Prior to the start of the 2014 recruiting class, Mississippi State knew what was ahead for them. The state of Mississippi had top talent, but the Bulldogs had an uphill battle for some of the best. The Bulldogs would emerge victorious on a few, but some of the group's biggest players made their way to Ole Miss.
With a very small senior class leaving the team, MSU was left with 15 scholarships to fill. The class isn't star-studded across the board and won't jump out on paper to most of the prognosticators, but it's apparent that there are some big pieces in the group that fit what the coaches are looking forward.
Time and time again, Dan Mullen preaches that his staff looks at players that fit the program instead of stars. While it's important to get elite players to compete in the ever-tough SEC, the coaches have backed that up with their development and are hoping to do the same with this class full of sleepers.
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MSU's biggest needs were mostly at quarterback, offensive line and defensive line. With a few hits and misses, State filled most of those needs. Now let's breakdown the positions filled on the offensive side.
With two offensive lineman graduating, one of which was an All-American guard in Gabe Jackson, the Bulldogs had to continue to build their offensive front. State did so with the addition of Stephenson (Ga.) three-star Jordan Harris, early junior college signee Jocquell Johnson of Copiah-Lincoln, Restoration Academy (Ala.) blocker Deion Calhoun and the late addition of Clarksdale's Elgton Jenkins and a signing day flip from Southern Miss and Olive Branch lineman, Ronald Cochran.
It's a group of linemen that represent the usual core group that John Hevesy brings in at MSU. None of the group is highly rated and a few of them went virtually unknown throughout the process. However, the group is hard-nosed and have frames that MSU can mold.
Early Playing Time: The only player that I think will have a good shot at hitting the field early will be Johnson. Coming in from the JUCO ranks, Johnson was brought to be ready for the field. With Charles Siddoway moving on and graduating, Johnson should be competing for the starting spot and is already in the weight program and on campus.
The Rest of the Group: Calhoun, Jenkins and Harris are all versatile linemen with the prior two being the most athletic of the group. Calhoun and Jenkins probably won't compete for the field this year, but they should be on the field faster than expected. All three lineman have the opportunity to move around across the front wall, but I expect Jenkins and Harris to be tackles while Calhoun projects more on the inside. Either way, all three are quality pickups and no slouches.
Misses: MSU's biggest miss of the signing class was Spain Park (Ala.) interior lineman Bunchy Stallings. The talented blocker got an offer late from the Bulldogs and it was a foregone conclusion that he would end up in Starkville. After his official visit, however, Stallings made the call to Kentucky and committed to the Wildcats.
State also had two targets choose their rival. MRA three-star Sean Rawlings was a long-time commit to the Bulldogs and got an offer late in the process from his dream school in Oxford. A few short days later, Rawlings made the flip to Ole Miss. State replaced his spot with Jenkins who they feel could be even more versatile. Three-star Homewood (Ala.) lineman Jordan Sims also chose Ole Miss over Mississippi State on signing day but was never seriously considering the Bulldogs.
MSU loses just one scholarship quarterback this year with Tyler Russell graduating and hoping to move on to the NFL. Even with just one loss and Dak Prescott and Damian Williams surge, MSU had to build their group back up. They did just that as they dipped into the state of Georgia with two dual-threat quarterbacks.
The Bulldogs took a bit of a chance on Nick Fitzgerald at Richmond Hill and took a commitment from him back in the summer. Still new to the position and especially the spread offense, Fitzgerald opened eyes back during bowl practice when he enrolled early and took snaps against the Bulldog defense. At 6'5, Fitzgerald looks the part on the field and his legs are his dangerous weapons. Speed and elusiveness make him a true dual threat player but don't overlook his arm which surprised people more than anything in December.
The unquestioned leader of the class is Wheeler's Elijah Staley. With an infectious personality and a lot of tools to like, Staley is a big pickup and possibly a future two-sport player in Starkville as he also committed to Rick Ray to play basketball next season. Staley was off to a big start in his senior season but was dismissed from his team after a disagreement with his coach. Staley is very raw but has more than enough to work with for the staff.
Early Playing Time: Neither quarterback will be asked to step on the field this year unless injuries occur as they did this season. If there were to be some unfortunate circumstances, Fitzgerald will probably be the most ready mentally as he's had the head start on Staley.
Misses: The Bulldogs finished the group early and didn't have any real misses.
A group that continues to stack up is the running back position. With only Ladarius Perkins graduating and Derek Milton transferring, the Bulldogs got even better in the group by signing Mississippi's Mr. Football, three-star Aeris Williams, and State Champion Dontavian Lee.
Williams and Lee were two of the state's leading rushers combining for over 4,000 yards on the ground. Lee is a multi-position player but I expect him to stick at running back.
Early Playing Time: The Bulldogs have the luxury at running back that they don't have to rush either in the backfield. However, Williams is the most college ready running back of the group and could find himself in the same position Ashton Shumpert was last year as they are similar running backs. A bruising back, Williams will give MSU a change of pace guy at times that will get first downs. A redshirt would be great, but he could make an impact now.
Misses: MSU sealed this group up in the summer and the only real look they gave was five-star Alabama signee Bo Scarbrough.
Wide Receiver and Tight End:
A lot was said about the Bulldog receiving corp prior to last season but the underclassmen produced and are poised for big things in 2014. Still, Mississippi State picked up three big-time in-state pass catchers in this class that will help the unit continue to prosper. State got two Dandy Dozen receivers in Newton County's Jamoral Graham and Petal's Jesse Jackson as well as a junior college tight end with a big frame in Darrion Hutcherson.
Early Playing Time: MSU doesn't have to throw either Graham or Jackson on the field early thanks to the depth that they have at receiver but I see Graham as the biggest threat to see the field. With really good straight-line speed and play making ability, Graham is a receiver similar to MSU receiver Jameon Lewis but is probably more fast as Lewis is more elusive.
Hutcherson should be an immediate factor in the offense lining up in the slot or with his hand on the ground. At 6'7, Hutcherson provides major matchup problems for opposing defenses and can also become a valuable blocker in the read option.
The Rest of the Group: Jackson's chances of hitting the field early grew slimmer when he tore both his ACL and MCL late in the season this year. Jackson is a different receiver than Graham as he will probably play more on the outside and be a downfield threat and possession receiver. The two add big pieces to the offense for the next few years but won't be rushed.
MSU signed one special teamer in the class to help build consistency within the kicking game. Columbia Academy kicker Logan Cooke is regarded as the best in the state and was a O-D All-American this past season. The Bulldogs also added a walk-on in the summer when Joel Baldwin chose that opportunity to be a long snapper out of Tupelo High School.
Cooke is another player that won't have to be rushed, but if he can challenge for a kicking position he will be in the mix. Bulldog coaches expect him to push Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk and State could end up with three solid kickers. Cooke is expected to first challenge for punting duties although he can also push as kickoff specialist.