By JOEL COLEMAN
Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to start your engines and try to keep the pace.
The Mississippi State offense is about to crank it up, and it’s the wide receiving corps looking to make sure the Bulldogs are firing on all cylinders.
“It is a NASCAR offense,” De’Runnya Wilson said. “We are trying to go faster than we did last year and maximize our craft every day.”
Despite being a unit that lost a pair of starters with the departures of Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson, the MSU receivers don’t plan on doing any slowing down. Led by Wilson, the lone returning starter of the group and a preseason second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection by league media, the Bulldog wide outs feel they are primed and ready to continue their success from a year ago.
In 2014, MSU receivers accounted for 2,608 yards. Over 80 percent of that total came from individuals who will return to the roster for 2015.
“We have a bunch of guys that started games coming back and a bunch of guys who had pretty good numbers coming back like Fred Ross, Fred Brown, Gabe Myles and Joe Morrow,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “Those are all non-starters coming back that had pretty legitimate numbers at the receiver position. I think we do have a lot of depth there, maybe more than what it looks like on paper.”
Wilson, last year’s leading receiver with 47 catches for 680 yards and nine touchdowns, will deservedly capture much of the attention of opposing defensive coordinators. The scary proposition is that Wilson still has room to improve.
This season will be just Wilson’s fourth to play football as he didn’t begin performing on the gridiron until his senior year of high school. The 6-foot-5 wide out has proven to be a quick learner however, and coaches expect him to show even more development this year, possibly earning himself a selection in the 2016 National Football League Draft.
“He understands where he’s at right now,” co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales said. “He’s got a great mindset. His only objective right now is to get better day-by-day and if he continues to get better day-by-day…if (the NFL) were to be something that comes about, they are the ones that will come back and visit with Coach Mullen about that. From my standpoint, we’ve got a lot more developing to do to get him better to make sure that he is one of the best receivers in the SEC.”
Even with his high ceiling, Wilson is far from a one-man show. Ross, Brown, Myles and Morrow should all be big contributors for the Bulldogs through the air, as could January enrollees Donald Gray and Malik Dear.
Ross, who can line up in the slot or at split end, has already proven he can be an explosive threat for MSU. Last season, he hauled in 30 catches for 489 yards and five touchdowns, and had 100-plus yard receiving performances against both Arkansas (107) and Georgia Tech (102) in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Ross said now, as a junior, he feels an increased responsibility to both be a leader and perform on the field. To help his cause, Ross and quarterback Dak Prescott worked all summer long to improve their chemistry.
“(Prescott and I) ran routes every day,” Ross said. “Even on off days we came up here and ran routes. Days when I really didn’t feel like running routes, we came up here and ran them. Hopefully it’ll pay off.”
Prescott believes Ross will see the fruits of his labor.
“(Ross) is a very dynamic player,” Prescott said. “I believe he is probably one of the best in the SEC. He is very talented and his routes are great. He is always improving and trying to get better at every aspect of the position.”
Myles should also push for playing time in the slot after showing flashes of his versatility in 2014. Last year, Myles caught 22 passes for 178 yards, rushed four times for 35 yards and completed an 11-yard pass.
“(Myles is) dynamic with the ball in his hand,” Mullen said. “As a former high school quarterback, if you put the ball in his hand he can make things happen. It’s going to be him improving as an all-around wide receiver, which we really hope this is the year he takes a step forward in that role.”
Morrow and Brown are the other returning Bulldogs that should factor into MSU’s receiving plans. Morrow is coming off a season that saw him record career highs in receiving yards, yards per catch and touchdowns. He finished the 2014 campaign with 17 catches for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Brown had 18 catches for 299 yards and two scores last year.
Even with all the returning experience, Gray figures to play a big part in the Mississippi State mix. Rated the No. 6 junior college prospect in the country out of Copiah-Lincoln by ESPN.com, Gray was named a 2014 National Junior College Athletic Association All-American after hauling in 55 receptions for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The question for Gray is simple. Can he carry his previous success onto the field in the SEC? Gonzales thinks so.
“(Gray) has got great speed,” Gonzales said. “He’s got great make-you-miss (moves) and that’s just in the first couple of days of practice, so from this point on, it’s really about how hard he continues to work and you want to make sure you feed him by levels. You’ve got to make sure you don’t give him too much, but he’s got to continue to learn. Athletically he’s got all the intangibles, but at the same time, we’ve got more than one player that has those intangibles. He’s got to continue to work, got to continue to get better and make improvements, and if he can do that then hopefully, he will have an opportunity to help us. He does show those signs that he can be a difference maker.”
Time will tell how big of an impact other newcomers like Dear or Keith Mixon might have. For those guys, and others, to get chances though, Gonzales said it’s not just about making the big catches, but sparking big gains by any means necessary.
“Within my specific position, we talk about making five big plays (per game),” Gonzales said. “For us, a big play is to have 20 yards or more on a play and if we can help a running back on the perimeter, blocking to get that 20-yard play, that goes down as one of those five for us.”
The arm of Prescott will obviously be a key factor as MSU receivers look to make big plays. Having worked tirelessly with them, Prescott says he enters the season fully believing in the teammates he’s throwing the ball to, regardless of who his target is.
“Our receivers are very, very talented,” Prescott said. “A lot of guys will rotate in and out because we have size and speed. They all have a wide range of skills. I think we have a very talented group that is going to make my job easier.”
By JOEL COLEMAN