In a few months, the Mississippi State Bulldogs will play their first snap of the 2016 football season, and it will be the Maroon and White's first go without Dak Prescott in several years. Undeniably, the Bulldogs had no better player than Prescott, so one question for 2016 will center on who will be the best player for the Bulldogs.
The best college football player in Mississippi receives the Conerly Trophy each season. The college teams in the state each get to have a finalist for the award. For Mississippi State, the last two seasons the process has been a quick one as the nod went to Prescott. With Dak now taking snaps with the Cowboys, the competition for being the best player for Mississippi State should be interesting to watch. I make a few arguments for various players.
Richie Brown, LB
The senior linebacker out of Long Beach, Miss., has turned into a tackling machine for the Bulldogs. Brown led the Bulldogs with 109 tackles last season, the only player to hit triple digits. His nearest competitor, Beniquez Brown, tallied 99, but he left the program, declaring for the draft.
With his talent and experience, it is hard to see where someone will collect more tackles than Brown. Yes, Leo Lewis or Gerri Green could give him a run, but it seems doubtful. Will being a tackling machine be enough for Brown to make the cut? Maybe, and if he can force some crucial turnovers, make some plays in the backfield or have a big highlight moment, the likelihood increases.
Rod Davis (Southern Miss, 2002), Michael Boley (Southern Miss, 2004), Patrick Willis (Ole Miss, 2006), and Chris White (2010, Mississippi State) have all won the award from the linebacker position.
Brandon Bryant, DB
There may not be a more explosive player in the Mississippi State secondary, or on the team, than Brandon Bryant. Bryant started making bigger and bigger plays down the stretch, including a great interception return for a touchdown against Louisiana Tech.
Bryant may end up with the most exciting highlight reel of any Bulldog. If he can take a few to the house, he might end up being the player sitting at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
In the award's history, only Patrick Surtain (Southern Miss, 1997), Ashley Cooper (Mississippi State, 1998), and Fred Smoot (Mississippi State, 1999) made it as finalists for the award in the early voting days. Since the each team started to receive a finalist, beginning in 2011, only nine out of 45 nominees have been defensive backs. Bryant would be the first defensive back to win the award, but he could become the fourth Bulldog defensive back (Smoot, Cooper and Johnthan Banks) to be a finalist.
Fred Ross, WR
With De'Runnya Wilson leaving Starkville early to pursue the NFL, Fred Ross returns as the unquestioned leader of the Mississippi State receiving corps. Fortunately for him, the Bulldogs have talented receivers such as Donald Grey to help keep the coverage honest.
Ross developed quite a connection with Prescott, seeming at times to be a security blanket for the quarterback. Will he be able to develop the same relationship with the quarterback that wins the Mississippi State quarterback competition? Time will tell. With solid play from the quarterback position, Ross could make another run at 1000 yards, and he could have a shot at ten or more touchdowns and over 85 catches on the season. Such numbers could make him Mississippi State's best college football player.
While some have been nominated, and others have been finalists, a wide receiver has never walked away with the Conerly Trophy.
Elijah Staley/Nick Fitzgerald, QB
Quarterbacks always have a built in advantage in chasing awards such as the Conerly Trophy because the position allows for attention grabbing numbers, and the position demands so much spotlight. If either quarterback can outright win the position and produce in the position, he will be in the running. However, it is yet to be seen if either will accomplish this. As of now, this seems like the long shot, hedge your bets choice.
In all, a quarterback has received the award on nine occasions. Dak Prescott, the only player to win the award in consecutive seasons, and Eli Manning both received the award twice. In four of the past five seasons (Austin Williams, 2010, Bo Wallace, 2011, Prescott 2014, 2015) quarterbacks have won the award. Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson snagged the hardware in 2013.