Mississippi State: Team Overview
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (LT, LG, C, RT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDT, LDE, MLB, SLB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (UA, Ark, LSU, OM, OSU, USC, TAM)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (UA, Ark, LSU, OM, USC, TAM)
Projected SEC West Record: 1-5 (UA, Ark, LSU, OM, TAM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Pr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
Despite being a part of Southern football for decades and winning a SEC championship in the 1940s, Mississippi State’s program arguably reached its zenith over the past few seasons of Dan Mullen’s tenure. The Bulldogs went from being cannon fodder to a respectable program that could beat teams of better talent, if those opponents lacked discipline. But is it time for a correction? Mississippi State is largely rebuilding its defense in 2013, and SEC defensive coordinators seem to have caught up to the Bulldogs’ offensive schemes. A couple of ho-hum recruiting classes adds to the concern.
The Bulldogs shifted slightly their offensive scheme in 2012 from a pure spread-option to a hybrid spread attack, to take advantage of the skills of its quarterback. It appears MSU will continue that same trend in 2013, basing from a three-wide set and attacking downfield more often than Mullen would likely prefer. The talent situation is OK everywhere but receiver, which is full of unproven players and borderline SEC talents.
Alabama and others tried to recruit Tyler Russell, who chose to stay home and play for the Bulldogs. The decision, while admirable, has been questionable to this point because it might have cost Russell some potential exposure to NFL teams. Russell has textbook QB size (6’4”, 225) and a good arm. He also can run the ball well and is good at working without a script – a good quality to have, given the talent deficiencies that dot the Bulldogs’ depth chart. Russell can get himself into trouble by trying to do too much, so Mullen and his assistants will have to keep Russell reined in. The depth chart is troubling, as Mississippi State has just three QBs on the roster. Behind Russell is Dak Prescott, who is somewhat of a Russell clone in terms of size and abilities. He’s looked good in limited work. The only other player available is true freshman Damian Williams, who came to Starkville from Louisiana without a lot of fanfare. The Bulldogs lost star recruit Cord Sandberg to Major League Baseball in the spring. If Russell gets hurt – and he’s been banged up before – this could get ugly.
Starter LaDarius Perkins is an underrated blend of size and speed. Perkins averaged 5 yards per carry and collected 1,024 yards in 2012, and he’s also a weapon in the passing game. Perkins runs bigger than he is, but doesn’t have the top-end gear most SEC running backs possess. The backup situation will come down to either Josh Robinson or Derrick Milton, a pair of sophomores that looked promising behind Perkins last year. Nick Griffin is also available as a bigger back. Unlike in previous years, there is no situational fullback on the roster. Mississippi State’s primary focus should be on having better performances against SEC opponents, as the running game too often went into a shell against conference foes.
This could wind up being a bloody mess by year’s end if someone doesn’t step up soon. Results were mixed at best in the spring, with plenty of drops to go around and a general lack of playmaking ability being shown. The best option is actually the team’s tight end, Malcolm Johnson, who is about a half-foot shorter than most SEC tight ends. But Johnson does have good hands and blocks reasonably well enough – despite being the build of an H-back – to be considered a weapon. Four players are fighting for the three starting wideout positions. Robert Johnson has a thick build and can get physical, but needs more consistency. Joe Morrow has good speed, but is unreliable catching the ball. Jameon Lewis could be a solid player if he can get out of the coaches’ dog house. Jeremey Chapelle will push all three of those players for the right to start. Speed is an issue for him. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Fred Brown and the termite-sized Brandon Holloway will offer depth. If anyone else plays, it will have to be a true freshman, most likely De’Runnya Wilson or Fred Ross. Brandon Hill will be the primary backup at tight end.
The left side of the line is in good shape. Guard Gabe Jackson will be taken early in April’s NFL Draft, while junior left tackle Blaine Clausell is putting together a solid career. The rest of the line needs work. Charles Siddoway could be a good right tackle if he could improve his footwork a bit. Damien Robinson was pushing him for the starting job at the end of spring practice, and the two will likely rotate. Center Dillon Day returns, but more is needed from him in 2013. Right guard appears to be the possession of sophomore Justin Malone, one of State’s biggest linemen at 6’7”, 320. Juniors Archie Muniz and Ben Beckwith are competing for the job as well. Dylan Holley, a senior, will back up Day, while freshman Justin Senior is the likely backup to Clausell.
Despite a senior-laden group that racked up a pocketful of accolades in the preseason, once the year got going, the Bulldogs disappointed on this side of the ball. Rush defense was poor, and the pass defense wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been, given MSU had two cornerbacks drafted and will likely have a safety go in the first couple of rounds this year. The fact Mississippi State lost several of its biggest leaders on this side of the ball is further cause for concern.
There are players here who could, with some help, be playmakers. But the lack of depth and consistent quality puts too much pressure on them to be stars here, and their performance suffers because of it. We’re speaking specifically of tackle Kaleb Eulls and end Denico Autry, who are going to be under immense pressure to perform. Eulls was a consistent help at end last year, but bulked up to move inside, a move made out of necessity. Autry looks the part, but was inconsistent in his first year out of junior college. Preston Smith will take Eulls’ old spot at weakside end. He’s a capable pass rusher, but needs to improve against the run. The real key will be whether tackle P.J. Jones takes the next step in his development. If Jones can focus on the high points of his 2012 season, he could become a very good SEC defensive lineman. But he was too frequently out of position or simply ineffective. The same could be said for Curtis Virges, who will be the primary backup at tackle. Massive sophomore Nick James will help there as well. Ryan Brown and freshman A.J. Jefferson appear to be in line at defensive end, ahead of Corvell Harrison-Gay. Quay Evans adds depth inside. True freshman Chris Jones will likely see the field early at end, and might slide inside on passing downs. He was the Bulldogs’ top recruit in February.
The loss of Cam Lawrence is huge. Lawrence wasn’t the most athletic SEC linebacker, but he tallied 120 tackles, had good instincts and helped align the defense. Returning starters Deontae Skinner (SLB) and Benardrick McKinney (MLB) have potential – especially the Dont’a Hightower-esque McKinney – but they aren’t as consistent as Lawrence was. Junior Matt Wells is set to take over for Lawrence on the weakside. State has some experience off the bench in the form of middle linebacker Ferlando Bohanna and outside linebacker Chris Hughes, but both are lightly-built and questionable against top rushing games. Freshmen Richie Brown and Beniquez Brown also figure to see playing time. McKinney is a future star, but whether Wells is up to the task in replacing Lawrence is another matter.
Given the talent that Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay had, the fact the Bulldogs ranked 7th in the SEC and 45th nationally in pass defense in 2012 was ridiculous. Both are playing in the NFL now, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Nickoe Whitley will be looked to for leadership in 2013. He has steadily grown into a consistent threat at safety. The coaches are hoping for big things from cornerback Jamerson Love, who played significant snaps in 2012. Off-corner Justin Cox and strong safety Jay Hughes, both juniors, need to make early contributions. Cox, a JUCO transfer, is 6’3” and a possible matchup problem. Cedric Jiles and Taveze Calhoun will provide cornerback depth, while Kendrick Market and Dee Arrington will help at safety. Aside from Market, this is a pedestrian group of reserves, so health will be a key to success.
Punter Baker Swedenburg has quietly become on the SEC’s best at the position. He doesn’t have a cannon leg, but his consistency is superlative. Placekicker Devon Bell solidified the position last year after a rocky start. Long field goals are still a bit of a problem spot. Kick and punt returns will be a mystery until Jameon Lewis proves he can do the job.