This afternoon, Mississippi State begins spring football practice, in some ways the beginning of the 2016 season, though Dan Mullen might contend that the 2016 team was born the day after his Bulldogs won the Belk Bowl.
MSU does have a quite significant amount of production returning in the team’s leading tackler – Richie Brown – and the SEC’s leading returning receiver – Fred Ross. However, an entirely new defensive staff and the exit of perhaps the team’s greatest player in the history of the program will make for some significant changes.
As practice begins, these are a few of the things I’ll be tracking, starting with the obvious.
Who Replaces Dak Prescott?
The answer is no one, at least in the sense of how MSU fans have come to know Prescott as a person and face of the program. But there will be a new starter at quarterback nonetheless, and the options are plenty.
It would seem redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald has the advantage here, having earned the majority of the backup reps in the 2015 season. Appearing in eight games, ol’ Nicky Fitz completed 11 of 14 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, while also running 23 times for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Beyond his use last year, what also gives Fitzgerald a leg up is his early arrival, having begun practicing back in December of 2013. He’s had a ton of time in the system despite just being a sophomore.
Next up is fellow sophomore Elijah Staley, who has taken the opposite road of Fitzgerald in almost every way. Staley was the much more highly-touted quarterback in that signing class, leading Mullen to call him a five-star in his book on signing day. However, injuries and a temporary basketball career have prevented Staley from getting the same amount of experience as his fellow sophomore. Appearing in two games last year, Staley completed 3-of-5 passes for 51 yards and one touchdown. A left-handed truck of a human at 6’7”, Staley is likely the most naturally-gifted of the group, and while he may be behind in terms ox experience, he’ll have every chance to bridge that gap the next six months.
However, there are two names to remember and certainly not discount: Damian Williams and Nick Tiano. Williams, a redshirt junior, is the only quarterback on the roster who has ever started – or for that matter won – a game, and he’s done so against SEC competition, though he redshirted all of 2015 with an injury. Tiano, a freshman who also redshirted the 2015 season, may seem like the longshot, but coaches love his talent and, in particular, his mental makeup and leadership ability. He’s got plenty of developing to go, as any freshman would, but for all the lazy and inaccurate Tim Tebow comparisons Prescott received over the years, Tiano may actually fit the bill in style and personality. Longshot, maybe, but wildcard, for sure.
What Will The Defense Look Like?
MSU has a new person in charge at every position on the defensive side of the ball, starting at the top with new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon who arrived from Southern Cal this winter. From talking to him, it would seem his approach to defense is more personnel based than through any dedication to a particular style, but he will certainly bring some new things to the defense either way.
This early, I would expect the entire defense to be far from installed, though that will happen over the course of the spring. The picture of what MSU’s defense will look like should be much clearer by the end of spring than it will be today, but there are a lot of questions to answer.
What approach will MSU use? I would guess there will be multiple looks, 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5, whatever. They’re going to see what their players can do and what works, then make smart decisions from there.
Who takes over for departed corners and captains Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun? I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the long-armed JUCO transfer Lashard Durr, who the strength staff has raved about since he arrived in January. Seniors Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland will join redshirt freshmen Chris Stamps and Maurice Smitherman in the battle for playing time.
And what of the departures of Chris Jones and Ryan Brown along the defensive line? I think a replacement at defensive end is in the wings with seniors Will Coleman and Johnathan Calvin having come on strong at the end of 2015, but replacing Jones at tackle is more difficult. Much will be expected of senior Nick James, and I’ll have my eye on talented sophomore Cory Thomas, as well.
What Skill Players Not Named Fred Ross Stand Out?
Ross is boss as the offense goes, the guy who kept the chains moving and broke records along the way in 2015. Back for his senior year, he’s a given. But with De’Runnya Wilson gone, the top two tight ends done and about 84 contenders for the starting running back spot, who else will New Quarterback X depend on?
Junior receivers Donald Gray and Gabe Myles have shown great versatility, and Gray has proven to be a deep threat with the ability to make some difficult catches. Gray actually led the team last year with 18.4 yards per catch, over three yards more than anyone else with double-digit receptions, but, here’s a somewhat surprising Did You Know: the third leading receiver behind Ross and Wilson was actually Brandon Holloway, the running back entering his senior year who had 33 receptions for 396 yards and five touchdowns.
I’d be remiss to not mention senior Fred Brown, another strong downfield threat, as well as tight ends Justin Johnson and 6’6” JUCO transfer Jordan Thomas. Both have the ability to make some of the tough, physical plays Wilson was so known for.
Then, at running back, boy, there are a lot of options. It starts with Holloway, the speedy change-of-pace guy who led all running backs in rushing last year (413 yards on 92 carries), and fellow senior Ashton Shumpert, a thumper who finished 2014 very strong, but had some struggles in 2015.
After those two is a pair of sophomores in Aeris Williams, maybe the best combo of all-around talents, and Dontavian Lee, a massive human who led all runners with 6.2 yards per carry last season. Next up is the pair of freshmen, Alec Murphy and Nick Gibson, who have yet to play a down for MSU. That said, Gibson was a very highly-rated signee and by appearances in practice has an extremely bright future, the only question being when it starts.
And finally, as we break down the offense, one name primed for a big year is sophomore Malik Dear. Listed as a wide receiver, he’s got the ability to line up just about anywhere, and chances are he will. An early enrollee last January, Dear averaged roughly a first down every time he touched the ball in 2015, notching 10 yards per rush and 9.9 yards per reception. He is, it would seem, the most explosive player on State’s offense, and capable of breaking a big play at any moment.