Mississippi State’s most historic position of its football program would have to be linebackers with names of All-Time Greats like Johnnie Cooks, Mario Haggan, Barrin Simpson, Titus Brown, KJ Wright, Benardrick McKinney, and my personal favorite, Cameron Lawerence. The list of guys who went on to play the position at the professional level from Mississippi State goes on and on, and the best part is knowing it is only going to continue. At this point, you all should know the drill, so let’s jump right into getting to know more about these linebackers at Mississippi State (most of which will also be joining the NFL in the near future).
(KJ Wright with the Seattle Seahawks)
(Benardrick McKinney with the Houston Texans)
Mississippi State brings back a ton of depth at the linebacker position after being quite young as a whole last season. The bulldogs lost two quality seniors at linebacker, Desmond Harris and J.T. Gray, who both finished top-5 in tackles last year. J.T. Gray was a guy I felt did not receive enough attention last season due to playing so many different positions across the defense, but a guy who had a nose for the ball and scouts took great notice. Best of luck in the NFL J.T.! Harris was the guy who assumed leadership of the defense and did a phenomenal job all season of demonstrating those characteristics while also calling plays and executing them on the field. The torch has now been passed to a very familiar name in the SEC, the 5-star product from Brookhaven, MS, junior linebacker Leo Lewis.
Lewis was the #1 inside linebacker in the country coming out of high school from the 2015 recruiting class, and he proved it right away in his true freshman season as he compiled 79 tackles with 5 tackles for loss. Seventy-nine tackles is outstanding for a guy coming right out of high school against some of the stiffest competition in the country at running back coming through those holes. Last year Lewis did not have quite the year he had his freshman season, finishing the season tied-7th in tackles with 46 and only one tackle for loss. However, most of us know all about the events that followed between Leo Lewis and Ole Miss, which I personally think presented itself as a huge distraction for Lewis the majority of this past season. With all of the drama out of the way, look for Lewis to have a huge year for the bulldogs. The bulldogs’ lead tackler last season was Mark McLaurin with 79 tackles from the safety position. My bold prediction is Leo Lewis will finish the year as the lead tackler for the bulldogs and will become yet another bulldog linebacker to achieve a 100+ tackle season with the return to the 4-3 scheme.
Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay are two other key returnees at the linebacker position whom many in the Mississippi State fanbase are fully aware of. Gay, the true freshman from right here in Starkville, MS has already become a fan favorite and ,like Leo Lewis, showed immediately that he was ready for this level of football. With the two seniors last season, it was hard for Willie Gay to get a lot of playing time, but he was still able to finish his true freshman campaign with 23 tackles and 2 tackles for loss. Right now they have Willie Gay on the second string rotating in, but look for him to eventually find himself taking the field with the starters for the bigger part of the season. Thompson will be a redshirt sophomore this year from Florence, AL and he was probably the biggest surprise of last season other than maybe Jace Christmann, the kicker. When you have a unit as stacked as our linebackers, it is very easy for guys with a ton of talent to get overlooked early on, but we are now all fully aware of Mr. E-40 after seeing many impressive plays from him in his first year on the field with the bulldogs. Thompson tied Lewis last season with 46 tackles and also racked up 5.5 tackles for loss. Eroll is listed at 6’1”, 250 lbs. and I promise he is every bit of that, but it is so impressive to see how well he moves for his size. Thompson will start alongside Lewis and all I can say is I am glad they are wearing maroon and white, because there are going to be some people getting hurt by those two guys.
Other names to lookout for this season will be junior, Timmothy Washington, the dandy dozen product from Yazoo City, MS and Tyler Dunning, the redshirt freshman from St. Thomas Acquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Washington is listed on the second string alongside Willie Gay, and he is a guy who was recruited heavily out of high school after finishing his senior season with 67 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. He will give the bulldogs a great threat on the edge and has improved upon his ability to drop back in pass coverage as well. Dunning was a proven winner coming out of high school with three 7a state championship rings and being a huge piece of bringing his team each one of those. Dunning fits the mold of Coach Moorhead’s philosophy of being a team that represents a championship standard and look for him to make some big plays in his first year taking the field for the bulldogs.
Mississippi State just continues to add to this unbelievable position group, bringing in four more studs to the bulldog football family. Jett Johnson, Aaron Brule, Nathaniel Watson, and JUCO transfer Sh’Mar Kilby Lane were all highly recruited guys who chose to join Mississippi State over other big name programs this past season. This just goes back to what I was saying at the beginning of this article with how historically prestige the linebacker position has become for this university. These guys want to make it to the next level and Mississippi State has been as good as anyone at getting defensive guys into the NFL (Fletcher Cox, Darius Slay, KJ Wright, Chris Jones, and so many more). Now, Dan Mullen’s staff may be gone, but these guys understood he left the talent here capable of competing for championships. All of these four guys will get the chance to take this program to heights it has never been to before while Coach Mullen and his staff venture off to try and bring back the Florida program from perhaps the worst condition it has ever been in.
Kilby-Lane had 96 TACKLES his senior year of high school on his way to becoming an Army All-American and signing with the Florida State Seminoles. Things did not work out there for Kilby-Lane, so he took the JUCO route with Copiah-Lincoln Community here in south Mississippi. There he continued to be the great talent he was out of high school and Mississippi State found a way to get him here to Starkville to continue his football career. Do not be surprised if he finds a way to get on the field this fall with the move to the 4-3 defense allowing for more linebackers to be on the field.
Jett Johnson signed with the bulldogs out of Tupelo High School where he finished his career with 421 tackles for an average of 11.7/game in his career. Do I really need to expand on that? Just know we got another Cameron Lawerence/Chris White in the making here. Brule from Metarie, LA comes to the bulldogs as a freak athlete who could play multiple positions and played multiple sports in high school. There’s a chance he moves to safety before it’s all said and done with three safeties graduating at the end of this season, but wherever he lines up will be fine with me. His 6’1”, 225 lb. frame gives him a shot to play just about anywhere for the bulldogs and I am sure he just wants to get out on the field the first chance he gets. Finally, Watson committed to the bulldogs from Maplesville, AL and he also has the ability to play many different positions both on offense and defense. If competition gets too close for the bulldogs at the position, Watson could definitely be a guy who goes to the offensive side of the ball and helps us out there also. He, just like Mr. Dunning, also helped lead his team to THREE state championships in high school, so he knows what it takes to win and will do what needs to be done in order to bring that same mentality to this level. Mississippi State got another great one here.
The linebacker group here at Mississippi State is about three strings deep, which is something most teams do not have at any position. However, with Mississippi State’s defensive line also being potentially the deepest and best in the country, there should be absolutely no excuse for this unit to not consistently make the plays needed to get opposing offenses off the field. Lewis, Thompson, and Gay are all guys who should be expected to compete for All-SEC honors at the end of the season, and they will be getting pushed daily in practice by guys like Kilby-Lane, Washington, and Dunning who all want their shot to shine. I expect both Lewis and Thompson to lead this team to its best year in school history side by side and push each other for the team lead in tackles this season. In the end, it is up to this group of guys to pull their defense together and make sure they are ready to go four quarters with the best of the best. I expect they will do just that. HAIL STATE
Group Grade: B+