Experienced Mississippi State ‘excited’ about next step | Basketball

By GARY B. GRAVES – AP Sportswriter

Mississippi State players are building on experience to become Southeastern Conference title contenders.

The Bulldogs (7-6, 4-4 Southeastern Conference in 2021) certainly have a strong rise in the busy West Division that includes defending league champion and national runner-up Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and rival Mississippi.

But MSU radiates confidence.

Last year’s youth side took a step forward with a three-game improvement over the previous season and upheavals from three league-ranked foes on their way to a tie for third place in the league. division and clinch a 12th consecutive playoff spot.

Disappointing season-ending losses to Ole Miss and then Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl suggested there was more work to be done in Starkville. But with eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, they’re confident experience can take them to the next level.

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“I’m excited to see what this team can do,” defensive back Collin Duncan said. on a Bulldogs podcast. “It’s probably the most complete team I’ve come across in Mississippi State.”

One of MSU’s most important veterans is junior quarterback Will Rogers, who continued his record-breaking play in Leach’s “Air Raid” offense.

Rogers recorded the third-highest single-season passing total in the SEC with 4,739 yards — more than double his freshman total of 1,976 — and a league-best average of 364.5 per game. . His yardage and 36 touchdowns (on 74% passing) were among 25 school records broken last fall.

Leach thinks more success is possible in the high power scheme.

“Will stepped in and had great leadership qualities and wasn’t afraid to speak in the locker room as a rookie,” the third-year coach said last month on SEC media days. “It allowed him to excel early. It allowed him to focus on the game because he didn’t have that stage fright that freshmen have.”

Leach added, “Will is going to get better and better. The better he syncs up with the other attacking players, the better everyone is.

Defensively, MSU has remained consistent, ranking fifth in the SEC in yards allowed per game (344.8) and third against the rush (113.0). There is still room for improvement in phases such as sacks, turnovers and third conversions, which they believe their experience will correct.

Junior Jaden Walley and grad Austin Williams return after each had over 50 receptions and 600 yards apiece while combining for 10 touchdowns last season. The seasoned duo helps offset the departure of reception leader Makai Polk (1,046 yards, nine TDs) to the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Running backs Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson also thrived catching the ball, combining for 148 receptions, 924 yards and four scores.

Eight of MSU’s top 11 tacklers return, and the experience spans back and forth with three starters returning to the front and back in the secondary. In the middle, Nathaniel Watson is looking to build a season of 84 saves and five sacks, while fellow countryman Tyrus Wheat has 7.5 sacks on 46 tackles. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes and safety Jalen Green combined for five of the Bulldogs’ 11 interceptions that ranked in the middle of the pack last season.

Leach in June received a two-year contract extension until 2025, which brought his annual base salary to $5.5 million. His entire coaching staff is also back for a third season, including associate head coach/nickelbacks coach Tony Hughes, who served two stints at MSU totaling 11 years.

Five players are in the running to kick the Bulldogs after the departures of Nolan McCord (West Kentucky) and Brandon Ruiz. Leach expressed optimism about finding one among transfer Coastal Carolina graduate Massimo Biscardi; transfers Marlon Hauck and Ben Raybon; and freshmen Hudson Hollenbeck and Jordan Kennedy.

The Bulldogs open against Memphis, looking to avenge last year’s 31-29 road loss. A nine-game gauntlet follows, starting with back-to-back road games at Arizona and LSU and including Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama (Oct. 22), Auburn and defending national champion Georgia (Nov. 12). MSU wraps up with the annual Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss on Nov. 24.

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