait and see on his progress with the injury."