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The Jeff Lebby Era Begins at State

The campus at Mississippi State is awash with Spring flowers, even though the temperature last Monday night was 28 degrees. Appropriately, on Tuesday the 19th, the first day of Spring, the Bulldogs began Spring practice. Many curious eyes are on them as the Jeff Lebby era begins at State.  Perhaps a little hope is needed following the basketball Dawgs’ loss in the first round of March Madness.

The general impression is that Lebby has assembled a coaching staff and player roster primarily to fit the veer-and-shoot offense he brings to Starkville. This is the opposite of how it was handled last season when head coach Zach Arnett attempted to fit the existing players into a new offense. The Bulldog-faithful are painfully aware of how that turned out. But, once again, a new head coach, his first time in that position, a new offense, a new coaching staff, and basically a new roster. Regardless of the unknowns, the hopes are still high, but there are more questions than answers at this point. Some of the questions may have partial answers after one week of spring practice

Who’s at Quarterback

The biggest question on the table is who will be taking the helm at quarterback. Last November, Lebby said that he would be looking to the portal for a quarterback. He was looking for one that could “keep people honest with their feet, and be able to throw it all over the yard,” Lebby said in his first press conference.

He kept his word, and made the first pick out of the portal Blake Shapen, transferring from Baylor. The 6’ 0”, 192-pound Shreveport, LA native started 23 games in the last three seasons for the Bears, where he ran the veer-and-shoot. He amassed 5,574 passing yards, 36 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in his time there. It makes sense that Shapen gives Lebby a head start with his offense. Although he stated a quarterback will be named in the Spring, the first-time head coach isn’t calling Shapen his starter yet. Lebby is making a competition out of every position.

This will be the second Spring camp for sophomore Chris Parson. He saw action last year in two games where he went 11 of 26, 453 yards, and three interceptions. He’s most likely to give that competition to the Baylor transfer.

Then there’s Michael Van Buren, a four-star recruit that Lebby snatched away from Oregon. He played a national schedule at Baltimore’s St. Francis Academy and impressed by being named MVP in the Under Armour All-Star Game.

In a press conference after his first week, Lebby said it’s been an adjustment, but he thinks they’ll get there. “I feel good about that room and where we are,” Lebby said.  “Those guys will continue to split reps, and I do feel good about where we’re at.”

The Quarterback’s Supporting Cast

There was a substantial exodus of experienced offensive talent from the remaining roster. The offensive line lost six, the most significant being Steven Losoya III, who transferred to Vandy, and Percy Lewis to Auburn. But new line coach Cody Kennedy did a good job filling those vacancies from the portal. It started with Memphis transfer Makylan Pounders. He helped the Tiger offense to seventh in the country with an average points-per-game of 39.7.

Add to the list transfers Ethan Miner from North Texas, Marlon Martinez from LSU, and Jacoby Jackson from Texas Tech. These new linemen have to learn a new, fast-moving offense. Incumbent tackle Albert Reese IV said after the first few days in a press conference, that the guys knew the plays and the coaches were key. “They have been settling really well, and coaches have done a good job making sure everyone is on the same page,” Reese said.

Lebby retained wide receiver coach Chad Bumphis. The outstanding wideouts he coached last year, Tulu Griffin, and Zavion Thomas, left for the NFL. But tapping the portal was fruitful. The most notable is UTEP transfer Kelly Akharaiyi. He had a 1,000-yard season in 2023, catching 48 passes for 1,033 yards, and seven touchdowns. Louisville transfer Kevin Coleman Jr., was SWAC Freshman of the Year at Jackson State in 2022. For Louisville, he had 26 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns. They are joined by freshmen, JJ Harrell, Braylon Burnside, and Mario Craver. In a press conference, Lebby said he felt good about the recruits, but they have a way to go. “They need to continue to grow,” Lebby said.  “They’ve never had this level of output in their entire life. They’re getting a feel for that has been an adjustment for them.”

Defensively Speaking

One of the biggest question marks about Lebby’s new staff is State’s new defensive coordinator, Coleman Hutzler. He comes from Alabama, where he was a linebacker and special teams coach. He has never coached in this position before, although he came close as co-defensive coordinator at Texas in 2020. The one thing going for him is that under former Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Hutzler coached some of the most prolific linebackers now in the NFL.

The only other coach retained by Lebby is defensive line coach David Turner. This is his third round with the Bulldogs. In previous stints, Turner coached NFL greats Fletcher Cox, who just retired from the Eagles, and Chris Jones, from the twice Super Bowl-champ, Kansas City Chiefs.

The most significant loss to the defense was the eligibility expiration of State’s linebacking duo, Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson. Both, especially Watson, should have excellent NFL careers. For that position, a significant replacement is Stone Blanton, who comes in highly rated from South Carolina. He started all 12 games for the Gamecocks, with 52 tackles, breaking up four passes, and intercepting one for a touchdown.

Leaving the defensive line for the NFL, Nathan Pickering and Jaden Crumedy will be missed. However, returning are the Russell brothers, De’Monte and Donterry.  But Hutzler also added Kedrick Bingley-Jones from North Carolina, Sulaiman Kpaka from Purdue, and Wilky Denaud from Auburn.

In a Spring presser, Lebby said they are responding well to change. “They’re hungry for it,” Lebby said.  “We’ve got some strong leaders on that side that will give us a chance to play the defense the way we want to play it.”

Building for April 20th

After one week of Spring practice, Lebby is counting on the coming weeks to further mold the team he wants by the time the spring game rolls around on April 20th.  “I love our guys energy right now,” Lebby said.  “They’re really dialed in and just getting better.  They have taken and ran with everything we’ve asked them to do.  We’re far from where we’re going to be but these guys’ attitude, mindset, how they’re trying to attack it every day, I’m pleased with that.”

 

Photo courtesy: SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

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