The Biggest Questions Facing Mississippi State Football in Spring Practice

Spring practice is underway for Mississippi State football. What are the biggest questions facing the Bulldogs in their first spring under Jeff Lebby?
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is pictured before a college football game between the
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is pictured before a college football game between the / BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY

Spring symbolizes new life and regrowth in our world, and those ideas could be applied to Mississippi State football in this spring season. The Bulldogs began spring practice earlier this month, their first under new head coach Jeff Lebby.

And just as the Earthly landscape is experiencing rebirth, Mississippi State football is looking to experience its own revival going into the 2024 season, with Jeff Lebby planting the seeds for his program this spring.

After a tumultuous 2023 season, Bulldog fans are in desperate need of excitement on the gridiron. That makes these spring practices all the more vital for MSU. The roster has undergone massive changes, and brand new systems are being implemented on both sides of the ball.

In order for Jeff Lebby's first season in Starkville to be successful, major strides must be taken this spring, and that includes answering some major questions about this team.

Here are the five biggest questions facing Mississippi State football in spring practices...

1. How quickly does Mississippi State football pick up Jeff Lebby's offense?

Jeff Lebby ultimately got hired as MSU head coach for one main reason: he scores a ton of points. Lebby has orchestrated some of the of college football's best offenses over the past six seasons at UCF, Ole Miss, and Oklahoma.

His Veer and Shoot scheme is designed to push defenses to their limits, playing at a break-neck tempo and generating explosive plays at a high rate. That's music to the ears of Bulldog fans after the offensive woes of 2023.

So how quickly can State get up to speed in the new system? Lebby has generated "instant offense" at his prior stops, getting results on that side of the ball right away. But the transition to be made at Mississippi State is much bigger than the one's at his other programs.

MSU's floor in 2024 is likely dictated by how good they can be offensively in Lebby's first season. So how quickly do they pick up the system? We'll be closely watching how far along that side of the ball is in the spring.

2. Will Blake Shapen take control of the quarterback battle?

Speaking of offensive success, quarterback play will, naturally, be a major factor in how good the Bulldog offense can be. And in all likelihood, that responsibility will be on the shoulders of Blake Shapen.

Shapen started 23 games over the past three seasons at Baylor, passing for 5574 yards with 36 touchdowns in his career. As a redshirt freshman, he stepped up to lead the Bears to a Big 12 title and Sugar Bowl victory, and, at times, he was the lone bright spot for the Baylor offense over the past two years.

Shapen has a strong arm with a quick release and is mobile enough to hurt defenses with his legs when he needs to. Those are the exact traits Jeff Lebby wants from a QB in his offense, which is why he's now in Starkville. It was imperative that Lebby brought-in an experienced passer to, ideally, run his system in his first year at State.

But the offense Shapen played in at Baylor was drastically different than Lebby's. He doesn't have a leg-up on the other QBs on MSU's roster in terms of knowing the system. By pure experience, he should theorectically run away with the QB battle.

But is out of the question that he's slow to pick up the system and/or a Chris Parson or Michael Van Buren challenge him? Not entirely.

The perfect world for Mississippi State is that Shapen separates from the rest of the pack in the spring so that he's solidified as the starter in the fall. You don't want to be dealing with a lingering QB battle as you're trying to establish the program in 2024.

3. Does a clear option emerge at running back?

No position on offense has more question marks in 2024 than running back. Multi-year starter Jo'Quavious Marks transferred to USC, and top back-up Seth Davis suffered an ACL-tear in the Egg Bowl that will likely have him sidelined until late in the 2024 season.

That leaves Jeffery Pittman and Keyvone Lee, who combined for just 343 rushing yards last season, as the only returning options in the backfield, at least until Davis can return. Both Pittman and Lee have shown flashes in their careers, but neither has shown they're ready to be a featured back.

JUCO-transfer Johnnie Daniels had a great season at Copiah-Lincoln CC in 2023, but will that translate to the SEC? It's tough to say, and right now, there just isn't a clear option for Mississippi State as a go-to running back.

Now, Jeff Lebby is more than capable of utilitzing a "by-committee" approach in the backfield. And to an extent, his offense is largely designed to scheme-up rushing yards regardless of RB talent. But when it comes to picking up the tough yards in the trenches, you want a RB you know you can lean on.

I would fully expect Mississippi State to heavily pursue a RB in the post-spring transfer portal window, but ideally, one of the backs currently on the roster can prove themselves as a bell-cow in the spring.

4. Who can become a disruptor along the defensive front?

Turning over to the defense, there are simply a lot of unknowns for Mississippi State football on that side of the ball in 2024. The majority of starters from last season are gone, and the depth chart will have quite a few inexperienced faces on it. But there is some talent there, particularly along the defensive line.

De'Monte Russell and Deonte Anderson are both solid veterans who have started at points for MSU and can be built around. Trevion Williams, Kalvin Dinkins, and Eric Taylor were coveted signees for the Bulldogs over the past two years.

Power Five transfers Kendrick Bigley-Jones, Wilky Denaud, and Sulaiman Kpaka also enter the mix. There's a good mix of experience and young talent with high potential to pull from.

But who, if anyone, from that group will ultimately break out? That's to be seen, but it's something State desperately needs. The best thing to compliment an explosive offense is a defense that can create havoc. And most of the time, the havoc plays on defense are generated because of dominant defensive lineman.

MSU's tradition is to churn out elite defensive lineman. We'll see if we can identify another name to add to that list during the spring.

5. What does this secondary look like?

This is maybe the most open-ended question, but that's because it's the thing I truly have the least idea about going into 2024 on this Mississippi State team. The Bulldog secondary could be entirely different this season and there are few proven commodities in that unit.

Safety seems to be the more settled position in the secondary. Corey Ellington chose to return after starting seven games in 2023. Issac Smith was the prized recruit in State's 2023 signing class and will ideally take a big step forward in his sophomore season.

Former Kentucky-transfer Kobi Albert was a player coaches had been very excited about going into last year, but an injury in the fall sidelined him for the entire season. He's now back healthy. That could be a solid core to work around, but you're still relying on guys who have yet to make a high level impact in their careers.

Cornerback is a complete question mark. Hunter Washington and Brice Pollack both saw a handful of starts in 2023, but neither proved to be lock-down options. Khamauri Rogers was a transfer State was thrilled to get last year, but then he didn't play. Memphis-transfer Traveon Wright has no collegiate experience.

There's no one guy you can point to at corner and feel totally confident in entering the spring. Does the 6'4" redshirt freshman Kelley Jones factor in? I have no idea. Admittedly, my expectations for cornerback and the secondary as a whole are not particularly high.

It's why I believe finding some dominant players along the defensive front is all the more vital to MSU. But it's also why the secondary will be a key unit to watch in the spring. Who can emerge as the leaders in that group, and can they prove to be a SEC-ready unit? Hopefully we can find out soon.