Mississippi State football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
The honeymoon year, as much as there is for an SEC coach, is over for Mike Leach. Year 2 brings expectations of improvement in every aspect of the program. The good news is that Leach has his quarterback in Will Rogers and a bunch of talent coming back from a team that improved every week near the end of last season.
Yet there will be some work to do on both sides of the ball. Two offensive linemen are gone along with wide receiver Osirus Mitchell while the defense loses 4 starters from a unit that fallowed just 389.7 total yards per game, including star linebacker Erroll Thompson.
So which holes on the depth chart will be key for Leach and his staff to fill going into 2021? Here are the top 5:
Linebacker: Nathaniel Watson for Erroll Thompson
This might be the Bulldogs’ biggest replacement job as Thompson was a tackling machine in 2020, record 96, including with 4 for a loss and 3 sacks. He also had 3 quarterback hurries and an interception. That is a big role for Watson to step into, yet he has the capability to do it. As Thompson’s backup this past season, the 6-2, 250-pounder made 40 total tackles and 3 tackles for a loss. He will have ample opportunities to be an even bigger producer in 2021.
Defensive tackle: Aaron Odom for Marquiss Spencer
State has grown a reputation for putting out talented defensive linemen and Spencer is no different, recording 8 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks while forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass in 2020. In steps Aaron Odom, who showed signs of being able to fill Spencer’s shoes. As a junior, the Jackson, Miss., native had 4 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks in backup duty. At 6-3 and 275 pounds, Odom can be the next good one for Jeff Phelps’ unit.
Wide receiver: Caleb Ducking for Osirus Mitchell
Mitchell looked like the best receiver in college football after the first game of the season, catching 7 passes for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns against LSU. He couldn’t live up to the season debut, though, and only caught 2 more touchdowns the rest of the season. The 6-5 Ducking, who didn’t play in 2020, will be a matchup problem for smaller defensive backs much like Mitchell. Give the JUCO transfer some time to gel with Rogers and he might be even more productive.
Left guard: LaQuinston Sharp for Greg Eiland
Opposing defenses are quite certain that, for the majority of snaps, Rogers is going to drop back into the pocket and look for receivers. That makes the left side of the offensive line so important. The Bulldogs will need to be better in protection after finishing 120th in the FBS last season by allowing 34 sacks in 11 games. Sharp, a transfer from East Mississippi CC, will be in charge of that by stepping in for Eiland, who decided to leave for the NFL Draft.
Defensive end: Jack Harris for Kobe Jones
Jones was better in 2019 than 2020, but he still was an asset for the defense, recording 32 tackles, 4 for a loss and 2 sacks in 11 games. Now, the Bulldogs will depend on Harris to make a major leap after seeing limited time as a redshirt freshman. A 3-star prospect out of Oak Grove HS in Hattiesburg, Miss., the 6-3, 250-pound Harris will be counted on in the trenches this season. He got a taste of SEC life in 2020. He played in 8 games, registering a career-high 3 tackles against Alabama and 2 against LSU.