Offense Has Sputtered Last Couple of Seasons

Inexperience, injuries, lack of consistency (and at times, effort), and not having the right tools for the job contributed to the Mississippi State offense being one of the worst in the nation each of the first couple of years of the Sylvester Croom era. When you are integrating a new offensive system, and you're faced with that many issues, it's going to take a while for things to get right.

The lack of a capable offense directly contributed to a number of MSU's 16 losses over the last two seasons. The one bright spot in the last couple of seasons was Jerious Norwood, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. But, there wasn't much else around him, and that not only negatively affected his numbers, but also the offense's numbers as a whole, and most importantly, the tally in the win column.

But this year, the signs all point to the numbers increasing, with the addition of several talented recruits, and the overall unit now having the experience and depth necessary to put forth a product that, well, works.

Considering what the last few seasons have seen, making any predictions about improvement are pretty bold in themselves, but that's what predictions are for.

QUARTERBACKS: Coaches Sylvester Croom and Woody McCorvey have had a couple of years now to groom a quarterback capable of running the West Coast offense, and third-year sophomore Mike Henig has emerged as the guy.

Henig started the final three games of 2005, and he took his lumps, but he has firmly rooted himself as the #1 signal-caller. This is his third year in the offense, and he's been around as long as the current system has, so he knows the system and the expectations.

With improved personnel around him, he has the opportunity to shine in 2006. And he'll need to, in order to take the heat off of the young and mostly inexperienced running game.

To push for 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns may be a little much, but efficiency is the key word. Making plays while limiting mistakes. That's what he did against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl last year, with his efforts validating Croom's late-season switch. He notched his first two career TD passes in that game, and those should be the first of many.

His size is a question mark, and so might his talent, in comparison to other SEC QBs. But there is no doubt about the arm he possesses. If he's given time and protection, he could be in store for the first 2,000+ yard season at MSU since Kevin Fant's three years ago.

Redshirt freshman Tray Rutland has taken over the backup spot, and Coach Croom has already stated that the Georgia native will see some playing time in the opener against South Carolina. You never know when you may need your backup QB to come in at a crucial time, so this is a smart move by the coaches, as long as it doesn't disrupt the flow of the offense.

BACKFIELD: After being spoiled by the talents of one Jerious Norwood for the last couple of seasons, it's time for the torch to be passed on to someone new, who faces the tall task of replacing the school's all-time rushing leader.

And it'll be a little guy getting that first big carry against South Carolina. Brandon Thornton sits at the top of the depth chart, and deservedly so. He emerged as #12's backup last season, and he put up some impressive numbers in limited carries. He had a 66 yard showing in Lexington against Kentucky, and he rushed for 80 yards against Ole Miss, when the offense had its way with the Rebs. He's what the politically correct would refer to as vertically challenged, but wasn't Emmitt Smith, and isn't Warrick Dunn? I'm by no means comparing him with them, but size does not mean that Thornton must be underestimated.

The $64,000 question is if he can handle the load and pounding of 20 to 25 carries a game, over at least 12 games?

He may not have to, with the depth behind him. Freshman Anthony Dixon was one of the top backs in the country coming out of Terry HS, and the former and now current Bulldog looks to get significant playing time behind Thornton. At over 230 pounds, Dixon has the size to not only take a hit but to dish one out also, and he provides a nice complement to Thornton, offering a change of pace and style that can keep the defense on its heels.

Derek Ambrose makes his return from injury, and he's also in the mix for that backup role. He's healthy now, but can he be the back he was before he got hurt? If he can stay durable in game action, then he'll get his fair share of carries. Arnil Stallworth came on board after signing day, and he could either see time this year or possibly redshirt. Academic issues and questionable combine numbers meant he didn't get serious looks from the likes of in-state powers Alabama and Auburn, but running for over 2,000 yards in Alabama's highest classification and receiving top state honors shows that there's undoubtedly some talent in the Daphne youngster. Give him some time, and he could be one of the sleepers of the '06 class.

