Labeling this a rebuilding year for Mississippi State wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect, but calling it a transitional season might be more accurate.
Everything, it seems, is changing in Starkville.
The Dak Prescott era is over on offense. The Manny Diaz era has ended on defense. And if we’re looking at the program as a whole, it’s important to note that the Tony Hughes era has ended on the recruiting side.
But as Dan Mullen prepares for his eighth spring game as Mississippi State’s head coach on Saturday, you don't get the sense that he’s worried about the change taking place around him. He doesn’t look at it like the program is starting over. Rather, it’s simply moving forward with a new cast.
Mullen isn’t expecting Dak 2.0 to emerge from his group of four quarterbacks. He likes what Peter Sirmon brings to the table as defensive coordinator and believes the culture of recruiting won’t change under Terrell Buckley, who takes over as secondary coach and recruiting coordinator after spending the last two seasons at Louisville.
How everything comes together remains to be seen. But starting Saturday, we’ll get a glimpse of how it might play out.
Here are three things to watch when the Bulldogs take the field:
1. Resetting the field at receiver: De’Runnya Wilson is off to the NFL, Fred Brown has been kicked out of school and Fred Ross and Donald Gray are both out with injuries. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s all four of Mississippi State’s top receivers from a year ago who won’t be on the field Saturday. So before we get ahead of ourselves with who replaces Prescott at quarterback, consider who will actually catch passes from his successor. Outside of Malik Dear, who caught 22 passes last season, there’s not much experience at receiver. Jesse Jackson and Jonnas Spivey have reportedly taken many of the reps, but neither have a catch to their names yet. The depth chart has been so decimated that Jamal Peters has been brought over from safety to pitch in.
2. Life after Dak: It will be a weird experience seeing another quarterback take center stage for the Bulldogs this weekend. For the past two years it’s been all Prescott, all the time. But now the offense must change hands, and the spring game marks the first major audition for the handful of candidates looking to replace Prescott under center. It’s fair to call Nick Fitzgerald, who appeared in eight games last season, the front runner. But he’s not alone. Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano are all in the mix. Tiano’s name wasn’t thrown around much before spring practice, but he’s made an impression on the coaching staff the last few weeks, showing a good command of the offense and the kind of intangibles you don’t see often from a redshirt freshman.
3. Defensive changes: It’s not just that the coordinator changed -- everything changed. The entire staff, down to the graduate assistants, is new on defense. And while the overall philosophy will remain the same as long as Dan Mullen is in charge, you can expect some slight schematic differences from Manny Diaz to Peter Sirmon, including more 3-4 looks than last year and the use of a hybrid outside linebacker who can play with his hand in the ground or drop back in coverage. As far as personnel, expect the defensive line to be the strongest unit, headlined by defensive end A.J. Jefferson. They're in good shape at linebacker if Richie Brown is back, and if junior college transfer Lashard Durr is able to establish himself at cornerback, it would go a long way in settling a secondary that lost three starters.