QuarterbackFant (6-2, 212), a junior, got to showcase his skills a year earlier than anticipated. When Wayne Madkin, State's all-time leading passer, went down with a toe injury last November, Fant answered the call. Not particularly effective as a caddy to Madkin earlier in the season, Fant emerged as the man, leading the Bulldogs to a victory over Ole Miss and nearly directing an upset of BYU in a game that turned into a shootout.
Against the Rebels, Fant completed 14-of-21 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown. That yardage total was the most by a Bulldog quarterback in six seasons.
Fant was even better against BYU, piling up 346 yards and three touchdowns while completing 20-of-28 passes. The 346 yards were the fifth most in school history, and the first time in six years a State quarterback passed the 300-yard mark.
Suffice to say Fant's handiwork in the season's final two games earned him the starting job in 2002, even though he underwent elbow surgery in the off-season. Despite having started just three games in his career, Fant has gained the respect of his teammates and the confidence of his coaches.
"The one on offense that the guys look to right now would be Kevin," Sherrill said after the spring game. "Kevin's about 60 percent of what he will be. He's got about six weeks before he has all his arm-strength back. But he still throws with an awful lot of accuracy."
Fant's ability to come back from the surgery and perform so well in the spring game (18-of-22 passing for 201 yards and four touchdowns) wasn't lost on his teammates.
"I say he's a Brett Favre type of quarterback - man, he can take a lick and get up and say come on, baby, let's do it again," senior fullback Justin Griffith said. "It gives a boost to the offense when you've got a guy like that. Plus he's a leader and you want to follow him, that makes you work even harder."
Defensive BacksSeniors Korey Banks, Demetric Wright and Josh Morgan are part of a solid secondary.
Banks (5-11, 183), a physical cornerback, made 48 tackles last season, two for loss. He also intercepted four passes, three of them coming in the final two weeks against Ole Miss and BYU.
Banks was a hero in the win over Ole Miss. With just under 11 minutes to play and State ahead just 22-21, Banks intercepted an Eli Manning pass at the Ole Miss 20-yard line to set up a touchdown. On the Rebels' next possession, Banks picked off another Manning pass deep in Ole Miss territory. Four plays later, the Bulldogs scored again to take a 36-21 lead with 5:27 remaining.
Like Banks, Wright (5-10, 170) arrived in 2001 from junior college and made a big impact, starting 10 games at cornerback. He finished with 46 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups.
Free safety Morgan (6-1, 199) started 11 games last season and finished third on the team with 79 tackles and second with three interceptions and nine pass deflections. He also led the 'Dogs with two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned 23 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas.
Other (potential) starters in the secondary are junior Milas Randle (6-2, 205) and sophomore Gabe Wallace (5-11, 196). Most of Randle's work in his first two seasons has been on special teams. Likewise for Wallace, who played in nine games last season and came up with nine tackles.
State's secondary got a bonus after the basketball season when Michael Gholar (6-5, 200), a senior small forward, decided to come out for football after the Bulldogs were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament. Gholar, a great athlete with some serious hops, had been picked to participate in the slam dunk contest at the Final Four and might have been a contender. But he decided to skip it and head straight to spring football practice. He quickly made an impact, making five tackles in a scrimmage.
"It is something I always wanted to try," Gholar told ESPN The Magazine. "The coaches just weren't sure when I'd be ready for contact. But I was ready. I knew I could deal with it. I miss the hitting."
In the spring game, Gholar who hadn't played football since high school, jumped high to make an interception and returned it 28 yards.
"Gholar is getting better and better and it looks like we're going to be able to use him in a lot of different places," Sherrill said.
Gholar, who was an outstanding high school quarterback, could even see some action on the other side of the ball. But the defensive coaches might be reluctant to give him up. "We like him a lot," secondary coach Curley Hallman told ESPN The Magazine. "He's got excellent range and some real explosion. He is a little bit of a long strider and he has a ton of fundamentals to work on, but he is a guy who just naturally takes to the work and he bubbles over with character."
Blue Ribbon AnalysisAfter being underrated for so many years, Mississippi State finally earned the respect of the preseason prognosticators in 2001. Blue Ribbon, among others, chose the Bulldogs to win the SEC West and they surprised us and everyone else by finishing sixth with a 2-6 record and a disappointing 3-8 overall.
Team chemistry--or the lack thereof--was listed as the culprit. But after a cohesive spring practice, the chemistry problem had seemingly been overcome.
This is a team that, as usual, has a lot of talent, much of it home grown. In Fant, the Bulldogs have a tough and talented quarterback who took a couple of late-season starts in 2001 and ran with them, racking up gaudy statistics and earning the respect of his teammates.
Defensively, State has some stars, most notably linebacker Haggan, an All-SEC player the last two seasons.
Expect the Bulldogs to rebound in 2002, because no one is going to pick them to finish first in the SEC West. They seem to do their best work when they fly under the radar of the forecasters.