2006 signee and highly-touted prospect Courtney Jones failed to qualify, and another heralded backfield prospect, Kenny Ashley, changed his mind on signing day and signed with hometown USC, taking some of the luster off of what would've been one of the top backfield classes in the nation. But, the transfer of tailback Christian Ducre from Tulane to MSU will hopefully soften some of that blow. He still has yet to be declared eligible by the NCAA, but if he is, as expected, he could provide an immediate impact. He redshirted at Tulane last season, and he would've contributed there this season, but the dropping of his major in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina led him to Starkville. His major? Computer science. So, MSU is not only gaining a talented athlete, but a star in the classroom as well. Let's hope he doesn't lose those brains taking hits in the rough and tumble SEC.

Bryson Davis is one of the top fullbacks in the SEC, and he'll be in charge of leading the way for the group of backs. He should join McCrary, McKinley, and Griffith as former MSU fullbacks to hit the NFL, next season, somewhere. He won't get a lot of touches, but that's not his job. With him helping to serve as an extension of the offensive line, whoever runs the ball should have a clean hole through to success.

Jerious may be on to what will hopefully be a long and successful NFL career, but that doesn't mean the run game will be weaker.

It could, in fact, be better.

RECEIVERS: The MSU receiving corps has had its share of issues over the past few seasons. Traditionally, there has been a few great receivers over the years, but many fans would probably settle for average, or at least competent.

This year's group has the opportunity to excel. Factor in the overall talent and depth, along with the improvement and maturation at QB and on the O-line, and there's great potential.

Omarr Conner's move from under center to wideout late last season produced good results in its limited experimentation, and he makes the full-time switch back to the position he played as a true freshman in 2003. He dropped some of the QB weight, added a bit of speed, and has spent the spring and summer relearning his old new position. He's got sure hands, and that's comforting for all of us whose seen one too many drops in recent times.

Two highly-touted JC transfers stand to have plenty of balls thrown their way. Tony Burks and Ryan Mason could have ended up as teammates in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but Starkville turned out to be the place for them. Burks has been billed as a starter with Conner, and Mason should see the field also. Both are big (Burks is 6'4, Mason is 6'5), and both have big-play potential. That height must be used to its advantage, and often. Both, however, have had issues that have plagued them early on. Burks has had problems adapting to life as a D-I receiver, but he has steadily improved as summer has wore on. And Mason has been bothered by a leg injury, but he should be ready to make his debut on Thursday night.

Lance Long has had a breakout preseason and stands to be one of the primary receivers early. The junior transfer from Toledo caught seven passes last year in his first season as a Bulldog, but with hard work, he has put himself in position to greatly increase that number this season. He and Conner have been the most consistent receivers in the preseason practices, and the 5'10 pass-catcher has been rewarded for his consistency.

Redshirt sophomore Keon Humphries rounds out the main wideout rotation. He impressed early last season, with a two-touchdown haul against Murray State in the opener, and he's also had a long reception against Florida in the Swamp, but injuries and a drop-off in performance derailed a successful overall campaign. The 5'10 Humphries has the blazing speed to be one of the team's main deep threats, and for him to stay in the main rotation, he's going to need to be both consistent and healthy.

Will Prosser has been the team's leading receiver each of the past two seasons (24 catches in '04, 28 in '05). He suffered through injury through the majority of the '05 season, but he didn't let it hamper his production. If he can stay healthy, the Starkville senior could be a contributor once again, as a possession receiver, though he won't get as many balls thrown his way as in previous years. But it's the intangibles that make Prosser one of the most important members of the squad. His toughness and resiliency, along with his leadership, far exceeds any catches he might make.

Freshman Keith Mills has been impressive in summer practice, and that could translate into early opportunities for him. He's 6'3, 200 pounds, and he runs a sub 4.5 forty yard dash. That combination could make him a difficult man to cover for the next four years. He was set for Hattiesburg until MSU swooped for him in late January, and he could turn out to be a real steal.

Junior tight end Eric Butler has seven TD receptions in his first two seasons, and he has a chance to be one of the best TEs in the country by the time his four years in Starkville are up.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Forget the guy under center. Forget the guys behind him. Forget the wide receivers. This is where it starts. If you don't have an O-line that can keep the defensive front at bay, your chances for success are quickly diminished from the word 'hike!'

