STARKVILLE, Miss. — Last year, a four-way battle for the starting quarterback job dominated Mississippi State’s spring game. The Bulldogs have no such uncertainty under center this time around — Nick Fitzgerald is their unquestioned offensive leader — but the same can’t be said of his supporting cast.
Donald Gray is back and appears poised to become Fitzgerald’s No. 1 target with Fred Ross out of the picture. Junior Aeris Williams is in line to emerge as the team’s primary tailback. Beyond that, a handful of questions surround MSU’s skill positions and offensive line entering the 2017 Maroon and White game.
And that’s to say nothing of a Bulldogs defense now overseen by longtime coordinator Todd Grantham, whose aggressive 3-4 defense is sure to feature many new wrinkles and contributors.
One can glean only so much from a spring scrimmage, but even so, there will be story lines worth following when Mississippi State kicks off Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium. Here are five:
1) Who actually plays?
In addition to having just two scholarship quarterbacks, MSU is thin at a number of other positions.
The name of the game in spring ball is always “keep everyone healthy,” especially when numbers aren’t on the team’s side. So it’d be surprising if big names like Fitzgerald and Gray play more than a few drives.
This especially applies to the offensive line, which has been without starters Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins this spring. Coupled with the graduation of Jamaal Clayborn and Justin Senior, the result has been left tackle Martinas Rankin seeing snaps at center and a whole lot of shuffling at the other positions.
A few names to watch up front: Greg Eiland, Michael Story, Dareuan Parker and Stewart Reese, all of whom are either redshirt freshmen or sophomores. MSU offensive line coach John Hevesy surely would like to get those younger guys as many snaps as possible.
2) Developing depth at wide receiver
Dan Mullen has a policy of not discussing injuries during spring practice, so we won’t be able to officially confirm the nature of Malik Dear’s rumored injury until after the scrimmage. Assuming Dear is out this weekend, however, the Bulldogs stand to trot out a number of fresh faces at receiver.
Among the pass-catchers MSU fans could see are redshirt freshmen Reggie Todd and Osirus Mitchell, along with sophomores Deddrick Thomas and Jamal Couch. Neither sophomore even topped 200 yards receiving last season. Senior Gabe Myles will factor into the mix, too.
If Fitzgerald is to continue his development, it’s imperative that the Bulldogs allow these young wideouts a chance to prove themselves — and that’s exactly what Mullen said his staff has done this spring. Expect more of it this weekend.
3) Our first look at Keytaon Thompson
Fitzgerald may not play much in the spring game, but the same probably doesn’t apply to mid-year enrollee Keytaon Thompson, who is by all accounts the future of the MSU offense.
The 4-star dual-threat prospect, a New Orleans native, spent his high school years facing some of the best programs The Boot has to offer. College is another beast entirely, but it’s not often MSU signs a quarterback of his caliber, either.
With Thompson expected to serve as Fitzgerald’s primary backup in 2017, he’ll get plenty of chances to flash his athleticism before the crowd on Saturday.
4) Who’s getting snaps on the defensive line?
Nick James, A.J. Jefferson and Johnathan Calvin have all moved on, leaving a new group of D-linemen to fill their shoes. Jeffery Simmons and Marquiss Spencer headline the up-and-comers, but considering how often college teams sub up front on defense, Grantham will want to get a long look at their backups, as well.
Junior college signees Montez Sweat and Chauncey Rivers hold particular intrigue, as does redshirt freshman Kobe Jones, a former 4-star recruit. Mississippi State signed seven defensive linemen in its 2017 class; surely someone from that group will assert himself.
5) A new-look backfield
Cornerback Jamoral Graham has reportedly left the program (his name no longer appears on the team’s roster), and safety Kivon Coman has graduated. Tolando Cleveland is back after missing all of last season with a torn left ACL. J.T. Gray is back at safety after spending the previous two seasons at the “star” linebacker position.
On top of that, the Bulldogs signed a potential early contributor in junior college safety Johnathan Abram, who actually started games at Georgia as a freshman before transferring out. The uber-athletic Brandon Bryant didn’t enjoy the breakout year many expected in 2016, but he does add experience into the mix at safety, as well.
All in all, MSU has the talent and the numbers to field an improved secondary this fall, and Saturday should provide us a sneak peek at what that unit could look like.