The first year of Mike Leach era in Starkville ended with back-to-back wins, including an impressive victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. You know what that means? Bigger expectations for the Bulldogs in 2021.

There are multiple reasons to believe State will be better in Leach’s second year, starting with Will Rogers. The quarterback showed smart decision-making and consistency in the latter part of the season after taking the job from KJ Costello. In fact, the entire backfield was full of freshmen.

So what should Leach and his staff focus on going into spring practice and fall camp? Here are 5 offseason priorities for the Bulldogs, who received more good news last week when 3 veterans announced they were returning to school.

Mentor Will Rogers

Assuming that Rogers will be the starter in 2021, it’s time for Leach to go all in on his development. Tutoring QBs is what Leach does best. It starts in the film room, where Leach breaks down every conceivable possibility and decision. It continues on the practice field and carries over to game day.

Rogers is still an unfinished product and, in the hands of Leach, can become the next QB to put up huge numbers.

He’s also earned the right to be No. 1 on the depth chart going into the spring, gradually becoming more comfortable at the position, throwing 8 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions in the final 4 games.

Clean up whatever happened at the end of the Armed Forces Bowl

Needless to say, there will be some disciplinary actions for the multiple players involved in the fracas with Tulsa at the end of the bowl game. Most important is how Leach and the staff — not to mention the school and the SEC — handles the action of Malik Heath, who was seen throwing a kick to the chest of a Tulsa player.

Leach said after the game that he wasn’t going to lose his mind over a football fight, so we shall see. Heath maintains an active social media presence and certainly isn’t acting like a guy on his way out.

However, Leach has repeatedly said that he expects more players to leave the program during the offseason even after multiple players entered the transfer portal or opted out during the year.

He was hired to make the program in his image, so he will definitely go through an extensive process of figuring out who belongs as will the players. There will be some tough decisions upcoming yet Leach isn’t afraid to make them. The question boils down to this: Do you believe in our system?

Shoring up offensive line

It doesn’t need to be said that Leach’s offense relies on a strong offensive line that can protect the quarterback even when defenses know that, more likely than not, a passing play is coming.

The Bulldogs lost starting guard Dareaun Parker but can breathe a bit easier knowing that Scott Lashley and LaQuinton Sharp are returning. They’ll team with 3 other bowl-game starters who were sophomores or freshmen.

With an open transfer portal, it would be wise for the staff to scout for experienced linemen that can come in and fill the void immediately.

Grow the ground game

There was a lot of talk about how effective preseason All-SEC pick Kylin Hill would be in Leach’s offense, especially catching passes out of the backfield. That proved moot several weeks into the season as Hill opted out after suffering an injury. As the Bulldogs proved against both Missouri and Tulsa, the ground game can be an asset when given the chance. Against the Tigers and Golden Hurricane, State rushed the ball 28 and 30 times, respectively. The result was 274 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.

Still, the Bulldogs finished a distant last in the SEC in rushing attempts per game, at just 18.55. Every other SEC team ran at least twice as often. Accordingly, the Bulldogs only averaged 44 rushing yards per game. They became the first team since Tennessee in 2011 to average fewer than 100 yards rushing.

Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson both got their feet wet with Hill departing early. Now, under the tutelage of Eric Mele who has had success mentoring players such as James Williams and Max Borghi at Washington State, both Marks and Johnson have the chance to become major contributors. It is the same situation that Rogers faces: learning from what you did wrong and improving upon that.

Dominant defensive front depth

Seniors Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer are entering the NFL Draft. That leaves a lot of questions up front but the talent is still there. Aaron Odom and Jack Harris are playmakers just waiting for their chance, and incoming transfer Randy Charlton from UCF can fill a role immediately, but the lack of depth is concerning.

Nathan Pickering, the top defensive lineman State signed in the 2019 class, opted out and his future is in doubt, so this is another situation where the transfer portal could be of use.