MSU football: Mike Leach likes his quarterback room. Will that be enough?
Mike Leach, along with wide receiver Austin Williams and linebacker Aaron Brule took the podium to represent Mississippi State at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
As it often is when Leach gets behind a microphone, the conversation centered around the offense. The Bulldogs struggled in Leach’s first season, ranking 13th in points per game, 11th in total points and last in the conference in rushing. The Bulldogs did, however, rank in the top half of the league in total passing yards and passing yards per game, which is to be expected in Leach’s Air Raid scheme. The offense found its footing a bit in the final third of the season as freshman Will Rogers took control from struggling grad transfer KJ Costello. Rogers threw for 1,976 yard and 11 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions in 9 games (8 starts) and completed 69% of his passes.
Once thought to be a lock to start for Mississippi State this fall, Rogers now has competition. Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham — who threw for over 7,000 yards in his career in Hattiesburg — and incoming freshman Sawyer Robertson are in the mix. And unlike a season ago as the sport navigated through a pandemic, Leach and the staff were able to get a glimpse of Abraham and Rogers in spring ball. Robertson arrived on campus this summer.
“I think it was huge to have spring practice,” Leach said. “We’re a very young team, so it was particularly important to us and then we improved a great deal from the season to the spring. Now we need to take another jump between spring and when we start camp.”
Rogers has a leg up through a year of on-field experience and more familiarity with Leach’s system, but Abraham has quickly tightened the slack.
“He’s picked things up quickly,” Leach said. ” Jack is accurate, makes good decisions, has quick feet is how I would categorize him. The other thing he brings to us is the highest level of experience at the position that we have on our team.”
Rogers’ play as a true freshman shouldn’t be discounted, though. He was thrust into an incredibly tough situation and thrived considering the circumstances. He was the driving force behind the Bulldogs winning their final 2 games and scoring 79 points over that 8-quarter span. An injury-riddled roster rallied behind the young quarterback and the poise he showed.
Leach shrugged off the idea of using two quarterbacks and says the team will ideally settle on one starter.
Mississippi State returns enough from what was one of the best defenses in the country in 2020 to be competitive this fall. All eyes rest on the offense as its success will likely mirror how the Bulldogs fare in the win column. Mississippi State also returns a pair of young receivers in Williams and Jaden Walley who have a decent amount of game reps, along with a versatile pass-catching back in Jo’quavious Marks. The loss of Javonta Payton to transfer hurts, particularly as it pertains to depth, but there should be enough pass-catching options amongst this receiving corps to be more than adequate for whoever the starter ends up being.
“We had a great start to the season against LSU,” Williams said. “We didn’t follow up against Arkansas. We’ve got to continue to execute the offense. We didn’t have enough consistency as we wanted. Just little details. It wasn’t major catastrophic issues. We have to execute at a higher level and we got to do that more consistently.”
Despite the uncertainty, there is experience in Leach’s quarterback room. That, coupled with a clean bill of health, should make for a productive quarterback competition that should generate a starter that is well-equipped to run Leach’s pass-heavy attack.
“Competition always makes it better. I think they’re all highly motivated people that work hard so I think it’s good,” Leach said. “We had a pretty depleted quarterback room last year, so it helps that it is a lot healthier this year.”
As is often the case with Leach’s offenses, the man running the show at quarterback is the biggest factor in the unit’s ceiling and ultimately, the team’s overall success