Better or worse? Previewing Mississippi State's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: After completing the SEC East, this is the fifth in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Coming Saturday: Ole Miss.
Eight wins and a New Year’s Day Bowl game is a solid start for any first-year SEC head coach, but Joe Moorhead knows there’s plenty to improve upon, especially on offense.
Offense is Moorhead’s specialty, so you know he was disappointed with the unit as a whole last year, which ranked 11th in the SEC in points per game (28.5), 13th in passing (173.8), 10th in total offense (397.4) and 12th in 1st downs (19.6).
Will the Bulldogs be improved on offense this year?
Passing offense: Better
I say it gets better, simply because it can’t get much worse. Nick Fitzgerald is hands down the second-best QB in program history, but he struggled to pass the ball last year, completing just 51.6% of his passes for just 1,767 yards. Crucially, when his team fell behind and needed him to move the ball with his arm, he couldn’t, and the offense was one-dimensional as a result.
The hope is that Tommy Stevens, who transferred in from Penn State this offseason, can do with his arm what Fitzgerald couldn’t. He played in this scheme when Moorhead was running the Lions’ offense a few years ago, and obviously both coach and player feel comfortable with each other and their ability to find mutual success this year. Theoretically, Stevens should represent an upgrade from a passing perspective over Fitzgerald.
I say “theoretically” because Stevens is still a relatively an unknown commodity, having never started a game and attempting just 41 passes (58.5% completion) throughout his 4-year career in Happy Valley.
Junior Keytaon Thompson, who Stevens will battle for the starting job, actually has far more experience, having not only started (and won) games before, but also more than twice the career attempts (105). Still, Moorhead brought Stevens, a 5th-year senior, in for a reason, and he obviously believes him to be the superior passer.
Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of throwing to a receiving corps that returns virtually everyone, including 6 of their top 7 receivers. The potential negative is that the unit really didn’t play well last year, exacerbating Fitzgerald’s accuracy woes by failing to consistently get separation and struggling with drops. On the bright side, however, is that the unit doesn’t lack for talent, as there’s a nice combination of size, speed and athleticism in the unit.
Rushing offense: Worse
Junior tailback Kylin Hill returns this year after rushing for 734 yards and 4 touchdowns last year, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. It’s hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t see an increase in carries after being underused as a sophomore (surpassing 10 carries in a game just 4 times). He’s quietly one of the more powerful backs in the country, with the strength to break tackles and the speed to pick up chunk yards once he finds a lane.
However, he’s really the only proven ball carrier entering 2019, with Aeris Williams (2,557 career rushing yards) and Nick Fitzgerald (3,607 career rushing yards, 2nd on the school’s all-time list) both graduating.
Many are optimistic that senior Nick Gibson, who looked good in the spring game, will thrive with an increased workload after showing flashes in 2018, averaging 7.6 yards per carry on 27 touches.
They should also continue to aid their rushing attack with the help of their QB, as Stevens has shown some wheels in the past, rushing for 506 yards (6.7 YPC) and 8 touchdowns over the past 3 years. Will he be able to replicate what Fitzgerald did? Unlikely, but in a perfect world Moorhead doesn’t want his QB carrying the ball 221 times again, because if that’s the case, the passing game has gone on hiatus again.
There’s also some questions about the offensive line, where they’ve shuffled things up completely after losing C Elgton Jenkins (2nd-round draft pick) and RG Shaq Calhoun (2nd-team All-SEC). Darryl Williams slid over from LG to the pivot and should anchor the line, but he’s the only true stalwart up front. Line coach Marcus Johnson has his work cut out for him to put together a cohesive and effective unit this fall.
Special teams: Better
Both starters from last year, PK Jace Christmann and P Tucker Day, return after an up-and-down 2018. Christmann was good up to 40 yards (8-of-9), but really struggled beyond that, making just 4-of-7. Day was 12th among punters in the SEC, averaging 39.4 yards. Special teams coordinator Joey Jones is an excellent coach, so I’m going to assume he’s helped both kickers make strides developmentally this offseason.
The hope is that the offense doesn’t resemble what we saw in 2018. The Bulldogs could run the ball, sure, but if they fell behind or played a team with a stout run defense, they found themselves in big trouble.
That can’t happen again this year. Moorhead is a very bright coach with a great offensive mind, but for him to run his playbook, they have to show improvement passing the ball. Stevens doesn’t have a whole lot of proven success on his resume, but Moorhead saw him day-in and day-out for 2 years and clearly likes what he saw, so there’s certainly cause for optimism that the passing attack will improve and balance out the offense.
The line should again be able to move bodies and generate a push in the ground game, but can they seal the edges in pass protection? They really struggled with speed off the edge last year, and that also has to be improved.
Overall, I think the passing game will show improvement and the run game will still be effective (though maybe not quite as productive statistically), leading to a more diverse offensive attack, which is what Moorhead ultimately wants.