Watch: Missouri State football’s offense drives down the field during spring practice
Scenes from a Missouri State football spring practice on Saturday, April 9, 2022, at Plaster Stadium in Springfield.
Wyatt D. Wheeler, Springfield News-Leader
Bobby Petrino frequently took walks around the campus when he was first hired as Missouri State’s head football coach in early 2020. He wanted to see the body language of his new players and how they carried themselves when they weren’t in meetings or on the field .
“When we first got here, they were beaten up a little bit,” Petrino said. “It was hard; I didn’t like what I saw. We just tried to work on getting better every day and we’ve done a great job of that.”
Day by day, Missouri State built itself from a program that went 31 years without a postseason appearance into one that won a championship share of the toughest conference in the FCS and one that has made the last two postseasons.
Addressing the media on Saturday morning with less than four weeks until opening night, Petrino and others spoke about what’s turning out to be one of the more highly-anticipated seasons the program has ever seen.
More: Q&A with Missouri State’s Bobby Petrino: Championship hype, Arkansas return, living in Springfield
It’s a season that’s already had Missouri State mentioned as a national championship contender.
“The way that guys have been able to change their expectations of themselves and their teammates has been really special,” Petrino said.
Here are a few things that stood out from Saturday’s media day:
Coaches couldn’t stop talking about the Bears’ depth this year
A common theme among Petrino, defensive coordinator Ryan Beard and offensive coordinator Nick Petrino was how much better the depth is than in years past.
Offensively, the number of weapons at wide receiver has drastically improved along with the depth on the offensive line.
“For the first time since we’ve been here, we actually have depth,” Nick Petrino said. “We have it almost at every position and that’s great because it creates competition and it really makes them push themselves.”
More: Here are the local players on Missouri State football’s roster for the 2022 season
Wide receiver depth notably has brought in players who are expected to have an impact including Jordan Jones (Cincinnati), Raylen Sharpe (Houston) and Larry Wright III (Minnesota). The three are added on to the Bears bringing back Ty Scott who is coming off the best receiving season in school history.
Offensive line has also been a major recruiting priority as the staff has overhauled the position in recent seasons. There are three locks on the starting front entering the season with the two guard spots up for grabs. Competition for the guard spots has been ongoing with players rotating between first and second teams during the early days of practice.
“Everyone’s really pushing each other,” Nick Petrino said. “We just gotta find who our best five is and get ’em out on the field. I expect the o-line to be a lot better this year.”
More: What Missouri State football coach Bobby Petrino said during Monday’s Valley media day
Defensively, the secondary was the main focus in recruiting with a handful of FBS transfers coming in to compete for one of the three vacant starting jobs with All-American corner Montrae Braswell and All-Missouri Valley Football Conference safety Kyriq McDonald back in the secondary.
Transfers from Florida State, Northern Illinois, East Carolina and Northern Colorado all seem to be in play for starting roles this season.
“We have a lot of good players,” Beard said. “We’ll see what happens over these next few weeks. That’s the good thing about camp is that the cream rises.”
Championship talk from players hasn’t slowed down
Even though linebacker Tylar Wiltz transferred out when he was the first one who often spoke about national championship aspirations, those talks haven’t slowed down in the Bears’ locker room.
It’s the Bears’ ultimate goal and they’re not afraid to verbalize it.
“Everybody this year, I believe offensively and defensively, together wants that national championship,” McDonald said. “Everybody’s coming together perfectly.”
Bobby Petrino said in a recent interview with the News-Leader that his father taught him that if you have a goal, you shouldn’t be worried about saying it out loud. The goal of raising the trophy in Frisco, Texas, at the season’s end is something he encourages.
For defensive end Kevin Ellis, talks of national championship contention weren’t made public when he played his first few seasons under the previous coaching staff. It’s just been a part of the change for him.
“When I first got here, everything was about changing the culture,” Ellis said. “Once Coach Petrino got here, the culture definitely changed. Guys came here with the mindset to get to the next level. I think (talks of a championship) is definitely a good thing.”
