Dan Mullen has done a fantastic job the last few years in making the Bulldogs competitive in the SEC. But with star quarterback Dak Prescott gone, there will be challenges to keep that going in 2016. Thankfully he has a few leaders he can still call upon to help, but make no mistake, it won’t be easy. Here’s a look at a few of the top draft-eligible players who will need to step up.
THE TOP 5
Fred Ross, Sr, WR, #8 – 6ft 1, 207 lbs
As quarterback Dak Prescott progressed his pocket passing game in 2015 that led to becoming a 4th round draft pick, he required quality targets to connect with in doing so. While the big (but as it turned out at the Combine, very slow) De’Runnya Wilson benefitted with increased production, Ross was the most popular target and put up the bigger numbers. The breakout star finished the year with 88 receptions for 1,007 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air, but also added a rushing TD and a punt return TD for added variety. During the 4 game stretch to conclude the regular season, all against fellow SEC competition, Ross put up over 500 receiving yards over just that short section of the season. It would have been perfectly understandable had he chosen to leave early for the NFL, given that Prescott will no longer be the one throwing him the ball, and instead will have to established chemistry with an inexperienced new passer which may well lead to the numbers dropping. He stuck around though, and the Bulldogs will be very grateful he did. Ross has a versatile game, with the ability to make plays on multiple levels of the defense as well as out wide and over the middle. The team tries to get the ball into his hands as much as they can, often on quick throws or fly sweeps in the backfield to make yards after the catch and in space. Add in the punt return duties on top of that. That said, I wouldn’t describe Ross as a true blazer with outstanding top end speed, nor is he really all that quick-twitch in his short area movements. Both his size and athleticism are perfectly solid without any physical trait being really elite. Perhaps his biggest issue is with his concentration and consistency. That brilliant run of games late in 2015 was great, but over the course of the season as a whole, there were drops and errors from Ross. That will be one thing to improve in his final year that can really help him if there’s fewer mistakes. Right now though, he looks to be the most promising draft-eligible prospect on this Mississippi State roster.
Richie Brown, rSr, LB, #39 – 6ft 2, 245 lbs
When two of his defensive teammates Chris Jones and his non-related namesake & fellow linebacker Beniquez Brown both chose to leave early for the draft, Richie gave plenty consideration to join them before ultimately being convinced to stay. Brown produced well over his first couple seasons in Starkville but didn’t receive any starts despite playing in all 26 games over that period. He certainly managed to stand out at times though, in particular against Texas A&M in 2014 when he made 3 interceptions all in that one contest – that attracted some attention. Despite that freak one-off performance, Brown’s game is much more about playing against the run, plus moving forward and into the backfield, than it is moving in reverse into space and in coverage. His first season as a full time starter in 2015 resulted in massive production totalling 109 tackles, 13 tackles for loss (TFLs), 6.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups and an interception. Brown has a tough, sturdy build on his frame that will hold up well at the next level. Despite both that and the production numbers, his film is not without some missed tackles, and occasions when he gets stuck on blocks and controlled away from the play. He may not be a standout athlete but Brown is competent enough in space to go with the run defending that makes him more than just a one-dimensional linebacker, and a better looking prospect than his former teammate Beniquez who despite his early departure for the NFL ended up going undrafted; that shouldn’t happen to Richie.
A.J. Jefferson, rSr, EDGE, #47 – 6ft 3, 277 lbs
A real over-achiever, Jefferson has outplayed more highly-prized recruits with a breakout season in 2015 as a first year starter. He may lack ideal measurables, without the desired length or explosion in his rushes, but he gets results. Jefferson got off to a great start with a strong performance in the SEC opener in week 2 against LSU which set the tone for a fantastic season, in particular in the first half of the year. Jefferson had an outstanding 10.5 TFLs in just the first 6 games. The disappointment was that he could not keep that rate going, with just another 3 over the final 7 games, slowing down significantly. Perhaps with a second straight season as a starter he’ll know what to expect more and find a way to stay consistent for a full season. Despite that, a total of 13.5 TFLs, 5 sacks and a further 7 quarterback pressures makes for good reading, and another year like that could earn him a draft selection even if his measurables won’t hit the mark for every NFL team. He probably won’t become a star pass rusher at the next level but has the motor and work ethic to become a solid and reliable contributor.
Nick James, rSr, DL, #88 – 6ft 4, 320 lbs
James really caught my eye early on during last season when watching Mississippi State, essentially as his size really stands out, and ended up focussing on him during those first few games of the year to see how he was applying that ideal physical build. Ultimately the answer was ok but not great. The length and natural strength he has is great, but his game is very rough right now. Body position, leverage and footwork are all inconsistent, lacking polish and more often than not prevent him from making too much of an impact. James finished the year with a modest total of 26 tackles (only 9 solo), 3 tackles for loss, 3 hurries and 1 forced fumble. There’s very little in the way of a genuine interior pass rush threat right now. If he can add that to his game, suddenly there’s a very promising prospect in James, but right now, just settling for a bit more technically proficient form and consistency will be a good step in the right direction.
