Mississippi State Football Spring Film Study: Bulldogs ready to "score from far"

Jeff Lebby gave fans a glimpse of his high-flying offense in the spring game, and Mississippi State football is already embracing his "score from far" mentality.
Mississippi State Spring Football Game
Mississippi State Spring Football Game / Justin Ford/GettyImages
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Go Long - Mississippi State shows off Jeff Lebby's deep passing game

An explosive passing attack isn't something Mississippi State fans are particularly used to seeing. Going back through the entire modern era of Bulldog football, you'd be hard pressed to find a season where shot plays down the field were the norm.

For as great of an offensive mind as Dan Mullen was, his teams rarely emphasized the vertical passing game, even when he had Dak Prescott and a good group of WRs. Joe Moorhead, who many believed would modernize the Bulldog passing attack, saw his offenses sputter in Starkville. And despite the pass-happy nature of Mike Leach's Air Raid, his scheme was built on short and intermediate passes and rarely attempted vertical shots.

Last season, Kevin Barbay was brought to MSU with the intent of creating a more explosive pass game. It was stressed as a key part of his philosophy, so much so that "#BarbayBombs" was soon trending amongst Bulldog fans. Well, those "bombs" largely proved to be duds.

Enter Jeff Lebby, whose offensive scheme is more synonymous with pushing the ball down the field than almost any other. Last season, his Oklahoma Sooners ranked fifth nationally in passing plays of 20+ yards with 66. For comparison, Mississippi State was 117th with just 27 such plays.

That's quite the drastic change.

Lebby's scheme is designed to create plenty of opportunities down field, and from a play-calling standpoint, he aggressively calls those shots. Getting the Bulldogs to become a shot-taking team requires more than just a philosophical shift, however.

You have to have the personnel capable of executing that style of attack. So, Jeff Lebby brought in former Baylor QB Blake Shapen and transfer WRs Kelly Akharaiyi and Kevin Coleman. Shapen has plenty of arm strength and is accurate downfield. Akharaiyi averaged 21.5 yards per catch at UTEP in 2023. Coleman displayed plenty of speed out of the slot at both Jackson State and Louisville.

That group, and others, had no issues showcasing Lebby's deep ball approach in the spring game.

State scores on the signature play of the Jeff Lebby offense

There's one concept that the Jeff Lebby offense and all others off the Briles-tree are famous for: Deep Choice.

A modernized take on the old Run and Shoot "Choice" concept, the idea behind Deep Choice is quite simple - find your best matchup and let that receiver run to open grass for an easy, and big, completion.

We'll eventually get into the finer details of how it's run, but in short, the designated DC receiver(s) will read the depth and leverage of a defender to determine what route to run. If they read it correctly (and win their matchup), they should always be open, which is why nine times out of 10, that's who the QB is throwing to. In fact back in the Briles Baylor days, the DC receiver was the only read for the QB.

Deep Choice is the go-to way for Jeff Lebby to dial-up a shot down the field. When you've got WRs that can consistently win one-on-one and a QB that can connect on those throws, it can function as a large chunk of your passing game.

The first TD of Mississippi State's spring game came off the play, with Blake Shapen hitting Kelly Akharaiyi for a 40-yard score. Lebby has "Outside Choice" (meaning the outside WR has the choice route) called to both sides of the field. Shapen can choose which OWR he wants to key-in on by deciding which matchup is more favorable.

He chooses Akharaiyi. Akharaiyi has a press corner over him, and if you're Shapen, you expect him to win that battle. Add in that the MOF (middle of field) safety is cheating towards the wide side of the field, away from Akharaiyi, and the choice is easy for Shapen.

Vs press, Akharaiyi's rule is simple: win vertically on a go-route. The receiver inside of him, in this case TE Seydou Traore, runs a bender, an in-breaker to the middle of the field meant almost entirely to just draw coverage away from Akharaiyi. Shapen can technically throw that if the Choice isn't there (which again, you didn't see back in the Briles Baylor days), but there's no need.

Kelly Akharaiyi beats his man easily, the MOF safety is out of position to make a play, and it's a touchdown for the offense.

Taking shots in the RPO game

RPOs are a key part of this offense. Nearly every run call will have some sort of pass tagged to it. So much of the philosophy is based around forcing defenses to attempt to cover every square inch of the field (which they can't), and torching them with quick passes out wide when defenders trigger on the run helps achieve that.

Most RPOs are your typical quick hitters: hitches, glance routes, quick outs. But Jeff Lebby will gladly look to take shots down the field with RPOs as well. That was the case with their first big play of the spring game, when Blake Shapen hit Kevin Coleman for a 60-yard gain off a slot fade RPO.

State has their Insert/Iso run called, a base run concept in the offense. The outside receivers are running access hitch routes. If Shapen thinks he's got the space to hit either of those pre-snap, he can take it. In the slot, Kevin Coleman runs a slot fade, looking to win vertically and run away from coverage. From what I understand, Coleman can also run a hitch here if he doesn't think he can win vertically, but he can and does.

Shapen can make the decision to throw this ball pre or post-snap depending on the location of the safeties. With the field side safety already cheating down to defend the run, I assume Shapen knew presnap he was taking the throw. If he didn't, that safety triggering on the run at the snap makes the decision for him.

Coleman blows by the nickel corner, and there is no one in position to help over top. Credit to the nickel for catching up to prevent a TD, but it's a massive gain.

My favorite thing about this play? Shapen completes this pass outside the numbers from the opposite hash and does so seemingly with ease. That's impressive arm talent that a lot of college QBs lack, and it opens up plenty of possibilities for how Jeff Lebby can call the offense this fall.

Winning deep with a classic concept

One of the ways Jeff Lebby has evolved his offense from its Baylor-roots is by mixing in more traditional formations and passing concepts. Rather than always splitting receivers as wide as possible and only having them run RPOs and choice routes, you'll see his teams run many of the classic plays you can find from every other team in the sport.

This is simply to have more versatility on offense. There's times you need an answer beyond "read out this RPO" or "trust your WR to win one-on-one", and that's why Lebby has expanded his system to include more diversity in both the pass and run game.

Of course, there's nothing that says you can't take shots off those plays too. That's exactly what happens here with Blake Shapen hitting Jordan Mosely on a deep post off the Sail concept.

Sail is a basic concept found in almost any playbook. It's a three-level flood play that consists of either a vertical or deep post from the outside receiver, a 10-yard out or "Sail" route from the slot, and a third pass-catcher underneath in the flat.

MSU's receivers got singled-up on plenty of occasions in the spring game, and that was the case here. Jordan Mosely burns by the corner on the post, and it's another big gain. The Bulldog DBs found themselves outclassed in this scrimmage, and the offense took advantage. To be fair to them, they played an even more vanilla scheme than the offense, but they still allowed plenty of pitch and catch.

It may be an indictment on the talent in the secondary. It may not mean anything (it is, in fact, just a spring game). But regardless, watching State connect on shots down the field was fun.