By JOEL COLEMAN
There’s a big hole to fill in Mississippi State’s wide receiving corps this spring. It’s a 6-foot-5, 215-pound hole to be exact.
De’Runnya Wilson, one of the best receivers in MSU history, decided shortly after the conclusion of the 2015 season to forego his senior year and enter the National Football League Draft. With that decision, gone from the Bulldogs is a guy who started all 13 games last year and caught 60 passes for 918 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Figuring out a way to replace the production of Wilson is a key focus for MSU’s wide outs in spring practice.
“It’s kind of exciting because it’s a chance to go and see what you’re made of,” wide receiver Donald Gray said of trying to fill Wilson’s shoes. “Then on the down side, you lost your brother and lost that height and that comfort level. He’s somebody that’s been through all this and can hold your hand and guide you through things.”
Wilson ended his career ranked second in MSU history in touchdown catches. He is also fifth all-time in catches and sixth in receiving yards. He earned those numbers with his impressive frame which made him a favorite target of former MSU quarterback Dak Prescott.
With Wilson’s big body now outside the picture for the Bulldogs, wide receiver Gabe Myles says MSU is looking for new ways to beat defenses.
“(Wilson) had a whole lot of size and strength,” Myles said. “We’re a whole lot of smaller receivers now so we’ve just got to go and beat them with speed and use that versatility.”
Gray and Myles will both factor in to MSU’s plan to absorb the blow caused by Wilson’s departure. The duo is getting even more of a chance to show what they can do this spring as Fred Ross recovers after undergoing a procedure on a nagging groin injury.
Ross broke the school record for receptions last season with 88 and looks to be a key cog in MSU’s offensive plans during what will be his senior year in 2016. For now though, Ross is sidelined as he recovers from his surgery.
“We had a bunch of meetings on (Ross’ injury) and just thought it was better, where he’s at, to go get that done right now so he’s back ready to rock-and-roll going full time,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “He knows what he’s doing. I don’t need him out here (this spring). We need him come the fall time.”
With Ross out, Gray and Myles and the rest of MSU’s receivers are getting the chance to showcase themselves. The dynamic Malik Dear is back for his sophomore year. So too is senior Fred Brown. Sophomore Jesse Jackson and several freshmen are looking to show they can be impact players.
When it comes to replacing Wilson on the outside, Brown and Gray stand as likely candidates to haul in some of those catches. Neither of those guys come close to Wilson’s size, but Brown is the closest at 6-foot-1. Gray is listed at 5-foot-10, but has shown he has the hands to handle things outside.
“I don’t fear anything,” Gray said. “Being 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 as a high school outside receiver, that kind of put a chip on my shoulder because I didn’t get looked at by a lot of people (in recruiting) that I though I would. That kind of gave me an extra push. I’m the little guy so I’ve got to be more aggressive than anybody else.”
The 6-feet-tall Myles has been used as a slot receiver in his first two years at MSU, but even he has been spending time on the outside this spring. It’s an opportunity the Starkville native is thankful for.
“It’s new, having to get off of press-man coverage and it’s kind of different out there, but I’m happy to be able to go and learn a new position where I can better myself as a receiver,” Myles said. “I just want to evolve and be a better receiver for the team. Last year, I only played the slot, so I want to be able to increase my knowledge of the game as a receiver and play more positions and contribute at a high rate.”
As the MSU receivers acclimate to their increased roles this spring, they realize the challenge that lies ahead. It won’t be easy to replace Wilson. The unit will also be relying on a new quarterback now that Prescott’s MSU career is concluded.
Gray says it’s exciting facing those trials though. Making it all easier is the relationships all the receivers have with one another.
“We all pretty much went through a year together with no new faces in the film room,” Gray said. “We have all gotten closer and closer together as brothers.”