Devon Desper, rSr, C/OG, #52 – 6ft 3, 305 lbs
It was a gradual process fighting his way up the depth chart, but that’s the kind of battler that Desper is. After redshirting his first year and featuring in a limited capacity in 7 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013, he earned his first two starts in 2014 at right guard, even though he remained a backup for the majority of the year. His chance finally came to become the full time starter in 2015 at right guard. Known as an extremely hard worker, that mentality certainly shows up in Desper’s play as both a pass protector and run blocker, with impressive effort and physicality in his game. He needs a bit of that, as he is a bit lacking athletically, limiting him in space and in attempts to recover when his assignment has found a route past him initially. Though not regularly overpowered, Desper’s fighting qualities are required against the bull rush due to average strength that can see him pushed back a bit into the pocket initially and battling to re-establish his anchor. Size-wise he’s averagely built but has a good wingspan even if he’s not the tallest. His best fit in the NFL might be to shift inside to center with his build, and if his off the field smarts translate well (multiple academic honour roll recognitions), then he could adapt to making the blocking assignments etc. to take on that role. Desper may not have the greatest upside, but has enough to like to earn consideration as a possible day 3 pick.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Justin Senior, rSr, OT/OG, #58 – 6ft 5, 295 lbs
After two years playing at right tackle, Senior is moving over to the left tackle position for his final season, giving him a chance to help his draft stock if he can perform well at that coveted spot. He could ultimately be a better fit at guard though as he isn’t a standout athlete. His footwork is a bit awkward, lacking in a smooth kick slide and is a bit heavy footed in his movements. All that leaves doubts as to how he’ll do on the left and why he may suit the interior line better for an NFL shot. Generally, he holds up well enough in pass protection, proving to be fairly reliable. He’s not much of a run blocker though, lacking much punch and aggression to make himself a force to run behind. Outside of quarterback Prescott, Mississippi State didn’t have much of a running game, and the offensive line take some responsibility in that, Senior in particular. Senior is Canadian, and there’s a chance that he’ll be a high draft selection in the CFL draft, which may be when his future lies over the NFL ultimately.
Nelson Adams, rSr, DL, #94 – 6ft 3, 310 lbs
The Bulldogs have had plenty of depth within their defensive line rotation the past few years, and Adams has been a part of that alongside Nick James. He could be in line to see a few extra snaps following the early departure of Chris Jones, after earning 3 starts in 2015 as part of his complimentary role. Size is certainly a plus with Adams, built to handle duties in the middle. He doesn’t offer a pass rush though with a fairly low impact game. In addition, his balance and body control can really let him down at times, often resulting in ending up on the turf. The former 3-star recruit finished his junior season with 25 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass breakup, as well as recovering a fumble in the end zone versus Troy for a touchdown.
Tolando Cleveland, Sr, CB, #7 – 5ft 11, 190 lbs
Cleveland will be entering his third season as a full time starter, with a total of 25 starts the previous two years and a couple more his freshman season. He’s shown what he can do in coverage by leading the entire SEC in pass breakups in 2014 with 13 that year. While that reads well, on film he does allow space to receivers when they make route breaks to leave an open window to throw into, so his success can be hit or miss. Cleveland is a good athlete though, with enough pace to stick with quicker receivers going deep. A further 9 breakups last year gives him a nice total of 22 over the last couple seasons; continue at that rate and he’ll be sure to attract some looks from the NFL.
Will Coleman, rSr, EDGE, #57 – 6ft 5, 250 lbs
Length immediately stands out with Coleman, with not just height but very long looking arms that give him plenty of reach. He doesn’t always utilise that advantage that he should have due to a lack of ideal explosion or power in his game or much in the way of rush moves to compliment his length. The junior college transfer doesn’t really excel in any area and needs to show more in his final college season, after totalling 15 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 hurries and a pass break up last year.
Jamaal Clayborn, Sr, C/OG, #60 – 6ft 4, 315 lbs
Clayborn will start at center for his second full season after two years in a backup role. His size is promising, but it’s not reflected well in his strength and anchor, struggling to hold his ground on contact that leads to him heading backwards into the pocket. He isn’t a great athlete either which affects his success as a run blocker.
