2014 saw the Mississippi State offense have not just one of the best years in school history, but in SEC and NCAA history. The Dawgs averaged 36.9 points per game and 514 total yards per game. State was incredibly well balanced, averaging 280.7 passing yards per game and 233.1 rushing yards per game. But State lost three starters on the offensive line in Dillon Day, Blaine Clausell, and Ben Beckwith; two starters at wide receiver in Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis; starting tight end Malcolm Johnson; and starting RB Josh Robinson.
But the starters lost stat can be deceiving. While the Dawgs lose over 1,000 yards rushing with the departure of Robinson, they return the vast majority of their receiving production. Jameon Lewis only started six games last season in an injury plagued senior campaign and finished tied for third on the team in receiving yards. And Robert Johnson was ninth on the team in receiving yards. Without further rambling, let's get right to the position-by-position outlook.
QB: Dak Prescott. I could probably stop there and it would be enough. Dak had a breakout season in 2014, becoming a legitimate Heisman contender for most of the season. He threw for 3,449 and 27 TDs while rushing for 986 yards and another 14 TDs. He also had a TD reception. But Dak struggled a little down the stretch, throwing 3 INTs against Alabama. In fact, the INT bug was a bit of a problem for Dak all season as he threw a total of 11. He'll be looking to improve that stat this season and appears to have put in a lot of work in the offseason tweaking his passing game. Dak showed improved footwork and an even more advanced knowledge of the offense in MSU's spring game. Dak has also changed his body composition over the offseason. He is noticeably leaner, looking more like a QB and less like a tight end or fullback. He's worked hard to improve his flexibility, which is helpful in two ways: 1) Injury prevention and 2) Passing. Dak is looking to improve the weaknesses in his game from last season and all indications are he has focused hard this offseason.
The QB2 job is very much up for grabs, especially after the revelation last week that Damian Williams is likely to redshirt. But even before then, the job was going to be a big battle. Assuming that Williams does redshirt, RS freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley will fight for reps. By all accounts, the race between the two is very close. Fitzgerald was very raw coming out of high school, while Staley was a much more polished product. But Fitzgerald has the advantage of the 2013 Liberty Bowl practices and two spring trainings under his belt, opposed to Staley, who was very limited during this past spring following offseason surgery. Fitzgerald has shown tremendous improvement, and in listening to players and coaches talk, seems to have the intagibles you want in your QB. But Staley has ridiculous talent and is built in the mold of a Cam Newton at 6'6" and 248 pounds, although Fitzgerald isn't exactly small at 6'5" and 227 pounds himself. It will be interesting indeed to see who emerges as the leader in this battle. My personal thoughts are that we will see this battle continue well into the fall and both will get opportunities to play garbage time minutes or an early series.
RB: As discussed above, the Dawgs lost a big piece of the 2014 offense with Josh Robinson. Three backs are fighting to replace him. First in the group is Ashton Shumpert. Shumpert enters 2015 a junior and looked very good down the stretch last season. He finished 2014 with 274 rushing yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. He rushed 10 times for 68 yards in The Battle for the Golden Egg to end the regular season. Shumpert isn't the most natural running back in the Dawgs' stable, but he might be the most physical. The good news is he is a downhill runner who goes North-South quickly. And he is certainly the best blocker, something that often goes overlooked. He also displayed good hands during State's spring game.
The second candidate of State's trio is Aeris Williams. Williams took a redshirt in 2014, but is a former Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and was highly recruited. Williams is another very physical presence in the backfield, similar to Ashton Shumpert. He doesn't look to have breakaway speed, but he is a grinder that goes North-South in a hurry and moves the chains. And to be fair, it's hard to tell about his top end speed after only one spring game. He could come out and break off a few long runs early in the SEC slate and no one would be surprised. He also displayed nice hands during the spring game. Williams has a big upside and appears to be the type of back who could get better as the game goes on by wearing down opposing defenses.
Third in the stable is Dontavian Lee. Like Williams, Lee redshirted in 2014. He might be the most complete back of the group, especially if the spring game is any indication. Lee flashed big play ability and speed during State's spring game. But like both Shumpert and Williams, he's very physical and can run right over defenders. He is yet another downhill runner who gets North-South in a hurry. Another similarity: Good hands. Lee made a few nice receptions on screens and flares during the spring.
