Mississippi State football got a key transfer addition when former Vanderbilt QB Mike Wright joined the Bulldogs. What role can Wright play in the MSU offense?
Among the biggest roster needs for Mississippi State football following the 2022 season was quarterback. While Will Rogers would be back for his fourth season as a starter in 2023, the depth behind him took a massive hit as four QBs left the program. Touted blue chip Chris Parson joined the roster, but having only two scholarship quarterbacks available, with one of those being a true freshman, doesn’t cut it.
So MSU turned to the transfer portal to address the issue, landing on former Vanderbilt QB Mike Wright as a much needed depth piece.
Wright started 11 games during his time in Nashville, leading the Commodores to upset SEC wins over Kentucky and Florida in 2022. A dual-threat, he rushed for 517 yards and five touchdowns last season, going over 100 yards twice.
Adding a veteran with starting SEC experience to the QB room was a huge plus. Should there be a situation in which Will Rogers wouldn’t be available, Mississippi State can turn to someone who won’t be overwhelmed and can, at the very least, be a serviceable fill-in.
And, it allows the Bulldogs to redshirt Parson and preserve his eligibility.
Mike Wright enables new wrinkles for Mississippi State football’s offense
The other big positive to bringing in Mike Wright is the new dimension he can provide for the offense. After spending much of the 2010s almost exclusively playing runners at the QB position (the exception being Tyler Russell), Mississippi State went in the opposite direction during the Mike Leach years. Leach favored pocket passers to operate his Air Raid offense, a description that fits Will Rogers perfectly.
Rogers’ lack of mobility is something that has caught up with State at times over the last three seasons. He’s obviously more than made up for it with his efficiency as a passer and should continue to put up good numbers through the air even in a new system.
But there’s a lot of value in having a QB that can hurt defenses with his legs.
Beyond having the ability to extend plays and scramble when things break down in the passing game, a runner at QB evens out numbers in the ground game. When defenses put more than five players in he box against MSU’s Air Raid, MSU was at a disadvantage in the run game. Your five offensive lineman can only block five defenders. If a sixth defender doesn’t have to respect the QB as a threat to run the ball himself, he’s free to go tackle the running back carrying the ball.
That was a killer for State in short yardage situations (see the 2022 LSU game). But when your QB is a threat to run, that extra defender can be accounted for, either by having your RB block him as the QB runs the ball or by reading him on an option play. And that’s where Mike Wright can factor in.
I fully expect new OC Kevin Barbay to implement a package for Mike Wright in the offense where he can come in and use his legs to hurt defenses. The idea of having some sort of package for a running QB or breaking out the “Wildcat” is nothing new, but it’s not something we’ve seen at Mississippi State in over a decade.
The last time that sort of package was used was in 2012 when some largely unknown and lowly-recruited redshirt freshman by the name of Dak Prescott served as the aforementioned Tyler Russell’s backup. Dan Mullen’s offenses traditionally worked best when he had a runner at QB, but to his credit, he was always good about shaping his system around his QB regardless of their skillset. And he did that with a pro-style passer in Russell.
But for the reasons I discussed above, there are times when it’s beneficial to have a QB who can run the ball. And for those situations, Mullen put together a package for Dak to come in and move the chains with his legs, much like he did at Florida for a freshman Tim Tebow in 2006.
I anticipate we see a similar dynamic in 2023 with Mike Wright. Wright is a dangerous runner, and with Zach Arnett and Kevin Barbay stressing the importance of getting your play-makers the ball, it makes sense that they find ways to involve him. And Barbay has regularly used Wildcat packages in his time as an OC.
So what are some concepts we might see Mississippi State break out to utilize Wright?
Let’s examine Mike Wright’s skillset in action
Wright is a speedster. At 195 pounds, he’s not the powerful, bruising type of runner that State fans grew accustomed to at QB during the Mullen years. But Wright offers a type of top end speed those guys didn’t have.
According to Reel Analytics, Wright hit 21.8 mph on this 87 yard touchdown run against Hawaii in their 2022 season opener. And he’s shown off that speed against SEC competition as well.
The run against Kentucky is particularly impressive because it appears that Wright makes this play with a blown blocking assignment from his left tackle. Vanderbilt is running jet motion power read. His RT, RG, and C are down-blocking while the LG pulls around to act a lead blocker to the second level. The TE and RB are releasing to the right to act as blockers for the WR on the jet sweep.
The playside DE (#90) is left unblocked for Wright to read. If the DE crashes down, Wright will hand off the ball to his WR on the jet sweep. If the DE stays wide, Wright is supposed to pull the ball and follow behind his LG through the hole.
