2011 overall record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Vick Ballard (1,189 yards)
Passing: Chris Relf (1,212 yards)
Receiving: Arceto Clark* (442 yards)
Tackles: Cameron Lawrence* (123)
Sacks: Fletcher Cox (5)
Interceptions: Johnthan Banks* (5)
1. Turning the corner: With Darius Slay having a huge spring, the Bulldogs should be well stocked at cornerback. Slay didn’t arrive from junior college until last summer, so he was sort of feeling his way around the league last season. But he looked much more comfortable this spring, and the Mississippi State coaches feel like they have three starters at cornerback. Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield combined for 21 interceptions over the past three seasons, and Banks is being projected as a first-round draft choice next April.
2. Running back depth: Vick Ballard’s toughness and consistency make him a tough component to replace in Mississippi State’s offense, but the Bulldogs exited the spring trying to figure out how they’re going to play four running backs in the fall. It’s always a plus to have that kind of depth in the SEC, and all four are a little bit different. Speedy junior LaDarius Perkins and 225-pound sophomore Nick Griffin complement each other perfectly, and both are big-play threats. Redshirt freshman Josh Robinson is a blur in the open field, while redshirt freshman Derrick Milton is a punishing runner.
3. Autry off the edge: The Bulldogs needed a finisher off the edge, and it looks like they’ve found him in junior college newcomer Denico Autry. Throughout the spring, Autry was a fixture in the backfield and combines a quick first step with an aggressive in-your-face approach to rushing the passer. He was one of the top junior college prospects in the country, and judging from his performance in the spring, he has a chance to be a real difference-maker for the Bulldogs in 2012.
1. Replacing Cox: When Fletcher Cox got it going during the second half of the season last year, there was no stopping him. He made everybody on that defense better. Now that he’s gone early to the pros, one man’s not going to replace him. Everybody in the middle of that defensive line will need to elevate his game, starting with Josh Boyd. The good news is that Boyd is plenty capable, although it’s not going to be the same without Cox playing alongside him. Freshman Quay Evans was an early enrollee and demonstrated this spring why he was one of the top tackle prospects in the country. He won’t have to wait long to get onto the field.
2. Passing game consistency: Tyler Russell took the kind of steps this spring Dan Mullen was hoping to see. Throwing the ball from the pocket is what he does best. He still has to prove he’s going to take care of the ball, and the Bulldogs have to prove they can protect him. Mullen is encouraged by this group of receivers, and 6-4 redshirt freshman Joe Morrow has a chance to be special. The key is putting it all together and getting more production, period, out of the passing game than the Bulldogs did a year ago.
3. Tightening up special teams: The Bulldogs figure to be in a lot of close games in 2012, which means making field goals from 45 yards on in will be critical. Derek DePasquale is gone, and Brian Egan, a former Parade All-American, will get a chance to prove that he can make big kicks for the Bulldogs. They also need to make the return game a weapon and have the athletes to do it (Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis and Banks), while shoring up their coverage on kickoffs will be equally important. In short, if the Bulldogs are going to get back to winning eight or more games, special teams will be the difference.