State also returns Brandon Holloway from 2014. Holloway will continue to fill the role of a change of pace scatback. He had a good 2014, finishing with 294 rushing yards and averaging 6.5 YPC. I don't expect him to have more than 3-5 carries per game, outside of garbage time work. But he could be very effective on those carries after teams have been trying to tackle Shumpert, Williams, and Lee, as Holloway is a very different type of runner.
WR: This is the deepest, most talented position on the State offense. The Dawgs return two of their top 3 WRs from 2014 in De'Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross. Fred Brown, Joe Morrow, and Gabe Myles also return.
Bear Wilson was the Dawgs' leading receiver in 2014, finishing with 680 receiving yards, 14.5 yards per reception, and 9 TDs. Bear is a huge target at 6'5" but also has the speed to get behind defenses. He's a mismatch nightmare that causes defensive coordinators to lose sleep. And what should excite State fans is that he was still very raw in 2014, playing just his third year of football ever. Word out of spring and fall camp is that Bear has made big strides in his route running, among other things. He could explode and become one of the nation's truly elite WRs in 2015. He's locked in as a starter on the outside.
Fred Ross was second only to Bear last season, finishing with 489 yards, 16.3 YPR, and 5 TDs. All that after not becoming a starter until about halfway through the season. Ross proved he is a big play threat in the Dawgs offense with excellent speed. He and Dak Prescott seem to have really good chemistry, with Dak finding him open on scrambles multiple times late in the season for big games. Ross appears to be a lock to start in the slot for State in 2015. Dawg fans should be excited, because the slot might be the premier position in the State aerial attack.
Fred Brown had a good 2014, ending with essentially 300 yards (299), 16.6 YPR, and 2 TDs. He's got big play ability, but is also a reliable target in the middle of the field to help move the chains. He should become an even bigger part of State's passing game this season.
Joe Morrow finally seemed to put it all together last season. While he's always had the physical tools, Morrow's production had not matched his potential. That changed in 2014, as Morrow finished with 344 yards, 20.2 YPR, and 4 TDs. Peeps, that is big time production and playmaking ability. He's a very reliable target on the outside and can go across the middle to help keep the chains moving. And at 6'4", he's another large redzone target for Dak. If Morrow picks up where he left off, he could have a very big senior campaign.
Gabe Myles started in place of an injured Tubby Lewis last season and had a respectable freshman campaign. He finished with 178 yards, but just 8.1 YPR. However, Myles added 35 rush yards and averaged 8.8 YPC on a few speed sweeps. Frankly, I was very impressed with how well he played as a freshman and think he has a bright future. The question will be who can he take reps from and how will we get him the ball.
Newcomers to the State wide receiving corps in are JUCO transfer Donald Gray, redshirt freshman Jesse Jackson, and true freshmen Deddrick Thomas, Jonas Spivey, Malik Dear, and Keith Mixon.
Gray originally signed with State out of high school in Memphis, but wound up spending 2014 with Co-Lin CC. Gray is your prototypical slot WR at just 5'10" and 193 lbs., but has tremendous big play ability. State has moved him outside and he looked solid in the spring game. Gray has elite speed and very good quickness. He will play and play a lot in 2015, maybe even start ahead of Joe Morrow on the outside. I expect to see him lineup both outside and inside in the slot.
Jesse Jackson took a redshirt in 2014 after a late season ACL tear in high school forced him to rehab. He appears to have returned to form. But the question, as with Myles, is who can he move ahead of on the depth chart to play in 2015?
Malik Dear has been one of the big surprises of fall camp, if rumors can be believed. He has impressed teammates and coaches with his big play ability and versatility. Built at a very solid 5'9" and 220 lbs., Dear can play multiple positions in the Dawg offense. He's shown excellent hands catching and explosive speed. There is a very good chance he'll force his way onto the field in 2015 as a jack of all trades in the slot, outside, and at RB.
Keith Mixon has also looked good in fall camp. He's got very good speed, but I expect him to redshirt in 2015. There are just too many players with similar skill sets ahead of him, especially with the way Dear has stepped up. I likewise expect both Thomas and Spivey to redshirt.
TE: This might be the most concerning position for State offensively in 2015. Losing Malcolm Johnson was a huge blow. The Dawgs return Gus Walley, who has shown flashes of being a good player. Unfortunately, he has struggled with injuries during his career at State. If he can stay healthy, he's the likely starter. Wallet has decent size at 6'4" and 242 along with good hands as a receiver.
