By JOEL COLEMAN
The future appears to be now for Mississippi State football. With program stalwarts Dak Prescott, De’Runnya Wilson and others having concluded their collegiate careers, several young Bulldogs used Saturday’s Maroon and White Game at Davis Wade Stadium to make their respective cases that MSU still has plenty of talent stocked in the cupboard.
Freshman quarterback Nick Tiano accounted for 175 total yards and a touchdown and fellow freshman Nick Gibson ran for 75 yards and a score as Maroon topped White 34-21 in the annual spring contest.
“We had a great time out there,” Tiano said. “We really just wanted to focus on coming out and playing hard and having fun. The guys made me look good. They made some good plays and had some great catches. We just had a lot of fun.”
Tiano is one of four Mississippi State quarterbacks vying for the opportunity to fill the role vacated by Prescott. Tiano completed 8 of his 13 pass attempts for 99 yards and a score while throwing one interception.
His competition for the role also put up solid numbers. Sophomore Elijah Staley, who also served as a Maroon team quarterback, was 5-of-11 through the air for 48 yards.
On the White team, junior Damian Williams, the lone quarterback on MSU’s roster to have ever started a collegiate game, was 14-of-20 for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald completed 10 of his 20 throws for 127 yards and a touchdown, but also had two passes picked off.
“I thought they did okay,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said of the play of his quarterbacks. “It was a little up and down at times but you expect that. What I want to see is how they respond after the downs. To me, it’s about the consistency of play. All of them have the ability to make plays. All of them have the ability to make things happen and extend the play and run the ball and scramble and make throws, but they’re learning. It’s what you do consistently, every single snap that’s the most important thing.”
Most of MSU’s offensive firepower on Saturday came from its young skill players. On the ground Gibson and fellow freshman Alec Murphy stood out. While Gibson shouldered part of the load for Maroon, Murphy ran for 45 yards on eight carries for the White squad.
Mullen said Gibson and Murphy’s production and development gives MSU a greater variety of options in the backfield this fall.
“We do have some guys that we’re going to be able to rotate at the running back position,” Mullen said. “I think everyone wants to know who is the go-to, feature back, but I don’t know that we have that. They all bring a little something different to the table and it’s going to give us some depth and the ability to rotate a little bit at the position this year.”
State’s youthful receivers also had the opportunity to put up big numbers. With veteran wide outs Fred Ross and Donald Gray out for the spring with injuries, freshmen Deddrick Thomas, Keith Mixon and Jonnas Spivey all had greater chances to impress.
“The younger guys got some more reps, but they probably had to overload in their workload and what they needed to do,” Mullen said. “That happens in the spring. Usually in spring, there is some position that is devastated with injuries and especially on a day like (Saturday) when you go and split the team in half again, guys get a little overworked, but a lot of young guys got a lot of work in. Hopefully it pays off come the fall.”
Mixon caught six passes for 70 yards and a touchdown, Thomas hauled in seven passes for 65 yards and Spivey brought down three balls for 101 yards and a score.
“Me, Deddrick Thomas and Jonnas Spivey, we’re all redshirt freshmen and are still young and still learning,” Mixon said. “We’re still learning all the fundamentals and just trying to play to our strengths.
“Donald Grey and Fred Ross always talk to us and tell us it’s our time to shine. If they could, they’d be out here with us, but they’re injured so we had to step up.”
While youngsters flashed their potential offensively for State, it was an upperclassman that had the biggest day defensively. Senior defensive end Johnathan Calvin wreaked havoc in the backfield, totaling eight tackles and four sacks.
“He’s done some really good things,” MSU defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said of Calvin. “He had some nice flashes (Saturday) rushing the quarterback. He’s done that throughout spring. He’s just got to continue his development and be multi-talented with a lot of different techniques. He’s improved on all those, but most importantly, I’m really excited about how he’s rushing the quarterback right now.”
Saturday’s game wrapped up Mississippi State’s spring workouts. The next time the Bulldogs practice officially will be in fall camp. That doesn’t mean the preparation ends though. Mullen says in the weeks to come, the pressure is on his players to continue and make strides forward.
“We don’t practice again until August 2nd,” Mullen said. “There’s a lot of time in there that guys can go and separate themselves between now and August 2nd.”