Mississippi State opened spring practice on Tuesday as it marked the start of Year 2 of the Joe Moorhead era. Last season, Moorhead guided the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record and an appearance in the Outback Bowl.
The Bulldogs have said farewell to a number of starters on offense and defense from last season's team, including first-team All-SEC defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, who combined for 13.5 sacks and 31 tackles for a loss in 2018 alone. Nick Fitzgerald finished his career as the SEC's all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, and the senior class he is a part of leaves with 32 wins, which are the third most since 2000.
Mississippi State has put together strong recruiting classes, including this year’s that ranks 24th in 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings, which should help keep the Bulldogs competitive in the SEC West.
Mississippi State opens the 2019 season against Louisiana on Aug. 31 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. But before the Bulldogs can worry about playing in any games that count there's plenty of work that must be done. That starts with the 15 spring practices that lead up to the Maroon and White Spring Game scheduled for April 13.
5 Storylines to Watch During Mississippi State's Spring Practice:
1. Fitzgerald’s replacement
Although Nick Fitzgerald's senior season was a bit maligned, the quarterback put together a decorated career in Starkville. But now the focus shifts to the next guy that will be under center for Mississippi State.
Leading the charge is junior Keytaon Thompson, who started the 2018 season opener and played in six games last year. He finished the season with 458 passing yards, six touchdowns and one interception. He also added 226 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.
Pushing Thompson in this race are redshirt freshman Jalen Mayden and early enrollee Garrett Shrader. Mayden was used sparingly last season, as he saw minimal playing time against FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana, and Louisiana Tech.
2. Bulldogs' new-look defense
Mississippi State entered its bowl game leading the FBS with just 12 touchdowns allowed. The defense surrendered 12 points per game and held opponents to 4.1 yards per play. But three key pieces — defensive linemen Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons, and safety Johnathan Abram — have all moved on.
A new crop of Bulldog defenders will look to cement themselves as the unit's leaders. Mississippi State returns previous All-SEC selections in cornerback Cameron Dantzler and linebacker Erroll Thompson. Thompson led the team with 87 total tackles (9 TFL), to go along with 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. Dantzler recorded 43 total tackles with two interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
Thompson, Leo Lewis and Willie Gay Jr. give the Bulldogs one of the most experienced linebacking corps in the conference, but the unit will replace four starters from what was a stout defensive line, and seven overall.
3. Passing game threat
Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC in passing offense (173.8 ypg) and Fitzgerald and Thompson combined to throw 10 interceptions, which tied for third most in the conference. The Bulldogs had six games in which they finished with fewer than 150 yards through the air, something Moorhead desperately wants to improve.
Senior Stephen Guidry appears to be the top returning wide receiver. He pulled in 19 catches for 440 yards and three touchdowns last year, while Osirus Mitchell had a team-leading 26 receptions for 427 yards and a team-best four touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior Malik Dear has had an injury-plagued career after he came in as a four-star recruit in 2015 and started nine games as a sophomore. He missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL and finished last season with just one reception for 12 yards.
Deddrick Thomas will be in the mix for an increased role after finishing his junior season with 256 yards and two touchdowns on 19 catches.
4. Moorhead’s fix to the offense
After a successful two-year run as Penn State' s offensive coordinator, Mississippi State's decision to hire Moorhead was considered a home run for the program, but it also came with lofty expectations for how he would help transform the Bulldogs' offense. But questions about his use of Fitzgerald and the direction of the offense started early in the 2018 campaign. Mississippi State struggled in a 28-7 loss at Kentucky, which started a season-long love-hate relationship between Bulldog fans and Moorhead’s play-calling.
Moorhead will have a chance to either quell that apprehension or further add to it when Mississippi State plays its spring game. The Bulldogs averaged 28.5 points per game last year, which ranked 67th in the nation. Compare that to 2017 when Dan Mullen's last team averaged 32.0 points, good for 41st in the FBS. It wasn't all bad news for Moorhead's debut, however, as the Mississippi State did boast the SEC's No. 2 rushing offense, averaging 223.6 yards per game. However, Fitzgerald was responsible for nearly 40 percent of that production (1,121 of 2,907 yards). Junior running back Kylin Hill, who gained 6.3 yards per carry, will probably see more touches following Fitzgerald's departure.
5. Coaching staff additions
Mississippi State has added five assistant coaches this offseason: Terry Richardson (assistant head coach/running backs), Deke Adams (defensive line), Michael Johnson (wide receivers), Tony Hughes (associate head coach/tight ends); and Chris Marve (defensive run game coordinator/linebackers). Former assistants Brian Baker (defensive line coach) and Charles Huff (running game coordinator) left for the same positions at Alabama.
Hughes, who was part of the staff from 2009-15, returns after spending the past two years as FCS Jackson State’s head coach. Richardson was Connecticut’s running backs coach for two years, and Adams was hired in January. He has coached at North Carolina, South Carolina, East Carolina, Southern Miss, and ULM.
Johnson coached in the NFL for more than a decade and also has made stops at UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State. Marve spent the past five seasons at Vanderbilt as an assistant.
— 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.