Mississippi State heads into its second offseason and 2021 spring practice with Mike Leach at the helm with some optimism after finishing the ’20 season with back-to-back victories. The Bulldogs opened last year with a surprise win over LSU in Death Valley but lost their next four contests. After beating Vanderbilt to move to 2-4, Leach’s squad dropped three more games before wins over Missouri and Tulsa to finish the ’20 campaign at 4-7.
With 16 starters returning, Mississippi State hopes a normal offseason and another year to build under Leach allows this team to return to a winning record. The Bulldogs have a couple of promising players on offense, including quarterback Will Rogers and receiver Jaden Walley. The defense quietly finished fifth in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.5) and figures to benefit from another set of practices to work under coordinator Zach Arnett.
5 Storylines to Watch During Mississippi State's Spring Practices
1. Develop Quarterback Will Rogers
As mentioned above, a normal offseason of spring practices and workouts should help increase Mississippi State’s comfort level on offense under Leach going into 2021. After averaging 20.4 points a game in his debut at Washington State in ’12, the Cougars upped that total to 31.0 in ’13. Could there be a similar jump for the Bulldogs after recording 21.4 points a contest last fall? In order for that bump to happen, Leach needs quarterback Will Rogers to take a step forward in his development. As a true freshman last year, he connected on 69.1 percent of his throws for 1,976 yards and 11 touchdowns. Also, Rogers averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt and tossed seven picks over 346 attempts. The Mississippi native had a good showing against Georgia (336 yards) and torched Ole Miss for 440 yards and three scores. If the Air Raid is going to click in Leach’s second year, Rogers has to continue his development and post a strong sophomore season.
2. Restock the Offensive Line
Mississippi State attempted the most passes (557) by any team in the SEC, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise this team tied for the conference lead in most sacks allowed (34) last fall. But even with that in mind, this unit has room to improve for the 2021 season. Left tackle Charles Cross, center Cole Smith and right tackle Kameron Jones are back after each started at least six games, while holes at left guard (Greg Eiland) and right guard (Dareuan Parker) must be plugged. LaQuinston Sharp and Kwatrivous Johnson combined for eight starts last year and could fill in somewhere along the trenches. Junior college recruits Carson Williams and Nick Jones are names to watch as well this offseason. In addition to the personnel shuffle, a normal offseason will help this group transition and execute the blocking concepts in the Air Raid.
3. Emerging Playmakers
Leach has a handful of talented playmakers on campus, but the spring is a good time for him to add to his arsenal. Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson are a promising duo at running back, while Jaden Walley (52 catches), Austin Williams (43), and Malik Heath (37) lead the way at receiver. JaVonta Payton and Lideatrick Griffin also return, but there will be targets up for grabs with Osirus Mitchell departing. Cal transfer Makai Polk is also in the mix for time. Mississippi State needs better overall performance and more big plays from their receivers, and this spring is an opportunity to sort through the options for the coaching staff.
4. Replace Erroll Thompson
There’s not a massive personnel turnover on Mississippi State’s defense with eight starters back. However, Thompson leaves a big void in the middle of the 3-3-5 linebacker unit. Thompson paced the defense in tackles in back-to-back years and finished 2020 with 95 (four for a loss), three sacks, and one interception. Nathaniel Watson had three starts at linebacker replacing Tyrus Wheat and worked as the backup to Thompson last season (and made three starts). He collected 39 stops over 10 games and would be one of the front-runners to replace Thompson. Junior college recruit DeShawn Page is a player to watch this offseason. Assuming Watson continues to develop, and Wheat and Aaron Brule pick up where they left off in 2020, coordinator Zach Arnett should have a solid trio at linebacker.
5. Reload the Defensive Trenches
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett is going to have a couple of new faces receiving major playing time up front in 2021. In the three-man front, Mississippi State is set to lose Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer, with nose tackle Jaden Crumedy the lone returning starter. After playing 539 snaps last season, Crumedy will be counted upon to be a bigger force up front. Additionally, he has help in the interior with Nathan Pickering returning after opting out in November. Aaron Odom is likely to start at one end spot after starting the last two games of 2020. Jack Harris (150 snaps in ’20), Jevon Banks and Jordan Davis are expected to battle for time in the rotation, while UCF transfer Randy Charlton should provide instant help. Arnett won’t need a ton of bodies here with a three-man front, but more depth is needed and the staff needs to figure out its starting unit and the pecking order for the backups.
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(Top photo by Taylor Fikes/Mississippi State Athletics, courtesy of hailstate.com)