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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #24 Mississippi State

by DJ Boyer on Aug. 12, 2015

#24 Mississippi State Bulldogs

2014 Recap

What more can be said about what looked to be the best football season in Mississippi State history? The season did end with three losses, as the Bulldogs faltered down the stretch, but they started 9-0 and were ranked #1 in the country for a few weeks. The losses came against Alabama, rival Ole Miss and during the Orange Bowl losing to Georgia Tech.

Coaching:

Dan Mullen has turned things around during his six years at Mississippi State sporting a 46-31 record. Mullen has led the Bulldogs to three straight bowl games, the first time that has ever happened in school history. Billy Gonzales has been is the co-offensive coordinator and is in charge of coaching the wide receivers. John Hevesy is the co-coordinator with Gonzales and has additional duties lie with the offensive line and the running game. Manny Diaz makes his second run as defensive coordinator after leaving to turn around the Louisiana Tech defense. His return is one that is welcomed and has been met with excitement in Starksville.

 

Offensive Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Dak Prescott came back to the Bulldogs for his senior season, as he makes another run at the Heisman Trophy. Prescott is not your average mobile quarterback who cannot make the pro throws needed for the next level. Prescott can do that, and if anything is stacked against him it is being just a shade under 6’2”. Prescott has showed the ability to play through injury having played banged up for most of 2014. The line reads 244-396-3449-27-11 from last season, and Prescott will have to try and replicate those numbers without seven offensive starters from a season ago including top rusher Josh Robinson.

Everyone knows what Prescott brings to the table and what his game is all about, replacing Robinson is the key. We are not sold on what we have seen from junior Ashton Shumpert up to this point, and one of the incoming freshman backs could wrestle away the starting job by the time the season begins. Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams will get a legitimate crack at the starting job, or we could just see the running back by committee approach in Starksville.

Best Draft Prospect: Dak Prescott QB 3rd Round 2016.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Two starters go by the wayside from a season ago, but the receiving core looks stronger than last year. De’Runnya Wilson is a legitimate NFL prospect carrying a 2nd round grade for 2017. With Prescott leaving after this season it could trigger Wilson declaring early, trying to maximize on his numbers, and not play his senior season with a different signal caller. Wilson posted 47-680-9 in 2014, and we can expect a 1,000 yard season as a junior. Wilson topped 100 yards receiving in a game twice, and they came in the last two games of the season. It seems as if Wilson is just starting to hit his stride.

Fred Ross and Gabe Myles will be the other starters, as they combined for 52-667-5 last year. Myles will likely work the slot with Ross starting along the outside with Wilson. Mississippi State uses the tight end as an extra lineman and rarely use the position in passing situations, so starter Darrion Hutcherson will put his 6’7” 260 frame to use as an extra blocker.

Best Draft Prospect: De’Runnya Wilson WR 2nd Round 2017 (early declaration candidate for 2016).

 

Offensive Line:

The biggest cause for concern comes along the offensive line where only “the Justins” returns as starters with Malone at left guard and Senior at right tackle. Justin Senior has the look of an NFL player, but as a late rounder teams will need to be weary of his standing in the CFL Draft as he is a Canadian and could be a high pick on the other side of the border. Justin Senior started all 13 games last season, while Malone started 12 out of 13, rebounding from a foot injury that limited him to just a single game during the prior campaign. Rufus Warren will be asked to be the left tackle and last season he was a durable reserve that saw action at both tackle spots. Warren is a converted tight end and has even been used in the backfield during short yardage and goal line situations. The largest question mark is at right guard and center where Devon Desper and Jamaal Clayborn look to have nailed down the starting positions.

Best Draft Prospect: Justin Senior OT 5th Round 2017.

 

Defensive Analysis

Defensive Line:

The Bulldogs lost their top playmaker along the line from last season to the NFL in the form of 48 tackles with 15 for loss and nine sacks from Preston Smith. Mississippi State could have their defensive performance as a team hinge of a pair of players along the line who were key reserves a season ago and now jump into starting spots. AJ Jefferson was a backup defensive end that contributed seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in a limited number of snaps. Jefferson should make the transition to starter quite well and help ease the loss of Preston Smith.

