What revamped receiving corps could do to revitalize Mississippi State football offense

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
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Mike Leach's offenses are almost always more multi-dimensional than the one Mississippi State put on the field last fall.

The 2020 Bulldogs only had two players with more than 500 receiving yards, the smallest number of any of Leach's teams in 19 years as a head coach. One of those two players, Osirus Mitchell, is in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys. 

By comparison, Leach's 2019 Washington State team had seven players go for over 500 receiving yards. His 2018 team, which went 11-2 and finished in the top 10, had four players reach that mark and his 2017 team, which went 9-4, had five players reach it.

If Mississippi State's offense is going to produce as effectively as Leach's Washington State teams did, quarterback Will Rogers is going to need options. Hence the Bulldogs' noticeable roster overhaul at wide receiver.

Mississippi State wide receiver Jaden Walley (31) stretches for extra yards after catching a short pass in front of a Vanderbilt defender during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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Jaden Walley, Mississippi State's leading receiver in 2020 with 718 yards, is back for his sophomore season. He's joined by third-leading receiver Austin Williams (372 yards) and fourth-leading receiver Malik Heath (307 yards). Other than running back Jo'quavious Marks, no other returning Bulldogs had more than 200 receiving yards last year.

The big additions are transfers. Former Cal receiver Makai Polk joins the team after catching 17 passes for 183 yards and a score in four games last year. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior has joined Heath on the outside with the starting group for much of fall camp.

"He’s getting better," Leach said of Polk. "He’s improved since spring. He’s good at playing the ball in the air and also needs to push through, needs to be the same guy at the end of the work as he is at the beginning."

On the inside, former Washington State receiver Jamire Calvin has reunited with Leach. Calvin missed the 2019 season, but he caught 75 passes for 797 yards and four touchdowns in 2017 and 2018.

California's Makai Polk (17) evades the tackle of Washington State's Skyler Thomas (25) on his touchdown run in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

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"He’s a real sudden guy," Leach says. "He’s good at coming out of his cuts. He’s stop-and-go real fast. Just be a consistent guy, and then give us some depth."

Adding Polk and Calvin to the group gives Mississippi State some necessary experience. Combining them with depth provided by underclassmen and freshmen Lideatrick Griffin, Rufus Harvey, Teddy Knox, Antonio Harmon, Rara Thomas and Jacobi Moore builds the depth Mississippi State needs.

Throw in Marks and fellow running back Dillon Johnson as viable receiving options and Mississippi State's receiving corps seems more solid than it was a year ago.

The other big difference for Mississippi State is teaching time. Last year's coaches didn't have the same amount of time to install an offense as a normal first-year staff would because of the constraints caused by COVID-19.

Mississippi State running back Dillon Johnson (23) runs upfield for a short gain while Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain (9) pursues during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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This year, as inside receivers coach Dave Nichol says, that shouldn't be a problem.

"They actually know ‘OK, this is the route I’m doing, but how do I do it now? How do I get open? Where’s my split? What defense are they playing?’" Nichol said. "Some of that stuff. Now we can start talking about that stuff instead of just ‘Hey, you have a dig’ or ‘Hey, you have a slant’ and just hope that they run that."

Playing receiver in Leach's air raid comes with complications players wouldn't encounter in other offenses.

Receivers have to understand hot-route audibles pre-snap, know how to make adjustments to routes based on coverage mid-play and understand spacing principles to stay open. Inside receivers have to block players often much bigger than them because of the high volume of screen and quick passes in the playbook.

Walley made a bizarre distinction about the air raid. He said it isn't hard to learn, but it is hard to learn how to run it. That's why he's excited about the extra time and extra resources this group now has.

"I think it’s going to be a tremendous pickup for us," Walley said. "With the speed, the talent, all the things they bring to the table, I think it puts better depth on our roster."

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.

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