But that’s obviously not what happens, as while Wright does pull the ball, he instead runs it backside.
Because his LT left the backside OLB (#13) unblocked and free to run into the backfield. The LT blocks as though this is a zone read play and attacks the overhang DB. That DB is unlikely to make the play if it’s true power read, but the OLB certainly can blow things up in unblocked.
Rather than panic, Wright adjusts and simply treats it like a zone read by reading the OLB. He pulls the ball and it’s a touchdown. Now I should be fair and acknowledge the possibility that Vanderbilt actually designed the play to be read the way based on their scouting of Kentucky.
But It’s rare that you’d see an edge defender left unblocked on both ends of the line.
Either way, the play is still a prime example of Wright’s speed and play-making ability. His lighter frame and high end speed suits him for plays that get him on the edge. Traditional zone read plays like his run against Hawaii in the first clip above are simple ways to get him involved. Triple option looks off those zone plays, such as this one from Vanderbilt against Kentucky, are another.
Vandy is running midline triple option here.
On a traditional spread triple option play, the read key for the QB (the defender who will tell him to either give the dive to the RB or keep the ball) would be an edge defender while the pitch key (the defender who will tell him to either pitch the ball outside or keep it) is some second level defender.
For a midline read, the read key for the QB becomes an interior defensive lineman, in this case #92 for UK. Vanderbilt makes the edge defender, #13, the pitch key. This is an effective wrinkle because interior DL aren’t usually treated as option defenders. If they find themselves left unblocked, they’re going to crash down hard, and the offense will take advantage.
Sure enough, #92 comes rumbling down into the backfield trying to tackle the RB. It makes an easy first read for Wright who pulls the ball and attacks the edge. His next read is #13, who also drifts inside, which causes Wright to pitch the ball out to his WR trailing behind him. #13 for Kentucky, JJ Weaver, is a stud and still manages to make the tackle, but not until Vandy had picked up five yards.
Not only does this triple option look suit the speedy Wright, getting a WR involved as the pitch option is another piece that could translate to Mississippi State. Tulu Griffin is a player Kevin Barbay (and Bulldog fans) wants highlighted in the offense. That was shown in the spring game get getting Tulu on a reverse on the opening drive for a touchdown. He’d be dangerous taking a pitch on the edge.
Though Mike Wright it best suited getting on the edge in open space, he’s got experience running between the tackles as well. Vanderbilt regularly used him on the previously discussed power read play which gets the QB running downhill. Another downhill QB run Vanderbilt called with Wright was GT counter bash.
I couldn’t find a good clip of Wright running it, but here’s Jalen Hurts and the Eagles executing the play to perfection. In a traditional GT (guard, tackle) counter play, the backside guard and tackle pull as lead blockers for the RB. Many offenses will incorporate a backside read on the play, like they would on a zone read, and give the QB a keeper option around the edge. For GT counter bash, the QB and RB flip their roles.
“Bash” translates to “back away” in most terminology. The idea is that the RB will run away from the main blocking scheme on a sweep while the QB will follow said blocking. The OL doesn’t change their blocking, and the QB will read the same defender to make his decision to give or keep the ball. But again, the roles are reversed between the QB and RB. Bash plays are popular for when you want your QB to get downhill quickly as the primary ball carrier. Here’s Urban Meyer with a great breakdown of a zone bash play.
GT counter bash is the same idea but with gap scheme blocking. The counter play is currently in vouge in football. While it’s a concept that’s been around forever, you’re seeing more teams, specifically spread teams, utilize it as a foundational play within their offenses. Lincoln Riley made it his go-to run scheme at Oklahoma and has continued that trend at USC, tearing defenses up on the ground within his version of the Air Raid.
Counter’s popularity is a response to modern defenses’ go-to approach for stopping spread teams: the tite front. Many spread offenses traditionally base their ground game around inside zone. This is largely because of IZ’s versatility, but it’s also a dangerous concept versus the traditional “spread-stopping defense”, the 4-2-5. I’ll allow this article from Seth Galina do the bulk of explaining, but in short, the 4-2-5 (as well as other four-down defenses) typically leaves an opening in one of the B-gaps along the line. IZ is designed to attack this gap.
It’s the responsibility of one of the LBs to fill that gap within the run fit, but offenses can easily take advantage of that by running RPOs that put that LB in conflict. If he tries to fit the run, they’ll have an open throw behind him. With the tite front, both B-gaps are filled by a pair of DEs shaded inside the OTs in what’s called a 4i alignment. A NT in a head-up, 0 alignment across from the center and one of the LBs will account for the A-gaps. Now, all the interior gaps are filled, meaning a IZ run should, in theory, be forced to the outside where an OLB or nickel defender can make the play.
