Mississippi State Football: Bulldog Linebackers have big shoes to fill

Mississippi State football has to replace two of the most productive linebackers in SEC history. Who on the roster will step up?
South Carolina v Georgia
South Carolina v Georgia / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

With Mississippi State football's 2024 spring game just a few days away, we're breaking down each position group on the roster to learn who's likely to factor in for Jeff Lebby's first season leading the program.

We last looked at the Bulldog defensive line, and now we continue with the rest of the Front 7 with an overview of the Mississippi State linebackers. And that's a group that has big shoes to fill heading into 2024.

MSU has to replace two of the most productive linebackers in SEC history. Nathaniel "Bookie" Watson and Jett Johnson were the faces of the Bulldog defense for each of the last three seasons. That tandem gave State some of the best linebacker play in the country.

Their time in Starkville has come to an end, so who is going to step-in to fill that role?

Stone Blanton gives MSU an experienced SEC starter.

State didn't go hard in the portal to add linebackers (at least they haven't yet), but they did make one major addition at the position. Stone Blanton transfers in from South Carolina, and it couldn't be more fitting to see him in a MSU uniform.

The Jackson-native was a 4-star prospect in the class of 2022 and was actually a longtime MSU baseball commit. Despite his desire to play for the Diamond Dawgs, Blanton didn't pull the trigger on signing with MSU football and ultimately ended up at South Carolina.

Blanton spent two years in Columbia, starting for the Gamecocks last season. He posted 52 tackles, a sack, and had an 88-yard pick six. Now, he's where he always belonged, and he steps in as the lone linebacker on the roster with a seasons-worth of starting experience in the league.

State's upperclassmen linebackers have waited a long time for the chance to shine. Will they?

When you've got such an established duo as Watson and Johnson, it's hard for other linebackers to make much of an impact. And that's why to this point, we haven't seen much from the LBs returning in 2024.

Among that group that's waited the longest are John Lewis and JP Purvis. Technically, neither had to wait until this year for the chance to shine. They both got that opportunity last year when they battled it out to be State's starting strongside LB in Zach Arnett's 3-3-5, and well, neither really shined.

They had their moments. Going back to last spring I thought they both had the chance to be superstars. And you've seen flashes in games from them. But they just weren't consistently impactful.

To be fair to them, you could argue they were playing out of position at SAM backer, which in Arnett's defense, is essentially just a stand-up defensive end. At least in the case of Lewis, he's moving to inside LB this season in Coleman Hutzler's 3-4 scheme which could serve him well. As for Purvis, its unclear exactly what spot he'll be at. He started his career at inside backer before the move to SAM, but unfortunately, an injury has him sidelined into the summer, meaning we won't get an answer for where he'll align in the spring game.

Speaking of playing stand-up DE, in Hutzler's defense, that role is called the Jack, and former lineman Ty Cooper looks to be leading the way in that role. Cooper played really well for State down the stretch last season and will look to build off that momentum.

Lewis, Purvis, and Cooper have now all been around the program for multiple years with lots of in-game experience. And each have shown flashes of great potential at various points. Now they need to turn that potential into production.

Will the young guys make an impact?

When discussing the defensive line, I mentioned that players like Trevion Williams and Kalvin Dinkins need to live up to their recruiting hype in 2024. They were big-time signees for State a few years back, and now's when we need to see that potential play-out of the field.

The same can be said about LBs Javae Gilmore, Khalid Moore, and Zakari Tillman. Those guys were all considered great pick-ups for State over the last two signing classes to continue the lineage of strong LB play at State. None of them have gotten much of a chance yet on the field, which is totally understandable. But I'm going to be very interested to see what they do in the spring game.

And then there's Donterry Russell. The younger brother of De'Monte Russell played his way onto the field last season and was very impressive rushing off the edge. He's working at Jack linebacker alongside Ty Cooper and is another younger LB who could make an impact this fall.

While guys like John Lewis and JP Purvis are going to be the front-runners in the LB room, they are by no means penciled-in as the starters. Can a young guy steal the show?

Mississippi State's linebacker room gets a "prove it" opportunity in the spring.

The potential in the MSU LB room is pretty high. There are several talented pieces who have shown flashes of brilliance, and if the group as a whole can consistently deliver at a higher level than what they've shown so far (acknowledging they haven't gotten to show all that much), this should be a good group.

The key there is that they haven't yet shown they're capable of that. Some of that is because of the players who were in front of them, some of it goes back to their own inconsistencies.

I wouldn't be shocked at all to see this unit have an impressive showing on Saturday. But I also won't be shocked if Lebby and Hutzler are portal-shopping for more LBs next week, either. This spring as served as a chance for the guys currently on the roster prove they're SEC ready, and we'll get some idea of whether or not that's the case in the spring game.