Coaches say Jason Shelley will be ‘a lot’ better
Coming off a season earning him MVFC Offensive Player of the Year laurels, coaches claim that Shelley can be “a lot” better in 2022. It’s hard to imagine, but the offensive coaching staff is convinced the Walter Payton Award given to the top offensive player in the FCS could be Shelley’s by the season’s end.
Bobby Petrino said he challenges his quarterback to be better every day. The pressure he puts on the quarterback to make the right directions in practice has been intensified and they’re seeing the rewards of it already in practice.
Part of that has been Shelley becoming comfortable with the weapons around him. The Bears expect Kansas State transfer running back Jacardia Wright to be a big-time player in the offense as someone who can also catch the ball. They also see Liberty transfer tight end Stetson Moore being an upgrade as a receiver at the position that can give Shelley more comfort checking down instead of forcing something down the field.
“He has a better understanding of the offense,” Nick Petrino said. “His understanding of defenses is way above where it was with different fronts and pressures. I think he’ll be able to get out of bad places and put us in a good place.”
Expect Jacardia Wright to change the offense
There was almost a giddiness coming from the Petrinos when they spoke of their new running back.
Wright, a 6-foot, 220-pound running back, is expected to be the workhorse of the Bears’ offense and give it an aspect it hasn’t had in the previous two seasons.
Bobby Petrino, who calls the plays, expects more run plays which he hopes will set up for more play-action passes and explosive plays down the field.
“He can take a two-to-three-yard gain and turn it into a seven-to-eight-yard gain,” Bobby Petrino said. “With the power he possesses, he has the ability to finish runs while falling forward. That really helps you get to second and short or third and short. He can break tackles and he also has the speed to be a home run hit.”
“Jacardia Wright is special,” Nick Petrino added. “You watch him out there and he just has everything. I expect us to be able to run the ball which would really help out our play-action game and throw the ball down the field.”
How preseason position battles are playing out early
Wide receiver — We already know Scott is a lock at wide receiver and it’s sounding more like Jones, a Cincinnati transfer, will also be on the field plenty.
Kevon Latulas is now listed as a wide receiver and will be used in multiple ways this season. He’s in line to be the top slot receiver.
Jahod Booker will have a role in the offense as a faster threat down the field. Larry Wright III is coming along but has had limited time with the team due to a death in the family.
More: Missouri State football’s 7 position battles to watch leading up to opening night
Coaches are still high on Naveon Mitchell in the offense after he came on strong late last season. He will be out the first two games of 2022 due to academic issues, according to Petrino.
The guard spots — Sean Fitzgerald appears to be in the driver’s seat for one of the guards with the other open. Redshirt freshman Mark Hutchinson got the reps with the ones at Wednesday’s practice but coaches left the door open for others including Ben Martinez and juco transfer Tevita Fuimaono.
Linebackers — Ferrin Manuleleua will be a starting linebacker but the other spots are open. Von Young and Tahj Chambers have been getting the starting reps and see the field plenty with different packages. Juco transfer Tyrin Brooks is still learning the defense but will be an impact player once he comes along.
Opposite cornerback Montrae Braswell — This spot is 100% up for grabs and coaches told Lemondre Joe that during the offseason. It could still be Joe but the Bears recruited the position hard this offseason. Florida State transfer Caleb Blake was the first corner mentioned at the position along with East Carolina transfer CJ Crump.
Titus Wall’s vacant spot at safety — It sounds like this spot will be by committee with Northern Illinois transfer Dillon Thomas and sophomore PJ Hall leading the way. The development of redshirt freshman Todric McGee is something to keep an eye on as he’s impressed early in camp.
Backup quarterback — This is going to come down to Minnesota transfer Jacob Clark and redshirt freshman Hess Horne. Clark appears to have the edge right now with better physical tools and he’s been able to pick up the offense quickly despite Horne being with the team the previous two seasons.
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at [email protected] or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 pm