5 things that will define Mississippi State's offense in 2021
For a Mike Leach offense, the performance in 2020 was less than satisfactory. Never getting in a groove following the opening game against LSU, Mississippi State finished 104th in total offense by gaining just 340.2 yards per game. That’s 165 yards less than what Leach’s offense did at Washington State the previous season. More problematic, they were 109th in scoring at just 21.4 points per game.
There were myriad problems. Quarterback KJ Costello struggled mightily and was ultimately replaced by Will Rogers, star running back Kylin Hill opted out after suffering an injury midway through the year and defenses caused chaos and turnovers with new formations.
It’s now Year 2 of the Leach era in Starkville and things on offense are expected to return to form. Here are 5 things that will define State’s offense in 2021.
1. Who ultimately wins the quarterback job?
Jack Abraham used the spring game to officially introduce himself as a major competitor to Will Rogers for the starting quarterback position. Abraham was impressive. Now, Leach has a battle on his hands that will likely go all the way until the season-opener in September. One thing is certain: Leach will find his man for this offense. Rogers has a year in State’s offense, but Abraham has a lot of experience after some success at Southern Miss.
2. Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson taking a huge step
Two more freshmen who got a lot of experience last season following star running back Kylin Hill opting out, both Marks and Johnson need to improve in two areas: pass blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield. The latter is crucial in Leach’s offense. RBs don’t get a lot of carries, but they are expected to be major assets in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
How important are they? Each led their respective teams in receptions in the spring game as Marks caught 7 passes and Johnson recorded 12 receptions. Saying that …
3. Can State be more balanced?
In 11 games, the Bulldogs rushed for just 483 yards. Even with the pass-heavy offense that Leach is known for, that was certainly not up to standard. Out of those yards, 274 came in the final 2 games, both wins. How did that occur? They stuck with the run, rushing 28 times against Missouri and 30 against Tulsa in the bowl game. Those 58 attempts are more than a quarter of all attempts in the 11 games.
Leach is going to stay true to his system, but MSU has to find a way to attack and punish defenses that want to line up light with 8 coverage specialists.
Keep the defense just a little bit honest with a dose of Marks and Johnson and the passing game will be even more effective.
4. Jaden Walley, Austin Williams and who else?
Osirus Mitchell graduated, JaVonta Payton entered the transfer portal and we still aren’t certain what sort of punishment Malik Heath will face, if any, for his role in the brawl following the Armed Forces Bowl. That leaves Walley (52 catches, 718 yards, 2 TDs) and Williams (43 catches, 372 yards, 3 TDs) as the only two sure wide receivers who might be able to play from the beginning. In 2020, 7 players caught at least 20 passes and, when Leach’s offense is humming, the ball is spread out even more.
This is where players such as Geor’quarius Spivey and Lideatrick Griffin can step up. Griffin made his case with 5 catches for 107 yards in the spring game.
5. Offensive line must set the tone
When you pass so much, you put the sack in play more often than most teams. That was a problem for the Bulldogs last season as they allowed 34 sacks in 11 games, tied for 120th in FBS. (The Air Raid typically focuses on quick throws and pre-snap reads, which help reduce sacks, but Leach’s Washington State team did allow a Pac-12 worst 44 sacks in 2017 and 40 in 2015. They allowed 57 sacks in his first year in 2012.)
Neither Rogers or Abraham is known for an ability to avoid pressure and break contain in the pocket, so the line (and blocking of running backs) will be even more important than usual. The good news is the Bulldogs return 3 starters, including both tackles, but the two guard positions are open for competition.