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March 23, 2010

QB question looms large at Mississippi State

Eight losing records in nine seasons usually wouldn't inspire much optimism.

But Mississippi State was tantalizingly close to bowl eligibility (fourth-and-goal at LSU's 1) in 2009 and is heading into its second season under coach Dan Mullen.

Three teams won national championships in their coach's second season this decade. That's not going to happen at Mississippi State, but a winning season shouldn't be out of the question.

That will require defensive improvement, finding a capable running back and solving a recurring problem at quarterback. Making strides in those areas this spring will foster optimism for the fall.

Here's a look at the Bulldogs as they open spring practice.

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Chris Relf will get the chance to earn the starting QB position for Mississippi State.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dan Mullen
Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the SEC.
Spring dates: March 23-April 17.
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): C J.C. Brignone, WR Chad Bumphis, TE Marcus Green, T Addison Lawrence, G Quentin Saulsberry, T Derek Sherrod, WR O'Neal Wilder.
Defense (5): FS Johnthan Banks, E Pernell McPhee, SS Charles Mitchell, LB Chris White, LB K.J. Wright.
Special teams (2): K Derek DePasquale, P Heath Hutchins.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Even though defenses weren't overly concerned with the passing game in '09, the Bulldogs still ran effectively. In addition, Mississippi State allowed a respectable 20 sacks. That shows the offensive line was getting the job done, and four starters return from that unit. Overall, the secondary played well, too, and that was with two freshmen in the lineup. Four players with starting experience return there.

HELP IS NEEDED

No FBS program has had more problems at quarterback than Mississippi State, which has had just one 2,000-yard passer in the past 14 seasons. Last season, Bulldogs quarterbacks threw almost twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdown passes (nine). The starting candidates are junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell; Relf has limited experience. The top three running backs are gone, and finding a feature back is almost as important as finding a quarterback. Just one full-time starter is back on the defensive line, and youngsters will need to prove their worth this spring.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

RB Vick Ballard: Anthony Dixon's departure leaves the Bulldogs in need of a capable running back. Ballard, who enrolled in January, could fill that void. Last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, Ballard rushed for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns to earn junior college All-America honors.

WR Chad Bumphis: He earned freshman All-SEC honors after leading the Bulldogs with 32 receptions a year ago. But he still needs to raise his all-around game and prove he can be even more productive. Improved quarterback play obviously would help.

QB Tyler Russell: A former Parade All-American, Russell is one of Mississippi State's most heralded quarterback recruits ever. He passed for more than 3,000 yards as a high school senior. He sat out last season as a redshirt and will contend with Relf for the starting job.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Chris Relf: He has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in his first two seasons. Relf is mobile but was unable to win the starting job over Tyson Lee last season and faces an intense competition with Russell for the starting job. If Relf doesn't start this season, he probably never will.

THE BUZZ

Relf or Russell? Russell or Relf? That's Mississippi State's most intriguing spring question. Relf is the better runner, Russell the better passer. Both figure to be improved after a year of direction under Mullen. Improved quarterback play is the first step in Mississippi State becoming a factor in the SEC West. Finding a running back to replace Dixon's productivity is the second. Third would be bolstering a defense that allowed at least 30 points in six games last season. McPhee, Wright and a developing young secondary form a foundation, but plenty of holes must be filled.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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