Mississippi State football: Southeastern Louisiana film preview

Sep 14, 2019; Oxford, MS, USA; Southeastern Louisiana Lions linebacker Hunter Gill (17) reacts during the second half against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 14, 2019; Oxford, MS, USA; Southeastern Louisiana Lions linebacker Hunter Gill (17) reacts during the second half against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /
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Mississippi State football linebacker Nathaniel Watson makes a tackle vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide.
TUSCALOOSA, AL – OCTOBER 22: Nathaniel Watson #14 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs brings down Jahmyr Gibbs #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images) /

What will Mississippi State football have to worry about with Southeastern Louisiana’s offense?

The first thing that stands out to you when you watch SLU is how many formations they’ll get in. This is a team that is very diverse in terms of alignment. Though they primarily base out of your standard 11-personnel looks, you’ll see them mix in 4-wide spread alignments, heavy personnel under center sets, a variety of empty and unbalanced formations, and even the wildcat.

In consecutive drives against Incarnate Word, the Lions went from 10 personnel with stacked WRs to each side, resulting in a long TD on a fade route, to a 13 personnel power set, where they picked up a big gain off a WR jet sweep.

There’s somewhat of a “do a little bit of everything” philosophy to SLU’s offense. There’s a wide array of packages that they’ll work out of throughout the course of a single game. This was certainly true with how they handled the QB position.

SLU used a true two-QB system in 2022. Cephus Johnson was the main starter but split reps almost equally with Eli Sawyer. As is the case with many two-QB systems, Johnson and Sawyer split time because each brought their own skillset to the table.

Johnson was the true dual-threat with 528 rushing yards. He was used primarily to get SLU’s ground game going and hit quick, easy completions to their skill talent in space. Sawyer is a pocket-passer and led the team with 1605 passing yards and 11 TDs. When SLU needed to lean on it’s passing attack, Sawyer was in the game.

Johnson is now trying to make it as a WR in the NFL while Sawyer returns for 2023. But it’s not going to solely be Sawyer’s job. Northwestern State QB Zachary Clement transfers in after earning all-conference honors last season. While not nearly as dynamic as Johnson, he does add a dimension with his legs that Sawyer simply doesn’t have.

Reports out of camp are that SLU is set to role with the 2-QB system yet again. Regardless of who’s under center, they’ll have a pair of big targets to throw to.

At 6’4, 200 lbs, Maurice Massey is a prototypical “X” receiver. The former Mizzou signee finished second on the team in receiving last year with 40 catches for 525 yards and 4 TDs. He has the size and speed to win one-on-one battles downfield and is tough to bring down.

SLU got him heavily involved in their RPO game. They’d run him on glance routes, five-step slants meant to attack LBs and safeties coming up to stop the run, and “gift routes”, quick outs and hitches meant to take advantage of a CB playing soft coverage.

Massey’s physicality made him a popular target for RPOs, particularly on gift routes. The idea behind throwing a gift route is that if the defense is going to “gift” you five yards by playing their corners off, why not take it? But because Massey is so tough to bring down, he has a tendency to turn those five yard gains into big plays by breaking tackles.

Here he takes a short catch vs Lamar and turns it into a 33-yard touchdown. Lamar is badly out of position at the snap, leaving him uncovered. But what’s impressive is what Massey does after the catch, breaking through three tackles and somehow staying in-bounds to reach the endzone.

Massey is the biggest threat to watch out wide, but the Lions have another (literally) big threat over the middle too. TE Ivan Drobocky (just a great name for a TE) was the epitome of a redzone target last season. The 6’4, 240 lb hauled in just 14 catches in 2022, but six of those went for touchdowns, leading the team.

Drobocky might become more of an every down target for SLU this year, as Massey is the only other returning starter in the receiving corps. But if nothing else, you know you must account for him once the Lions get inside the 20.

Here SLU gets into a trips set with Drobocky in a “nub” alignment as the lone receiver to the left. They’re running a China concept to the trips side (also called Corner or “Dusty”), which is a go-to play for many offenses in the redzone, as it’s great against man coverage. Meanwhile with Drocbocky singled-up, he’s going to attack the seam with a skinny post.

The strong safety widens and Drobocky attacks the open space between he and the free safety. Cephus Johnson recognizes it immediately and hits him for the TD. When you’ve got a TE that’s a legitimate scoring threat, singling him to one side is a great way to create a matchup advantage for the offense. The defense is going to align to the passing strength that is the trips side, leaving the TE one-on-one against an outmatched LB or DB.

SLU used misdirection to free up Drobocky, as well. Here they’re in a bunch trips set with Drobocky acting as the “point” of the bunch. The Lions are running Y-Leak. The idea is simple, get the defense moving one way while the TE “leaks” out the other way.

Eli Sawyer fakes the handoff and rolls out to his right, looking as though he’s working the high-low concept between his WR and RB. Drobocky is going to first stay in to block, attacking the DE to his inside shoulder. But after giving him a shove, Drobocky gets off his block and races behind the dropping LB to the left side of the endzone.

With every defender watching Sawyer rolling out to his right, no one pays attention to Drobocky running the other way. He finds himself wide open in the endzone, and Sawyer throws it back to him for an easy TD.

Southeastern likes to run the football, but I’d expect them to lean on their passing game against Mississippi State. The Lions lost their top three rushers from a year ago, and trying to run straight at State’s defensive front isn’t likely to go well.

But both Massey and Drobocky are legitimate threats in the receiving corps, and given that State is breaking in a mostly new secondary, look for SLU to try and attack through the air early on.