Another spring under Joe Moorhead is in the books, and with it our latest opportunity to see the direction Mississippi State’s football program is heading under the second-year head coach.
The spring game wasn’t exactly full of eye-opening revelations, but then again, spring games aren’t meant to be. Despite that, it was a televised scrimmage and it featured nearly all of the players who will be contributing on the field this year, so we at least got to see some morsel of what the product of 2019 will look like this fall, or at least an idea of where they’re at right now.
QB situation: C
On the bright side, there’s certainly plenty of raw talent for Moorhead to work with between Keytaon Thompson, Jalen Mayden and Garrett Shrader. On the downside, the raw talent is still just that – raw.
Thompson knows the offense, can make plays with his feet and has terrific arm strength, but his accuracy, ball placement, pre and post-snap reads and decision-making were highly suspect early in Saturday’s spring game, and against the second-string defense, too. Granted, he turned things around and finished well, but he left a lot to be desired.
Mayden and Shrader offer a bit more upside in terms of consistency in their mechanics and accuracy, but have never taken snaps in college. I think Shrader has the most potential, but thrusting a true freshman on the field against SEC competition is never an ideal situation. Expect the battle to replace Nick Fitzgerald to rage well into fall camp.
Running game: B+
Junior tailback Kylin Hill is a key returning starter, and he looks like a true bell cow back. It also appears that the Bulldogs will rely more heavily on him and less on the quarterbacks (which is a very good thing) in the running game. Truth be told, Hill was severely underused last year, and surpassing 9 carries in just 4 of the Bulldog’s 13 games is unconscionable in hindsight. I don’t expect that to be the case this year.
Backup Nick Gibson also looked good in Saturday’s spring game, and should provide a capable reserve to spell Hill without the offense changing its philosophy. The offensive line continues to look powerful up front (despite the fresh faces), especially along the interior. I again expect the rushing attack to be effective this fall and to be the driving force behind the offense as a whole.
Passing game (including WRs and TEs): D
Virtually the entire receiving corps is returning in 2019, and there’s depth and athleticism to work with. Nice, huh? Well, considering how poorly the unit played last year, not necessarily. And if Saturday’s spring game was any indication, they look like they haven’t made any improvements in terms of consistently getting separation or catching the football.
The poor field conditions certainly contributed to the struggles, and there were some nice highlights by underclassmen like Devonta Jason and Austin Williams, but there needs to be a great deal of improvement by the unit as a whole if Moorhead’s offense is going to evolve into what he’s looking for.
Offensive line: C+
The line wasn’t perfect Saturday, but they didn’t look too bad, either. It’s a completely reshuffled unit, so growing pains are expected, but they did a good job generating a push in the ground game and showed some improvement in pass protection. True freshman LT Charles Cross looks like a future star who should find his way on the field sooner rather than later.
It’s clear the coaching staff is still trying to get an idea of which combination of players works best, and this will likely continue over the next couple of months. The sooner they figure it out, though, the better, because you want the starting lineup to begin feeling comfortable with each other and start picking up on each other’s tendencies. Cohesiveness and familiarity among the linemen is paramount.
Run defense: B
The run defense again looks to be a strength. The defense as a whole looks like that, if we’re being honest. Maybe not 13.2 points per game good, but damn solid, despite losing numerous key contributors. The defensive line again should be stout against the run, and there’s quality depth there thanks to consistent recruiting. The linebacking corps returns everyone, and Erroll Thompson looks like someone who could contend for All-American honors this fall.
The secondary also showed some physicality against the run Saturday, and coordinator Bob Shoop will obviously be using them in various blitz packages to pressure the quarterback and contain the perimeter run game. Brian Cole might not be able to completely replace Johnathan Abram’s production, but he’s looking damn good.
Passing defense: B+
As indicated above, the passing defense looked good Saturday, especially early. The second-team defense smothered the starting receiving corps and forced Thompson into mistakes. The starting defense produced similar results, though that should be expected considering they were largely going against the backups on offense.
The unit appears to have retained the key characteristics from the immensely successful secondary from last year, and that is ball-hawking physicality. The DBs might not be able to run with Alabama’s receivers, but they’ll beat them up, that’s for sure. There’s a good mixture of returning leadership and talented underclassmen in the back seven, and they’ll benefit from a defensive line that can penetrate the backfield. Having a lockdown cover corner like Cam Dantzler is always nice, too.
Special teams: B
PK Jace Christmann returns, but he’s still battling Scott Goodman, who handles kickoffs, for the job. Christmann was solid last year, connecting on 24-of-30 FG attempts the past two years and making all 83 extra-point attempts. P Tucker Day also returns after a solid season in 2018, averaging 39.4 yards per punt. Having both kickers return is a big benefit, and special team’s coordinator Joey Jones is good at his job, so this should be anything but an area of weakness in 2019.
I think it’s rather obvious, but the passing game still has a way to go. This was the biggest weakness on the team last year, and based simply off Saturday’s spring game (take from that what you will), I’m not sure how much will change this year, aside from fewer QB-designed runs.
For Mississippi State to beat the Alabama’s and LSU’s and win the SEC West, the Bulldogs have to upgrade the downfield passing game. They have to be able to take advantage of the one-on-one opportunities they’ll see with defenses loading the box to stop the run. I don’t care how strong their rushing attack is, you can’t beat Alabama by running it down their throats. The passing attack has to improve, it’s as simple as that.