The Mississippi State Bulldogs went 9-4 in 2010 under Head Coach Dan Mullen, so many thought they were poised for breakout last season. Instead the team dipped to 7-6 thanks in part to uncertainty at the quarterback position; and while they ended the year with a second straight bowl victory, the season was mostly a letdown. This will be Mullen’s fourth year at the helm, and he certainly has some talented players returning. Most importantly, he has one quarterback whom he believes in and who should provide some stability. Here is a look at the Bulldogs’ top draft eligible prospects. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
Johnthan Banks CB 6’2 185 – The tall, lanky Banks played all over the field in high school. In addition to his play as a safety on defense, he was a quarterback as a senior and a running back during his junior season. For the Bulldogs, Banks has played defense full time, but he is still electric with the ball in his hands. As a freshman he returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a game against Florida. As a junior, Banks picked off five passes, ran one back for a score, broke up nine others, forced three fumbles and even returned a punt for a touchdown. He’s intercepted 12 passes in his three years and broken up 19 more. Banks is an older prospect who will turn 23 this season. It shouldn’t be too concerning though, as many top corners play into their 30s. He’s thin, but he’s a sure tackler. Banks often lines up off the wide receiver often, so there will be questions about his ability to play man to man coverage, and possibly about his speed. But he’s a fluid athlete and a physical player, so his coverage technique probably says more about his team’s defensive philosophy than what he is capable of doing. It will be interesting to see if he plays more man coverage this year, or if he has to wait until All-Star games to show scouts how versatile he can be. While some view Banks as a safety prospect early on, he appears to have the skills to stay at cornerback in the NFL. His combination of size, coverage ability and ball skills make him the top senior corner in the nation going into the season.
Chad Bumphis WR 5’11 200 – Bumphis was arrested back in January for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, so there will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth about his “off the field concerns.” The incident seems pretty tame (your basic drinkin’ and fightin’ idiocy) on the surface, so unless something else pops up, it shouldn’t impact his draft status. In fact, his dip in production from 44 to 25 receptions and 634 to 339 receiving yards is far more concerning. Still, Bumphis has a sturdy build, possesses excellent speed, and flashes elusiveness in the open field. If quarterback Tyler Russell can get him the ball with space to get creative, Bumphis can have a rebound year in 2012.
Nickoe Whitley* FS 6’1 205 – Like Banks, Whitley played some quarterback as a high school junior. He lasted only two games into his senior year before a torn ACL and MCL wrecked his season. Whitley redshirted in 2009, then had three interceptions, one and a half sacks, and a forced fumble as a redshirt freshman. Last season, Whitley picked off four balls and forced a fumble in nine games before tearing his Achilles tendon and missing the final four contests. On the field, Whitley needs to do a better job reading the quarterback, and avoid getting sucked in on fakes. He’s very strong attacking the run, diagnosing plays early and closing on the ball carrier quickly. But again, this aggression can leave him vulnerable to deception. Whitley is a big hitter, but he’ll need to make sure he wraps up because plenty of NFL running backs will bounce of those hits and keep motoring. He can make plays on the ball, but he’s got his flaws in coverage. Whitley’s main issue is allowing receivers to much room down the middle of the field; and when he bites on play fakes, he’ll get turned around. He has some good skills, but he is still a work in progress and he has a history of serious injuries. Whitley would be best served to exhaust his college eligibility and sharpen his game before turning pro. But this will be his fourth year out of high school so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him declare for the draft at the end of the year.
Tyler Russell* QB 6’4 220 – As a redshirt sophomore, Russell started four games for the Bulldogs, splitting duty with the now departed Chris Relf. Like Relf, Russell’s performance was largely uneven. He completed just 53.5 % of his passes, but many of his throws traveled down the field, so he averaged eight yards per pass attempt. He threw eight touchdowns and only four interceptions, but he struggled in games against the SEC’s most talented teams. Russell was highly touted out of high school. He’s tall and has a strong arm. He looks poised in the pocket, though he is a split second late delivering some of his throws. This delay can negate Russell’s arm and allow the defender to close on the ball, so it will be interesting to see how he progresses in his first full year as a starter. The Mississippi State coaching staff has reportedly tweaked the offense to better fit Russell’s skill set; and if his performance in the team’s spring game is any indicator, he’s expected to really take off this year. It would be a surprise to see Russell leave school early after this season with a year of eligibility remaining, as he still has much to prove. But a player with quarterback with his size and arm strength is always worth watching closely.
Also keep an eye on: Josh Boyd DT 6’3 300, Tobias Smith G 6’3 305, Templeton Hardy G 6’3 305, Cameron Lawrence OLB 6’2 230, Chris Smith WR 6’2 210, Arceto Clark WR 5’10 180