Overview: An up-and-down season for the Bulldogs ended with a bowl win to even get up to the 6-7 level, thanks mostly to a pass defense that spit the bit. Much of State’s offensive production returns but the defense was gutted by graduation, and lacks playmakers. If anything, last season was an example of just how much the Bulldogs relied on former QB Dak Prescott. There is no such savior on this year’s team.
Projected record: 7-5 (UGA, UA, AU, TAM, BYU); 4-4 and 4th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 7 (SE, WR, TE, C, RG, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 4 (WLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (P)
QB: Vg DL: Fr
RB: Vg LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Fr ST: Fr
Offensive breakdown: Mississippi State is excited about the prospects of current junior QB Nick Fitzgerald, who ran up roughly 3,800 total yards last year, including an impressive 1,375 (7.1 avg.) on the ground, scoring 16 touchdowns. But Fitzgerald is put on this earth to throw the ball more than he is run it, and a completion percentage that hovered around the 54-percent mark isn’t going to cut it if the Bulldogs want to be a contender. Thanks mostly to head coach Dan Mullen being out on another quest to outsmart and/or out-connive the opposition, even the basic Bulldog roster is considered top-secret material for now, much less the depth chart. Freshman Keytaon Thompson, a dual-threat talent, is almost certainly the guy. In spring, the only other option was true freshman walk-on Logan Burnett. Thompson is viewed as potentially another Prescott.
A particularly valuable development in 2016 was Aeris Williams becoming what Mississippi State needed at running back. He returns, with Nick Gibson the likely backup, and Dontavian Lee providing depth. There is also the possibility receiver Malik Dear could get snaps in the backfield; he got 17 carries from a slot position in 2016 and has a running back’s build (5’9”, 227) despite being listed at wideout. Highly-regarded freshman Kylin Hill was arrested Aug. 4 on reckless driving charges, so his status is uncertain. MSU uses no fullback, although Alec Murphy could probably move up from running back if needed.
The big issue at receiver is replacing Fred Ross, but Donald Gray had a breakout year in 2016, snagging 41 passes for 709 yards (17.3 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. If he can improve his play in the red zone, State won’t lose a step. Finding someone to take the double-teams off him, though, could be challenging. Jesse Jackson, Keith Moon, Reggie Todd, Jamal Couch and Malik Dear are fighting for two different spots. MSU needs someone to step up at tight end. Farrod Green is a good blocker but only a decent receiver. Justin Johnson is the opposite. Jordan Thomas looks like a 12-year all-pro in pads but hasn’t been able to translate that to on-field success.
The offensive line must also be rebuilt, and coaches were unsure of how to deploy the pieces. After an entire spring spent at center, Martinas Rankin showed up for fall camp and was directed to practice with the left tackles. Elgton Jenkins, a swing guard in 2016, is now the center. Deion Calhoun, last year’s right guard, is moving across to left guard. Freshmen Stewart Reese and Greg Eiland are competing for right tackle, while Michael Story, Darryl Williams and JUCO transfer Tommy Champion all figure to be in the right guard mix. For now, this sort of has the look of, if not panic, at least mass uncertainty.
Defensive/ST breakdown: A disastrous pass defense (120th overall) came out of nowhere to sink State’s hopes at contending in 2016. The outlook for 2017 may not be much better, as the Bulldogs will depend on a sixth-year player coming off ACL repair surgery (Tolando Cleveland) to lead the cornerback group. Jamal Peters and Lashard Durr struggled last year, but are competing for the off-corner job this year. The safety group – Brandon Bryant, Johnathan Abram, J.T. Gray and Mark McLaurin – need to step up, especially Bryant.
Up front, it’s basically LB Leo Lewis and a lot of question marks. MSU thinks Dez Harris will prove to be a capable cohort for Lewis in the inside linebacker group, while Gerri Green and Montez Sweat are the top options at outside linebacker. Sweat will also line up at defensive end. The primary concern here is depth – as in, there really is none. Senior Traver Jung and redshirt freshman Erroll Thompson – neither of whom has any appreciable experience – are the only real options off the bench. Up front, Jeffery Simmons will be looked upon to lead the defensive line, along with Cory Thomas. Fletcher Adams will be the primary backup for both, while Kobe Jones needs to grow into his role quickly. The biggest question is up the middle, where a pair of juniors, Deion Pope and Braxton Hoyett, are expected to fight for the starting job.
Regarding special teams, it’s not time to panic yet, but that time might not be far off. Placekicker Westin Graves was forced to give up football due to injury, which led to a parade of walk-ons vying for the position in the spring. The smart money is actually on a punter, true freshman Tucker Day, getting that job, or incumbent punter Logan Cooke could pull double duty. Jace Christmann, John Scifers and Brad Wall were also vying for kicking duties in spring camp. At least there are no concerns with Cooke’s punting. The return and coverage units have both been uneven recently due to depth issues.
Overall Trend: Down. Even though a 7-5 record would be an improvement over a year ago, the issues on defense, at kicker and a general concern for quality depth make improving upon last year’s results a hard task for Dan Mullen’s group. Mullen should get kudos for doing a lot with a little, but he’s only two or three key injuries away this year from certain doom.
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