Mississippi State football: 5 most important returning players in 2020
The end of 2019 was a turbulent time in Starkville, but January brought a slew of good news for Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs hired Mike Leach, and got surprisingly positive news by multiple players who turned down the NFL.
If a new coach is going to enter the vaunted SEC West and have a reasonable shot at making a splash, it’s a good start to bring back a veteran linebacker and 1,000-yard rusher. What was more remarkable is both Kylin Hill and Erroll Thompson made their announcements to pass on the NFL less than a week after Leach arrived.
MSU hired Leach in part to kick-start a stagnant offense. Leach’s teams have led the nation in passing in 10 of his 18 seasons as a head coach. Mississippi State, meanwhile, averaged 179.5 yards passing per game in the 2019 season to rank 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC.
“In this business we want to attack as much space as possible,” Leach said at his first MSU press conference. “We should be able to install it pretty fast and it is not going to be perfect right away. The more people the defense has to keep up with over a wide area, the bigger our chances are.”
The Bulldogs return 5 starters on offense, and 5 on defense.
RB Kylin Hill
Arguably the best SEC player to turn down the NFL this cycle, Hill has lived up to the hype that had him be the highest running back signee for the Bulldogs since Jerious Norwood in 2002. At his announcement to return to campus, Hill said, “There’s some unfinished business to take care of with my brothers,” Hill said on social media.
Hill had 242 carries for 10 touchdowns and 1,350 yards, which was third in the SEC, and one of just 8 Power 5 running backs with 1,300-plus rushing yards and 10-plus rushing touchdowns. Hill was second in the SEC with 103.9 yards rushing per game. He also caught 17 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. What’s more, he led the SEC with 8 100-yard rushing games. Leach has said he hopes Hill leads the SEC in all-purpose yards, and that the running back position gets most of the touches and yards. He’s also coming off a 2019 season where he was named to the Associated Press All-SEC first team.
In what was not overlooked among Bulldog fans, Hill was among the Mississippi State players who greeted Leach at the airport.
LB Erroll Thompson
Thompson, a Florence, Alabama native, is coming back for next season, a year after he led the team in 2019 with 84 tackles. Two years ago, he started at middle linebacker for the nation’s No. 1 defense in 2018. Thompson’s value is maximized by the fact that there’s little proven production behind him. Thompson said in a tweet that “our story isn’t finished” and “there’s much more to accomplish both as a player, student and teammate.”
Thompson, along with being a team captain, led the Bulldogs in tackles in 4 different games in 2019, including 11-plus tackles against Tennessee and Ole Miss.
WR Osirus Mitchell
With a good chance to be among the top 5 SEC receivers in 2020, Mitchell led the team in 2019 with 430 receiving yards and was second with 29 catches. The 6-foot-5 and 210-pounder has played in 35 games the last 3 seasons, and is a stable target for either K.J. Costello or Garrett Shrader. Mitchell should be the first option outside in the new Leach 4-wide receiver alignment.
DL Marquiss Spencer
Spencer started every game last season and had 6.5 tackles for a loss, and 2 sacks. Alongside Kobe Jones, Spencer will need to make up for the lost production of Chauncey Rivers’ 5 sacks in 2019, not to mention Lee Autry and Fletcher Adams. Jones and Spencer showed that potential in the Music City Bowl with a combined 3 sacks. Spencer may be one to move inside to clear space for younger players, but that’s a storyline to watch in the spring.
DB Marcus Murphy
Murphy’s versatility is most important here, but look for him to settle at free safety, at least to start the season. A glance at his production in the 2019 season is striking. He appeared in just 5 games, but made 26 tackles, including 10 in the Music City Bowl. Add in the 12 games he played in as a freshman in 2018 and experience will be a bonus in the defensive secondary.