Full Q&A: MSU running backs coach Eric Mele talks Kylin Hill, Jo'Quavious Marks and more

State running backs coach Eric Mele talks about how to be a successful running back in an air-raid offense and more
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Cowbell Corner chatted with Mississippi State running backs coach Eric Mele on Wednesday afternoon to discuss a number of topics. Parts of this conversation were used in THIS PIECE ON KYLIN HILL earlier this week. Here is the full Q&A with Mele:

Cowbell Corner: What has your life looked like over the last couple of crazy months?

Mele: It has been interesting. We came back to Washington for spring break – flew back here. My girls – I have four daughters at home – they were planning on finishing out the school year before we moved everybody over. That was March. So two or two-and-a-half months ago. This whole thing hit and I’m now the lunch lady and I’m on breakfast duty. So I make sure they’re fed. My wife does a lot of the teaching and they call dad for the lunch sandwiches and all that. In between, there’s the Zoom recruiting visits virtually with all these guys we’re trying to get onboard. You’ll have anywhere from two to three or four of those a day. You have your team meetings mixed in. With my players, I’ve done a lot with the running backs. I’ve got my little five-year-old’s white painting easel and I’m drawing up plays on there and concepts and pass protection and any little thing I’d be doing in a classroom. So I’ll film those and shoot those videos out to the guys. They’ll have about 10 videos that are a minute or minute and a half of me kind of talking some of our stuff. That way, they can kind of watch it on their own. They can play it back and call me with questions. I think that’s been pretty good for them.

Cowbell Corner: I guess things have kind of been the same for, not just you, but the entire coaching staff right?

Mele: We’ve all been pretty scattered. I think there are a core of guys in town, in Starkville. We’ll talk to each other on the phone pretty regularly. We’ll FaceTime. We keep everybody in the loop and make sure we’re all on the same page with the team and the recruits we’re trying to go after. It’s just all virtual. It’s phone calls and text messages and Twitter and Zoom. So I’m ready to get back to some human interaction here at some point.

Cowbell Corner: I guess you’re now looking to be back in Starkville pretty soon?

Mele: We have the movers here right now (on Wednesday) at our house. June 1, there’s a limited amount of staff that’ll be allowed back to the office. That includes the full-time coaches. So we’ll all be back in there June 1 to kind of start preparing for what the next steps look like. It’ll be phased in on how much these guys can do. You know, just as long as they’re all safe. That’s the biggest thing. We have to do this thing the right way and go slow and make sure everybody is safe and healthy as we kind of progress as we go.

Cowbell Corner: Do you have an idea of what things are going to look like as the players start to roll back in over the coming days?

Mele: Not too much. They’ll all get back and they’ll all get tested and whatever our training staff and the medical people take care of that first week. Then June 8, looks like that’ll be small groups. This is all voluntary stuff, so whoever makes it back and is around, they’ll have some access to the weight room and strength coaches. They’ll have some of that available to them. I’m not sure if 100-plus guys can utilize that or smaller groups of that. We’ll just see how it goes and we’ll continue to have our virtual meetings positionally. We’ll keep doing the same things we’re doing now actually.

Cowbell Corner: Shifting to actual football questions, can you kind of outline what a running back has to do in an air-raid offense to be successful?

Mele: It’s cliche, but they’ve got to do everything. They’ve got to do it all. This isn’t a ground-and-pound obviously and it’s not just catching passes either for those guys. They have to be able to run the ball. They have to be able to catch the ball and they have to be able to pass protect. In the course of that, the biggest thing we’re looking for is for our guys to break tackles or make guys miss in space. Because we’re going to get those matchups and one-on-ones. That’s one of the things I’m excited about. We’ve got a pretty talented running back room and you look at the way the SEC is built. There are a lot of these pro-style teams that want to play kind of phone-booth football where they line a bunch of guys up in the box and want to smash up in there. For us, we’re going to spread the field out sideline to sideline, vertically and horizontally like that. Then you have your receivers and all of a sudden there is a back out there and there’s a 235-pound Mike linebacker that’s used to filling holes, now he’s got to catch our guy and tackle him out in the flat somewhere. So it’ll be fun to see what that matchup looks like come fall.

Cowbell Corner: Kylin Hill of course led the SEC in rushing during the regular season last year. It seems like he’s going to have to do a lot more than just run the ball this year. What are your expectations for him?

