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SEC spring preview: Mississippi State begins life without Dak Prescott

Here’s a glimpse at what to expect from the Bulldogs as they look to start anew in 2016.

2015 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC), beat NC State in Belk Bowl

Final AP rank: N/A

2016 Way-too-early rank: N/A

2016 FPI rank: No. 22

Spring game date: April 16

Key losses: LB Beniquez Brown, DB Taveze Calhoun, DL Chris Jones, QB Dak Prescott, DB Will Redmond, WR De'Runnya Wilson

Key newcomers: DL Tre Brown, WR Dontea Jones, DB C.J. Morgan-Walker, TE Christian Roberson

1. How do you replace Prescott?

This is the place you have to start. It’s the only place, really.

In his two-plus years as a starter, Dak Prescott became the face of the program at Mississippi State. In 2015, he accomplished a pair of firsts: the Bulldogs’ first time at No. 1 in the polls and their first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

But now it’s time to move on. Prescott is gone and there’s a three-man race to replace him among Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley and Damian Williams.

Williams is the most senior of the group, Fitzgerald got the most reps last season and Staley might have the most upside.

While it’s difficult to imagine coach Dan Mullen pulling the trigger on naming a starter in the spring, it will be interesting nonetheless to see who in that group emerges as the front-runner.

2. What will the defense look like?

It’s not just Manny Diaz that left. As it turns out, pretty much the entire defensive coaching staff changed addresses following last season, even many of the graduate assistants.

And that’s setting aside all the personnel changes with Chris Jones, Beniquez Brown, Will Redmond and others having moved on.

Where that leaves new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon is in a tough spot. But in a conversation with the former USC assistant, he seemed to be relishing the idea of a fresh start. And if that’s the situation the entire program is facing, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Thanks to back-to-back solid recruiting classes, Sirmon and his staff have talent to work with. However, simply getting everyone on the same page might be the biggest goal of the spring for such a new group.

3. Will the running game return?

Last season was the worst showing by a Mississippi State running game since Mullen took the helm so many years ago. Quite simply, they couldn’t find anyone at the position capable of running the ball with any consistency. Prescott wound up as the team’s leading rusher, and while he was always a talented runner, having a QB with more carries than the first- and second-string running back is never a good thing.

So it’s time to go back to the feature back. Back to the days of Vick Ballard, LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson. Back to the bread and butter of Mississippi State.

With Prescott gone and the team’s most talented receiver (De’Runnya Wilson) no longer on campus, it’s imperative that Mullen find someone he can hand the ball off to 15-20 times a game.

Brandon Holloway, because of his size, is probably not the man for the job. And while Ashton Shumpert has shown flashes of ability, he didn’t make the most of his reps last season. That leaves a handful of under-the-radar names to pay attention to: Malik Dear, Nick Gibson, Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams.