Finally, thankfully, gratefully and mercifully, college football is back. Mississippi State travels to Hattiesburg on Saturday to open the season against Southern Miss, which means we’ve got one last chance to look at the team before it all begins. Consider this the Official HailState Beat Preview of the 2015 Season, a position-by-position analysis of what to expect.
First up, the man everyone knows best.
Synopsis: I mean, yeah, it’s Dak Prescott. The biggest thing to know about him is that he and the staff have worked on what they call the “graduate level” of being a quarterback. He’s still going to run, but they want to see more checkdowns and more of Prescott progressing through all his reads. At backup, Damian Williams could possibly redshirt, leaving redshirt freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley (recently returned from injury) to battle for the No. 2 spot.
Predicted starter: Rayne Dakota Prescott
Breakout candidate: Freshman Nick Fitzgerald
Coach’s take: “He has taken some good reps over the last couple of weeks and has done some really good things with that. He is a little bit behind the other guys just in total number of reps, but I do think he jumped on the opportunities we gave him during training camp. He can make things happen when he is out there on the field. He is strong-armed, big and physical.” – Dan Mullen on quarterback Elijah Staley
Synopsis: MSU replaces three starters, but they replace them with one senior and two juniors who have played more than their fair share of snaps in the SEC. Building experience will be the key, but it’s a particularly talented group. Rufus Warren, the elder of the group, has stepped up as a leader, while junior guard Devon Desper actually started last season when MSU beat top-10 Texas A&M at home.
Predicted starters: LT Rufus Warren, LG Justin Malone, C Jamaal Clayborn, RG Devon Desper, RT Justin Senior
Breakout candidate: Right tackle Justin Senior (as much as a returning starter can “breakout”)
Coach’s take: “The first five are good. The second five are coming along, there’s just some things they’ve got to pick up in terms of experience and playing. Every day stuff. The hardest thing to replicate is the experience on the field in a game atmosphere. The first five have all played, have all been in positions where they’ve played. The second five is just a young group.” – John Hevesy, offensive line coach
Synopsis: Gone is 1,000-yard rusher Josh Robinson and his ability to break tackles, but the guy who actually led the team in rushing down the final stretch of the season returns in junior Ashton Shumpert, as well as the second-leading rusher among running backs in 2014, the speedy Brandon Holloway. Redshirt freshmen Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee will duke it out for the No. 2 spot.
Predicted starter: Ashton Shumpert
Breakout candidate: Dontavian Lee
Coach’s take: “They have done pretty well. When you have that guy stepping into a starting role for the first time that is a little different. I think Ashton Shumpert has played a bunch and Brandon Holloway has played a whole bunch, but when you step into a starting role that can be a little different so we will see how they adjust to that. I have been pretty pleased with the physicality of our running backs and how we have been running the ball. That is something to me that when we have some bigger backs, we have to play really physical.” – Dan Mullen
Synopsis: Juniors De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross are planning to be the country’s best receiving duo, a tandem they hope will be near impossible for opposing defenses to stop. The biggest battle is for every other catch after the ones they get. There are a lot of passes to go around from a fifth-year senior QB, and plenty of viable options to catch them. Prescott will have a wealth of talent to spread it around to. They’re experienced despite the fact they only have one senior in Joe Morrow.
Predicted starters: De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, Fred Brown
Breakout candidate: Fred Brown
Coach’s take: “We led the SEC last year in plus plays of 20 yards. We also led the SEC in plus plays of 10 yards, and that’s something we talk about as far as contributing points, contributing to getting first downs, playing to win and that means playing great defensive, so if we can continue to do that, we will put points up on the board. Within my specific position, we talk about making five big plays. For us, five big plays a game is to have 20 yards or more on a play and for us if we can help a running back on the perimeter, blocking to get that 20-yard play, that goes down as one of those five for us.” – Billy Gonzales, receivers coach
Synopsis: People don’t seem to talk about it, but Malcolm Johnson at tight end might be the biggest loss on the team for MSU from the 2014 season. Coaches called him the glue of the offense, and now that glue is gone. Junior Gus Walley is someone Mullen and the staff have expressed a great deal of confidence in to replace him, and it’s Johnson who Walley says taught him everything he knows. Additionally, we’re told true freshman Justin Johnson could be even better than Malcolm Johnson one day. Maybe sooner rather than later if things go well.
