STARKVILLE, Miss. — Historically, and over the last two decades especially, Mississippi State football maintained a proud tradition at running back. Workhorses Anthony Dixon, Jerious Norwood, Josh Robinson and Vick Ballard, all of whom made it to the NFL, pepper the program record books.
Mississippi State’s typically productive ground game took new shape in 2015-16, as quarterbacks Dak Prescott and then Nick Fitzgerald led the team in rushing. Prescott accounted for 10 rushing touchdowns as a senior, and Fitzgerald ran for 1,375 yards and 16 scores last fall as a sophomore.
We can in part attribute that lack of balance to inconsistent offensive line play; since 2014, only one former Bulldogs lineman was drafted into the NFL (Justin Senior). But tailbacks Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert were found wanting as seniors at times in 2016, hence the emergence of Aeris Williams last November.
The return of Williams, who ran for 720 yards as a sophomore and has receiving skills, gives Mississippi State a potential do-it-all back in 2017. More important, the running backs room should be stronger, deeper and more competitive this fall.
“We’ve got three backs capable of being really, really good SEC backs,” running backs coach Greg Knox said last month, referring to Williams, redshirt sophomore Nick Gibson and redshirt junior Dontavian Lee.
Gibson rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries during Mississippi State’s spring game and had a handful of impressive runs, including a 25-yarder in the first half. It was only a glorified scrimmage, of course, but the tough running Gibson displayed had to be promising for Dan Mullen and his coaching staff.
“We kept it really simple for [Gibson],” Mullen said after the game. “And you saw he has some ability running the football. Now what we got to see is the other things from him.
“And that’s always been the case for him. Route running, pass protections, blocking, some of those things. The consistency of performance. He’s got the running part down. We want to see the complete game.”
A former 4-star recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings, Gibson said he gained 10 pounds this offseason so that he “could take more punishment” in the fall. He was 5-foot-11, 211 pounds on the spring roster.
“He got smarter as well,” Williams said. “Just being around Coach Knox, he’s going to get smarter anyways, man. His pad level got better over the spring. He’s been running the ball pretty good.”
Then there’s Lee, a rising junior from Hattiesburg listed at 6-1 and 235 pounds. He ran for 49 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in the spring game and, according to coaches, is a lot healthier than he was last season.
“That ankle injury held him back,” Knox said. “And then mentally, he’s making better decisions.”
The Mississippi State running backs room will add talent once Kylin Hill, a prized 4-star signee out of Columbus (Miss.) High School, begins participating in fall camp. Without committing to anything, Knox made it clear he expects his newest blue-chip standout to compete for early playing time.
“We’ll get him here, give him every opportunity and see how he does,” Knox said. “We’ll go from there with it. But he’s going to get every shot.”
If any combination of Gibson, Lee and Hill can establish themselves as reliable options in the running game, that would not only ease the workload for Williams but also Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ran the ball 195 times last season — more than Alabama’s Jalen Hurts did — and while it’s obvious the junior quarterback can handle the beating he takes on those inside option runs, Mississippi State might consider managing his workload a little more carefully this year. For a Mississippi State rushing attack that finished fourth in the SEC as The Nick Fitzgerald Show, throwing more bodies into the mix should give the unit a boost.
The X-factor, of course, again will be the offensive line. Tackle Senior and center Jamaal Clayborn graduated, and two of the projected starters missed all of spring practice while injured (Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun). The result was a first-team line that looked like this: Greg Eiland at left tackle, Dareuan Parker at left guard, Martinas Rankin at center, Darryl Williams at right guard and Stewart Reese at right tackle. Of those players, only Rankin started last season, and that was at left tackle.
When Jenkins and Calhoun return to the fold, there will be more shuffling up front and adjustments from there. It’s a tricky situation for position coach John Hevesy.
If Williams’ opinion counts for anything, though, Mississippi State fans can expect more performances reminiscent of what they saw during the spring game, in which Williams and Gibson each averaged more than 6 yards per carry.
“It is going to be a lot of days like this in the fall,” Williams said. “I promise you that.”