STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s defense put on an impressive display against the first- and second-team offensive squads in the Maroon and White spring game on Saturday.
Five interceptions, including a pair of pick-6 scores, paced the White team’s 21-10 victory in Davis Wade Stadium. Tackling appeared improved across all levels of the defense — in the secondary especially — for first-year coordinator Todd Grantham’s unit.
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw 4 interceptions while completing 14 of 27 passes and added a rushing touchdown. Of course, this was a spring game — one in which a handful of inexperienced receivers saw extensive playing time, as top targets Donald Gray and Malik Dear both sat out the scrimmage. MSU seemingly made a conscious effort to air the ball out and practice deep passing plays, as well.
Neither Fitzgerald nor coach Dan Mullen said they were worried about the interceptions.
Fitzgerald’s backup, mid-year enrollee Keytaon Thompson, flashed a big arm but also had trouble connecting with his wideouts. He finished 6 of 20 passing for 80 yards.
Mississippi State players of the game
OFFENSE: Nick Gibson
With only three healthy running backs on the roster this spring, Gibson saw plenty of action and took advantage. The sophomore rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries and reeled off a handful of impressive runs, including a 25-yarder in the first half.
Running backs coach Greg Knox said Thursday that he felt like it was a three-way battle for the No. 1 role, with Gibson, Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee all contending. We’re not saying Gibson will win the starting job because of his performance Saturday, but he certainly made his case to earn more carries.
DEFENSE: Jamal Peters and Cameron Dantzler
The interceptions were impressive, sure — Peters snagged one and Dantzler picked off 2 — but since Fitzgerald was chucking the ball without much regard, you can only give so much credit. Both players, however, tackled fairly well and enjoyed strong performances in coverage all afternoon.
Peters finished the day with 5 tackles and 2 pass breakups; Dantzler made 3 tackles, including 1 for loss.
Question answered: Emerging names at receiver
With Fred Ross out of the picture, we entered the spring wondering who would step up alongside Donald Gray at receiver. While both offenses sputtered at times, a handful of guys made positive impressions, including senior Gabe Myles and sophomore Jamal Couch, both of whom led their respective teams with 4 catches on the day.
Question looming: The offensive line guessing game
The first-team offensive line for the most part looked like this: Greg Eiland at left tackle, Dareuan Parker at left guard, Martinas Rankin (last year’s left tackle) at center, Darryl Williams at right guard and Stewart Reese at right tackle.
Of course, with two starters missing spring with injury (Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun), the lineup should look quite different when Mississippi State returns for fall camp.
For the most part, however, Fitzgerald and Thompson had time in the pocket, while the running backs broke off a few good runs thanks to decent blocking. Gauging exactly how good this unit will be is, at this point, extremely difficult, but this spring has allowed the O-line to develop a little depth if nothing else.
Maroon and White spring game box score:
What it means:
One can take only so much away from a spring scrimmage, especially when the quarterbacks aren’t allowed to be tackled. But the energy displayed by the Bulldogs defense, particularly in the secondary, is at least a promising sign for a unit that struggled badly in 2016.
With a host of new additions vying for playing time on that side of the ball, Grantham and his staff have cultivated a competitive atmosphere, and that showed through with impressive play out of Peters and Dantzler, along with newcomers like Jonathan Abram, Brian Cole and Deion Pope.