Previews 2015: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Dec 31, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott (15) throws a pass against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the first quarter in the 2014 Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott (15) throws a pass against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the first quarter in the 2014 Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Previews 2015: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, QB, RG, RT)

Returning Defensive Starters: 3 (RDE, WLB, LCB)

Returning Specialists: 1 (PK/P)

Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, TAM)

Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, TAM)

Projected SEC West Record: 1-5 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, TAM)

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex Defensive Line: Av

Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Fr

Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr

Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Fr

Mississippi State overachieved greatly in 2014, in the process solidifying Dan Mullen’s hold on the head coaching position in Starkville – and, unfortunately, lifting future expectations. As often happens with Mississippi State, success does not appear to be sustainable. The Bulldogs simply haven’t recruited consistently enough to remain in the SEC’s upper echelon, and had its starting quarterback not elected to return to school, State would be staring a losing record in the face. As is, the Bulldogs will do well to get back to the postseason.

OFFENSE

Dan Mullen was one of the architects of the spread-option offense, and what the Bulldogs run now would probably be considered the most pure form of the offense still left in existence – including Ohio State, where Mullen’s mentor Urban Meyer coaches. Mississippi State showed incredible offensive balance in 2014, ranking 21st in rushing offense and 22nd in passing, and finishing 8th in the country overall and 1st in the SEC. Given the Lane Kiffin-led renaissance in Tuscaloosa and Auburn’s continued success, you could probably win a substantial bar bet with that information. But 2015 is a different animal entirely: Mississippi State is in rebuilding mode.

QUARTERBACKS

The one area of the team that won’t have to be rebuild is here. Dak Prescott emerged as the SEC’s best quarterback in 2014. He’s a load to bring down at more than 230 pounds, he has good field vision, he doesn’t panic under pressure and he is an above-average passer. What he doesn’t have is the supporting cast he enjoyed in 2014. Prescott’s only possible weakness is that he isn’t polished in progressions, but it didn’t hamstring him much, if at all, a year ago. He’ll need every bit of his raw talent if Mississippi State is to contend again. State also has an experienced backup in Damian Williams, who is a better runner than passer but who has improved greatly since coming to campus. It’s no longer a nightmare if Prescott has to miss a few plays. Elijah Stanley and Nick Fitzgerald are next up; both are big guys with plenty of raw talent. The Bulldogs have the best QB situation in the SEC, top to bottom.

RUNNING BACKS

Prescott had almost twice the rushing yards of Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway combined in 2014. Shumpert is the new starter, and while he does most things well, he’s not a standout in any one area. He does give the Bulldogs good size, at least. Aeris Williams is the likely top backup. He’s not quite as big as Shumpert, but he’s big enough (6’1”, 205) and wowed many observers while redshirting last year. Holloway, a scatback, will play in certain packages but probably can’t carry the load by himself if called upon. Two other freshmen, redshirt Dontavian Lee and signee Malik Deer, could also get in the mix. Deer will also play receiver. The Bulldogs don’t carry a fullback, preferring to use tight ends when needed for blocking.

WIDE RECEIVERS
Aside from junior De’Runnya Wilson, who grew into one of the SEC’s top targets as the 2014 season went on, the cupboard is mostly bare. The Bulldogs are hoping that Fred Ross, who was a good third option in 2014, can shoulder the load as a full-time starter. Fred Brown, Gabe Myles and Jesse Jackson will compete for the third slot. Donald Gray adds further depth. The real question is consistency. The Bulldogs didn’t realize their potential in the passing game until Wilson and Jameon Lewis stepped up to form a consistent 1-2 punch. Mississippi State’s other issue this fall is the loss of tight end Malcolm Johnson, who was quietly the SEC’s best or second-best tight end in 2014. Replacing him for now is huge senior Darrion Hutcherson, who certainly has the size for the position but might not be the total package. Gus Walley, converted receiver B.J. Hammond and signee Farrod Green are the only other options. There are plenty of bodies available at wide receiver behind the names listed above, and the Bulldogs need a couple of them to separate from the pack.

