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Mississippi State Bulldogs 2016 Spring Football Preview

Dan Mullen

Dan Mullen

Dak Prescott is gone. Weep, Mississippi State fans. Weep uncontrollably. You deserve it. What a career Prescott had as a Bulldog — nearly 12,000 total yards and more than 100 touchdowns in his four years in Starkville. But all good things must come to an end, and it is time to pick up the pieces. Stop weeping and get yourselves together. There are other good quarterbacks out there.

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Mississippi State still has a lot to look forward to this spring. There are a number of key contributors coming back that can give the Bulldogs a chance to win in the always-tough SEC West. Head coach Dan Mullen has proven that he can maximize the talent on his roster, and he has plenty to work with going into this season. But there are also a few areas of concern.

5 Storylines to Watch in Mississippi State Spring Practice

1. How do you begin to replace Prescott?

Why not start with the elephant in the room? Not only did Prescott put up some of the most impressive numbers in SEC history, he was the leader of the offense. He carried a team with a lack of talent in many respects to nine wins last season. But this is not a tribute to Prescott. He will get his statue one of these days. Getting down to business... Mississippi State has to find a new quarterback.

The Bulldogs have a few options. Nick Fitzgerald filled in nicely at times last season, and Damian Williams also has a good deal of experience. Elijah Staley is young, but he has massive potential. Really, he's 6-foot-6 and weighs 248 pounds. The guy has quite an arm. It should be a tight quarterback race in the spring, because each player vying for the spot has his own unique strengths. My money would be on Staley. Mullen has shown in the past that he likes to build for the future.

2. Running game troubles

Guess who Mississippi State's leading rusher was last season. Yep, Prescott. The man really did it all. The Bulldogs struggled to find much production from running backs. Brandon Holloway led the way with 413 yards on the ground. Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams each had more than 200 yards, but that just won't cut it in the SEC. The Bulldogs ranked 10th in the conference in rushing, and ranking even that high was mostly due to Prescott. The unit has really struggled since losing bruising ball carrier Josh Robinson.

Going into the spring, Mississippi State has to find someone to step up. The three aforementioned players are all coming back, so they will have an opportunity to get better. There is some stability on the offensive line heading into spring practice, even though the Bulldogs will have to replace left guard Justin Malone and left tackle Rufus Warren. Since Mississippi State will be breaking in a new quarterback, it is pivotal that the running game is able to carry the load early on in the season.

3. Hope at wide receiver

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All is not lost on offense. The Bulldogs have some of the SEC's best receivers coming back. While one of their top pass catchers, De'Runnya Wilson, is gone, most of the receiving corps will still be around. Seniors Fred Brown and Fred Ross will lead the way. Ross had more than 1,000 yards receiving and five touchdown catches last season. Brown had 412 yards with three scores.

Holloway showed an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, accumulating nearly 400 yards receiving , along with five touchdowns. Junior Donald Gray returns after piling up 386 yards receiving last year. Newcomer Dontea Jones also makes his way to Starkville, and will look to push for playing time. Though Wilson's big-play ability will be missed, the Bulldogs will be plenty deep at wide receiver.

4. Big losses on defense

This will sound crazy, but it could be argued that Mississippi State is going to have an even tougher time replacing stars on defense than it will replacing the quarterback. Coordinator Manny Diaz left after one year to join Mark Richt at Miami, so the issues start there. But the Bulldogs found a solid replacement. Peter Sirmon steps in after serving as interim defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, and recruiting coordinator for two years at USC. He has some SEC experience as well, having coached at Tennessee from 2010-11.

However, the big question lies on the field. How does Mississippi State replace the likes of Beniquez Brown and Chris Jones? Brown dominated at the linebacker position, racking up 200 career tackles, and Jones was a total animal on the interior of the defensive line. Maybe the biggest losses come in the secondary, where the Bulldogs will have to find replacements for one of the SEC's best cornerback tandems – Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond. The good news for State is that it does bring back seven starters on defense. It just won't have the elite talent it did last year.

5. Improving special teams

Mississippi State ranked 10th in the SEC in field goals made and 12th in gross punting yards last season. It also was middle of the pack in kick returns. One thing that can help a team struggling to find its way on offense is good special teams. If the Bulldogs can get better in this area while breaking in a new quarterback and figuring out the running game, it will be beneficial to their success. Kicker Weston Graves is back. He is a capable kicker if he gets the right opportunities.

Also, it is worth noting that spring practice is the perfect time to do this. Most coaches know what they are going to get from their best players. The experienced ones have been through the program and have shown what they are all about. Spring is a time to get reps for new guys and work on fundamentals. It is a time where strides can be made in special teams.

Pre-Spring Mississippi State Outlook in the SEC

Honestly, Mississippi State is probably going to take a step back in 2016. The SEC West is as good as it has ever been and the Bulldogs have road trips at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss. You can never count Dan Mullen's team out. That was proven last year. But it can't be understated how vital Dak Prescott was to Mississippi State's success over the past couple years. It will be a challenge to replace him. But with challenge comes opportunity.

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The same can be said about the defense, which has to replace its biggest stars. With that said, this team has some things to build on, too. The receiving corps is solid, and the majority of the defense is back. If the Bulldogs can get things figured out early on, they should be able to contend for a decent bowl game.

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host and lead SEC Writer for Three Point Stance Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.