Mississippi State Football: Do the Bulldogs Have a Clear Option at Running Back?

For the first time in a long time, Mississippi State football enters the spring with major questions about the running back room.
Nov 23, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Jeffery Pittman
Nov 23, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Jeffery Pittman / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

As Mississippi State football goes through spring practices, we're breaking down each position group on the team. What positions are strengths or weaknesses, and what are the battles to watch?

We started by looking at the quarterback position and whether or not Baylor-transfer Blake Shapen will grab hold of the competition there.

Today, we're staying in the backfield to talk about the running back position.

Mississippi State football has questions at running back for the first time in a long time

Mississippi State football has a long and storied history of high level running back play. For much of the past 30 years, State has had at least one high-level running back on the roster, and they've pretty much always entered the season knowing who that bell cow would be.

Even in the Air Raid under Mike Leach when the emphasis on the run game was dramatically diminished, State still had the duo of Jo'Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson who were both very talented and capable of being featured backs.

But going into 2024, Mississippi State is oddly unsettled at that spot. Marks transferred out to USC. Seth Davis, the second leading rusher in 2023 and the player who seemed in-line to be the next star back in Starkville, went down with a knee injury in the Egg Bowl that will likely have him sidelined for the majority of the 2024 season, if not all of it.

So now in the spring ahead of Jeff Lebby's first season at State, there is no clear option at running back.

Mississippi State football's current running back room is very much unproven

State entered the spring with three scholarship running backs available. Jeffery Pittman is a former JUCO-transfer who finished the 2023 season with 268 yards and one touchdown on just under five yards a carry. He also caught two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arizona. His best game came against Southern Miss when he ran for 98 yards and a score on 10 carries.

Keyvone Lee transferred in from Penn State ahead of last season. He only saw 12 carries in 2023 for 75 yards, 49 of which came against Western Michigan. Though Lee didn't make much of an impact for MSU, he has been productive previously in his career, going over 500 yards of total offense in both 2020 and 2021 at Penn State.

Pittman and Lee are the only returning backs besides the injured Davis on the roster. That means State has just 343 rush yards back from last season with a large chunk of that production coming against low-level competition. That's not to say either of them cannot become a featured SEC tailback. But they've yet to prove that.

State added Johnnie Daniels from the JUCO ranks for this season. He was rated as the nation's top JUCO RB. State has seen plenty of success with JUCO RBs in the past, but there are some unfortunate murmurs that he may have been banged up early in spring practices. If that's the case, it's unlikely he'll be able to make much of an impression in this part of the calendar.

Regardless of what this group shows in the spring, Mississippi State must hit the portal for a running back

The RB position has major questions. So what there isn't a question about is that Mississippi State must heavily pursue at least one more RB in the post-spring transfer portal window. Whether or not that's to add a depth piece or the eventual starter depends on what Pittman and/or Lee display in the spring.

Ideally, at least one of those two will shine in spring practices enough that State can confidently say they have a quality starter in the backfield. In that case, MSU should look to add another solid option at tailback who can add depth to the position.

But if neither is particularly impressive, Jeff Lebby will be after a starter in the portal. He'll gladly utilize a "by-committee" approach at running back as it's something he's done many times before. And his system is designed in such a way that he can almost manufacture rushing yards regardless of talent at RB.

But still, you really need at least one high-level player in the RB room, if for nothing else, to trust you have a player you can hand the ball to put the game away in crucial moments even when the defense knows the run is coming.

Does that player already exist on the roster? Hopefully we learn soon.