Every four, five years or so Dawgs’ Bite undertakes this entertaining and risky task of grading Mississippi State recruiting classes during this publication’s tenure. We don’t claim to be definitive and yes, previous grades do change as history provides perspective. Or maybe our memory fades, take your pick.
The trick is taking what experts and fans (often the same thing) thought of the class at the time; and judging results on the field over the ensuing seasons. Not just the team records, but how many made an impact, how much of the group lasted, their individual honors and draft picks…but not pro careers, just college achievements. Or lack thereof.
What complicates this obviously is that even a ‘great’ class might not have made much difference on the scoreboard due to existing issues in the program, or coaching changes, or whatever. Vice-versa holds too, a mediocre class in and of itself may have provided the few pieces needed to complete a very good Bulldog team. Which is all to say…these grades are done on a heckuva lot of ‘curves’ and outright gut feeling more than measurables.
And that makes it fun. But hey, if any violently disagree with the grading…do your own. It’s still over a month to the season after all and some of y’all need something to discuss. Or cuss.
Note: Blue Chips are the most touted prospect at the time, regardless how their career actually panned out. Or not, as many of these names are barely remembered today. By contrast Finds are lower-profile signees at the time who became big contributors or even stars. All-SEC are those who eventually were named first- or second-team by league media or coaches.
One other note, of interest now that college football is considering a return to the early signing date. Up to the early 80s the year listed is for the following spring calendar; to keep it in synch with current signing years. Meaning the class of 1979 listed here was mostly inked in December 1978 by Bob Tyler, before Emory Bellard became coach in January. Yeah, it can get complicated.
1976 B- Blue Chips: OL Kyle Ball, QB Randall Carr, OL Matt Edwards, OL Lonnie Greene, RB James Jones, OL Walter Pitts, QB Jimmy Wilder. Finds: OL Alan Hartlein, DB Kenny Johnson, RB Len Copeland. All-SEC: Hartlein, Johnson, Jones.
It might not have become quite as good a class as it initially appeared on paper, but still turned out reasonably well…especially considering NCAA issues. Of the five quarterbacks signed none made major impacts, but the running backs surely did. Jones set rushing records and Copeland and Stanley Howell became standouts in an option offense. Coach Bob Tyler got some good linemen in four-year lettermen Hartlein, Edwards, and Chuck Maier, though two of the touted ones weren’t factors. Typical for linemen, of course. Defense was a weaker point with no first-class tackles or linebackers, though DB Johnson turned into one of the steals of the decade.
1977 A+ Blue Chips: QB Dwayne Brown, RB Fred Collins, LB Johnie Cooks, DL Glen Collins, RB James Otis Doss, LB Jimmy Giles, DL Tyrone Keys, WR Mardye McDole. Finds: LB Rusty Martin, WR David Ellis. All-SEC: Cooks, Collins, S Rob Fesmire, Keys, OL Alan Massey, McDole.
This was a remarkable class from the start with four prep all-Americans and 15 Mississippi All-Star Game picks. And it proved just as strong on the college field. Defensive stars alone made this an ‘A’ group; Collins was delayed a year by grades, while Cooks, Keys, Fesmire, and LB Don Edwards had instant impacts. Offense did very well also with backs Collins and Doss, wideouts McDole and Ellis, and QB Breck Tyler. It wasn’t passing QB’s Brown and Gary Schaffhauser fault State would eventually change to the option. State could afford to be picky with linemen and got a star in Massey. Oh, and while not a signee, Tyler found a record-setting QB in transfer kicker Dave Marler. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
1978 D+ Blue Chips: OL Bill Bell, RB Robert Bertucci, OL Roman Grace, LB Curtis Hill-Stowers, OL Steve Jones, RB Donald Ray King, DL Mitchell Street. Finds: none. All-SEC: none.
And when you’re not... Coming right after a benchmark year this was a dangerous letdown, though the NCAA nuking State surely had an impact. Star-quality was going to be limited anyway because Tyler went for size; 16 of the 27 signees were linemen on either side. Some went on to long careers. Bell was a solid center and Grace would play and start more games than any Dog before him at the time. They kept this class from a failing grade. King was the best of an average group of running backs, none of the quarterbacks were contributors, and besides capable Stowers the defense signed few worth remembering. The damage would show by 1982, not helped at all by the coaching transition ahead.
1979 A- Blue Chips: DL Earnie Barnes, RB Michael Haddix, OL Wayne Harris, DB Steve Johnson, WR Danny Knight, WR Glen Young. Finds: C Kent Hull, PK Dana Moore, LB Mike McEnany. All-SEC: Haddix, Harris, TE Jerry Price.
Do give Tyler credit. As his regime imploded he did go out with a recruiting bang. This class was close to equal of ‘77 and two future NFL stars--Hull and Young—weren’t even the most-sought prospects! This was a great lineman group with Harris, Hull, Tony Sartor, and TE Price. Basketball star Haddix was even better than touted, the best Bulldog back of the 80s and (some still think) maybe ever. Knight had to sit out a year, it was worth the wait as he defined ‘wingback’. The defense didn’t get as much help, only Barnes and LB Lawrence Evans really impacted, Eddie Burns was a sound LB, and injuries hampered LB Bo Robertson. Moore tips the balance to an A, becoming one of State’s truly clutch kickers.