The three-down tite front allows for defenses to take a DL off the field in exchange for another coverage player but stay strong against IZ. Any defender who’d otherwise be put in conflict on a RPO can force the QB into a handoff where the RB’s only option is to try and bounce the run outside where he’ll quickly be swarmed. This piece from Cody Alexander of MatchQuarters is also great for explaining the tite front and a version of it we see in the SEC at Georgia.
While the tite front is great for stopping IZ, it’s not nearly as good against counter. The tite front has a weak spot in the C-gap, an area counter is designed to attack. That weakness isn’t an issue with IZ because the runner is left to make a play one-on-one after having already been slowed down. But when he’s going full steam ahead with a pair of blockers out in front of him, it’s another story. This is especially true since those C-gap defenders are going to be lighter bodies forced to beat the block of a massive OL. Good luck.
In the clip of the Eagles running GT counter bash, the Packers are aligned in a variation of the tite front with an edge defender to each side and a single ILB. The backside edge (#55) stays wide telling Jalen Hurts to keep the ball. The RG kicks out the playside edge while the RT acts as the lead blocker through the gap. Hurts follows for a big gain.
It’s a great call versus that look. State showed some reps of classic GT counter in their spring game. I won’t be surprised if they use the bash variation as a part of a package for Mike Wright.
MSU offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay’s use of Wildcat
At each of his prior stops as OC, Kevin Barbay had a Wildcat package. At App State he used backup RB Anderson Castle. At 6’0, 220 pounds, Castle has a power build perfect for short-yardage situations. Here he is converting a 3rd-and-1 in App’s season opener against UNC.
App goes with a heavier formation, which is common for the Wildcat. They’re running duo, another run concept that has grown in popularity lately. Duo’s a concept that can be a bit tricky to explain and is often hard to identify, but the simplest way you’ll see it described is “power without the puller.” This is a great breakdown from Weekly Spiral.
It’s meant to be a quick-hitting, downhill run with double-teams at the point of attack, hence the name “duo”. It’s the exact type of play that makes sense for a short-yardage package like the Wildcat.
Granted, it’s not a concept I’d expect to see run with Mike Wright. Though Wright is capable of running between the tackles, it’s better for him to do that in situations where he can follow behind lead blocks as opposed to ramming right into the line. But I do think it illustrates Barbay finding different ways to utilize the talent available to him to move the ball. And it’s possible you see one of MSU’s RBs take some Wildcat snaps as well, in which case this concept would fit.
Having multiple players take Wildcat snaps is something Barbay did at Central Michigan. Through going back and watching CMU’s 2021 offense, at least three different non-QBs lined up in the backfield for the Chippewas. Here’s backup RB Darius Bracy running power.
This looks a lot like jet motion power read, and it easily could be with #3 of Missouri acting as the read key. But it looks like Bracy is thinking “keep” all the way and doesn’t actually read anything before running up the gut. Either way, he makes the right decision as the jet motion keeps #3 staying wide and leaving an easy running lane for Bracy.
In this clip, he has WR Kalil Pimpleton (a player with an eerily similar skillset to Tulu Griffin…) lined up as the Wildcat QB. They’re trying to set up a play-action shot off of split zone blocking. Miami (OH) quickly gets pressure on Pimpleton and never allows him to get the pass off, but his elusiveness lets him turn it into a positive play.
Had Pimpleton been able to set and throw, he’s got #84 wide open for what should be a walk-in touchdown. This is a play where having an actual QB in Mike Wright would be a big benefit. While defenses are going to expect he’s in the game to run, that only makes your play action opportunities that much more dangerous. But by that same token, I can easily see Tulu Griffin getting a few snaps at QB this fall as they look to maximize his touches like Barbay did with Pimpleton.
Speaking of play-action out of the Wildcat, we’ll close out this piece with a look at this nice jump pass at CMU. Bracy is back in as the QB. Once again, you’ll notice the jet motion. That’s a pretty common feature on many Wildcat plays, as you’re looking to divert attention away from the ball carrier and create more space up the middle. And obviously you can give that motion player the ball on a jet sweep, something CMU did regularly out of the Wildcat.
But in this case, they’re neither running up the middle or hitting the sweep on the edge. Bracy takes the snap, takes a few steps towards the line, jumps, and throws the pop pass to TE who releases up the seam for a wide open touchdown. It’s the old Tim Tebow play and another example of making defenses pay when they think the run is obvious.
Mike Wright was a much needed addition to MSU’s QB room, but he’s also a dangerous runner that Kevin Barbay should look to get involved in the offense. And given Barbay’s familiarity with making use of Wildcat packages, I expect we see a good bit of that this fall.