Mississippi State Bulldogs
Projected record: 10-2 (UA, OM); 6-2 and 2nd SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 9 (FL, WR, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDE, RDT, LDT, LDE, MLB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)
QB: Vg DL: Ex
RB: Vg LB: Fr
WR: Fr DB: Av
OL: Ex ST: Vg
Overview: A lot is being put on Joe Moorhead’s shoulders in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs. This is a team with high expectations, a lot of talent on both lines of scrimmage, depth at quarterback and special teams that are expected to be strong. But first-year SEC head coaches are almost always a crapshoot, and given that Moorhead’s head coaching experience is contained completely within a four-year run at Fordham, expecting the Bulldogs to be SEC West contenders might be a little too much to ask.
Offensive breakdown: Moorhead’s offensive philosophy is quarterback-driven and less dependent on the option than the offense Dan Mullen preferred. How that pertains to Nick Fitzgerald’s development is yet to be seen. Fitzgerald took a big step back in his development in 2017, but at the same time, maintained his poise against his best opponent (Alabama) and looked like he belonged on the same field as the Crimson Tide, which many quarterbacks couldn’t say last year. Fitzgerald throws too many interceptions and makes a lot of killer decisions, but he’s also a physical phenom who can take over a game. He also has a solid backup in Keytaon Thompson, who like Fitzgerald, is a dual-threat quarterback with solid raw skills. Fitzgerald and Thompson combined to run for 1,430 yards on 237 carries last year, a 6.0-yard-per-carry average. It’s unlikely the Bulldogs will attempt that many quarterback runs in 2018.
At running back, the Bulldogs are excited about Aeris Williams, who finally stepped up and claimed the position after years of watching this spot rotate among multiple backs every season. Kylin Hill provides solid backup to Williams, and the quarterbacks will still do their fair share of running the ball. Donatvian Lee and Nick Gibson offer veteran help off the bench, but MSU recruited no running backs in this class so if the current players can’t adapt to the new system, tough luck. Jalen Mayden, a dual-threat quarterback out of Texas, could wind up seeing some time here in a pinch.
There’s no way around saying that last year’s receiver group messed in their kit. Everyone was either a disappointment, injured or both. Jesse Jackson, the returning starter at flanker, and the team’s leading receiver with 27 receptions, tries hard but really should be replaced. JUCO transfer Steven Guidry is being treated as the second coming of Randy Moss, and he needs to be in order to make this offense get off the ground – literally. But Guidry sustained a shoulder injury in the spring and will have to be managed this fall. Deddrick Thomas, Jamal Couch and Malik Dear will all get a shot at the third receiver spot along with freshman Devonta Jason. Keith Mixon figures to be in the mix as well. On paper, there is a lot height and a lot of hype, but virtually no production. The only thing holding this group off the mat completely at the moment is tight end Farrod Green, who is solid if nothing else. Backup Justin Johnson provides veteran depth.
The offensive line should give MSU time to do whatever it wants. Left tackle Martinas Rankin must be replaced, but Greg Eiland has the talent to get the job done. Center Elgton Jenkins, guards Deion Calhoun and Darryl Williams and right tackle Stewart Reese are all productive players, and Jenkins is especially one to watch. MSU has a good mix of veteran reserves, too, although the best of that bunch, Michael Story, begins the season suspended after an arrest on an animal cruelty charge. The only question for this unit will be whether they can transition to a more traditional pass-blocking style after trading Mullen for Moorhead.
Defensive/ST breakdown: It’s not often the Bulldogs produce one of the best defensive lines in the conference, but that’s certainly the case in 2018. Not only are the starters in good shape, seven of the top eight linemen are upperclassmen, giving the Bulldogs a clear edge in experience over most opponents. Jeffery Simmons is the undisputed best player of the bunch, a game-changing tackle who can both clog rushing lanes and get after quarterbacks. New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has to be salivating at the thought of what Simmons and ends Gerri Green and Montez Sweat are going to be able to do in the pass rush game. Braxton Hoyett starts next to Simmons, while there are quality players available off the bench in the form of Cory Thomas and Fletcher Adams.
The rest needs work. For whatever reason, Moorhead didn’t like what Leo Lewis brought to the table in the spring, demoting him to second team over concerns about his pass coverage abilities. A starting linebacker group fo Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay isn’t going to scare anyone. This is going to be a big change overall going from four linebackers in the Mullen-era defense to two under Moorhead, but the time might have been right anyway given the lack of playmakers here. Tim Washington will have to make a quick transition to this scheme, but he is limited. Thompson may actually be too big to play in this scheme. There are worries here.
The defensive backfield rebounded nicely in 2017 but the only ones coming back are the safeties, Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram. New starter at cornerback Chris Rayford has plenty of experience, as does Jamal Peters, who is competing for the other corner position along with Cameron Dantzler. There is good size among the corners but perhaps too much, as Peters lacks flexibility due to his build. Brian Cole appears to be the new starter at a full-time nickel position, with either Maurice Smitherman or C.J. Morgan backing him up. Freshman Tyler Williams may end up being the third corner.
Special teams should be in good shape with Jace Christmann returning to the placekicker spot. He was 12-or-14 in 2017 and didn’t miss a PAT. Logan Cooke went from being just a decent punter to a weapon in 2017 but he’s now gone; Tucker Day is likely to be his replacement. With concerns about the athleticism of the receiver, DB and LB groups, the coverage and return teams become a concern by default.
Overall Trend: Up. Surprisingly so, almost, given there’s a coaching change in the mix to go along with scheme changes on both sides of the ball. Moorhead recruited well enough, though, to suggest there will be more success in the future. The real concern in the short term is figuring out whether Nick Fitzgerald is a top-tier SEC quarterback or just the product of freakish athleticism plus one good year in 2016. The Bulldogs probably don’t have the skill position explosiveness to challenge Alabama for the division title, but they are capable of beating anyone on the schedule in 2018.
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