The Bulldogs have been mentioned as potential darkhorse contenders seemingly every year since Dan Mullen took over the team five years ago – but this time, the hype might be for real. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s most dynamic young quarterback, a veteran roster and a stout defense. Those factors are usually a good combination for teams looking to break into the upper echelon of an SEC division.
Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, FL, WR, LT, LG, C, TE, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, RDT, LDT, WLB, MLB, RCB, LCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UA, AU, LSU, TAM, OM)
Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UA, AU, LSU, TAM, OM)
Projected SEC West Record: 1-5 (UA, AU, LSU, TAM, OM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Fr
No purer spread-option team exists in the SEC, perhaps the country these days, than Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are dedicated to the offense to the extent that they benched senior QB Tyler Russell toward the end of 2013 due, in part, to the fact he didn’t fit the offense. The Bulldogs showed good offensive balance in 2013, but they need to get more effective in both facets, especially if they are going to challenge any of the division’s annual contenders.
Dak Prescott might just have Heisman Trophy-level ability. He took over the job from Russell mid-year and became the team’s leading passer and rusher, rolling up nearly 2,800 yards in total offense. He’s a big guy with strong legs and the ability to make critical plays at key times, which makes him a perfect fit for the Bulldogs’ preferred offensive style. If Prescott develops as much throughout the 2014 season as he did the 2013 season, he could be the best MSU has ever had. Backup Damian Williams doesn’t have Prescott’s size or throwing ability, but he’s a capable backup and is dangerous running the ball.
There are a lot of familiar names here, but they’ll have the prove they can handle an increased workload. Starter Josh Robinson has shown flashes of ability before, but has never had to carry the load all by himself. He needs to get more consistent, especially on non-draw plays between the tackles. The backup will likely be either Ashton Shumpert or Nick Griffin. Griffin has never lived up to his recruiting hype, while Shumpert looked just so-so in limited work last year. Brandon Holloway will fill the scatback role that is now a requirement in option-based offenses. Signee Aeris Williams will push everyone. There is no real fullback option for the first time ever under Mullen.
Jameon Lewis is the closest thing Mississippi State has to a star receiver, but the truth is this entire unit could stand to improve, especially in regards to holding onto easy passes. Lewis nearly cracked the 1,000-yard barrier in 2013. The best second option is probably underrated tight end Malcolm Johnson, who may be the best tight end in the conference this year. Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De’Runnya Wilson are competing for the other two starting receiver spots. The Bulldogs are most excited about Wilson, as the other two names are little more than spare parts. Fred Brown adds depth there, while Brandon Hill will back up Johnson at tight end.
The line took a major hit in fall camp when RT Damien Robinson was lost for the year to injury. As a result, Ben Beckwith might get a starting job back. Jamaal Clayborn had displaced him at left guard in the spring, but MSU will likely have to shuffle personnel now to get a good group on the field. Cole Carter and Jacquell Johnson will compete with Clayborn to replace Robinson at right tackle. Left tackle and center are in the capable hands of Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day, respectively. Clausell could be a force if the stars align. Junior Justin Malone will be the new right guard. Veteran Archie Muniz offers depth at center. This unit should be capable, but only if injuries are kept at bay, as depth is paper-thin.
Mississippi State produced good numbers from its 4-3 alignment in 2013, highlighted by a ranking of 18th in total defense. Most of that unit returns, including one of the best returning front sevens in the conference. The defensive backfield took an unexpected step back in 2013, however, and the Bulldogs need to right the ship there. MSU will have a chance in every game it plays due to the strength on this side of the ball.
The Bulldogs will have one of the deepest interior tackle groups in the country, with Chris Jones moving over from end to join P.J. Jones, Curtis Virges and Kaleb Eulls in the middle. Mississippi State can do a lot with this group, and not many teams will be able to pressure the middle of the Bulldog line. The challenge will be replacing Denico Autry and Chris Jones outside. Preston Smith will be the featured pass-rusher, with Ryan Brown, Nelson Adams and A.J. Jefferson battling to see who gets the other spot. Whoever gets the job will need to produce; Mississippi State had only 16 sacks in the regular season last year and the secondary couldn’t pick up the slack.
Middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney can be a huge force in the middle and is often overlooked when a discussion of SEC star linebackers cranks up. Matthew Wells and Beniquez Brown offer capable help at the two outside slots. Richie Brown will likely back up all three positions, although Zach Jackson should see some playing time as well. Health will be the biggest concern here, as the Bulldogs are thin and recruiting produced only one above-average player, Gerri Green.
This unit was expected to pitch shutouts all year long, and while the Bulldogs did finish 5th in the conference (22nd nationally) in pass defense, it never felt as if MSU could affect the game with its secondary. That needs to change in 2014, particularly with the concern over the team’s edge pass-rushing capabilities. Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love will return at cornerback, and that’s where State has to get more active. Kendrick Market and Jay Hughes will be the likely starters at safety, although Justin Cox is a possibility as well. Will Redmond and Kivon Coman will offer depth.
The Bulldogs were horrible in 2013, missing more kicks than they made and looking generally inept in the kicking game. Devon Bell becomes the full-time punter, while Evan Sobiesk will handle the kicking duties. To say it’s obvious that both players need to improve would be an insult to obvious statements. The Bulldogs still lack a long kicker unless signee Logan Cooke can handle the job. He has a strong leg but there are concerns about accuracy. Jameon Lewis will be expected to return everything, and he has the ability to break a game open.
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