For the first time in nine seasons, Mississippi State will have a new head coach at the helm when Joe Moorhead leads the Bulldogs in their Sept. 1 season opener against FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin.
Moorhead began his head coaching career at FCS member Fordham (2012-15), where he compiled a 38-13 record and went 2-3 in the FCS playoffs. In December 2015, Penn State head coach James Franklin plucked the 44-year-old from New York to become his offensive coordinator, and the Nittany Lion offense thrived under his direction, averaging 41 points per game this past season.
Ten returning starters on offense and eight on defense give the Bulldogs one of the most experienced rosters in the nation and the most veteran one in the SEC. Moorhead and staff closed out the signing period by pulling in 23 recruits, good enough to come in 27th overall in 247Sports’ Composite Team Rankings.
Moorhead's arrival, coupled with a boatload of returning talent, equals a renewed vigor and excitement for Mississippi State. A 31-27 bowl win against Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl capped a 9-4 season in 2017. Here are a handful of storylines to follow as the Bulldogs open spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Mississippi State's Spring Practice
1. Nick Fitzgerald's return
After Fitzgerald (above, right) dislocated his ankle during the first quarter of the Bulldogs' Egg Bowl loss, Mississippi State fans exhaled in relief earlier this month when he posted a video of himself running on Mississippi State's practice field to Twitter. Fitzgerald has been the cornerstone of the Bulldogs’ offense for the last two seasons, and a large part of his success can be attributed to his ability as a runner. In 2016 he accumulated 1,375 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, and last year he tallied 984 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. While Fitzgerald won't be used heavily in the spring, the hope is that he's fully ready in time for fall practice. Sophomore Keytaon Thompson, who started the TaxSlayer Bowl, will headline the QB group this spring.
2. The return of Montez Sweat
Moorhead isn't the only new face in Starkville. Bob Shoop, who coached with Moorhead at Penn State and also had stints at Vanderbilt and Tennesee, was announced as Mississippi State's new defensive coordinator in December. Shoop will have one of the SEC's premier players to work with, including Sweat, who decided to forgo the NFL draft. Sweat returns to Mississippi State as the SEC's sack leader – tied with Texas A&M's Landis Durham – after he accumulated 11 in 2017. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week on three occasions and earned all-conference recognition at the end of the season. After a successful debut, the defensive end is primed for another stellar season.
3. Moorhead's use of leading rusher Aeris Williams
It's probably safe to assume Mississippi State fans had visions of Saquon Barkley dancing in their heads when Moorhead was announced as head coach. The Barkley-Moorhead duo produced gaudy numbers at Penn State, and Williams will now be the beneficiary of Moorhead's offensive genius. In Williams, Moorhead gets the SEC's sixth-best rusher in 2017, after running for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns. Williams led the team with 236 carries and figures to again get the lion's share of the work once again. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Williams could be a busy man in Mississippi State's new-look offense.
4. Newcomer Stephen Guidry
It's no secret the receiving corps left a lot to be desired in 2017. To be fair, much of the team's identity was based on its rushing attack. But the team's leading receiver a year ago – Jesse Jackson – finished with a total of 27 receptions for 276 yards. The leader in touchdown catches was Deddrick Thomas with four. That’s where Guidry comes in. The No. 1-ranked junior college wide receiver, Guidry is expected to inject some life intot he passing game after totaling 547 receiving yards and five touchdowns in eight games for Hinds (Miss.) Community College last season. His size (6-4) and ability to stretch the field should make him a favorite of both Moorhead and Fitzgerald right away. Guidry enrolled at Mississippi State in January and is definitely one watch this spring.
5. Plan B at QB
While the hope is for Fitzgerald to make a full recovery and return at optimal strength, the importance of Keytaon Thompson’s development and grasp of Moorhead’s offense can’t be understated. Thomas threw for 195 yards and a touchdown while running for another 121 yards and a score against Ole Miss, and then totaled 274 yards (147 rushing) and three touchdowns in the TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Louisville. The talent is there. His role will expand this spring, and his development will be key.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo by Kelly Price, courtesy of HailState.com)