Bulldogs arrive in Jacksonville, go though first TaxSlayer Bowl practice

The Bulldogs will practice again Wednesday morning and spend the afternoon at Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport.

Posted: Dec. 26, 2017 5:09 PM
Updated: Dec. 26, 2017 10:13 PM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – For the fourth time in six years, Mississippi State football has arrived in Florida in preparation for a bowl game as the Bulldogs flew to Jacksonville Christmas night and then went through their first TaxSlayer Bowl game week practice at the University of North Florida on Tuesday afternoon.

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MSU (8-4), under the direction of interim head coach Greg Knox, practiced for just under two hours in its first workout since Dec. 21. The Bulldogs’ travel party took a charter flight to Jacksonville International Airport and then bussed to their headquarters for the week – the Sawgrass Marriott – before going through position meetings Tuesday morning.

Senior linebacker Dez Harris, who missed the final two regular season games due to a thigh injury, returned to practice for the first time since the injury. Keytaon Thompson has taken all of the reps in practice and will be just the third true freshman quarterback to start in a bowl game for MSU. Starter Nick Fitzgerald, who broke his ankle during the Egg Bowl, did make the trip to Jacksonville as did senior wide receiver Donald Gray, who is recovering from sports hernia surgery. Both were at practice and providing leadership on the sideline.

The Bulldogs will practice again Wednesday morning and spend the afternoon at Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport. MSU clashes with Louisville at 11 a.m. CT/12 p.m. ET Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl from EverBank Field. The contest will be televised live on ESPN.

Below are quotes from Knox and Thompson’s media session.

Interim Head Coach Greg Knox

On first practice session in Jacksonville…

“It was good. There was lots of enthusiasm. Guys hopping around. A lot of juice, which we needed. They were happy to be back out on the field. They were happy to be back together. We had a wonderful Christmas back home with our families, so they were happy to be back together.”

On what he hopes to accomplished between now and Saturday…

“Preparation. It’s all a process. We’re going through the process of preparing to win a ball game. That’s what we’re hoping to get done.”

On expectation of Dez Harris playing on Saturday…

“We’re hoping. He’s going through some exercises a little with the defense and a little with the trainers. We’re hoping to have him back on Saturday.

On Lashard Durr returning to practice…

“He’s back ready. He’s working. He’s back in the mix. We’re excited about having him back out there.”

On Donald Gray…

“He’s out there. He brings a lot of juice to the group, so we need Donald around us. I don’t know about Donald playing, but he’s out here with us. He’s going to be playing in his mind with us. He plays. Trust me, he’ll be there with us mentally.”

On the growth of Keytaon Thompson…

“He’s handled it well. He’s prepared. He’s going through it. As you watch him perform in practice, he’s getting better and better. That’s coming with the more amount of reps he’s getting every day. He’s getting the full load. There’s no Nick Fitzgerald right now, so he’s getting the full load of it. As you watch him develop, he’s getting better and better every day. The more we practice, the better he gets.”

On how much of the playbook is available for Keytaon Thompson…

“We closed some of it. We sat him down, put a page in front of him and said ‘Here, tell us what you feel comfortable with.’ That’s what we put in. We’re going to do what he can do, and what he feels good about.”

On filling Jamal Peters’ role at cornerback…

“We talked to coach [Terrell] Buckley. We’ve got [Tolando] Cleveland. We’ve got [Lashard] Durr back. With those two guys coming back and Korey Charles is there. He hasn’t played a lot, but he’s there in a backup role. We’ve got some guys. We have [Cameron] Dantzler as well. We miss Jamal [Peters]. He’s part of the family. We understand what he is going through, but we’ve got guys that are in positions and are ready to step up and play.”

On how the interim staff is handling the coaching transition…

“They understand. They are in this business, and they have been in it a long time just like I have. It’s nothing that’s unusual to them. They know this side of it, so now they are on this side of it. They just adjust and keep moving forward.”

On the interim staff keeping motivation to see the bowl game through…

“No. 1, we have a foundation, and it is family. Our players understand that. They know me. They know our assistant coaches. They know we’re all family. The players understand more than anything. That’s a big part of it. It’s less maintenance when they understand what’s going on. They know there’s going to be a new coach. They understand we’re going through the bowl game. We’re preparing to win a game. As long as the players understand, there’s less maintenance.”

On playing against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson…

“It’s a wonderful challenge for our players to have the opportunity to play against a Heisman Trophy winner and a guy of his caliber. That doesn’t come along often. This is a great opportunity for our defensive guys. They are excited about the challenge and looking forward to the opportunity of playing him.”

On the defensive game plan to prepare for Lamar Jackson…

“Keep him in the pocket. Once he scrambles and gets out of the pocket, he is very dangerous. He is going to do his thing. He’s going to get his. We just got to maintain him and control him.”

QB Keytaon Thompson

On his growth in confidence since the Ole Miss game…

“I’m very confident with all the extra reps and knowing that I’ll be playing and starting in a bowl game. I just want to come out and execute at a high level. My coaches and teammates have all the confidence in me, and that helps a lot.”

On any differences preparing for his first bowl game…

“It’s just more reps, first-team reps, but that’s pretty much it.”

On excitement level for the bowl game…

“I’m really excited. This is the first day back. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling fresh. I’m just ready to go.”

On dealing with coaching transitions during bowl prep…

“We just want to go out with a bang. I love Coach Brett [Elliot]. We have a great relationship. This is going to be his last game coaching me, so we just want to go out, execute and put on a show. This is just business. Coaches come, and coaches go. You just have to play. The relationships, you keep them. We’re just looking to execute in this game.”

On having Nick Fitzgerald out at practices…

“Nick is great. He helps take the pressure off. He keeps me loose and keeps me going.”

On any advice given by Nick Fitzgerald…

“It’s a lot of little things that helps me a lot. Fitz is just a great guy and a great mentor. He’s been that way since I’ve got here. He’s continued to do that.”

On his playbook comfortability…

“I’m comfortable with the entire offense, basically. There are just a few plays that I’m not comfortable with that we took out. Wrinkles that we made to the playbook. I’m really comfortable with what we have in our game plan. Coach Brett [Elliot] and coach [Greg] Knox did a great job with it.”

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