Joe Moorhead’s first season as the head coach of Mississippi State was rather topsy-turvy. While the Bulldogs finished the season 4-2, they could not elude a 1-3 stretch in the middle that wound up being their undoing. Losses to the Kentucky Wildcats, Florida Gators and LSU Tigers ultimately made the 24-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide far more significant than it should’ve been.
Their 27-22 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl was certainly not the way that they wanted to end the year. It was certainly a lost opportunity for them to end on a high note, especially considering how different things would soon become.
Gone now are many key contributors from the last few years of prosperity for the program. There will be lots of retooling and rebuilding going on in Starkville. So what will the 2019 Mississippi State Bulldogs look like? Let’s take a few guesses.
Before we talk about the change at quarterback, let’s talk about areas where almost no changes occurred from this offseason.
That begins with the offensive line. Everyone on the line, with the exception of redshirt freshman Kwatrivous Johnson has at least three years of experience under their belts. Senior lineman Tyre Phillips and Darryl Williams got the starting nods at left tackle and center for State’s opener this coming weekend. Meanwhile, juniors Dareuan Parker, Stewart Reese and Greg Eiland will begin the year at left guard, right guard and right tackle.
Michael Story, Evan Wilkerson, LaQuinston Sharp and Tommy Champion may not be starting but there’s a good chance that some may see the field given that rotations might be in order. Let’s not forget five-star recruit Charles Cross either here. Time will tell, but this is an experienced group that should make life a bit easy.
Another good piece of news for State coming into the year is that a glut of their leading receivers are back. Osirus Mitchell, the team’s leader in receptions (26) is back for his junior year, along with the team’s leader in receiving yards in Stephen Guidry (440). Additionally, Malik Dear, Devonta Jason, Deddrick Thomas and Austin Williams will be on the field catching passes again this season. The team also added some depth in the form of JUCO transfer JaVonta Payton and Isaiah Zuber, an incoming grad transfer from the Kansas State Wildcats.
Then of course, there’s Kylin Hill. State’s dynamo running back is now the lead back with Aeris Williams having since departed in the offseason. Not to mention the fact that the team’s leading rusher, Nick Fitzgerald, is also gone too, along with Keytaon Thompson, who recently entered his name in the transfer portal. So Hill will absolutely be getting the most touches. He’s an excellent player and has proven to be a force when he gets the ball in his hands. A season ago, he had 734 yards on 117 carries, averaging a robust 6.3 YPC. He also picked up a YPR of 8.0, grabbing 22 passes for 176 yards. His dual-threat ability out of the backfield definitely makes him an X-Factor for this team.
If Hill goes down, State has Nick Gibson to lean on. He got limited action a year ago, but averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 27 rushing attempts. Not too shabby. 3-star recruit Lee Witherspoon could find himself in the mix as well at times. That is if he doesn’t redshirt of course. But you should obviously expect Kylin to be the lead back and then some this year.
Now let’s focus on the quarterback. The aforementioned departure of Fitzgerald left the door open for either Keytaon Thompson or Penn State Nittany Lions transfer Tommy Stevens to take the job. In the end, Stevens was recently named the starter and now Thompson has elected to transfer.
Stevens is an unknown at this point. He’s made 41 pass attempts in his career, the most in a single season being just 27 in 2017. He’s shown an ability to be a runner too, having racked up 76 rushing attempts in his career so far. He’s piled on 506 yards to those 76 carries, good for 6.7 yards per carry. So, he’s definitely under the Fitzgerald mold.
The question is how much will it work and benefit them? State struggled mightily sometimes with Fitzgerald in the passing game and it hamstrung them at times. Given that we have no real gauge on Stevens as a thrower, we simply have to wait and see on him. He has experience in years only really, so it’s hard to say whether Stevens will succeed or even struggle under center right now.
The 2018 State defense was one of the best units in the entire country by any metric. This group was second in PPG allowed (13.2) only behind the National Champions, the Clemson Tigers. They led the nation in YPG allowed (263.8), were in the Top 10 in passing yards allowed (168) and were third in the nation in rushing yards allowed (95.8) behind only the Michigan State Spartans and the Texas A&M Aggies.
That being said, this group lost a bit in the offseason. Gone are their key anchors up front in Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. Leading tackler Johnathan Abram is also gone, and so is Mark McLaurin. With all of that in mind though, it’s important to note that this team is still super deep on defense and will likely remain a force to be reckoned with.
The best position group on this team, by far, is at linebacker. It is easily one of the best in the nation, let alone the SEC. You have Willie Gay Jr. and Erroll Thompson leading the way here, and they’re followed up by Leo Lewis and Tim Washington. Sh’mar Kilby-Lane is a solid depth piece with plenty of experience, and freshman Aaron Brule could see some work as well down the line. State’s 4-2-5 set will allow for this group to be led by the two-headed monster of Gay and Thompson, and there is plenty of talent behind them to make them very imposing.
