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WMD's Armchair QB: 2016 Maroon & White Game Edition

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An Early Look at the 2016 Mississippi State Football Team

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Peeps, I hate to use an already overplayed narrative. But alas, I feel I must. Saturday saw the start of life after Dak Prescott for MSU football. I went to the first half of Saturday's Maroon and White Game, then watched the whole thing on DVR. As always, you can take most of what happens at a spring game with a grain of salt. With the teams split in half and watered down, it's just hard to know what's actually happening out there and how it will translate in the fall when it matters. All that said, I'm back to take a stab and tell you what I saw.

Defense:

1. Defense was obviously very limited and vanilla. No real blitzing, disguising of coverages, etc. We basically stayed in the base 4-3 look and just turned guys loose to go make plays. The good news is we had a bunch of guys make plays. We look big and fast, particularly at defensive end.

2. Speaking of the DE position, Johnathan Calvin looked extremely good. He lived in the backfield and had 5 TFLs. Calvin really emerged over the second half of 2015 and looks poised to pick up right where he left off last year.

3. DL in general was dominating. Part of that has to do with our OL, but I'll get to them later. We've got some serious players up front on D and should be able to rotate bodies in and out. Nick James is going to be really good for us in the 3-4 look we've been using in practice.

4. Mark McLaurin had the best day of any State DB. He was everywhere. McLaurin managed two picks, one in the redzone to prevent a score. The other came when he picked off the annual spring trickeration play to Boobie Dixon. He got a nice return after that pick, too. Had Calvin not had such a monster day, McLaurin would've been my defensive player of the game.

5. DBs in general were solid. They covered well and really didn't give up much in the way of long plays downfield. The big plays mostly came from throws underneath that the receivers broke open. Again, hard to judge when the defense is so limited.

6. We know what we have in our LBs. No need to talk about this group too much. As always, they're arguably the strength of the D.

7. Nice to see Leo Lewis make a big play and grab an INT. He's going to make it onto the field a whole lot in '16.

Special Teams:

1. Not much to talk about here. I don't remember there being a FG attempt and we hit all our PAT attempts. Logan Cooke will be a major weapon at punter.

Offense:

1. I thought on the whole the offense was pretty "meh." We had some nice plays, but a whole lot of inconsistencies. That said, most of our top players were out with various "injuries." Fred Ross, Donald Gray, etc. make a big difference.

2. WRs were decent. Thought we dropped a few too many passes. That's a little concerning since we're going to miss Bear Wilson's size, especially in the redzone. On the whole, you could see how athletic this group is. They can accelerate in a hurry after changing directions. The biggest thing I see from this group is almost all of them could be classified as Slot players.

3. Malik Dear is going to be a boss. He can do a little bit of everything well and has tremendous hands.

4. Keith Mixon caught my eye. He had a couple of the drops I mentioned, but he showed some serious skill after he caught it. He's going to be a pleasant surprise this season.

5. RBs are just a complete guessing game, but it has nothing to do with talent. We've got at least 3 guys who can all tote the rock at an SEC level. The question is will Mullen trust them enough to feed them instead of making excuses why they can't like he did last season. Here's my thoughts on each individually:

A. Ashton Shumpert: We all know how I feel about him. He needs to be playing FB and/or H-back. Great team guy and special teams warrior, but not an SEC RB.

B. Aeris Williams: He was decent, but I'm far from convinced he isn't a more athletic version of Shump. He just doesn't seem to have the burst into the hole. And he totally fumbled the Statue of Liberty play on the goal line.

C. Dontavian Lee: He shows flashes of being really good, but he's inconsistent. And word is off the field stuff is what kept him from taking over last season. If he gets his head in the game, he could take the job.

D. Alec Murphy: Really like what I saw from this kid. He's got burst and is a load to bring down at 6'0, 225. He's not afraid to initiate contact and run through someone. Love the physicality. Best of all, he seems to be smart about it. He also seemed to have good hands. Wouldn't surprise me to see him emerge as a big part of the offense at some point in '16.

E. Nick Gibson: He looked the best of everyone. He has nice burst into the hole and showed great vision with a couple of cutback runs. You can see the acceleration and good top end speed, too. He might be the best pure runner of the entire group. He's the smallest RB of the 5 at 5'11 and 195, but he looks thicker.

6. Tight ends weren't involved much. But we all know I'm a big fan of Justin Johnson's skill set.

7. OL just wasn't very good. What's really discouraging is the Maroon OL was by far the worse unit of the two, and it's the unit that had most of our older "starters." But the encouraging implication is that the young kids on the White OL have more upside. QBs were harassed constantly. Some of that is a credit to just how good our DL is, but some of it is because our OL is poor.

8. It's frustrating to see Justin Senior look so good at LT then hear that Hevesy has told the SEC Network guys we're going to move him back to RT. It's just incompetence or willful ignorance. I continue to be amazed at the insistence on playing guys out of position up front.

