Overall, it was a solid 2018 for first year head coach Joe Moorhead. It’s not easy for a first-year head coach, especially one with no SEC experience, to come in and secure a New Year’s Day bowl game in his rookie campaign, yet that’s exactly what Moorhead did.
With that said, the calendar has flipped to 2019, and while 8-5 is a solid start, the bar has been set. State fans have grown well accustomed to 8 and 9-win seasons the past decade, and they’re ready to take the next step.
Needless to say, this is an enormously important offseason for Moorhead, and he’ll need to accomplish numerous key goals this spring and offseason.
5. Start filling in holes on defense
The defense in 2018 was absolutely fantastic, finishing No. 2 in scoring defense and yards allowed per game, allowing just 13.2 points and 263.8 yards per game. It was arguably the best defense in program history, and there’s a good chanced 3 of their starting 11 are picked in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Now the bad news: The Bulldogs are replacing 7 starters on defense, including the entire line, which was arguably the best in the SEC this year.
Obviously, this means that State will be working in a bevy of new starters and replenishing depth. Pretty much the only unit that will be returning intact is the linebacking corps, which, despite being OK for much of the year, was unquestionably the weak link of the titanic defense. Coordinator Bob Shoop should be commended for the job he did last year taking a unit from very good to elite, but now is when he’ll really start earning his salary.
4. Replace lost leadership
The Bulldogs lost an enormous amount of key players, on offense and defense. They have to replace the lost production and the leadership that goes with those grizzled veterans like Elgton Jenkins, Deion Calhoun, Nick Fitzgerald, Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons, Gerri Green, Johnathan Abram, Jamal Peters, etc. Leadership isn’t easily replaced, and it can’t be forced, either. It has to be an organic selection process where guys naturally step up to fill the void.
Logical replacements appear to be LG Darryl Williams, RB Kylin Hill and whoever wins the starting QB job on offense. Defense will be tougher considering they’re losing the entire starting defensive line and most of the secondary, but guys like Chauncey Rivers and Cam Dantzler already lead by example if nothing else. Ideally, this is the time for the linebacking corps, which brings back all 3 key players in Erroll Thompson, Leo Lewis and Willie Gay, to become the new face of the vaunted defense, both on and off the field.
3. Continue developing receiving corps
The passing attack was truly and utterly abysmal in 2018, and finished second to last in the SEC in passing yards per game with 173.8. Obviously, much of the blame rests on the inability of QB Nick Fitzgerald to consistently put the ball on the numbers, but the receiving corps certainly carries their share of the blame as well. Throughout the year, they struggled with separation, route running and drops, problems that were exacerbated by an inaccurate QB.
The Bulldogs will return 7 of their top 8 pass catchers, including Osirus Mitchell (26 receptions, 427-yards, 4 TDs), Stephen Guidry (19, 440, 3) and Deddrick Thomas (19, 256, 2), but they really need them to come along developmentally. They also need young guys like Devonta Jason (4-star in 2018) and Austin Williams to make strides, because there was ample opportunity for them to step up last year but they failed to do so. There’s plenty of size and athleticism with this group, but they still have to master the finer aspects of the position.
2. Get Peters and Sharp up to speed
As mentioned, numerous starters need to be replaced. Obviously, the defense will need to be re-tooled after losing 7 starters, but the interior of the line is due for a facelift as well, with seniors Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun expunging their eligibility. The good news is that the Bulldogs have already signed 2 JUCO prospects who are expected to come in and plug some of these holes right away, and they’ll have the added benefit of going through spring ball as well.
Fred Peters is practically a Johnathan Abram clone, not only in terms of physical skills but in playing style, and while replicating the lost production (99 tackles, 9 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 INTs) is a lot to ask, just bringing in leadership and playmaking ability will make Shoop happy. LaQuinston Sharp (6-3, 305) is powerful mauler who can help keep the dominating inside run game humming. Signing 2 plug-and-play JUCOs is a big score for Moorhead, but now they have to get them up to speed, and quickly.
1. Settle on a new QB
Of course, this is by far the most important thing on Moorhead’s docket this offseason, to find the replacement for Nick Fitzgerald, a 3-year starter who was likely the second-best QB in program history. The candidates?
It looks to be a 2-man race between junior Keytaon Thompson and incoming 4-star Garrett Shrader, who signed early and will go through spring drills. Thompson has the benefit of not only having taken meaningful game snaps (105 career pass attempts, 1 bowl win under his belt), but he’s also been learning the offense the past 12 months. He’s big (6-4, 230) and a plus athlete who has shown a powerful arm and the speed to make plays on the ground. He’ll obviously get the first crack at replacing Fitz.
Shrader wasn’t signed to hold a clipboard, however. He also has prototypical size (6-4, 220) and as the No. 6-ranked dual-threat QB in the 2018 class, he obviously has some wheels, too.
A two-time state champion from North Carolina will don the Maroon and White next season.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) December 19, 2018
What makes him so intriguing is his accuracy on short and intermediate routes, where he not only shows good ball placement but impressive velocity. And remember, Moorhead handpicked this kid, and QBs are his specialty, so you know he envisions him being ‘The Guy” at some point.
Ultimately, whoever shows the most consistency passing the ball is going to win the job. Sure, Moorhead wants his QBs to make plays with their legs to run the full RPO-heavy playbook, but much more importantly is someone who can take advantage of the numerous 1-on-1 opportunities his offense creates, and something the Bulldogs never had in 2018. And with the rushing attack and defense the Bulldogs had last year, it’s scary to think what they could’ve been if they had an even competent passing attack.