The Mississippi State Bulldogs enjoyed a solid first year under head coach Joe Moorhead. After all, winning 8 games and going to a New Year’s Day bowl is a heck of an accomplishment for a rookie coach in the SEC West.
However, the bar has been set for Moorhead. Many fans already believe that veteran team actually underachieved last year, and taking a big step back this year will cause consternation for a fan base that has grown accustomed to competing at a high level. This program is absolutely not the doormat it once was.
So, given that, and the fact that there’s quite a bit of turnover on the roster at key positions, you can safely say this was a big spring for the second-year head man. With the annual Maroon and White Spring Game this Saturday, there’s plenty of questions I’ll be looking to have answered.
5. Is reshuffled offensive line cohesive?
The line of 2018 was a mixed bag. They were brutally powerful along the interior and that fueled a very effective rushing attack. They were weaker along the outside, however, and struggled with speed rushers coming off the edge. Now, RG Deion Calhoun and C Elgton Jenkins are gone, and the line has been reshuffled throughout the spring.
Darryl Williams, who started at LG last year, has moved over to the pivot. Is he comfortable making the reads and the snaps? Former LT Greg Eiland slid over to RT, where he’s battling with Tommy Champion. Have they improved their footwork? How does Charles Cross, the 5-star early-enrollee look? Is former RT Stewart Reese a better fit inside at RG? There are a lot of questions about the line, and they won’t walk out of spring practice with the starting 5 locked down, but I’m very eager to see how comfortable the reshuffled group is.
4. Have receivers made developmental strides?
A big reason the Bulldogs had such a woeful passing game last year obviously fell on quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Poor pass protection along the edges didn’t help. We’d be doing Fitz a disservice, however, if we didn’t also recognize the shortcomings of the receiving corps he was working with.
Aside from losing Jesse Jackson to graduation, everyone returns, and there’s plenty of athleticism to work with. However, for the passing attack to show improvement, they need their group of wideouts to make huge developmental strides, both in catching the ball consistently and being able to separate against press coverage.
3. Can defensive line still apply pressure?
The Bulldogs fielded arguably the best defensive line in the country last year, and that group was a primary catalyst for the extraordinary success the defense experienced as a whole. All four starters, who combined for 43 TFL’s and 19 sacks last year, had to be replaced this offseason, and naturally, everyone wants to see how the new line looks.
The Bulldogs have done a terrific job in recent years recruiting defensive linemen, so while I don’t expect this unit to be as productive as their predecessors, I do expect the unit to be a strength. Coordinator Bob Shoop likes creative blitz packages, but he also likes knowing he can get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing when need be. Can this new defensive line still generate the kind of pass rush Shoop needs to run a top-flight defense?
2. How do the quarterbacks look?
State has been fortunate with the continuity it has enjoyed under center in recent years, and this is only the second time since 2013 that they’ve gone into an offseason knowing they would have to replace their starting quarterback. Naturally, who replaces Fitz (and how he looks) is probably the question that every State fan wants to know the most at this point in the year.
Junior Keytaon Thompson has a strong lead to be named QB1. Not only does he possess impressive athleticism and the dual-threat ability Joe Moorhead likes, but he’s the only one who has ever taken actual game snaps. Redshirt freshman Jalen Mayden appears to be running with the 2s and heralded true freshman Garrett Shrader the 3s.
There’s a lot of physical talent among the group, but I really want to see how they look throwing the ball. Sure, they’ll be able to escape pressure and make plays with their feet, but will they be able to step up in the pocket and deliver dimes into tight windows? How are they making pre-snap reads? How is their footwork and mechanics? It’s safe to say, all eyes will be on this group Saturday.
1. How different does the offense look?
Last year, the combination of Fitz’s accuracy woes, poor protection and receivers failing to get separation (along with countless drops) forced Moorhead to limit his offense. He couldn’t really run what he wanted to run, because the downfield passing game was virtually nonexistent. Obviously, this forced the Bulldogs to rely almost exclusively on their rushing attack, but against teams like LSU and Alabama, which could defend the run, the offense literally ground to a halt.
The quarterbacks have to be able to complete passes downfield. This is an absolute necessity for Moorhead to run what he wants to run.
If the offense we see Saturday looks like the offense we saw in 2018, it’ll no doubt be alarming, because this year’s team doesn’t possess the same talent level that they had last year.
I still think the defense will be very good, but expecting 13.2 points allowed per game from them is unrealistic. And if the Bulldogs are going to get over the hump and beat the upper crust of the SEC and get back to Atlanta for the first time since 1998, they simply have to be more balanced on offense. As if the National Championship Game didn’t make it obvious enough, to beat Alabama you have to be able to pass the ball and stretch the field vertically, and I’m eager to see if the Bulldogs have made improvement in this crucial area.