For as long as most can remember, Mississippi State has had a strong, physical running game. Now, it seems the wide receivers have caught up to their friends in the backfield and are every bit as big, tough and imposing.
Slot man Jameon Lewis is the star of the pass catchers, the 5’9” senior who started the season as the SEC’s leading returning receiver. But around him, a garden of tall, strong and fast receivers has sprouted up, a full complement of tools to be used by Dan Mullen and receivers coach Billy Gonzales.
Last week in the season-opener against Southern Miss, for instance, it wasn’t Lewis who led the way. Instead, it was sophomores De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross, who combined for four touchdowns, 12 feet, seven inches, 420 pounds and a couple handfuls of broken tackles.
The receiving corps looks far different than it ever has under Mullen.
“We’ve got a great bunch of receivers,” second-year linebacker Dez Harris said when sharing what he sees in practice. “I really feel like we’ve got a lot of playmakers out on the field. A lot of people who can really make plays, get open and potentially put the ball in the endzone.”
That last part is the key, of course. And last Saturday, five of MSU’s six offensive touchdowns came through the air.
Add in senior Robert Johnson, sophomore Fred Brown, freshman B.J. Hammond, junior Joe Morrow and even pass-catching tight end Malcolm Johnson and MSU has more receivers over six feet than Mullen’s first four years combined.
The problem if you’re an opposing defense is easy to spot and difficult to answer: who do you cover and how? What happens if you let Lewis loose in single coverage? Can you afford to stack the line against MSU’s stout rush attack and take a chance at giving up a big play down the field?
The principle of the spread, Mullen will tell you, is to get mismatches. But even simpler than that is what is quick becoming a strength for State – give opposing defenses too much to worry about.
Sophomore cornerback Tolando Cleveland has seen the progress of the receivers himself, and he’s been particularly impressed with the improvements Wilson and Ross have made between their true freshman and sophomore years.
“They’ve gotten a lot better from when they came in,” Cleveland said. “They’ve gotten a lot stronger. You see it a lot, you see them getting better on the field.”
On Ross, Cleveland said the big receiver from Texas is a difficult matchup for anyone in practice.
“I wouldn’t play too much man on him,” Cleveland said, “because he’s a shifty guy. He can move, he’s fast, he’s strong. He’s just all-around. You’ve gotta know that about the guy.”
And Ross isn’t even a starter.
But Wilson is in the stating lineup, the surprise star of last year’s freshman class.
“I see a lot of improvement from him from last year to this year in being a wide receiver on every down, not just a play maker,” Mullen said of Wilson. “I know he’s got good size and decent speed, and he’s got great ball skills, but understanding the fundamentals and becoming an all-around player. I think our receivers as a whole are much better, and he’s one of those even as a young player that’s really bought in to what we’re doing. I’ve seen significant improvement on the practice field, and it’s good to see that start translating into the games as well.”
One noticeable difference, especially in the young receivers, has been added muscle to go along with their already towering statures. Wilson and Ross both appear more filled out, something they credit to new strength coach Rick Court pushing them in the offseason.
The result, they say, is what everyone saw last week: broken tackles turning long catches into long touchdowns.
“Coach G stresses that a lot about one man not tackling us,” Ross said. “We take a lot of pride in that. When people try to bring us down, we just keep fighting through it.”
In at least a few instances Saturday, even two men weren’t enough to bring them down.
MSU isn’t likely to become a pass-first offense, and the receivers will tell anyone who listens that the most important job they have is blocking downfield. But with the variety and complement of pass catchers the Bulldogs now have, Mullen will get to open up his offense in a way he hasn’t before.