Chris Jones started a few games last season but the prized recruit mainly played behind more experienced personnel. Jones is a defensive tackle that excels at getting penetration with an explosive first step and gaining leverage on opposing blockers. Jones had 3.5 tackles for loss with three sacks and a total of 26 stops in the middle of the defense. Jones could be the best prospect on this team on either side of the football. 2015 will be a big year personally for Jones and for the Bulldogs, as these youngsters could step up and make the line better than it was a season ago. Ryan Brown is back as the lone returning starter along the line, and he posted 7 tackles for loss in 2014.

Best Draft Prospect: Chris Jones DT 2nd Round 2017 (early declaration candidate for 2016).

 

Linebackers:

Beniquez Brown is back after placing second of the Bulldogs with 62 tackles with 7 for loss and a pair of sacks and interceptions. The only player Brown trailed in terms of tackles was Benardrick McKinney who was taken in the second round of the 2015 Draft after posting 71 tackles with eight for loss and three sacks. Brown has NFL potential and has two seasons left in Starksville. Gerri Green is the buzz surrounding the Bulldogs defense, as the redshirt freshman has won the starting middle linebacker spot. Green was a five-star recruit and the prize of the entire 2014 recruiting class for the Bulldogs, and he will have his chance to start after spending a season learning the defense.

Mississippi State employs a base 4-3 although we will see them drop to a pair of linebackers and add a fifth defensive back in a few packages. Ritchie Brown will be the third linebacker and play the outside. As a reserve he totaled 50 tackles and actually tied for the team lead with three interceptions. This linebackeing corps has a ton of potential. We expect the Bulldogs linebacking core to be even stronger in 2015, even after losing their best overall player in McKinney.

Best Draft Prospect: Beniquez Brown 5th Round 2017.

 

Secondary:

The secondary looks to be the Achilles heel for the defense, as the unit returns only one starter from 2014. Pair that with the fact that Mississippi State ranked a paltry 114th against the pass to begin with, and you can see the obvious cause for alarm. Taveze Calhoun is a viable NFL Draft prospect, and one advantage this secondary may have is they will have more size then they had last season. The safety positions have not been fully decided at this time, but the projected starters feature three players that are 6’0” or taller. This looks like a big factor for starting decisions with so many talented receivers in the SEC this season that stand 6’2” or taller.

One thing we can say is that corners Calhoun and fellow starter Will Redmond are willing tacklers and excellent in run support. Stopping the run will again be key, as the secondary may need some help. Mississippi State will try to force as many 3rd and long situations as they can.

Best Draft Prospect: Taveze Calhoun CB 5th Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

Kicker will be interesting, as Mississippi State seems like they had found something with Evan Sobiesk who went 12-14 in 2014. Sobiesk left the team to pursue other academic endeavors leaving Devon Bell as the only scholarship kicker on the roster. Bell was under 50% on his kicks in 2013, so he will face competition from Westin Graves, and this could lead to a two-kicker system for the Bulldogs if nobody pulls away with the job. Bell went from kicker to punter last season and performed well, but he shared time with Logan Cooks who should be the full-time punter unless Bell loses the kicker job.

Opponents seemed to get the best of Mississippi State on punt returns last season, and on kickoff returns Mississippi State was among the bottom performing teams in the country. The bright side here is the kickoff coverage units were among the best. If Mississippi State can get just a little more out of the return game this season they will be in good shape. The starting spots for kickoff and punt returns seem to be unsettled at the time this was published.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

2015 Schedule

Mississippi State gets an early start on the SEC schedule with a September 12th game at home against LSU. Games 4 and 5 offer back-to-back road games against Auburn and Texas A&M. Mississippi State then will brace for their final three games which are home against Alabama, on the road against Arkansas and home against Ole Miss. Alabama and Ole Miss were teams that defeated the Bulldogs last season, so revenge can come in the form of a home contest in 2015.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

De’Runnya Wilson and Dak Prescott will be the offensive players that attract the most attention, and this hinges upon whether Wilson follows Prescott to the NFL. We still feel like Chris Jones could be the prize jewel of this team. He has showed flashes of potential, and if this is the year he puts it all together, he could surprise a lot of teams within the SEC and post some huge numbers.