Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Ross, Fitzgerald Leading Candidates for All-SEC Selections on Offense; Lewis a Top Rookie?

A trio of Bulldogs were named preseason all-conference back in July. Now with the SEC campaign, will any of these or teammates be recognized for their real season feats?

The Southeastern Conference’s two major all-leagues are to be announced soon; the teams selected by media members, and those picked by conference coaches. At least one Bulldog star of 2016 is positioned strongly for first-team candidacy, as WR Fred Ross led the league in receiving touchdowns with a dozen, two more than the next-nearest challengers.

Ross finished fourth in receiving yardage (873) and was sixth in scoring with 74 points. His senior season was a strong follow-up to the junior year when he was named first-team AP and second-team Coaches after setting the Mississippi State record for receptions despite playing alongside a second-team All-SEC wideout in De’Runnya Wilson.

In the summer Media Days projections Ross was a second-team pick and first-team of coaches again. So such status here in December will be a fitting finish to his conference legacy. Ross already owns the Mississippi State records for both catches and yardage; and is tied for second in receiving touchdowns with a bowl game ahead.

Last year Ross became the first Mississippi State receiver named first-team All-SEC in either selection since Eric Moulds in 1995.

Of course the 2014-15 Mississippi State seasons were historic because for the first time since a football-forever a Bulldog quarterback was the consensus first-team selection. That was a large part of Dak Prescott’s legacy both as a Bulldog and in this conference…at a position no State triggerman had been recognized as first-team since 1986 with Don Smith.

Now…against all expectations, could Prescott’s successor challenge for not just consideration but first-team recognition? It sounds crazy…until one looks at what Nick Fitzgerald achieved as a first-year starter.

With the regular season numbers added-up, it is the Mississippi State quarterback who came in third in SEC rushing. His 1,243 rushing yards trail only two true backs and only by 83 and six yards respectively. Plus, Fitzgerald tied for first in SEC touchdowns scored with LSU’s Derrius Guice at 14 each. In fact a not-crazy argument might be made Fitzgerald should be an All-SEC running back!

At the same time Fitzgerald’s feats extend into the air. Though this was the secondary aspect to his play down the season stretch, the sophomore was much more efficient in the passing game than many appreciated. He finished the regular season sixth in passing yardage, and a more impressive fifth in passing touchdowns with 21.

Ross, and Donald Gray and other Dog receivers, certainly had hands in helping Fitzgerald develop as a passer. But he did his own larger part and made this an ever-more useful part of State’s balancing out the offense. Such as, when Fitzgerald dominated the arch-rival in an Egg Bowl show. He only threw eight completed passes…but three of those went for touchdowns.

The net result is that going into bowl season it is State’s new quarterback, not one of the better-established stars, who led the league in total offense at 3,530 yards.

Put another way, Fitzgerald—and Guice—were the highest-scoring SEC players this season who were not placekickers. Even if Fitzgerald is overlooked for all-conference this year, he has two more seasons ahead to achieve this status and become Mississippi State’s next All-SEC quarterback.

Two other Bulldogs were on pre-season teams, both of whom represented State at Media Days by no coincidence. Now all will see if memory matters.

Middle linebacker Richie Brown and defensive tackle A.J. Jefferson were both third-team projections back in July. (The all-conference voters place picks in a standard 4-3-2-2 alignment.)

Neither had spectacular senior seasons, but both Dogs were solid at their slots. Brown finished fourth in total tackles at 93 split almost equally with 48 solos and 45 assists. As the mike ‘backer Brown was not going to get a lot of the flashy stats that other positions pile up. So he finished with two sacks and a fumble forced.

A shift to a 3-4 base defense did not play to Jefferson’s strengths as well as the old 4-3 did. Plus the senior missed a couple of games with injury. He finished tied for 21st in SEC sacks with 4.0 and was second on his own defense.

This should make senior DE Jonathan Calvin an all-conference candidate in his own right after a 54-tackle season. One which he was not even expected to start. August injury to Will Coleman opened up that job and Calvin made the most of it for sure, scoring a team-most 7.0 sacks (51 yards) and 11.5 tackles for losses.

Calvin tied for 11th in SEC sacks, and had an interception as well. He finished with a two-sack show in the Egg Bowl victory.

It wasn’t a good year by any measure for the Bulldog defense to be sure. Yet some youngsters had their moments and one of them a lot of them. It should put LB Leo Lewis at the forefront of freshman all-SEC considerations.

Redshirt rookie Lewis finished tied for 17th in tackles with a strong 72; 29 solos and 43 assists. He had one sack as well from the outside slot.

In Dan Mullen’s seven previous seasons 18 Bulldogs were named first- or second-team All-SEC by either the AP, Coaches, or both; with 28 total recognitions including multiple-years. State has not had less than three picks in any of Mullen’s years with a high of six Dogs named in 2012.

Mississippi State will complete the season in the December 26 St. Petersburg Bowl, playing Miami-Ohio. While bowl camp officially opens this Friday after final exams end, the Bulldogs have already had some informal practices ahead of their expected assignment.

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