STARKVILLE, Miss. — For those who vividly remember all of last season’s defensive miscues, the Mississippi State spring game fueled hopes that perhaps the unit is bound for a turnaround under new coordinator Todd Grantham.
Led by the first-team defense and its 5 interceptions, the White team defeated the Maroon squad, 21-10, in Davis Wade Stadium. Of course, most of the offensive starters were pulled after halftime, and a handful of Mississippi State’s projected starters in fact didn’t play at all.
So perhaps the enthusiasm feels a little muted knowing that. Call it a draw?
Let’s evaluate how each unit performed on Saturday and hand out a few grades:
Maybe it looked bad on paper, with Nick Fitzgerald throwing 4 interceptions and primary backup Keytaon Thompson going 6 of 20 passing. Fitzgerald finished 14 for 27 and scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown, but as noted above, the junior was also working with a bare-bones supporting cast.
Donald Gray, Malik Dear and Farrod Green didn’t play at all. Neither did guards Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun. Aeris Williams received only 9 carries before coaches pulled him from the scrimmage. Besides senior Gabe Myles, Fitzgerald was targeting inexperienced underclassmen like Jamal Couch (2 catches, 28 yards) and Deddrick Thomas (2 catches, 8 yards).
One of Fitzgerald’s interceptions was tipped off a receiver, and another looked like the product of someone running the wrong route. On top of that, coaches weren’t exactly asking Fitzgerald to make a bunch of high-percentage throws; we saw a bunch of guys running go routes on Saturday, and more often than not, the defensive backs were winning those “50-50” balls.
So while the offense could have performed better, it’s nothing to be overly concerned about given how many players Fitzgerald didn’t have at his disposal.
“Practice is a time where you might take some more chances,” coach Dan Mullen said. “(Fitzgerald) understands all that. He understands where he’s going with the ball. It’s good to see. I wasn’t disappointed with him.”
Thompson likewise threw a handful of times. Some of his tosses were off the mark and some were passes that should’ve been caught. Given that scrambling was essentially taken out of the equation for the dual-threat freshman on Saturday, however, his performance wasn’t bad. We also saw what Louisiana high school aficionados already knew: Thompson has one heck of an arm.
“I loved to see the poise he had,” Mullen said.
With only 2 offensive touchdowns scored all game, you can’t be too hard on either defensive squad. Jamal Peters, Cameron Dantzler, Brian Cole and Deion Pope all recorded interceptions. Peters, Lashard Durr and Jonathan Abram combined for 5 pass breakups, as well, and all three made solid plays in coverage.
Tackling as a whole, and in the open field particularly, looked pretty good. Erroll Thompson and Mark McLaurin led the way with 8 apiece, while Pope, Thompson and Kobe Jones were among those who recorded “sacks” on the afternoon.
The performance wasn’t perfect, of course. Aeris Williams (6.1 yards per carry) and Nick Gibson (6.4 YPC) both had room to run, with Gibson shedding a couple of tackles once he got into the second level. And Fitzgerald’s lone touchdown — an option keeper on the goal line — saw him walk into the end zone untouched.
Overall, the spring game reminded us that Mississippi State has pieces for Grantham to build around. But his scheme is intricate, and the real questions will be answered in the fall when the Bulldogs hone in on the finer points of his playbook.
“You know the defense I want to play here — guys flying to the football as hard as they can. Trying to go make plays and playing an aggressive style of defense,” Mullen said.
Special teams: C-
There were no kickoffs and no returns on punts, and the little we did see out of Mississippi State’s field goal men wasn’t great.
Four different kickers went 1 for 1 on PATs, but Brad Wall missed a 41-yard attempt and Jace Christmann couldn’t connect on one from 26 yards. Wall later made a 26-yarder, but the spring game merely underscores the important role kicker-punter signee Tucker Day could fill when he arrives in the fall.
Spring games feature only the most vanilla, fundamental concepts of any scheme, and this one in particular was missing a handful of standout players. We’re still four months away from fall camp, and as Mullen noted when meeting with reporters, players will need to retain what they’ve developed this spring and continue to improve throughout summer workouts.
So, please folks, don’t read into these results too deeply.