STARKVILLE – Unlike around this time last year, Mississippi State enters its spring Thursday knowing who its starting quarterback is. It’s Nick Fitzgerald, who returns as one of the best at his position in the SEC. While that’s reassuring for the Bulldogs, there still are a few other pieces to the puzzle that need to be figured out.
Here are five questions for Mississippi State as it heads into spring practice this week.
Who pushes Fitzgerald as the No. 2?
Fitzgerald led the SEC in rushing touchdowns and racked up 37 total TDs. So, yeah, he is expected to solidify the quarterback position as a second-year starter. But who is behind him?
Damian Williams and Nick Tiano transferred after the season, leaving MSU without many options. Freshman Keytaon Thompson, who is on campus after he enrolled early, is the only scholarship quarterback behind Fitzgerald.
Despite being a freshman, Thompson will likely be the team’s backup quarterback. Dan Mullen said Thompson graduating high school early was critical because the former Landry-Walker (Louisiana) standout has a significant opportunity to have an important role on the team immediately.
Thompson was a four-star recruit as a dual-threat. He threw for 3,924 yards and 46 touchdowns and rushed for 1,429 yards and 26 TDs. Thompson appears to be a guy who can push Fitzgerald as the No. 2.
“He ended up having a spectacular senior year which didn’t surprise me at all because I knew the type of player he was,” Mullen said on signing day. “He knows coming in that he has an unbelievable opportunity to come in early in his career. I hope he’s as excited to be here as I am for him to be here.”
Walkon Logan Burnett is another option for MSU. Three-star quarterback Robbie Blosser from California accepted a walk-on offer from MSU just before signing day and he is also in the mix, but won’t arrive until June.
How will the defense look?
The Bulldogs last season allowed 31.8 points per game, which ranked 13th in the SEC, and will undergo another makeover as a result. Todd Grantham is the team’s fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.
It won’t be clear what the defense will look like until practices start, but the scheme is expected to be a 3-4 with multiple fronts and Grantham said guys will be expected to know how to play multiple positions. He also added that positions are pretty much up for grabs across the board and carefully didn’t mention specific players during his introductory press conference.
Out of his front seven, Grantham wants physicality, size and an aggressive group that will look to create negative yardage plays. In Grantham’s scheme, linebackers are expected to be blitzers with speed. Jeffery Simmons, Chauncey Rivers, Cory Thomas, Fletcher Adams, Grant Harris and Kobe Jones are all guys to watch on the defensive line as early candidates to comprise the rotation.
In the secondary, which will be led by new assistant coach Ron English, Grantham wants MSU to be a pattern-match zone defense, which means the Bulldogs will play zone while also matching route distributions. Cornerback is an interesting position battle to watch as well. Jamal Peters, Jamoral Graham, Lashard Durr and Chris Rayford all started there at some points last year. Tolando Cleveland, who missed last season with an ACL tear, Cameron Dantzler, Korey Charles and early enrollee Tyler Williams are all part of the competition.
Who steps up since Brown graduated?
Leo Lewis, J.T. Gray and Gerri Green are linebackers who need to step up because Richie Brown, who led the team in tackles the last two years, is gone. It will be interesting to see who emerges as Brown’s replacement in the middle of the defense. Redshirt freshman Erroll Thompson may be in the mix there, too.
After redshirting in 2015, Lewis broke out with 79 total tackles last season and has the athleticism to continue to excel as an inside linebacker. The next step may be assuming the role as the play-caller on defense as the mike linebacker.
Who is the center?
MSU returns four offensive linemen that started last year: Senior Martinas Rankin, juniors Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins, and sophomore Michael Story. The Bulldogs do not, however, return their starting center from last season, Jamaal Clayborn.
Center may be the most important position battle this spring, especially considering there may not be a clear favorite for the role. Calhoun is a likely candidate, and redshirt freshman Stewart Reese may be in the mix, but the job could also go to someone else.
Can Gray and Williams build off last season’s momentum?
Donald Gray became a consistent vertical threat last season while Aeris Williams established himself late as someone capable of being a starting running back in the SEC.
Without Fred Ross, Gray returns as the team’s leading receiver in yards (709), receptions (41) and touchdowns (5). MSU does have other options at outside receiver, though. Jamal Couch or Deddrick Thomas could emerge as a starter, and some of the coaching staff is high redshirt freshman Reginald Todd.
Williams’ best game was against Ole Miss when he racked up 191 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. He received more than 20 carries in a game only three times. Against Texas A&M on Nov. 5, he had 140 yards on 24 carries, and against BYU on Oct. 14, he recorded 82 yards on 21 attempts. It’s critical for the former West Point standout to have a solid spring because MSU doesn’t return another running back who reached 100 yards for the season in 2016. Four-star signee Kylin Hill does not report until June.