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. Today: predicting MSU’s leading rusher.
1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns have left Mississippi State for the Indianapolis Colts in the way of running back Josh Robinson jumping to the NFL after the 2014 season. MSU’s got a stable of backs ready to replace him, though, and it’s been well over 20 years since there wasn’t a talented runner in the backfield for the Bulldogs. Robinson, Perkins, Ballard, Dixon, Norwood … it’s easy to lose track as you count them back through the years.
The question after each hasn’t been can anyone replace them, but who will replace them. There’s a second question to address in a moment, but for now, let’s just go through the candidates.
True junior Ashton Shumpert seems the favorite to win the starting job, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have it when MSU opens the season against Southern Miss. What offers promise for Shumpert is the way he finished the season. After only totaling 14 carries the first eight games of the year, he came on strong when Robinson’s touches waned late. His 24 carries in the final two games of the regular season were a huge jump from his previous usage, and his 68 yards on 10 carries in the Egg Bowl was one of the few bright spots of that game for MSU.
But, wanna hear something maybe unexpected? Shumpert was fourth on the team in rushing behind Robinson, Dak Prescott and, wait for it, Brandon Holloway. The speedy change-of-pace back was in his first season in the backfield after switching from wide receiver and actually ran for 20 more yards than Shumpert on two fewer carries in 2014, including three games with 65-plus yards. He seems unlikely to be an every-down rusher, but crazier things have happened.
Then comes the pair of redshirt freshmen calling themselves either the Bang Brothers or Thunder and Lightning depending on which day you ask. Aeris Williams was the four-star who set records in West Point during his illustrious high school career, and Dontavian Lee was the “other” running back in the class who some seemed to think would end up having to change positions. Both impressed in practices while redshirting last year, and it seems safe to say that no running back had a better spring than Lee.
While Shumpert is expected to be the starter for the first game of the season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lee is the starter for the last one. He’s fast, strong, has good hands, has good vision and has put on some needed muscle since arriving in Starkville. But it won’t be easy as he competes with the other three, not to mention the highly-recruited freshmen arriving on campus this summer.
And all of that is why none of those players are the answer to the second question – who will lead the team in rushing?
My pick: Dak Prescott, QB 1. If you combine all the previously mentioned running backs, I feel sure they’ll have more total yards in 2015 than Prescott. But as individuals, I don’t know that any will get enough carries to get the near-1,000 yards it will likely take to top No. 15. Their strength is their weakness, in a manner of speaking, that they’re all talented and will likely be sharing duties with each other.
Consider, as well, that MSU is replacing three starters on the offensive line, perhaps meaning more running early on for Prescott as he helps them adjust, and he already had 986 net rushing yards last year, anyway.
And in fact, there’s already precedent for this. Easy to forget considering the comparative memorable-ness of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but Prescott was MSU’s leading rusher as a sophomore in 2013 and it wasn’t even close. As a part-time starter who only played in 11 games, Prescott accrued 829 yards on the ground, far more than LaDarius Perkins (542 yards) and Robinson (459 yards) who split duties. The two certainly had more combined yards than their quarterback, but neither got enough carries to have a chance of catching him individually. The same situation seems pretty possible in 2015.
One thing, however, seems to be a near guarantee. No matter who has the most yards, Prescott is sure to lead all contenders in rushing touchdowns, just as he has the last two seasons.
Dak Prescott rushing touchdowns 2013-14: 27.
Starting running backs combined rushing touchdowns 2013-14: 16.
That seems like one trend likely to continue in 2015.