1980 B Blue Chips: QB John Bond, OL Joe Estay, DE Billy Jackson, HB Henry Koontz, QB Tim Parenton, LB Clay Peacher, RB George Wonsley. Finds: FB Al Rickey Edwards, WR Art Mordecai. All-SEC: Jackson, WR Danny Knight
Because some of these freshmen made such an immediate impact, Emory Bellard’s first class was regarded a lot more highly in the 80s than it is today and the grade has dropped over time. This was a ‘needs’ class filling some skill position gaps, especially to fit an offense the previous classes had NOT been recruited for. Bond of was the difference-maker, born to run an option offense, though Parenton could have done just about as well. Bellard wanted more backs and Wonsley was the star of a group including Koontz, Edwards, Mikel Williams, and Lamar Windham. Also Knight, a re-signee, can be counted toward this grade. What would hurt was the lack of defense, other than all-time sacks leader Jackson, LB Peacher, and DB Gary Lambert. These shortcomings would show up in coming years, thus the reduced grading.
1981 C- Blue Chips: TE Corwyn Aldredge, LB Ermon Green, DL W.C. Johnson, LB Darwin Murph, LB Tom Nichols, LB Carl Prince, QB Danny Salchert. Finds: none. All-SEC: Aldredge, OL Rusty Brown.
Discerning fans could see the first signs of future trouble, when State failed to take advantage of two years’ success on the field with quality recruiting. Bellard tried to shore up the blocking and tackling quickly. OL Brown had a good career, while Todd Kirkland, Darrell Moore, Kevin Walker, and Frank Harbin earned three letters each. Green was solid at middle LB, just not the forecast star. Nichols turned into a good safety but big names Prince and Salchert were disappointments and backs Kenny Rogers and Elmer Wilson only average.
1982: D Blue Chips: DL Elvis Butler, K Artie Cosby, DT Andre Harris, QB Mike King, DT Glenn Phillips, LB Derrick Richardson, DL Pat Swoops. Finds: DB R.J. McKenna, OL Alvin Robinson. All-SEC: Swoopes
State needed a huge year to make up for two mediocre classes. What did Bellard do? Go sign a smallish class of only 16. Worse, most of the big names proved over-rated or under-productive. Swoopes did develop very well; but Richardson and Butler were letdowns and King and Phillips never became factors. Most blockers--Maury Hull, Paul Young, Scott Wilbanks--were typical Bellard line signees, short and stout when the game was trending long-and-tall. McKenna made a lot of defensive plays and Cosby’s kicks spoke for themselves. But this class produced no offense worth recalling and the program would pay dearly. An undercurrent too was how good assistants Bellard lost had been replaced mostly by poor coaches and worse recruiters.
1983 C Blue Chips: LB Malcolm Barnes, OL Blake Belue, WR Louis Clark, OL Gary Frank, DL William French, QB Don Smith, FB Sammy Williams. Finds: LB Cedric Corse, DB Kirby Jackson, DB Bruce Plummer. All-SEC: Smith
Too many of the stars in this group faded while lesser names got to shine. Obviously Smith lived up to expectations, in two different offenses, and many consider him the finest all-around Bulldog ballplayer of the past five decades. And he was. Clark bulked up to tight end and was a standout when the offense grudgingly had to go more to the air. Tragically though FB Williams drowned, and TB Jim Cumberbatch aborted his own career. Shot-put champ Frank could have been excellent but was mis-managed on the sketchy line for three years. Barnes lettered once, and only Stan Sims had a long career. Underrated defenders Corse, Jackson, and Plummer--the latter two future pro DBs--as well as solid safeties Brian Hutson and Mike Harper meant the secondary would be in good shape for years…and it had to be with weaknesses elsewhere.
1984 D Blue Chips: DL Mitchell Barlow, LB Chris Clausell, WR Fred Hadley, OL Mike Ingle, DT William Johnson, LB Jerry Leggett, LB Keith Neal, RB Rodney Peters. Finds: DB Wayne Banks, OL Michael Simmons. All-SEC: LB Aaron Pearson
It was not a terrible class, but not nearly enough to stop or even much slow collapse as Bellard—thanks to a chaotic AD situation—was retained another year. And, another, though his fire had gone out. Peters and Hank Phillips were competent running backs, Hadley was a solid receiver, and Simmons became a fine blocker. From a big bunch of linebackers only Pearson and Neal became players. Actually State was lucky Clausell, the state’s top prospect and pure trouble, removed himself quickly before the law could. Ingle, Hill, and Leggett were letdowns, too, and there were few finds to pick up the slack. What stood out most was the proportion arriving with injuries or becoming discipline problems. The biggest contributors would be on another field as RBs Barry and Ron Winford became Diamond Dogs.
Part 2: 1985-94