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Bulldog Spring Update – Lebby’s Receiver Room

Tuesday marked three weeks in Mississippi State’s Spring Camp, on their way to the Maroon and White Game on April 20th.  Up to this point, there haven’t been many Bulldog Spring updates, but the media was given access to head coach Jeff Lebby’s receiver room at this milestone.

Last November, in his first press conference, Lebby made it clear he wanted a quarterback who was impressive with his legs, but he also said he was looking for someone who would “be able to throw it all over the yard.” Although it’s not official, most believe that Baylor transfer Blake Shapen will be that guy. He was the first to be picked up in the transfer portal. But the portal also provided receivers to be all over the yard on the other end of Shapen’s throws.

Portal Receptions

Lebby had to replace two key wide receivers, Tulu Griffin and Zavion Thomas, who opted for the NFL. Kelly Akharaiyi was one of those replacements who came in from UTEP. He had a huge 2023 season, with 48 receptions for 1,033 yards and seven touchdowns. In four consecutive games, Akharaiyi had 100-plus yards. But even with that output, he thinks the Dawgs will do more.  “My other offense (UTEP), we didn’t really throw the ball that much,” Akharaiyi said. “Here, he (Lebby) told me we’re going to throw the ball. I’ve got great weapons around me. I love it.” Akharaiyi chose State over powerhouses Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oregon.

Kevin Coleman Jr. was another sought-after wideout, a four-star receiver who transferred from Louisville. He played in all 13 games for the Cardinals with 26 receptions, 362 yards, and two touchdowns. But Coleman Jr. is a triple threat. He also ran six times for 25-yards, and returned 26 punts for 117 yards. In the Holiday Bowl, he returned four punts for 88 yards.  In his freshman season, he was at Jackson State, playing for then-head coach Deion Sanders. Coleman Jr. was named SWAC Freshman of the year.

Signing Day Bonanza

Joining the vets this Spring are four-star recruits JJ Harrell, Sanfrisco Magee, Braylon Burnside, and Mario Craver. Harrell was inherited from the previous regime, but the other three were Lebby’s picks. Craver especially stood out to one returning veteran.

Creed Whittemore was a four-star freshman recruit himself in 2023. Despite the lackluster season, in his debut against Southeastern Louisiana, Whittmore had a 33-yard receiving touchdown, and a 53-yard rushing score. This season, he gets to play mentor to the young freshman Craver. “He’s one of a kind,” Whittemore said about Craver. “He made a couple plays that you can’t teach it. It’s stuff that you just either have or you don’t, and he has it.”

Whittemore is not only impressed with his new receiver teammates, he’s excited about having Lebby as the head coach. He anticipated the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator coming, even before his hire. “The jump from the previous coach to Coach Lebby has been one of the best things to happen to me,” Whittemore said. “Coach Lebby is somebody that I was wanting to play for and hoping that he would come. I was stoked when he got the job. I think everybody has just been happier…we’ve just felt a joy in our facility.”

Tight Ends are Receivers Too

Under Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, tight ends were not part of the equation. Kevin Barbay’s pro-style offense brought them back, but their contribution was basically non-existent. But Lebby’s veer-and-shoot offense is taking another stab at it.

A couple of bookends who came in through the portal are the Ball brothers. Justin and Cameron Ball are reunited at State, Justin coming from Vanderbilt and Cameron from Buffalo. Justin spent five seasons with the Commodores catching 22 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. He will have one season of eligibility left with the Dawgs. Cam, on the other hand, spent his freshman season last year with the Bulls, giving State three potential years of eligibility. In his inaugural season, he played in five games, catching eight passes for 82 yards.

Then there’s Seydou Traore. He transferred to MSU from Colorado where he spent the Spring of 2023, but he had to sit out that season due to NCAA rules. His experience comes from Arkansas State, where in two seasons he had 62 catches for 752 yards and four touchdowns. Traore was also first team All-Sun Belt in 2022. “I couldn’t play last year, and I knew I was good enough to play and be on the field,” Traore said. “I know there’s a bigger plan, so I just had to stay patient.”

Traore is optimistic about the role of tight end this year. As an example, when Lebby was OU offensive coordinator, tight end Austin Stogner led the others with 17 catches for 196 yards. “Tight end in this offense is definitely getting utilized more,” Traore continued. “Last year, there weren’t so many receptions and targets thrown to the tight ends.”

Maroon and White Premiere

As the Lebby era winds it’s way toward April 20th, the receiver room seems filled with hope for Bulldog fans. His high-octane offense has proven to be effective at UCF, Oklahoma, and at arch-rival Ole Miss too. Passing slightly outweighs the run game in the veer-and-shoot. Only time will tell if the first-year head coach can silence the naysayers about the 2024 season. As far as his receivers, Lebby is relying a lot on the amount of output and experience from their previous work.  “We’ve got some guys at the receiver position that have played quite a bit of ball that have had quite a bit of production – maybe not here, but at other places,” Lebby said. “I think that helps, without a doubt.”

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


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