The back of the defense has lots to like as well. Junior cornerback Cameron Dantzler is now the star of the backfield with Abram having gone to the NFL. Dantzler had a very successful 2018, piling up 43 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and a team-high nine passes defended. He’s a star and definitely worthy of any praise he’s given.
Around him will be Maurice Smitherman and Brian Cole, who’ll likely play a lot in the slot and as the team’s nickel back. Smitherman is a senior who had an interception and three passes defended last year, as well as a forced fumble. While it might be difficult to replace Abram at safety, they have the experience to do so with senior .
Free safety will again be led by junior C.J. Morgan, with Marcus Murphy behind him in the two-deep right now. Keep your eye on Fred Peters too, as the junior could see the field at times as well. Four-star recruit Jarrian Jones has talent under his belt as well, and could make an impact if given the opportunity.
Let’s get to the front, though. While Sweat and Simmons are gone, there are still a few of pieces who’ve been retained going into 2019. Senior defensive end Chauncey Rivers leads the way in that category, as he’ll remain a presence on the edge. The others — Lee Autry, Fletcher Adams, Marquiss Spencer, Kobe Jones and Kendell Jones — come with experience but with very little presence after last year. They got limited work but they’ll obviously be seeing a sizable increase. They will have plenty of help behind them of course with their stout LB corp, but it will definitely be on them to try and create more havoc in the trenches.
Two freshmen who could find themselves making an impact at some point are Nathan Pickering and De’Monte Russell. Both were four-star recruits and Pickering is a Top 100 player in the nation in the 2019 recruiting cycle, landing 73rd in that department. He was also sixth at his position coming into the year while Russell was 10th. So there’s talent underneath the aforementioned veterans if they decide to dip into that pool.
Mississippi State will not necessarily have it too easy for their first two games of the year. They begin against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns at the Superdome in NOLA. UL brings back nearly everyone on offense, including Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell. That being said though, they should be able to bust past them given the disparity in talent and skill level.
The following week they’ll play a Southern Miss Golden Eagles team that stands a good chance to at least be atop the Conference USA West Division. Jack Abraham is back for the Golden Eagles as is Ty Williams, and both players are fairly dynamic in their own right. The game is in Starkville though, so we can give this a W too. But these could be very early and sturdy tests for the retooled Bulldogs.
The following two weeks should probably be relatively easy pickins. They welcome the Kansas State Wildcats to Starkville, and the Wildcats are likely not going to do too much damage in the Big 12 this year. Their lack of strong LBs could mean a big day for Kylin Hill when they meet, just like last season in The Little Apple. Kentucky, meanwhile, will look completely different after arguably their best season ever last year. The game is at home for Mississippi State, and so a 4-0 start is very much in the cards.
Things get very dicey after that though. The Bulldogs will have to travel to Jordan-Hare to face the Auburn Tigers on the plains. This is likely set to be a loss, as despite State’s talent defensively, they probably won’t figure to pick up a win on the road. Dating back to 2001, State is 2-7 in trips to Auburn. After a bye week, they’ll play a Tennessee Volunteers team that will have just played Florida and the Georgia Bulldogs. Believe it or not, this is the first time since 2008 that Mississippi State has visited Knoxville and the first time since 2012 that these two teams have met in general. Tennessee typically dominated this series, but things have obviously changed dramatically in the last decade.
It doesn’t get much easier from there. They’ll welcome LSU to Starkville and then take a trip to College Station to face Texas A&M. Both LSU and A&M figure to once again be be threats in the West and are likely higher up on the totem pole as of now in comparison to State. They do get some semblance of relief after that though, as they’ll face the lowly Arkansas Razorbacks. But, big bad Alabama will come to Starkville on November 16. Luckily, they’ve got their second bye week just before that meeting to rest up and recuperate before the Tide roll in.
As always, the season concludes with a matchup against the rival Ole Miss Rebels, a game preceded by a faceoff with the Abilene Christian Wildcats.
It’s obviously rather hard not to like Mississippi State’s defense, especially the back seven. The front four’s lack of experience from an in-game perspective leaves a little to worry about, as does Tommy Stevens’ inexperience at the QB position. But there’s talent up front on the O-Line, Kylin Hill is Kylin Hill and the receivers are there to make an impact too. In all, I think the ceiling for State is probably what it was last year’s, and that’s assuming that the defensive line and Stevens play up to snuff.
Louisiana - W
Southern Miss - W
Kansas State - W
Kentucky - W
at Auburn - L
at Tennessee - W
LSU - L
at Texas A&M - L
at Arkansas - W
Alabama - L
Abilene Christian - W
Ole Miss - W