Second string TE is up for grabs right now. No one is separating themselves from the pack yet, although the Dawgs entered the fall a little thin at the position. JUCO transfer Darrion Hutcherson hasn't produced the way he was expected. He's got all the physical tools and is huge at 6'7" and 260, but he has been a non-factor. If the light comes on for him, he could be a huge difference maker at TE. But as a senior, it's now or never for him.
True freshmen Farrod Green and Justin Johnson are also competing for the backup job. Green has looked like a typical freshman so far this fall. He'll flash potential then make a big mistake. It's completely expected, and I personally think he will redshirt.
Justin Johnson is a converted WR. At 6'3" and 229, he's a little bigger than the departed Malcolm Johnson and similar in build to Northern Miss TE Evan Engram. Word is he's looked good so far in fall camp and might be the odds on favorite to backup Walley. He's got good speed as a converted WR, but will need to learn to block. The good news is that is very teachable and just requires time, effort, and practice. Don't be surprised if JJ emerges as a big factor down the stretch for State at TE.
OL: The big uglies make or break an offense. State lost a lot of experience and a nasty presence with the departures of Clausell, Day, and Beckwith. State returns two starters in Justin Malone and Justin Senior. The good news is the "new" guys behind them are very good players who have just been waiting for their opportunity to shine and have game experience.
It appears converted TE Rufus Warren will be the Dawgs' starting LT in 2015. He spent last year backing up Clausell. He's a big guy at 6'7" and 299. But most importantly, he has excellent feet. That is absolutely crucial for an OT, but especially at LT. He will be a very pleasant surprise for State this year.
Devon Desper will start at RG, taking over for Beckwith. As many State fans will remember, Desper started against Texas A&M in 2014 in place of a suspended Dillon Day. He played very, very well, to the point where the absence of Day wasn't noticeable. He's more athletic than Beckwith, and is a large dude at 6'4" and 305. His athleticism could mean an increase in the amount of pulling plays State uses in the run game this year.
Taking over at C for Day is Jamaal Clayborn. And at 6'4" and 315, he's much larger than Day and been referred to as a Gabe Jackson clone. Clayborn played well as a freshman two seasons ago, but missed much of 2014 due to a personal family issue. He has been moved over from G and the transition appears to have gone very well. Clayborn is likely the strongest player on the team and is capable of making all the protection calls up front. But what excites me about him are the recent comments about how nasty he is on the field. Great linemen have a mean streak.
Justin Malone returns as the starter at LG. He's very athletic at 6'7" and 320, capable of playing OT if the need arose. Malone was very good as a starter last year and there's no reason to believe he hasn't continued to progress. Don't be surprised to see him in the NFL after next year.
Also returning from last season is starting RT Justin Senior. He's the "smallest" member of the starting five at 6'5" and 295. But like the others, he's athletic. A junior this season, Senior has been a very solid player for the last two years.
State's starting linemen might be the most talented group OL coach John Hevesy has had to work with in his tenure in Starkville. As for depth, State is still looking for a couple of players, but there are some really promising young guys battling it out.
JUCO transfer Jocquell Johnson is in the mix for playing time. He redshirted last season, but has made solid progress. Johnson has been working at center and will backup Clayborn. He could also play guard if he's needed.
Redshirt sophomore Jake Thomas is one of the young guys fighting for PT. Highly recruited as an OT out of HS, Thomas struggled early on in his career. But he seems to have begun making progress lately. It's time for him to step up and fulfill his potential. This is his third year in the program, so it's critical that he take a step forward and prove himself capable of being a backup.
Deion Calhoun is another young kid looking to provide some depth. He's been working inside at guard. We need him to step up early on to help out Johnson.
Elgton Jenkins is a guy the staff is very, very high on and has made a lot of progress. Jenkins took a redshirt in 2014, as he was very light coming out of HS. He took the time to put on the necessary weight and comes into the 2015 season at 6'4" and 304. He's made waves with how good he's looked in fall camp and could be an early favorite to see time in relief at guard.
Another guy the staff is high on is Ronald Cochran. He also redshirted in 2014. He's another large guy at 6'4" and 308. He was pretty raw coming out of HS, but has made improvements. It wouldn't be surprising if he works his way into PT as a backup.
