Each coach has the right to select whichever players they want to represent their programs at SEC Media Days. An obvious absence on Tuesday was quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Disappointing. The vast majority of questions directed at the Mississippi State head coach referenced his potential Heisman Trophy contending signal caller.
Moving on. Dan Mullen can flat out coach the game of football. Sustained postseason appearances and occasional threats with a divisional crown is enough to keep the cow bell toting fans pleased. State edged Miami (OH) in the St. Petersburg Bowl after finishing the regular season 5-7. Defensive coordinator instability was evident a year ago when the Dogs finished 12th in the conference’s total defense category. He brought in former Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to create havoc with a unit that struggles to match talent with the skilled SEC West. MSU opens with Charleston Southern before traveling to Louisiana Tech. It then hosts LSU which should provide an early gauge of this team’s status within the league.
-Head Coach: Dan Mullen, 61-42 at MSU.
-2016 Results: 6-7, beat Miami (OH) 17-16 in St. Petersburg -Bowl.
-Opener: At Louisiana Tech
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald racked up 3,798-total yards and 37 touchdowns in 2016. Mind-blowing numbers from the first year starter that is said to have diligently worked on his pocket passing prowess in the offseason. Fitzgerald’s top receiver will be All SEC Donald Gray (41-receptions, 5 TD’s) but the receiver position as whole will be youthful and inexperienced. Offensive line lost two starters and has thirty combined starts. It will be led by all-conference center/tackle Martinas Rankin as well as guards Elgton Jenkins and guard Deion Calhoun. RB Aeris Williams’ 720-yards was second to Fitzgerald’s 1375 but figures to be the Bulldogs top rusher.
Returning Statistical Leaders
–Returning Starters: 7
-Passing: Nick Fitzgerald-196/361, 2423-yards, 21 TD’s, 10 INT’s
-Rushing: Nick Fitzgerald-195 carries, 1375-yards, 16 TD’s
-Receiving: Donald Gray-41 catches, 709-yards, 5 TD’s
2016 Offensive Results
-Scoring 30.4 ppg (SEC-7th)
-Rushing 230.5 ypg (SEC-5th)
-Passing 209.7 ypg (SEC-9th)
-Total 440.2 ypg (SEC-7th)
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham makes his return to the SEC after being named the fourth coordinator in as many years. He inherits a unit that allowed 31 points-per-game a year ago. Inconsistencies at the coordinator position cannot be good for player development. Grantham is known for his colorful sideline demeanor and aggressive play calling. He’ll again be assisted by a Heisman Trophy contender on the other side of the football which leads me to believe that he’ll stick to his blitzing guns.
With no seniors on the defensive line, linebacker Leo Lewis (79-tackles) and LB/DB hybrid JT Gray (71-tackles, 7 TFL) return to lead the defense that will be highly dependent upon junior college players. Safety Brandon Bryant is the fastest player on the team after being clocked at a 4.24-40 has totaled 125-tackles in two seasons as a starter. Cornerback Tolando Cleveland returns after sustaining an injury in 2016.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Returning Starters: 6
-Tackles: Leo Lewis-79
2016 Defensive Results
-Scoring 31.8 ppg (SEC-13th)
-Rushing 177.5 ypg (SEC-7th)
-Passing 281.5 ypg (SEC-14th)
-Total 459.1 ypg (SEC-12th)
IMPACT ON KENTUCKY
Dan Mullen has lost to UK once in his career. That defeat occurred in 2016 as Austin MacGinnis’ kick sailed through the goal post as the clock struck zeroes. UK is MSU’s homecoming. The Bulldogs play BYU at home the week prior. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is dynamic and will provide a significant challenge to opposing defensive coordinators. If the Cats are to compete in the East, it has to win in Starkville.
Dan Mullen Excerpts
“So I’m very, very proud to be able to stand in front of the team and tell them that of how we’ve built the program that way. Last year, you know, coming into this season for us, we have some guys coming back. One of the things, there is always comfort when you have a quarterback that’s played coming back. We have Nick Fitzgerald starting last season for us coming back, had a pretty solid year last year, lead the SEC in total offense, had a great year running the football.”
New Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham
“Defensively, a different personality with Todd Grantham on the defensive side of the ball, running our defense. It was great to get somebody of his level to come to Mississippi State and run our defense.”
On QB Nick Fitzgerald’s development.
“I tell you what, the one thing I think he’s going to learn, I’ll start with Brett, is learning how to make sure you balance your life and balance your life out. And I think it’s going to change him an awful lot. You know, the greatest thing you have is, you know, win or lose on a Saturday, you’re going to come home to a family that loves you. You’re going to come home to a family that’s very disappointed maybe if you lost or really excited that you won and a family that takes on maybe a lot of pressures that we deal with as head coaches, but to make sure that you don’t make it about you. It’s about them. It’s about being a family and loving on your family and their growth.”