Better or worse? Previewing Mike Leach's Air Raid offense at Mississippi State in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 5th in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Next: Ole Miss.
He can ring a cow bell, but can Mike Leach jumpstart the Mississippi State offense and add it to the list of offenses he’s led to the top of the national charts?
“We originally drew it from the wishbone,” Leach said when he was introduced in Starkville. “Offensively, two objectives we’re trying to achieve is we want to attack as much space as possible, and we want to put it in all the skilled positions’ hands. The thought, very simply, is the more people the defense has to keep track of over a bigger area, the better our chances are. I don’t know, as you guys come up with a good play to do that, maybe we’ll cut one of the ones we’ve got and add yours. We do that from time to time.”
Leach’s background, and the Bulldogs’ recent offensive showing offers a clear picture as to why he was hired. In short, it’s to deliver a defibrillator to the MSU offense. In 10 of Leach’s 18 seasons as a head coach, his teams led the nation in passing. State, conversely, averaged 179.5 yards passing per game in 2019 to rank 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC.
Key losses: QBs Tommy Stevens, Logan Burnett, Keytaon Thompson; RBs Nick Gibson; WR Stephen Guidry, Deddrick Thomas, Isaiah Zuber, Malik Dear; TE Farrod Green; OL Darryl Williams, Tommy Champion, Michael Story, Tyre Phillips, Evans Wilkerson, Stewart Reese.
Key returnees: QBs Garrett Shrader, Jalen Mayden; RBs Lee Witherspoon, Kareem Walker, Robert Rivers; WRs JaVonta Payton, Osirus Mitchell, Austin Williams, Kyziah Pruitt, Quinton Torbor; TEs Dontea Jones, Geor’quarius Spivey, Brad Cumbest, Powers Warren; OL Greg Eiland, Dareuan Parker, LaQuinston Sharp, Charles Cross, Nick Pendley, Kwatrivous Johnson.
Potential breakout players: QB K.J. Costello, RB Joquavious Marks, WRs Tyrell Shavers, Malik Heath, Caleb Ducking, Lideatrick Griffin and Jaden Walley.
Costello is the obvious choice here, because of his experience as a starter for 2 1/2 seasons as a graduate transfer from Stanford, and seemingly early grasp of Leach’s offense. It’s not too much fo a stretch to expect Costello to follow in the footsteps of another Leach QB, Gardner Minshew. After all, in his last full season, 2018, Costello was second to Minshew in the Pac-12 in passing with 3,540 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
In his career, Costello has a 62.6 percent career completion rate with 6,151 passing yards and 49 TDs. Costello, who is coming off of a knee injury, stumbles out of the gate, Shrader, who started 4 games and played in 10 last season, could step in.
Passing offense: Better
This is an easy decision to make because 8 times last season, the Bulldogs failed to crack 200 yards passing. Wazzu, meanwhile, finished under 400 yards just 11 times the past 2 seasons. In other words, the Leach-led offense topped 400 yards 15 times. Granted, SEC defenses are superior to their Pac-12 counterparts, but the main question is the learning curve for his offense installation, an area that is even more difficult because of the unusual virtual offseason.
Look for Osirus Mitchell to get a boost on an already steady career profile in the Leach system. Watch for Shavers to be a pleasant surprise with 2 years of eligibility remaining coming from Alabama. Depth and development will be something to keep an eye on after the Bulldogs lost 4 receivers and/or tight ends who were seniors in 2019, but add 8 new pass-catchers.
The program has struggled to find a dominant receiver who can produce consistently. The Bulldogs haven’t had a receiver crack 500 yards receiving since 2016 when Fred Ross hauled in 917 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Running game: Better
Kylin Hill might be the biggest beneficiary of Leach’s arrival, but from Leach’s perspective, there can’t be a better inherited running back than Hill, who rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019. There is some known criticism about Leach’s use of the running game, but last year, top RB Max Borghi ran 127 times for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 86 catches for 597 yards and 5 more scores. Hill had 18 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown, too.
Hill is set to have plenty of help, starting with Lee Witherspoon, Kareem Walker, who is back after sitting out with an academic redshirt. Then there’s 2020 signee Jo’Quavious Marks, a 4-star recruit, who was the No. 16 running back in that class, according to 247Sports.
The Bulldogs have some important holes to fill on the offensive line left by All-SEC center Darryl Williams and former starting left tackle Tyre Phillips, who both went on to the NFL. There is depth, though, including players who have started, such as seniors Greg Eiland, LaQuinston Sharp and junior Dareuan Parker. There’s also transfers from LSU and Alabama in Cole Smith and Scott Lashley expected to compete for starting roles.
That talented Class of 2019 also gets their first opportunity to make a move on the depth chart, headlined by 247Sports 5-star offensive tackle Charles Cross.
Kicking game: Better
Jace Christmann has been Mississippi State’s placekicker the past 3 seasons, but he’ll be challenged this year by Arizona State graduate transfer Brandon Ruiz. Christmann has made 32-of-40 career field-goal attempts.
Ruiz made 37-of-49 at Arizona State. Other notable numbers about Ruiz include that he made 92 consecutive PAT attempts, and as a sophomore in 2018, tied for 16th nationally with 18 made field goals (on 22 attempts) and 45 converted extra-point attempts.
The Joe Moorhead era is seen as a disappointment after MSU went 14-12 in his 2 seasons and never seemed to gain traction or momentum with the program after Dan Mullen left for Florida.
In 18 years at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach was 139-90, as he used his Air Raid offense to set records and consistently reach the postseason. If the Bulldogs are successful, it will likely be on the strength of that offense. But growing pains with installation are a question, especially with a new transfer QB in Costello acclimating to campus as well. There’s also Leach competing in the rough and tumble SEC West, arguably the toughest division in college football, and him having to recruit at a level he’s never done.
However, Leach is familiar with the SEC, and Starkville has drawn comparisons to Pullman, Washington and Lubbock, Texas — an outpost having to punch up in weight against more high-profile conference rivals. It’s a tall order to expect him to return the program to the heights of the Mullen era, but it’s reasonable to expect Leach to eclipse Moorhead’s success.