There were a few new faces and a few familiar faces. But all in all, the Mississippi State receiving corps took a positive step forward this spring. According to first-year Bulldog receivers coach Angelo Mirando, his group carried over the momentum gained from last year's stretch run. But it is still a process, said Mirando.
"I think we got better but we still have such a long way to go," said Mirando. "But the kids started to mature a bit and now we have to get to where we want to be. It is an every-day process and they all have to understand that no one has arrived yet. We have to keep worlking hard and that's how we got to nine wins last year. But now we have to work even harder than that."
What was evident this spring was just the sheer numbers Mirando had among his receivers. And it was a far cry from the scene exhibited in the team's Gator Bowl win.
"Depth was a big bonus for us this spring," said Mirando. "We went into the Gator Bowl with five healthy receivers. This spring we had nine guys plus we have two freshmen (2011 signees Joseph Morrow and Devin Fosselman) coming in. So that competition is on now and there is no hiding.
"No longer is it like we have to play you because you are here. If you are messing around then great, we don't have to play that guy. That depth is the best thing that has happened to us because now we get to play the best players no matter who it is. If a guy has a bad summer then they will suffer for that because we have a lot of guys itching to get those reps."
The majority of the veteran receivers return at the H, or slot position. Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens will enter their junior season in the fall and both have made their share of plays in the past.
For the second straight year, Bumphis led the MSU receiving corps last year and had 44 catches for 634 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Heavens ranked fourth on the team with 22 receptions for 316 yards and two scores.
Also pushing for reps at that spot is redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis, possibly the quickest among the MSU receivers. Lewis caught many eyes last year in training camp yet was able and fortunate to redshirt last year.
"Chad, Heavens and Jameon all got better this spring and all worked hard," said Mirando. "With Bump and Heavens, those guys are going into their third season so they need to run the unit now and be in a good leadership role. At the H position is where you want your playmakers and you go from their lead. And Bump and Heavens are both starting to figure that out.
"But they also know just because they've played since being true freshmen doesn't mean anything because Jameon is right there on their heels. And that is so good for our team and they know we will play the best players. Each of those kids has strengths and weaknesses and they need to understand what they have to work on. The summer will be huge for all of them and they know they can't even drop a ball now and have to keep on working."
Where MSU likely made its biggest strides this spring was at the outside receiver slots. Juniors Arceto Clark and Chris Smith continued their progression this spring and worked towards being dependable options. Last year Clark was a pleasant surprise and ranked second on the team with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns. Smith also recorded his first college touchdown last fall and ended the year on a good note and ranked third on the team with 24 catches for 264 yards and one score.
"I think Arceto is really starting to figure it out and how to really run his routes properly," said Mirando. "And that is a big part of it with kids that haven't done it before. It was the same with Chris, too. They learned how to make routes look the same and then learned when to break off those routes. Arceto and Chris both learned their roles well this spring and the key now is not to get complacent."
Possibly making the biggest jump this spring was redshirt sophomore Ricco Sanders. He only had two catches for 23 yards last year but one of those grabs was for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl.
"Ricco really stepped up and he will get a bunch of playing time," said Mirando. "And I really feel confident in those three guys (Sanders, Clark and Smith) now. Ricco just made a great effort in the weight room, the class room and is really committed now in the meeting rooms. He just simply stepped up his game and said 'hey, I am as good as anyone else'. He knew he had to prove himself and he has a great mindset this offseason."
Two other young receivers had their moments this spring in sophomore Michael Carr and redshirt freshman Robert Johnson. Carr was one of three true freshmen on the entire team to play last year and had four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown grab in the Gator Bowl.
Johnson redshirted last year but was the team's leading receiver in the Maroon and White game.
"Michael and Robert are still two guys trying to figure it out," said Mirando. "Both are talented and need to continue to work. Michael had a great last month in terms of football and doing what he is supposed to do off the field and in the class room. He is starting to grow up a bit.
"And Robert is such a hard worker and is now 218 pounds and that is what will make him do well for us. I am not sure if he is ready to be in the fire right now but it is my job to get him ready."
Also getting his first serious reps this spring was another redshirt freshman, Malcolm Johnson, who could be the wildcard of the bunch. Johnson spent the early part of spring ball working with the receivers before sharing some reps at tight end later in the spring.
"We still consider Malcolm a wideout and we're trying to find his niche," said Mirando. "He is a big, physical guy that can create mismatches because he can block and run routes well. We are very excited about him and (senior tight end) Marcus Green has really taken Malcolm under his wing. And that is what we need from our older guys, especially helping to teach them this summer. We need a Chad Bumphis and a Chris Smith to say 'hey, I am running these widekouts' and then lead them this summer. Those guys have to figure out their leadership roles."
And unlike the previous two years and as Mirando noted, having numerous options will only push guys this summer. That will be big with two more wideout candidates arriving this summer in Morrow and Fosselman.
"Like I told (Morrow and Fosselman) when I recruited them, we will always play the best guys and they will have every opportunity to play," said Mirando. "We never want to redshirt anyone and we throw everybody to the fire and it's up to them whether or not they are in position to play. Both of those guys are coming in June 1st and stepping into the first stage. It will be a time for them to work and learn their assignments. And since we can't be there with them this summer, I expect Arceto, Chad, Brandon and Chris to take them under their wings and teach them."