Better or worse? Previewing Mississippi State's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC team’s offense continues with Mississippi State. Coming Friday: Ole Miss.
The drastic difference between the 2019 and 2020 Mississippi State offenses was expected with the arrival of Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense. After Week 1, it seemed as though it was going to be a complete game-changer to the SEC landscape.
As Lee Corso famously states: “Not so fast, my friend.”
Struggles at the quarterback position, with Will Rogers finally taking over the job from KJ Costello, coupled with a lack of experience at running back following the departure of Kylin Hill led to several inept performances.
It’s not often you’ll find a Leach-led offense out of the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game — Washington State didn’t finish outside the top 4 from 2013-19 – but it happened as the Bulldogs ranked 20th in that category and, maybe more brutal, dead last in rushing yards per game.
Here’s where the news starts to get good for State: The chances of the offense being that ineffective again under Leach are slim to none. As every transition goes, there are going to be rough patches as the new coaching staff finds the right players for the Air Raid scheme. There’s also the fact that last season, the Bulldogs were extremely young with true freshmen leading the team in passing yards (Rogers), rushing yards (Jo’Quavious Marks) and receiving yards (Jaden Walley).
Those three along with the rest of the offense now have a year of experience in the Leach system. In previous stops at Texas Tech and Wazzu, the second year turned out to be breakout seasons. Will that happen in Starkville? That’s to be seen.
Key losses: Kylin Hill, RB; Osirus Mitchell, WR; Greg Eiland, OG; Dareuan Parker, OG
Key returnees: Will Rogers, QB; Jaden Walley, WR; Jo’Quavious Marks, RB; Austin Williams, WR; Malik Heath, WR; LaQuinston Sharp, OL; Brandon Ruiz, K; Dillon Johnson, RB; Charles Cross, OL
Potential breakout players: Jack Abraham, QB, Antonio Harmon, WR
Losing an All-SEC preseason pick in Hill, who opted out halfway through last season, and 2 offensive guards hurts, but the pure amount of production, including the leaders in all three major categories, returning for the Bulldogs overshadows that.
Passing offense: Better
State threw more interceptions (18) than TD passes (17) last season.
Rogers started to get the freshman jitters and mistakes out of him at the end of last season, throwing 8 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions in the final 4 games, completing 64.6% of his passes. He seemed to get the feel of the offense, something hard to do for anyone let alone a true freshman who didn’t have a regular spring practice due to the COVID-19 outbreak. When Leach finds his quarterback, he usually succeeds with that guy. Everyone, including Rogers, thought it was his offense to run in 2021.
What Rogers might not have seen coming, though, was the emergence of Jack Abraham who was the star of the Maroon-White Game in April and immediately became competition for Rogers to keep the starting job. The grad transfer from Southern Miss threw for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns to 0 interceptions in the game, completing 23-of-34 passes and looking at ease in the pocket.
It’s eerily similar to the competition Leach had on his hands going into the 2018 season at Wazzu. When Gardner Minshew signed with the Cougars during that offseason, no one gave it much thought. Minshew immediately clicked in the Air Raid and went on to lead the nation in passing.
The battle will play out itself during fall practice and Leach will pick the right guy even if it takes a few games. This is not a bad problem to have and the winner will have plenty of options on the field.
Walley, who had a breakout freshman season with 52 catches for 718 yards and 3 touchdowns has the potential to be a star in the SEC. Put him together with Heath (37 receptions, 307 yards, 3 TDs) and Williams (43, 372, 3) and you get three quality and experienced receivers to count on. Incoming freshman Antonio Harmon, a 4-star recruit who stands 6-3 and already has a college build, can be one of the top freshmen in the conference.
In this offense, the running backs also have a key role in the passing game. Marks (60, 268) and Johnson (36, 157) have to adapt to being a versatile option. If they come around, this passing game will be lethal.
Rushing offense: (Slightly) better
Let’s face it: Could it get any worse than last year? While Leach’s offenses are not known for its running game, last season was abysmal with State gaining just 483 yards on the ground … all season. Yikes! Ole Miss QB Matt Corral ran for more yards than the Bulldogs. Double yikes!
Sure, the injury and eventual departure of Kylin Hill wasn’t exactly helpful, but defenses soon realized that State’s rush was no threat. Expect Marks and Johnson to get their opportunities this season much like James Williams and Max Borghi for Wazzu in 2018. If the passing game is clicking, the rushing holes will be there.
Now, if the rushing plays are called, that’s another question.
Special teams: Better
Brandon Ruiz, a transfer from Arizona State, was money for the Bulldogs last season, converting all 24 extra-point attempts and making 10-of-12 field goal attempts, ultimately taking the job from Jace Christman, who entered the transfer portal this offseason.
He gives State a definite weapon in the kicking game.
It was almost a trial experiment last season for the offense given the circumstances of a new system with a new head coach and no time to really learn in-person until fall camp began. Now, all systems are set to go.
The line returns 4 starters and, with 2 quality quarterbacks competing for the job, the level of play and competition will be at an all-time high in fall camp. Expect that to transfer onto the playing field as either Rogers or Abraham find their groove along with the still young but now experienced wide receivers and running backs.
The firepower and depth are there for State to be electric offensively in 2021.