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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Four offensive keys for MSU to win 10 games this football season

Olivia Zeringue | Photography Editor
Four offensive keys for MSU to win 10 games this football season

Mississippi State University is set to have their first football practice of the 2017 season this Tuesday.
Expectations for the team differ depending on who you talk to, but I for one think this team is capable of winning 10 games. To have this kind of a successful season, there are eight things, four offensive and four non-offensive, MSU needs to do this year. 

I firmly believe MSU can have another nine or 10-win season this year. The schedule is manageable and the talent is present across the board.

Going into this season, MSU also has one of the most experienced defensive coordinators in the SEC after hiring Todd Grantham from Louisville. Combine him with Dan Mullen’s stellar offensive play-calling and there is potential for success. However, in order for MSU to hit that nine or 10-win mark, there are four offensive and four non-offensive keys for MSU this season.

Today we look at the offensive keys this season. The four non-offensive keys can be found HERE.

-Nick Fitzgerald needs to improve his passing accuracy

Everyone knows Fitzgerald can run the football. He led the SEC in total offense last season with 3,798 total yards of offense and a large part of that was because of his 1,375 rushing yards.

At this time last year he was in a heated quarterback battle that he promptly ended against South Carolina last fall. This year he enters as the leader and day one starting quarterback. 

Fitzgerald, from Richmond Hill, Georgia, is the prototypical Dan Mullen quarterback. At 6’5 and 230 pounds he is big enough for inside runs but, as shown in the Egg Bowl last year where he had rushes of 70, 61, and 30-yards, he has the speed to hit the gap for explosive plays.

Regardless of his rushing stats, Fitzgerald has to improve his efficiency as a passer for MSU to take the next step this season.

While dominating on the ground as a rusher, Fitzgerald only completed 54 percent of his passes, which ranked him at 11th in a 14-team SEC.

His touchdown to interception ratio struggles because he threw 21 touchdowns last season and 10 interceptions.  Granted, MSU receivers dropped a number of passes last season, but MSU’s team this year cannot reach their potential if Fitzgerald continues to miss on throws.

For MSU to succeed they need to be able to do more than run the football. Eventually teams will load the box against Fitzgerald and the running back Aeris Williams. When teams do that, Fitzgerald must to have the ability to punish them through the air or else the offense becomes one dimensional, stalling out.

The best season MSU has had under Mullen was the 2014 season, where MSU achieved a number one ranking and went to the Orange Bowl. In that year, MSU averaged 280 passing yards a game and 233 rushing yards a game. An extremely balanced attack that allowed MSU to keep teams on their toes and led to big first-down plays. If MSU wants to find this balance again, Fitzgerald must improve as a passer.

There is a precedent for improvement under Dan Mullen as previous quarterback Dak Prescott saw his completion percentage rise from 58 percent his sophomore year to 62 percent his junior year and then 66 percent his senior year.

-Aeris Williams has to get 20 carries a game

Williams did not have the highest season totals last season. On the year he only rushed for 720 yards, which was mainly because he split carries with Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert for most of the season. However, in the month of November he earned the lead back spot and was given the chance to show why he was so highly rated coming out of West Point High School.

Williams rushed for 434 yards in November on 73 carries which was good for an average of 5.9 yards and he was not playing against cupcakes during that month either. They started the month by upsetting Texas A&M before dropping the next two games against Alabama and Arkansas and then beating Ole Miss in Oxford.

There is a big difference in William’s yards per carry in games where he gets 10 carries compared to games he gets around 20 carries. Three different times last season Williams carried the ball at least 20 times. In those games he averaged 5.9 yards a carry. He had just over ten rushing attempts a game three times last season, in those games he averaged 5 yards a carry. While .9 might not seem like a huge gap, it makes a difference over time.

The numbers proves Williams gets better the more he touches the ball. He was the same way in high school. He is a player who gets better and better as the game goes on and the more touches he gets. MSU needs a running back to step up this season as they have gone two years without a running back rushing for a 1,000 yards.

Williams can be that running back for MSU if Mullen is willing to give him the ball in a heavy dosage.

-For someone, not named Donald Gray, to step up at the receiver position

MSU is losing one of, if not the, most productive receivers in their history in Fred Ross.

Ross was the primary receiver last season and finished the year with a record breaking 72 receptions and 917 yards. The No. two receiver of last year, Donald Gray will step up to take Ross’ place.

Gray, a senior from Memphis, Tennessee, had a breakout year, catching 41 passes for 709 yards.

This year there is a lot of pressure on Gray to be the guy at the receiver position, but a lot of what helped both Ross and Gray succeed last year was that defenses could not key in on one of them because of the threat of the other.

MSU needs another receiver to step up this season to be the guy across from Gray to take pressure off of him.

Who will that be? I don’t know.

Malik Dear is someone who could step up to the position. The 4-star Murrah High School product was third on the team in receiving yards with 263, but he tore his ACL in spring practice and it is unknown if he will be healthy at the season’s start.  

Many expect Keith Mixon to make the jump and take over the slot receiver spot. Mixon, a sophomore, is a short and speedy receiver out of Birmingham, Alabama, who has 228 yards on 19 receptions.

Beyond him the rest of the roster is unproven. Jamal Couch and Reggie Todd are two more candidates who could step up.

Couch is a sophomore who got some live reps last season. Couch had 113 yards on 11 receptions last year.

Todd was ranked a four-star receiver by and is a good athlete, as shown by the fact he was recruited by multiple division-one schools as a three-star shooting guard as well as a football star. He redshirted last season but looked solid in the Spring Game, notching four reception on eight targets for 51 yards.

Mentioning the receivers, I should note that Gabe Myles is still on the roster. Myles looked prime for a breakout year in 2015 after having two solid back-to-back performances against Northwestern State and Auburn. However, he injured his ankle the next week and has not looked the same since.  Myles had eight catches for 63 yards last season.

There are plenty of guys who could potentially step up, but MSU just needs someone to step up. They need a second receiver to step up and alleviate pressure off Donald Gray.

-For Martinas Rankin to live up to pre-season hype and anchor this offensive line

Many football experts will tell you that everything starts at the line of scrimmage with the offensive and defensive lines.

While that is not as true as it used to be with offenses innovating and spreading the football out, an offensive line can make or break an offense. Since 2014, many have felt the offensive line has been one of the weakest links of the offense.

It is no secret MSU has struggled a little at the offensive-line position over the years. The last time MSU had an offensive lineman who could truly anchor and lead the group was in 2014 with Dillon Day at center and Ben Beckwith at guard. Since then, there has not been someone who could step up and anchor this offensive line.

In comes Martinas Rankin. Rankin was the top ranked Junior College offensive tackle in 2015. He redshirted a year before making his first appearance in Maroon and White last season.

Rankin played extremely well last year at the left-tackle position as he earned SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors after MSU upset Texas A&M, a game where he lined up against a star studded defensive line and gave up no sacks. He saw all of his action this last spring at the center position, but Head Coach Dan Mullen said at SEC Media Days that he will return to left tackle.
Now he is garnering more and more hype going into the season. He has been a projected first-round pick by, and Bleacher Report among others. He was also named a second team preseason All-American by College Football News earlier this month.

The point is that Rankin is receiving a ton of hype. For MSU to succeed this season and compete in the SEC, they have to protect Nick Fitzgerald. An offensive line is five parts but having a strong anchor will go a long way on giving MSU the offensive line they need for Fitzgerald to have time to find receivers and for Williams to have holes to run through.
 Contact Taylor Rayburn at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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Four offensive keys for MSU to win 10 games this football season