Dan Mullen led Mississippi State to unprecedented heights in 2014.
The Bulldogs had a record-setting, Heisman-caliber quarterback and a veteran-led defense that had MSU in the playoff picture until the final weeks of the season. And the school's first AP No. 1 ranking ever.
Obviously, getting Dak Prescott back is huge news for Mullen and a great place to start. But he has his work cut out for him this spring in other areas for Mississippi State to win 10 games and compete for a SEC West Division crown.
5 Storylines to Watch in Mississippi State’s Spring Practice:
1. New faces on the OL
The Bulldogs return only four starters on offense in 2015. Prescott’s return is huge for Mississippi State but the focus of spring should be revamping the line to protect their senior quarterback. Three key linemen departed, including standout center Dillon Day and guard Ben Beckwith. Junior college recruit Martinas Rankin should help replace left tackle Blaine Clausell.
2. Replace Josh Robinson
Robinson left Starkville for the NFL after a successful 2014 season. He rushed for 1,203 yards and 11 scores last year and came through with huge performances in critical games. The battle to replace Robinson begins this spring, as Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams will compete for carries.
3. New face leading the defense
Geoff Collins left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Florida this offseason, and Mullen turned to a familiar face to lead Mississippi State’s defense. Manny Diaz is back after leaving for Texas in 2011. The new DC’s resume is an interesting one, with solid stints in Starkville and at Louisiana Tech. However, he also was a part of some of the worst defenses in Texas history. Which Diaz is Mullen getting and how quickly can he address some major issues on his defense?
4. Build D-line depth
Three of the top four tacklers along the defensive line have moved on. Chris Jones is a special talent but failed to live up to his freshman hype last season. He will be counted on to become a bigger factor this fall. Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson need to become stars as well. Mullen has a great track record of developing defensive linemen, but this is a big area of concern this spring for a team in a division that demands quality D-line play.
5. Replace Benardrick McKinney
Two of the top three tacklers on the team and three of the top five linebackers are gone from last year’s unit. Most notably, new defensive coordinator Diaz must fill McKinney’s shoes. The superstar linebacker was the heart and soul of the defense and Diaz must find playmakers at this position this spring. Look for Beniquez Brown to develop into a leader and for guys like Richie Brown, Zack Jackson, Gerri Green, J.T. Gray and Dezmond Harris to take on bigger roles.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Mississippi State:
State has one of the best coaches in the SEC and the best quarterback in the league. But this team plays in the nastiest division in football with major question marks along both lines of scrimmage. Mississippi State should be a preseason top 25 team and one of the nation’s better squads. But it may be a tall order for Mullen's team to finish in the upper half of the SEC West for the second straight season following major losses in the offseason.