Dak Prescott was on the sidelines, but the post-Prescott era of Mississippi State football began in earnest Saturday as the Bulldogs closed out spring practice with one final scrimmage in front of fans at Davis-Wade Stadium.
Here are three observations from the spring game:
No separation at QB: Elijah Staley went first, Damian Williams second, Nick Fitzgerald third and Nick Tiano fourth. But as coach Dan Mullen said prior to kickoff, don’t read too much into the order at quarterback. In fact, Fitzgerald, who was Prescott’s backup last year, is the favorite to start. And despite throwing a pair of interceptions, he’s done nothing to lose that distinction. After all, one interception was tipped by a defensive lineman and the other was a bobble by a receiver. But regardless of blame, those picks don’t help Fitzgerald’s case against the competition. Staley is a big-bodied athlete in the mold of a Cam Newton, but he showed in the scrimmage that he lacks a certain polish in the passing game, completing 5 of 11 passes. Williams, on the other hand, is maybe the most effective pure passer, but he doesn’t have tremendous upside. And then there’s Tiano, a redshirt freshmen who has a little bit of everything. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in intangibles. After he threw an interception in his first series, he bounced right back and threw a nice touchdown pass to Malik Dear, showing the kind of poise coaches have commented on throughout the spring.
O-line the lynchpin: Forget the quarterbacks, forget the receivers, forget the running backs. While there are concerns at all three positions, they’re not the biggest worry when it comes to Mississippi State’s offense in 2016. It’s going to be the line that makes or breaks Mullen’s game plan. Remember their struggles last year? If not, here’s the refresher: 32 sacks and the fewest yards gained by running backs in the SEC. While the run blocking looked somewhat improved on Saturday, pass-blocking still left something to be desired with five sacks and a few batted balls. Justin Senior, Jamaal Clayborn and Devon Desper provide some foundation as returning starters, but they need to improve. If former No. 1-rated junior college tackle Martinas Rankin can settle into a starting role after redshirting last year, it would go a long way in improving the overall quality of the line.
New defense, new stars: It would have been understandable if the defense struggled on Saturday. After all, you’re talking about an entirely new coaching staff on that side of the ball, from coordinator on down to graduate assistants. Throw in the fact that six starters are gone from last year’s squad, and it’s a lot to take in. But in spite of a scaled down playbook on Saturday, the defense held its own. The final score is misleading, but the stats aren’t: four interceptions, five sacks, 4.18 yards per carry. What’s more, you started to see some playmakers emerge. Will Coleman, playing the new hybrid linebacker/defensive end position Peter Sirmon nicknames “Viper” had a sack. Defensive end Johnathan Calvin, who showed flashes of talent last year after transferring from a junior college, was on full display with four sacks on his own. Calvin could form a nice pass-rushing tandem with fellow end A.J. Jefferson, who had a nice scrimmage himself with an interception and two tackles.