9. And now what you all really came here wanting to read about: The QBs. Frankly, I thought they looked pretty average on the whole. Only one guy really stood out. Each brings a different style of play to the table. So here's my look at each QB individually:

A. Damian Williams: He's the oldest, most experienced QB on the roster. Physically, he's probably the least talented of the group and relatively short by comparison at 6'1". But he's got good mechanics and can really spin the ball. He's not a huge running threat, even on the inside zone read. He's a great backup, but I don't see him as a starter.

B. Nick Fitzgerald: He's a big cat at 6'4" and is probably the best pure runner of the group. He's definitely the fastest. He didn't have his best day throwing, finishing just 10-20 with an INT. Honestly, I thought it was the worst I've seen him look. But right now, I'm marking it up as an aberration. He does a good job managing the offense and isn't afraid to take a shot downfield if it's there. Nick's got the intangibles you look for in your QB and that absolutely can't be overlooked.

C. Elijah Staley: If you want a specimen at QB, then Staley is you're guy. He's a massive 6'6" and has some real power on the inside run. He doesn't look fast, but it's deceptive speed. I'd definitely say he's the pocket passer of the group. But that's not a bad thing, because he's also the best pure passer of the group with a Howitzer for a left arm. The problems I see with him are mechanical. He's got sloppy footwork that leads to inaccuracy on the short throws. Sound familiar? Because I remember a QB who wore jersey number 15 having a similar problem early in his career too. The good news for Staley is that's an easily correctible problem with hard work and practice. It's entirely up to him as to whether or not it gets fixed. Gotta give the big fella some credit, he showed nice hands grabbing a TD in the second quarter. (Side note: How does the defense lose a guy who's 6'6"?)

D. Nick Tiano: This is the QB who caught my eye. He's another big guy at 6'4" and has good mobility. He throws a nice, catchable ball. Not a lot of wasted motion and has solid feet. Seems calm and in control. Displays some nice intangibles. Appears to have a good grasp of the offense and what we want to do. Didn't seem bothered by the pressure the DL was generating. Lots of positives from this kid.

WMD's Way Too Early Thoughts:

1. Despite being limited in terms of scheme, I like the way the D looked. We've got size and speed. Some young guys stepped up. DL is deep. I enjoy the new DC Sirmon's focus on the intangible aspects as well as the technical.

2. Could be a long year on offense. OL needs to take a big step forward in a hurry. The problem I see is that I'm not sure where the help will come from and there isn't a whole lot of depth. We all know we have at least 3 starters locked in up front: Clayborn, Desper, Senior, and maybe Martinas Rankin. Of that group of four, there is at least one I think needs to sit and at least one other playing out of position.

3. OL really needs Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins to step up and force their way into starting. But even if they show they're good enough, will Mullen and Hevesy play them over more experienced guys in front of them? One of whom is a senior? We all know how we do things in our program with Mullen in charge. Sitting seniors who've started for a full year isn't one of them.

4. Going to be real interesting to see who plays outside at WR this year. With so many Slot guys, a couple of guys gotta move. If I had to guess right now, I think Ross goes back outside and Dear or Gabe Myles starts at Slot with Gray outside as well. After those three, I have no idea who's on the outside. Myles, Dear, and Mixon are all Slot types. Jesse Jackson hasn't shown he's ready for SEC play yet.

5. Safety could be a strength on this year's team. Love what I'm seeing from McLaurin. He and Brandon Bryant might wind up being the best starting tandem in the SEC at that position.

6. RBs will once again be an unnecessary adventure. We've got three guys who all look like capable SEC RBs in Lee, Murphy, and Gibson. One of those guys needs to emerge and take the job. Murphy and Gibson are especially impressive. But Shump is a senior and Aeris is now "experienced" as a RS SO. And I have to assume Brandon Holloway will play a role at RB, even though he didn't carry the ball or never lined up at RB on Saturday. I can already hear the excuses from Mullen about "pass blocking" or something else equally ridiculous.

7. That said, don't blame the RBs too much if we struggle to run the ball aGAIN in 2016. The OL isn't giving me the warm and fuzzies. Hard to run when there aren't any holes.

8. I think the QB job is Fitzgerald's to lose. Despite the rough day on Saturday, he's got the edge in practice time and game snaps over everyone but D-Will. And he's got the intangibles.

8. Staley has the upside, but he needs to do some SERIOUS work by himself improving his footwork. If he does that, Fitz could be in trouble.

9. Tiano is making a serious push. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he overtakes Staley for QB2, and I like Staley more than most. He just seems to have "it."

10. Damian Williams will be a great QB for Coach Hughes in 2016. It just makes sense he's the odd man out in this battle.

That's my take on the Spring Game and some way too early thoughts on 2016. Thoughts and comments are welcome and appreciated. Fire in the Hole!

I'll be back in the summer with WMD's annual Preseason Preview. Until then, Hail State!...

WMD