State returns 6th year senior Damien Robinson. Robinson missed all of 2014 after tearing his ACL in fall camp, but was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. A former five star recruit, Robinson never developed into the dominant starter at OT as expected. But he's been a decent backup during his career, and a guy with his experience is nice to have around with so many young OL on the team. He will probably be the primary backup for both Warren and Senior.
The Dawgs signed the number one JUCO lineman in the nation in 2015, Martinas Rankin. Initially projected to start at LT, the emergence of Rufus Warren has pushed him down the depth chart. And like many JUCO players, he's struggled a little adjusting to SEC ball. There's been talk he may take a redshirt in 2015 instead of wasting a year being a backup.
Scheme: Dan Mullen will continue to employ the Spread attack he and Urban Meyer developed. State's base package will be a shotgun 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB set. But we'll see plenty of 4 and 5 WR sets, 2 TEs, even some H-back/offset TE. What makes the offense work is the threat of the QB run, so expect Dak to continue getting around 12-15 carries a game in SEC play. With the athleticism of our line, we could see more pulling and trapping in 2015. State is always going to be a physical, run-first team. But with the strength of this year's offense being the WR corps, don't be surprised if we throw it a little more.
PK: With the surprise departure of Evan Sobiesk to medical school, MSU enters 2015 unexpectedly needing to fill a hole at kicker. The two guys battling for the job are senior Devon Bell and sophomore Westin Graves. State fans already know all about Bell. While he has a huge leg, accuracy has been a major problem during his career. In fact, he was benched in favor of Sobiesk about halfway through the 2013 campaign.
Graves hasn't seen much game action, but was 4/5 on extra point attempts and 0/1 in field goal attempts. Worth noting, his lone field goal attempt was from 40+ yards. Graves leg isn't as strong as Bell's, but we haven't seen enough of him to know if his accuracy is better.
Logan Cooke could also be a factor here, as he attempted a 40+ yard FG last season. But I think Cooke will primarily be the P/KO guy and PK duties will go to either Bell or Graves.
KR: Donald Gray and Will Redmond have been handling first team KR duties during fall camp. If these two are ultimately our deep men on KR, I like it greatly. Both have big time speed and are naturals with the ball in their hands. It also finally gives us two men deep who are both threats for a big return. Other guys who could see KR action are Jamoral Graham, Gabe Myles, Brandon Holloway, and Fred Ross.
PR: Fred Ross took over the PR job about halfway through the 2014 campaign after both Holloway and Graham struggled. Ross isn't the biggest return threat we could have, but he's very reliable at catching the ball. He appears to be locked in as the main PR man to start 2015. Don't sleep on Gray, Redmond, or Graham though. Gray was an elite PR specialist in JUCO and had several TDs. If we need someone explosive back there, Gray could be the guy.
Although he struggled last season, I'm not ready to give up on Smokey Graham at PR. He looked good early on, but struggled as the games got bigger. Considering he was a true freshman, it's fair to think the nerves might have gotten to him on the bigger stage. He clearly had a feel for the job, so a year of experience might have been all he needed.
WMD's Thoughts: Dak will have a big senior season. I look for him to be near the 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing mark again. This WR corps is filthy. A ton of mismatch guys capable of playing both outside positions and in the slot. I want to see us get more creative with how we use Bear Wilson. Put him in the slot some and isolate him on a S or LB. We're going to be hell to stop in the redzone. Wilson is 6'5" and Morrow is 6'4", then throw in our stable of power backs and the threat of Dak running. Pick your poison on who to double with Wilson and Morrow or sell out to stop Dak and the RBs. No matter what you do, you're screwed. I'm predicting this will be the best offensive line Mullen and Hevesy have had yet. All of them are huge and athletic. And we've got a couple of "attitude" guys who are going to bring the nastiness to that unit. Depth will work itself out. I'm calling my shot, Dontavian Lee becomes the starter at RB by November. He's the most complete back and was very impressive in the spring game. If Devon Bell is our K this season, I'll have an aneurysm. He's got the leg, but he's a complete head case in games. I don't care if he makes it from 60 in practice, he's had ample opportunity to prove it in games and can't get the job done. To paraphrase Bull Durham: "Million dollar leg, ten cent head." I'd like to see Donald Gray get a shot at PR. We haven't had anyone that's an explosive threat back there since Leon Berry graduated. Fred Ross is going to go off and have a monster year. State's offense will be even better than it was in 2014.