Make no mistake about it, Mississippi State lost a lot of experience due to graduation and to the NFL. Those departures are only part of the story, because the players making the move up to the top spot on the depth chart at their positions are far from newcomers.
The Bulldogs graduated a pair of talented wide receivers last fall with Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson exhausting their eligibility. Both seniors were listed starters in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but for all intents and purposes their replacements were found and playing last season.
Lewis entered his senior season as the league's top returning receiving yardage leader. The senior from Tylertown got off to a slow start before putting together two solid showings on the road at South Alabama and LSU.
Lewis' 116 receiving yards in the Bulldogs' win over the Bayou Bengals proved to be the high water mark for Lewis' production for the 2014 campaign. The contest also resulted in a leg injury that hampered Lewis the remainder of the season.
With Lewis sidelined with injury, Starkville High product Gabe Myles took up the starting slack and became a dependable passing target during #4's absence. Coming out of spring practice, Myles projects to be solid contributor in 2015 with Junior College All-American Donald Gray providing a competitive push during the spring sessions that followed his January enrollment.
The player expected to start in the slot is junior star Fred Ross, who may be Mississippi State's most explosive receiver. While considered a "non-starter" for 2014, Ross was second on the team in receiving yards (489) and touchdown catches (5). Ross was only bested by fellow junior De'Runnya Wilson who led the team in all receiving categories for the season.
Robert Johnson's exit from the program after four years of service does not leave a real hole in overall production. Johnson recorded 14 catches, 227 yards and a touchdown. In fact, Johnson's position mates Fred Brown and Joe Morrow reeled in more passes for more yards and scores even though they were not considered "starters".
Mississippi State fans will certainly miss seeing Lewis and Johnson in the Maroon and White, but their roles within the Bulldog offense were somewhat limited last season. As a result, the Bulldog passing targets of today gained meaningful experience a year ago.
Gus Walley appears to be the heir apparent at tight end, but the Bulldog staff moved wide out Shelby Christy to that personnel grouping this spring in hopes of adding another playmaker to work the middle of the field. Senior Darrion Hutcherson also showed some flashes during the bowl practices and spring sessions, but the depth chart at the tight end position calls for a steady producer to follow in the footsteps of the productive Johnson.
Gone is running back Josh Robinson who ran for 1,203 yards as a junior. The bulk of those yards came in the first half of the season with 198 coming on the road at Kentucky. The final six games of the 2014 slate, Robinson rushed for just over 300 yards.
Ashton Shumpert stepped up along with Brandon Holloway to aid in the cause. Both are expected to be big factors this fall, but the bulk of the Bulldog back intrigue this spring centered around redshirt freshman ball carriers Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams. While both are looking for their first college snaps, Bulldog running backs boss Greg Knox has reason to smile this spring. Lots of reasons.
This time last year, the one concern about the Mississippi State offense was how would the Bulldogs replace All-American stud Gabe Jackson at left guard and steady right tackle Charles Siddoway. The Bulldog offense continued to thrive and actually became more prolific during the 2014 season despite the losses of the departed seniors from a season ago.
With summer workout report dates looming, the questions around the Mississippi State offense once again center around the offensive line. The Bulldogs will look to replace three starters who are now in camp with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. What is ironic is that the recently departed, Ben Beckwith, Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day were all considered recruiting reaches by the college football pundits and now five years later those players are now considered nearly irreplaceable.
Clausell's replacement, Rufus Warren, was his understudy last fall. Warren spent the first two years of his Bulldog playing career as a blocking tight end before making the move to tackle in 2014. Warren earned positive grades in his action last fall and has transformed himself physically.
In an effort to bulk up last season, Warren packed on the pounds. This spring, Warren looks like a different player and plays like one too.
Taking over at center for Day is Jamaal Clayborn who already has two years of SEC play under his belt including a handful of starts at offensive guard. Clayborn took the lion's share of the snaps during bowl practices and rolled right into the spring semester as the man to beat over the ball.
Fan favorite Ben Beckwith earned respect of fans and coaches alike as the former walk-on earned All-SEC honors. Madison Central product Devon Desper was a part time starter a season ago and a regular contributor in the Bulldog offensive line rotation. Now slated to be the full time starter at right guard, Desper looks to be playing the best football of his college career.
Also in the mix for playing time this fall is the Nation's #1 juco offensive lineman, Martinas Rankin, who enrolled in Starkville in January. Signed as an offensive tackle, Rankin is pushing starting right tackle Justin Senior for playing time this fall.
Starting up front, Mississippi State will seek to replace three starters on the defensive line, Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones and the afore mentioned Smith. That task is made easier by the experience gained by the "1B" rotations of a year ago.
Ironically, the front four may prove to be more athletic this season than in 2014. Now thrust into a starting role, former five star Chris Jones is expected to be the center piece of the Bulldog defensive alignment. Jones recorded three sacks and eight quarterback hurries, while splitting time as a sophomore. Now a draft eligible junior, Jones is working towards a break out year this fall.
Nick James returned to action last fall after redshirting in 2013. James is in the best shape of his career and exits the spring as the starter alongside Jones. James has the potential to be a very good player. He simply needs the production to match his physical skills.
A.J. Jefferson was extremely productive in his role last season recording 9 quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to go along with 28 tackles as a back up to Preston Smith. Now called the "bell cow" of the defensive line by veteran coach David Turner, Jefferson is emerging as the leader of the personnel group.
A pair of Bulldog linebackers, Benardrick McKinney and Matthew Wells, are now looking to earn playing time on the NFL's big stage. The tandem recorded a total of 116 tackles in their final seasons on the Mississippi State roster.
In most cases, they were already alternates. Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown recorded 112 tackles and played less snaps. Now slated to start in a linebacker friendly scheme led by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, the Browns have Bulldog fans excited about what is to come.
The experience both gained as sophomores prepared them for the bigger role this season as the top players on the depth chart at their respective positions.
In the secondary, the Bulldogs have to replace corner Jamerson Love and safety Jay Hughes. As the season wore on, the Bulldogs top tandem at corner was Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond who both return this fall. The pair of Dog corners finished in the top five in tackles last fall and combined to defense 18 opponents' passes.
Looking to replace Love at nickel is Cedric Jiles who missed last season to injury. Jiles looks to be back to form as the summer workouts appeared on the post spring horizon.
Safety Kivon Coman finished just outside of the top ten team leaders in tackles for 2014. The competition for the starting spots at safety will continue this fall, but Coman expects to figure prominently in the Bulldog game plan.
Coman will also look to aid U.S. Army All-American Jamal Peters in his acclimation to college football this summer. Peters, the state's top recruit, is expected to make an immediate impact and be thrust into the fray as a true freshman.
Peters may prove to be the only underclassmen who earns a starting position this fall outside of redshirt sophomore Gabe Myles.
Yes, the Bulldogs have to replace some talented football players, but in many respects the groundwork to prepare those reinforcements took place last fall. So when thumbing through some summer football reading, remember that the number of returning starters only tells part of the story. There are some very capable returning players expected to start this fall.