Johnathan Calvin, Sr, EDGE, #97 – 6ft 3, 263 lbs
He’s another who sees his opportunities limited by the rotation and depth that the Bulldogs have, but Calvin looks decent when he gets his chances. The junior college transfer was playing his first season at this level of football, and did his job very solidly, playing a disciplined role defending the run, with the ability to switch it up and get aggressive in his pass rush that led to 27 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and 5 further QB hurries. His rushes lack burst and explosion though and is a little undersized, with the all-round measurables not quite ideal. He’ll also be a 24 rookie should he make an NFL roster.
Ashton Shumpert, Sr, RB, #32 – 6ft 2, 218 lbs
The former 4-star recruit has really under-achieved in college so far, failing to establish himself as the primary back as was expected, low production when he does receive touches, and is now fighting for his place on the depth chart entering his senior year. The size is solid and he has shown some effectiveness as a receiver with good hands. However, as a runner Shumpert has poor lateral movement and change of direction, lacking in any quickness or explosion, while his power game isn’t anything special either, usually going down pretty quickly after contact. 2015 was his poorest season to date, averaging just 3.86 yards per carry and scoring just the 1 touchdown.
Kivon Coman, rSr, S, #11 – 6ft 1, 198 lbs
Coman is certainly active, and put up some nice totals on the stat sheet in 2015, finishing with 76 tackles, 4 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 7 breakups and an interception. Despite the good numbers though, Coman has far too many missed tackles with really dislikeable tackling technique that is too tentative and lacking in directness and physicality. His overall game is a little too casual in general that doesn’t look too impressive on film or encouraging when projecting to the next level.
Torrey Dale, Sr, EDGE, #49 – 6ft 5, 270 lbs
Another from the rotation up front, Dale has appeared in a limited capacity in 26 games so far in his time with the Bulldogs, but is yet to see any starts. He’ll need to have a much greater impact to grab the attention of the NFL after just 9 tackles, 0.5 TFLs and 1 pass breakup to his name in 2015. Though he has good listed size, there’s nothing much that stands out in his game with no real pass rush threat and no punch or power at the point of attack.
Cedric Jiles, rSr, CB, #5 – 5ft 10, 182 lbs
Size will be an issue, but Jiles has decent football IQ and vision for the position that could give him a chance. He is a bit stiff in his backpedal and generally looks better moving forward that backwards that isn’t ideally suited to playing in man coverage. He’s mostly taken on a backup / rotational role throughout his college career, with just the 1 start back in 2013, and missed all of 2014 with a hamstring injury. On his return in 2015, Jiles contributed 15 tackles and 4 pass breakups.
Deontay Evans, rSr, S, #17 – 5ft 10, 205 lbs
At around 5ft 9 & a half tall, the lack of length could make Evans a long shot, as it reflects a bit in his tackling where he struggles to wrap up successfully too often. That said, he shows good directness and closing speed with moving downfield to engage with the ball carrier, and chipped in with 33 tackles and 2 pass breakups last season while playing in all games with 1 start.
Brandon Holloway, rSr, RB, #10 – 5ft 7, 160 lbs
That listed size may even be generous. Holloway is about as small a college player as you’ll find, but there’s no questioning his toughness. Though the ground game overall wasn’t great for the team last season, with QB Dak Prescott the top rusher, Holloway led the way out of true running backs, albeit for a still underwhelming 413 yards and no rushing touchdowns. He made his mark as a dangerous threat out of the backfield as a receiver, where he can break big plays once let loose in space, leading to 33 receptions and 5 touchdowns. He also averaged over 23 yards per kick return on special teams, taking one back all the way for a TD. Returning kicks on special teams might offer a shot in the NFL.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
J.T. Gray, Jr, S/LB, #45 – 5ft 11, 196 lbs
Playing a hybrid linebacker-safety-nickel role, Gray is an excellent athlete with very good range of coverage. He really impresses with his vision and play reading skills, getting around the ball well, closing fast. Even though he didn’t make any official starts, he still put up good numbers with 65 tackles, 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. He’ll be looking to build on a good 2015 and perhaps add a bit more to his game, in particular in pass defense.
Donald Gray, Jr, WR, #6 – 5ft 9, 185 lbs
Yet another junior college transfer, Gray appeared in every game last season and though he didn’t have a huge number of receptions with just 21, he averaged an impressive 18.38 yards on those catches including a pair of touchdowns. Along with his small stature, he’s not a true blazer in terms of top end straight line speed, but has quick movements in short areas and is known for his excellent natural hands.
Martinas Rankin, rJr, OT/OG, #55 – 6ft 5, 302 lbs
Yet another junior college transfer! Rankin joined the team last season but took a redshirt year. He was a highly regarded JUCO recruit though and is expected to take over at right tackle this upcoming season. If he can perform well he can get himself on the radar.