5 ways Mississippi State will be better in 2020 than 2019
Mississippi State had an uneven 2019 season, but the upcoming 2020 campaign appears to be much more promising. Or entertaining, at the very least.
The Bulldogs fired Joe Moorhead after a 6-7 finish. They hired a proven winner in Mike Leach. That move, coupled with some intriguing talent on both sides of the ball, has many believing that Mississippi State can improve in a variety of ways.
Mississippi State will have the chance to prove so and make an immediate statement in Week 1, as they begin their SEC-only schedule at defending national champion LSU on Sept. 26.
As we move closer to kickoff, let’s explore 5 areas in which the Bulldogs will make strides in 2020, starting with the most obvious:
The passing game
The tandem of offensive guru Leach and Stanford quarterback transfer KJ Costello will result in a dramatic shift of style.
As we know, Leach loves to throw it around and he now has the most naturally talented quarterback he’s ever coached. The 6-5 222-pound senior, who is now healthy after an injury-marred junior season, has the arm strength to launch bombs in the Air Raid offense.
When Costello was healthy as a sophomore, he amassed 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns to earn second-team All-Pac 12 honors. Costello is a super-intelligent quarterback who will know how to exploit mismatches and rack up chunk yardage plays.
“I think his strengths are, he’s a student of the game. I think the other thing is, he’s the same guy every snap, he’s not a guy that gets rattled,” Leach said in a press conference. “And so then I think that creates a level of stability with the offense. He’s accurate. He can throw it a long ways down the field.”
You can best believe Costello will have free reign to let it fly early and often. As noted by Saturday Down South’s Keith Farner, Washington State posted above 400 passing yards 15 times in the past 2 seasons under Leach. His teams typically lead the nation in passing.
Last season, Wazzou averaged 437 yards per game through the air. MSU, in contrast, averaged 179.5. Wazzou led the nation. MSU was 109th, even trailing Arkansas.
Senior wide receiver Osirus Mitchell will be the biggest beneficiary of Mississippi State’s revitalized attack. The 6-5, 210-pound wide receiver is a physical, athletic target who didn’t get many deep targets last season but that’ll change in Leach’s system.
Alabama grad transfer Tyrell Shavers is another wide receiver who will help Costello stretch the field. The 6-6, 205-pound Shavers mostly served in a special teams role at Alabama but will have the opportunity to solidify a starting spot.
Increased versatility from Kylin Hill
Many expected senior running back Kylin Hill to depart Mississippi State because of the stigma associated with the running game in Leach’s system. However, since Hill decided to stay, there’s a strong likelihood he’ll be validated for his open-mindedness.
Hill was a workhorse last season, as he amassed an SEC-best 1,350 yards along with 10 touchdowns on the ground. He won’t match those numbers on the ground in this offense, but he’ll make up for it in the passing game.
Hill occasionally lined up wide receiver in high school and will be called upon to do so once again. Leach is going to give Hill the chance to demonstrate his versatility. Count on Hill to be a valuable security blanket for Costello to check down to when other options are heavily covered.
Leach has said he wants Hill to lead the SEC in all-purpose yards. And while many associate the Air Raid with a 30 deep shots a game, it’s much more about making pre-snap reads and finding the open man as quickly as possible. As Leach has said, often that is the running back.
Last year, Washington State led the nation in 10+ yards completions with 227. They typically finished in the top 5 under Leach. Yet they never finished in the top 10 in 40+ yards completions. Last year, in fact, Wazzout completed just 11 passes of 40+ yards.
New defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 system is designed to stifle the run. San Diego State finished in the top 15 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per carry in Arnett’s 2 seasons.
That success can translate to the Power 5 level because of Mississippi State’s personnel.
Senior linebacker Erroll Thompson is the captain and heartbeat of the defense. The heavy-hitting Thompson, who was second-team All SEC in 2018, led Mississippi State with 84 tackles last season. Thompson is adapting rapidly to the attacking, up-tempo nature of Arnett’s scheme.
Nathan Pickering, Jaden Crumedy, Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer will provide the tenacity along the defensive line to limit long runs. Pickering earned All-SEC freshman honors as a tackle last season. Crumedy will serve as a solid tackle, while Jones and Spencer will provide veteran savvy on the edges.
“(It’s) a lot of (defensive) line guys – big, strong guys that can get off the ball on the snap. We need them to get push, to get back there and not let the quarterback hold the ball long,” Arnett said to Cowbell Corner. “And obviously cause some chaos and destruction in the run game.”
The passing defense will almost assuredly improve. Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC in passing defense last season. The Bulldogs gave up 246.8 yards per game and 22 touchdowns overall.
Cornerback Tyler Williams is opting out due to concerns about COVID-19 but Mississippi State has the depth to absorb the loss.
Junior safety Marcus Murphy and sophomore cornerback Martin Emerson will be the main factors in the improvement process. Both will step up to offer the necessary resistance against the slew of talented SEC wideouts they’ll encounter on a weekly basis.
Freshman Emmanuel Forbes and sophomore Esaias Furdge are vying for the starting cornerback spot alongside Emerson. Forbes has tremendous length and the ability to make plays while the ball is in the air. Furdge operates well against receivers in tight coverage.
“They’re pushing each other over there and we’ve got some depth fighting to battle it out with those guys,” Arnett told Cowbell Corner. “Those two names I mentioned right there, they’re probably competing the most right now.”
Jace Christmann has kicked for the past 3 seasons. The reliable Christmann is 32-of-40 on his field-goal attempts.
The arrival of Arizona State grad transfer Brandon Ruiz offers competition. Ruiz converted 37-of-49 field goals in his 2 seasons.
Regardless of who gets the nod, expect many more drives that result in field goal range and PATs. The Bulldogs only attempted 12 field goals last season, making 9. (Christmann was 8-for-10.) MSU’s attempts and makes were last and tied for last in the SEC and near the bottom nationally.
Punter Tucker Day averaged 42.6 yards per attempt last season. Day was selected to ESPN’s All-Bowl team in 2018 for his 50.4 yards per punt average on 5 attempts during the Outback Bowl.
MORE BULLDOGS: SDS Crystal Ball predicts every MSU game