To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.
This week, we’re predicting statistical leaders for MSU’s 2015 season, starting with receiving.
Wide receiver, despite what it lost from the 2014 starting lineup, might be the deepest and most talented position on the roster, a far cry from the early days of Dan Mullen’s tenure when a pass-catcher over 6’1” was a rarity and few players outside of the starters had much of a shot to see the field.
As we attempt to predict who will be MSU’s leading receiver this year, I’m going to lump everything together and make a semi-educated guess with yardage as my main factor. Were we to divide this into categories of yards and touchdowns, the answer for each might be different.
To begin, let’s start with the obvious candidate: Last year’s leading receiver De’Runnya Wilson is back. He’s the logical choice here, having caught 47 passes for 680 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, all tops on the roster. “Bear” did all that despite only playing extensively in seven-ish games and only being in his third year of playing organized football, having just played his senior year of high school in Alabama.
The immensely-talented Wilson is 6’5”, nearly-impossible to tackle and could potentially be in an NFL minicamp this time next summer. But while he’s likely going to again lead MSU in receiving touchdowns and will probably get all the attention from opposing secondaries, he’s not my pick here.
I’m going with Fred Ross. The rising junior was in the same class as Wilson, a polished Texas receiver who played in his first possible game at MSU. Injuries hampered his ability and effectiveness over the first two seasons, but despite those setbacks, he was quietly second on the team last year (behind Wilson, of course) in receiving yards. His 489 yards were over 100 more than the third place finisher, and his 16.3 yards per catch were actually tops on the team of any receiver with more than 20 catches, nearly a full two yards per catch better than Wilson.
A few of the reasons I’m picking Ross here: he should finally be fully healthy. He’ll benefit from the attention Wilson receives. MSU lost long-time starting tight end Malcolm Johnson, creating a need for more pass-catchers. Dak Prescott is only getting better as he improves footwork and accuracy going into his senior season.
All good reasons, but my biggest one: Ross has moved to the slot, and judging by spring practice, Mullen is going to have Ross all over the place in MSU’s offense. Inside, outside, in the backfield, on pitches, reverses, everything. He’s going to be used and used often.
The slot receiver, to this point, has been one of the most important members of Mullen’s offenses, and Ross is taking to it naturally as a talented route-runner and pass-catcher who knows how to use his body.
To illustrate the importance of the slot receiver under Mullen: every year except for two since he arrived at MSU, the slot receiver has led the team in yards and catches. In those two off years, there were injuries at the position. And in most of those other four years, it wasn’t even close from the slot to the next guy.
Last year, for instance, senior starter Jameon Lewis was hurt early and replaced by freshman Gabe Myles, then the two split duties late while Wilson led the team in all categories. Combine their numbers into one receiver, however, and that one player would have led the team with 54 catches and his 51.7 yards per game would have been second, just behind Wilson’s 56.7 ypg.
Now, put in the healthy junior Fred Ross with his considerable talent and seeming knack for the position, and you might have found MSU’s leading receiver in 2015. Not to say it won’t be close, and I’d take Wilson if we’re talking touchdowns, but Ross could be the sleeper star in 2015, the Cris Carter to Wilson’s Randy Moss.
Either way, the duo ought to be fun to watch. In the final two games of the 2014 season (against Ole Miss and Georgia Tech when both were healthy), Wilson and Ross combined for 28 catches, 422 yards and four touchdowns. Watch out.