The Mississippi State Bulldogs have had quite the assortment of talented running backs over the past several decades. Guys like Jerious Norwood, Anthony Dixon, Vick Ballard and Josh Robinson, all of whom made it to the NFL, have all entrenched their names in the Bulldogs’ record books.
However, as of late, that long tradition of running backs has been fading.
In the last two years, Mississippi State’s quarterbacks have led the team in rushing. Dak Prescott led with 588 yards and 10 touchdowns two years ago, and Nick Fitzgerald ran for 1,375 yards and 16 scores last season. One could blame that lack of balance on an inconsistent offensive line. But in 2017, expect that trend to disappear and see the resurgence of Bulldog running back position.
Last November saw the emergence of then-sophomore back Aeris Williams. The 6-foot-1, sub-220-pound back exploded onto the scene when he ran for 140 yards and a touchdown in a 35-28 win over the Texas A&M Aggies. Williams capped his breakout month with a 191-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 55-20 win over in-state rival Ole Miss. His return gives Mississippi State a potential do-it-all back for the first time in two years. But more importantly, the running back position should be stronger, deeper and more competitive this fall for the Bulldogs.
Aeris Williams wasn't shy about being the guy at RB rn. "It’s going to get real crazy. That’s all I got to say.” https://t.co/N1cNx3Dd50— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) March 23, 2017
Along with Williams, Mississippi State also has backs like redshirt sophomore Nick Gibson and redshirt junior Dontavian Lee.
Gibson, a former 4-star recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings, ran for 108 yards on 17 carries during the Bulldogs’ spring game. The 5-foot-11 back had a handful of impressive runs, including a 25-yarder in the first half. Not only did Gibson have some strong dashes, he displayed a tough running style too, which he attributes to his weight gain. According to Gibson, he gained 10 pounds this offseason so he “could take more punishment” this season.
With Lee, he is a lot healthier than he was last season according to coaches. The rising junior, listed at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, ran for 49 yards and a score on 11 carries in the spring game.
While Mississippi State has three solid backs already on campus, they are also adding another one come this fall in prized four-star signee out of Columbus (Mississippi) High School, Kylin Hill. The incoming back ran for 1,750 yards and 24 touchdowns this past season and averaged 9.9 yards per carry. He is the highest-rated running back signee for Mississippi State since the aforementioned Norwood back in 2002.
Hill’s role with the Bulldogs will be determined in camp based on how he performs, which he is well aware of. According to Hill, Mississippi State’s running back Greg Knox told the back who possesses a great balance of speed and strength that he has a chance to compete for the Bulldogs’ starting running back position.
If any combination of Gibson, Lee and Hill can prove themselves reliable in the running game, that shouldn’t only ease Williams’ workload, but also Fitzgerald’s as well. Fitzgerald ran the ball 195 times last season, more than Alabama’s quarterback Jalen Hurts did. Mississippi State should reconsider how they manage Fitzgerald’s workload in 2017. However, for the Bulldogs’ running backs to prove to be useful and effective, their offensive line has to be more consistent.
Two of the projected starters (Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun) missed all of spring practice. The result of that was a first-team line that only had one player who started in 2016: center Martinas Rankin, but he started at left tackle.
While the offensive line is a tricky situation for Mississippi State, considering the talent it possesses in the backfield, their running game should be even better in 2017. Teams will more than likely hone in on Fitzgerald in the run game this upcoming season. With that, that should open up more opportunities for the likes of Williams, Gibson, Lee and Hill to flash their talents in 2017.