Mele: I told him when we first got the job, I said, ‘Hey listen, you’re not going to lead the SEC in rushing this year. Let’s just get that out of the way. But you’ll probably lead the SEC in all-purpose yards though. That’s what we’re all about. We want yards on the ground and in the air. Yards per touch – that’s a big thing I kind of measure our guys on for our production and our success. If you get a handoff, we want six yards. If you catch a ball, we want about eight yards. At the end of the season, when we tally it up, however many touches you have, we want about seven yards per touch. That’s a heckuva number for these guys. They’re still going to get it. I think the last two years, they’re averaging somewhere around 26 touches per game and about two touchdowns per game and somewhere around 150 or 160 all-purpose yards every game. So it’s not going to look like 140 rushing, but it’s going to be 70 yards on the ground for the top running back. Another 20 for another running back. Then 50 yards receiving for somebody and another 40 yards receiving for somebody else. It’s tough to stop that. It’s tough to contain that when (opponents) can’t just bottle up one person back there.

Cowbell Corner: How receptive has Kylin been to what he’s going to be asked to do?

Mele: I think it has been positive. I think part of the reason for him coming back is kind of him looking at trying to elevate his status. You look at the NFL now and look at teams like the Chiefs and the Patriots and kind of go down the line, a lot of our concepts in the pass game are showing up at the next level. Then they’re all looking for these backs that are the all-purpose backs, which is what we major in. I laughed the other day. Someone had a post on Twitter with a guy that was one of the first running backs off the board this year and he caught 50 passes and was talking about how good of a pass catcher he is. And he is. He’s a good receiver. But our guys led the nation in receiving the last two years. Two different backs that we’ve had. So I expect (Hill) to do the same. We’ve caught 86 and 83 the last two years, our top guy. I expect him to catch a ton of balls.

Cowbell Corner: Does Kylin compare at all to any of the running backs you previously coached?

Mele: The last two I’ve had (James Williams and Max Borghi at Washington State) have been pretty good, both of them. But (Hill is) kind of a blend. He’s got some good size to him and he’s got some good wiggle. He’s not going to get tackled by the first guy and he runs with some power and he’s an athletic kid. I’m excited. I think he’s his own back and I’m ready to work with him and get out there and start training him.

Cowbell Corner: Has there been anything in particular you’ve had to ask Kylin to change or work on or focus on to get ready to be a big part of this air-raid offense?

Mele: We’re just going to hone in on doing some of his best stuff and kind of maximizing his skill set. Again, for him, he’s got a really good jump cut where he can get lateral, then get vertical really quick. He can do that in a small space. Like I’ve told all these running backs, I’m not huge on having ten different drills where cones are set up and guys are doing jumping jacks and cartwheels and spinning around. It has to be a game-specific drill to kind of maximize their abilities and skill sets. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to focus on those things. Obviously the hand piece is big for all of them. Especially with young guys coming up that don’t catch a ton of balls in high school typically. So it’s giving them little drills like grabbing a tennis ball and throwing it up against the wall. Just keep working the hand-eye coordination. Anything you can do to develop those soft hands. Some guys are natural pass catchers. Some aren’t. But it’s a trained skill. That’s something you can develop. (Hill has) already got pretty good hands, so I’m not too worried about that with him.

Cowbell Corner: Kylin gets a lot of the attention obviously. But what’s your impression of the other backs in your room, particularly some of the young guys like Jo’Quavious Marks?

Mele: I tell you what, I think they all bring something different to the table. Like you said, the youth movement there. Dillon Johnson, we offered at Washington State. Then we came here and got him on board. That was great to see. Jo’Quavious goes out at midnight maneuvers and gets a black T-shirt, I want to say six or seven out of the eight nights. For a freshman, that’s impressive. He does, he moves around fantastic. I think those two guys for sure, their skill sets fit what we look for in backs for our offense. Kareem (Walker) is a bigger guy. We’re not opposed to that either. Because (opponents) are chasing around a smaller guy then here comes the big boy. So it’s a nice little compliment to each other.

Cowbell Corner: You mentioned Marks standing out and getting the black shirt at midnight maneuvers. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Mele: We have a grading scale. Coach Leach has his bell curve system that he uses every drill that they go through in those workouts and get graded on. At the end of the night, you’re either a black T-shirt if you’re kicking ass. You’re a gray T-shirt if you just do okay. And if you don’t do well, you get a pink T-shirt. You can get out of that the next night, but it’s a little motivational piece. And we don’t just hand out the black T-shirts. Those are the top-of-the-line guys. For a young kid, a freshman like that, to get that many, it’s a notable achievement for what we do.

Cowbell Corner: Sounds like Marks has a good chance to see some early playing time?

Mele: He’ll compete. And Coach Leach, he’s not a political guy when it comes to those types of things. The best players play and everyone is going to get a fair crack. Whoever is standing there when the dust settles is going to play. We’ve got no problems playing young guys. We played Max Borghi at Washington State when he was a true freshman and he was the second back and went for 700 or 800 all-purpose yards in his true freshman season. So we’ve done it before. It’ll be good competition and competition breeds success and we have a room full of guys who can do it I think.