The MSU offensive line has had its struggles in recent years, and it can be pointed to as a good reason for the lack of success the offense has had as a whole.

But, this year's O-line stands to be improved, and that's big news.

The problem right now is figuring out the order of the depth chart, but those guys are going to be counted to protect little Mikey and create holes for the running backs.

If they can do that, offensive production stands to see a dramatic upswing.

The addition of highly-recruited JC offensive tackle J.D. Hamilton is big, and not just because he's 6'4 and 300 pounds. He was recruited by the likes of West Virginia, TCU, Texas A&M, if that's any indication of the quality of player the 'Dogs have received. Hamilton's still finding his footing, so he may not start immediately, but he should find himself making a big impact before long. He's a former state champion calf and steer roper, and he'll be faced with the task of lassoing defensive linemen and preventing them from running buck wild through to Henig and the skill guys.

The best cut of beef on the O-line is the versatile senior Brian Anderson. He can be slotted into all five spots on the line, but the hope is that he'll only have to stick to one this season. He started the final seven games of 2004 at left guard, and he started every game last year at left tackle. The 6'6, 300-pounder from Butler, Alabama earned preseason All-SEC accolades, and he's the one guy that the offensive line can't be without, even for only more than a few snaps. He could remain at left tackle, but right guard looks to be his spot for his final go-round as a Bulldog.

Junior Royce Blackledge has been penciled in as the starting center, and he has a big hole to fill, with the departure of All-SEC center Chris McNeil. He started the last six games of '05 at right guard, but he'll be handling the offensive snaps this season. The other certain starter is left guard Anthony Strauder, who gained the most experience out of the young pups last season, starting 10 of 11 games.

The other starters aren't set in stone, but redshirt freshman Craig Jenkins looks set to grab himself a starting nod somewhere along the line. The fifth starter for now looks to be Michael Gates. Hamilton and sophomore Calvin Wilson are both in the running to see significant early playing time on the line, and Johnny Carpenter and Anthony Dunning are both slotted in the rotation.

Having a solid rotation will help decrease fatigue along the line, but there is a such thing as too much shuffling, which could be a cause for concern. Hopefully, the offensive line's spring and summer work comes to fruition, because if it does, that'll pave the road to a productive year on offense.

TEAM MVP (OFFENSIVE) - There are a number of viable candidates here. The opener vs. USC will tell a lot about who has standout potential, but Henig is my pick. With multiple talented targets to get the ball to, experience to build off of, an expanded knowledge of the offense, and the opportunity to air it out on a regular basis mean that it could be a big, big year for #7. It's all too easy to underestimate him, because he wasn't a highly-recruited guy, because he's undersized, and because he looks like he shouldn't be playing in the SEC, or even driving a car for that matter, but if he and his receivers can have the right chemistry, big, big things can happen.

Conner is the only guy so far completely locked in to a starting slot at wideout, and with his mix of sure hands, route-running ability, and experience he could be set for a year that makes him a solid NFL prospect. It bears a little consideration to wonder how good he might be if he'd stayed at receiver his entire career, but his time at quarterback will actually be a positive for him this year as one of the main men out wide.

To be fair though, if the MSU offense sees a great improvement in production and efficiency, the award should go to who makes it all possible for that to happen: the O-line.

MOST EXCITING TO WATCH - If he overcomes a quad strain that's hampered his advancement, Mason could be Mr. Highlight. Last season in JC, he had only ten receptions. But, those ten catches went for 400 yards, including a 90-yarder and a 70-yarder. Deep threat say what? With his combination of size, physically, and separation speed, he could burn a few DBs on his way to the 11:00 Sportscenter highlights.

MOST IMPROVED - Easy choice. Henig or the O-line. But, because the former's success is highly dependent on the latter, they can just fight over it.

TOP NEWCOMER - If Anthony Dixon gets ample opportunity to rumble, rumble, rumble, he could rack up some impressive touchdown numbers in his freshman campaign. If Burks can successfully complete the transition from JC to the SEC, he could establish himself as one of Henig's top targets and as one of the conference's premier pass-catchers.

Thursday, the defense is showcased.

Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website, can be reached at .

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