OFFENSIVE LINE

MSU returns only two starters and there has been some shuffling going on. Justin Malone and Justin Senior will start somewhere, whether it’s both on the right, both on the left, or one on each side. If Hutcherson wins the tight end job, it might make sense to load up the strongside of the formation and run the veer. Jamaal Clayborn has the inside track for the center’s job, although he’ll be pushed by Jocquell Johnson. Devon Desper is likely to get the other guard slot, while senior Rufus Warren would appear to be the other tackle. Martinas Rankin will add depth at tackle while freshman Deion Calhoun gets the third guard assignment. Elgton Jenkins will add depth somewhere. Until the Bulldogs stop playing musical chairs and set a lineup, though, this could end up being the lowest-rated offensive line in the conference in 2015.

DEFENSE

The Bulldogs run a 4-3 defense that prides itself on creating turnover opportunities. Mullen has prioritized improving the talent on the defensive line in his time in Starkville, and the Bulldogs employed a stout front seven last year. However, Mississippi State’s secondary was a bust in 2014, ranking 114th against the pass. Manny Diaz returned to Starkville to take over the defense from Geoff Collins, and Bulldog fans are hoping that means improvement is on the way in the secondary. But with just 3 starters returning, it’s hard to imagine Mississippi State being much better in 2015.

DEFENSIVE LINE

This is the year that tackle Chris Jones must fully step up and take the reins at one of the inside positions. Jones has immense talent, but to this point has had the tendency to be overshadowed by overachieving, former red-chip guys who were more consistent from play to play. He’s set to start next to returning end Ryan Brown on the weakside, so it’s now or never. The strongside, though, may need help. A.J. Jefferson led the battle at end in the spring and Nelson Adams was holding down the tackle position next to Jones. As for depth, the coaches are high on Nick James at tackle, while freshman Cory Thomas also looked to be breaking into the position in the spring. Torrey Dale and Will Coleman appear to be set as the reserve ends, but neither has shown much yet. All eyes will be on true freshman Fletcher Adams, who could make an impact inside or outside. There’s just not enough known yet about how this group will perform.

LINEBACKERS
Beniquez Brown is the lone returning starter, and he’s a handful at weakside linebacker. But the other two positions are up in the air. Richie Brown will start somewhere, whether it’s on the strongside or in the middle. If he stays outside, redshirt freshman Gerri Green will be the starter in the middle. If Brown goes inside, Zach Jackson will start on the strongside despite not being the optimum size for the SEC. The wild card in it all is true freshman Leo Lewis, who was once committed to Alabama. Lewis and Green will fight it out for two or three years to come in the middle, but neither is likely to be ready this year and the rest of the cast – particularly reserves J.T. Gray and DeAndre Ward, who are both flyweights – are troubling. The Bulldogs will have to scheme around this group in the short-term.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Given the struggles of this unit in 2014, it might be a good thing that only CB Taveze Calhoun returns as a starter. Mississippi State needs an infusion of fresh blood here, and will likely get it in true freshman Jamal Peters, who is projected to possibly start at one of the safety spots. Longtime backup Will Redmond is likely to draw the other cornerback slot across from Calhoun, while Kivon Coman or Deontay Evans will get the other safety position. Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland will provide depth at corner, but neither is considered a front-line talent. Redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant is in the mix at safety. Another signee, Mark McLaurin, could wind up in the safety rotation along with Peters. The truth is, this group will have to prove themselves early on in the season, because they did nothing in 2014 to engender confidence. Having two true freshmen playing key roles at safety isn’t likely to help matters.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Devon Bell is a good punter, but the problem is, the Bulldogs might need him to be a placekicker as well. He’s made less than half his career attempts, though, so look for Logan Cooke or Westin Graves to push him for the job. Cooke is an option at punter, too. The return game must be rebuilt now that Jameon Lewis is gone; Donald Gray and Fred Ross led several candidates in the spring. If Bell is called upon to both kick and punt again in 2015, it won’t be a good thing from the Bulldogs’ perspective. Mississippi State needs an upgrade.

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