Predicted starter: Gus Walley
Breakout candidate: Justin Johnson
Coach’s take: “All you have to do is just watch him perform out there. It’s a lot different. Like anything else in the program, you see the older guys around. Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play, the effort you’ve got to give, the intensity you’ve got to have.” – Scott Sallach, tight ends coach
Synopsis: Like the offensive line, this group technically loses three starters. However, Junior Chris Jones (who everyone around him says is primed for the best season of his career by far) played as much as any starter, while fellow juniors A.J. Jefferson at end and Nelson Adams at tackle played extensively in big games and big moments. The big story out of camp has been the development of junior tackle Nick James, one of the most naturally talented athletes on the team, regardless of position. MSU will also be depending on JUCO ends Jonathan Calvin and Will Coleman, as well redshirt freshmen tackles Cory Thomas and Braxton Hoyett for added depth.
Predicted starters: Senior DE Ryan Brown, junior DT Chris Jones, junior DT Nelson Adams, junior DE A.J. Jefferson
Breakout candidate: 1. Nick James 1a. A.J. Jefferson 3. Cory Thomas
Coach’s take: “One of the neatest things about Nick as we were going through fall camp, and this will sound funny, but you looked up one day and realized you hadn’t noticed him, which was actually a good thing. It meant that he was, in a mature fashion, just doing his job.” – Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, on defensive tackle Nick James
Synopsis: Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells are gone – the latter of which might be the most difficult to replace – but MSU still has an embarrassment of riches at the position. Junior Beniquez Brown is and has been the leader of the group, joined by fellow junior (and Brown) Richie Brown, who once recorded three interceptions against Texas A&M. Redshirt freshman Gerri Green is the one everyone has tabbed as the next McKinney, true freshman Leo Lewis was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country out of high school and sophomore J.T Gray was freshman All-SEC last season. All that without mentioning the speedy senior Zach Jackson (who Diaz seems to like a lot), athletic sophomore Dez Harris, who was considered to be a star in the making before an injury ended his freshman campaign, and JUCO transfer outside linebacker Traver Jung.
Predicted starters: Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown, Zach Jackson
Breakout candidate: Gerri Green (or Richie Brown, if he would count as such)
Coach’s take: “A guy that’s going to be in much more of a starring role. He’s got to make a lot more calls, he’s got to get us in the right defenses and get us lined up the right way. He’s the guy that’s got to be The One now. Last year, he kind of came in as the relief guy. Now, he’s the guy people are going to look to.” – Dan Mullen on middle linebacker Richie Brown
Synopsis: Only quarterback feels better about it’s returning starters than cornerback, where seniors Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun form what is easily among the best duos in the country. Who takes over the nickel position is the question, with juniors Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland as the likeliest candidates, as well as sophomore Jamoral Graham who switched over from receiver.
Predicted starters: Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun
Breakout candidate: Freshman Maurice Smitherman
Coach’s take: “I look at Will Redmond as a returning starter. He might not have played the first game of every game, but he played the last plays in a lot of games with the game on the line. There’s a lot to that, in my mind.” – Dan Mullen on cornerback Will Redmond
Synopsis: MSU loses both its starters, but still somehow returns a starter by way of senior Kendrick Market who was hurt last year, but had started extensively previously. It sounds like junior Kivon Coman has made a huge leap over the last few months, leading defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to share the quote below. Expect junior Deontay Evans to be in the rotation, as well. The players everyone will be watching are redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant (who some thought could have played last year) and true freshmen Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin. Coaches will have a tough time keeping any of those players off the field, particularly Peters who was one of the top defensive players in the country out of high school and McLaurin who was wow-ed people in practice at some moments.
Predicted starters: Kendrick Market, Kivon Coman
Breakout candidate: Kivon Coman
Coach’s take: “I like the way those guys have played. From spring into fall, the development of Kivon Coman has really changed our entire defense.” – Manny Diaz on safety Kivon Coman
Synopsis: MSU has to replace the reliable Evan Sobiesk after a successful 2014 campaign, and it looks like the battle will be between senior Devon Bell and sophomore Westin Graves. It sounds like the competition in practice has been close, meaning the edge may go to Bell who has the more extensive experience, and also will likely have the punting duties while sophomore Logan Cooke handles kickoffs. Either way, I’d expect both players to get their chances.
Predicted starter: Devon Bell
Breakout candidate: Devon Bell
Coach’s take: “It’s the fine line between statistical analysis and gut feeling of who’s going to do it with a game situation. It’s not something I plan on making a decision on until all the way through game week.” – Dan Mullen