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March 2, 2011

Bulldogs look to build on 2010 success

Mississippi State is coming off its best season since 1999, when Jackie Sherrill guided the Bulldogs to a 10-2 mark. The Bulldogs went 9-4 in 2010, including wins over Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida, and the season was capped by a 52-14 mauling of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

Can coach Dan Mullen take the program any higher?

Mullen, a former Florida offensive coordinator, is looking to continue the building process as he enters his third season in Starkville. This spring is filled with myriad challenges. Mullen needs to further develop an offense that ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring and ninth in passing. Mullen also must adapt to life without defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who left for the same position with Texas.

Here's a look at Mississippi State as it prepares for spring drills.

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
QB Chris Relf played well down the stretch and earned MVP honors in the Gator Bowl.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dan Mullen
Last season: 9-4 overall, 4-4 in the SEC West. Beat Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl.
Spring dates: March 4-April 11.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): RB Vick Ballard, WR Chad Bumphis, WR Arceto Clark, G Gabe Jackson, T Addison Lawrence, QB Chris Relf, G Quentin Saulsberry, WR Chris Smith.
Defense (6): CB Johnthan Banks, T Josh Boyd, CB Corey Broomfield, T Fletcher Cox, SS Charles Mitchell, FS Nickoe Whitley.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

Mississippi State returns every player who touched the ball in the last two games of the 2010 season. In addition, talented TE Marcus Green is back after missing most of 2010 with an injury. The Bulldogs also should have one of the top secondaries in the SEC, as a unit led by SS Charles Mitchell returns intact. Mississippi State looks strong at defensive tackle with two-year starters Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd back. Vick Ballard should be one of the SEC's top running backs after rushing for 968 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2010.

Help is needed

The linebacking corps must be overhauled, as three senior starters -- including star Chris White -- must be replaced. Who will bring the heat off the edge with E Pernell McPhee gone? The team's top two offensive linemen -- T Derek Sherrod and C J.C. Brignone -- need to be replaced. Youth no longer can be used as an excuse for a wide receiver group that needs to take the next step.

3 guys to watch

OT James Carmon: Carmon, a senior, will move from reserve defensive tackle to starting left offensive tackle to fill the void created by Sherrod's departure. At 6 feet 7 and 345 pounds, Carmon certainly has the frame to be a dominant blocker.

WR Michael Carr: He arrived late and missed all of summer conditioning last season as a true freshman, but he came on late in 2010. The coaches are high on Carr, who could become a needed playmaker on the outside.

LB Chris Hughes: He flashed ability as a true freshman last season in a reserve role. Hughes (6-0/215) combines speed with an ability to hit. He may be a future star.

The pressure is on

QB Chris Relf. He was a liability in the passing game early last season but came on down the stretch. Relf needs to pick up where he left off in the last three games of 2010, when he showed he can be more than just a running quarterback. He won MVP honors in the Gator Bowl. Relf finished 2010 with 1,789 passing yards, with 13 touchdowns and six picks. If he continues to blossom, Relf could be in store for a solid senior season and again make the Bulldogs a factor in the tough SEC West.

The buzz

This spring is about amping up an offense that lacks big-play punch. Will the passing game develop? In addition to looking for a pass rusher and rebuilding the linebacking corps, the defense also must adapt to new co-coordinator Geoff Collins, who was hired away from Florida International. Still, add it all up, and there are more assets than liabilities.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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