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I Wanna SEC You Up: The State Offense

As I mentioned yesterday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were in most of their losses up 'til the end, but watched as turnovers or costly special teams errors gave the game away. In every significant offensive category, they finished at or near the bottom of the conference:

Category Rank
Scoring Offense 11th
Passing Offense 8th
Pass Efficiency 11th
Rushing Offense 12th
First Downs 11th
Red Zone Offense 12th
Total Offense 11th

But those numbers mask the fact that QB Michael Henig, who engineered the upset of our own beloved Tide, was injured for most of the season, the biggest receiving threats didn't really emerge until late in the season, and the backfield was continually banged up and inconsistent until the emergence of Anthony Dixon (himself injured in week one), especially in the last three games.

The biggest concern for State fans this year is the health of QB Michael Henig. Henig broke his collarbone twice last season, forcing the Bulldogs to start three different QBs last year, none of whom stayed healthy for any significant stretch of time. Henig went down in the second quarter against SC in week one, and was replaced by Tray Rutland, who was then replaced two weeks later against Tulane by Omar Conner, the converted QB who was moved to WR after Henig was named the starting QB. Conner sparked a rally to bring the Bulldogs to within three. Both he and Rutland were injured against West Virginia (Rutland was lost for the year), forcing Henig to return to action the next five weeks, but he was again injured against Arkansas forcing Conner to return although he wasn't 100%. Both Conner (graduation) and Rutland (transfer) are gone, leaving the hopes of the Bulldog faithful riding on the bolted on shoulders of Henig and JUCO transfer Josh Riddell.

The QBs

QB Michael Henig
Att Cmp % Yds TD Int
74 169 43.8 1201 7 9
The QB situation is one of dire importance for State this season, and to that end JUCO QB Josh Ridell was brought in to help bolster the depth under center. Of course, Ridell has only been playing the position for three years and is still learning the intricacies of Croom's west coast offense, so this offense likely lives and dies with Henig.

Henig's performance last year was admirable, given the continual "worst case scenario" conditions faced by State. In seven games , He passed for 1201 yds (74 of 169), 7 TDs, and 9 picks. His best two games were the loss to Kentucky (where he hit 22 of 41 for 384 yds, 3 TDs, and 2 picks and a QB Rating of 89.9), and the upset of our own beloved Tide, when he threw 9 of 23 for 143 yds, 2 TDs, 1 pick, and a QB rating of 71.5. Those aren't numbers that are going to set the world on fire, but they were enough to end a lengthy SEC road losing streak in Tuscaloosa and to keep pace with the offensive firepower of UK. Should Henig remain healthy, he should be able to put up much better stats with a more experienced O-Line (possibly the best yet during Croom's tenure) and the continued production of the big play receiving threats that emerged late last season.

Also in the mix is Ty Evans, who saw the field for two snaps last season (and literally saw the field, as he was sacked for a loss both times), and who could very easily see some playing time this year, as well.

The Receivers

WR Tony Burks
35 850 24.3 5 78
In the second half of last season, the Bulldogs averaged 36 more yards per game passing than in the first half, and most of that had to do with the emergence of big play threat Tony Burks. The good news for State fans (and for State QBs), is that Burks, along with the next four top receivers, returns this year.

WR Jamayel Smith
20 335 16.8 2 41
Jamayel Smith, a former walk on that was the second leading receiver on the team last year, had such a good spring he's listed ahead of Burks as the starter on the depth chart, though for how long he stays there is anyone's guess. Morehead State transfer Brandon McRae also earned a starting spot out of spring, where he'll be backed up by Aubrey Bell, who had 8 catches last year for 151 yards despite being suspended for six games. Help is also on the way from Co-Eric Riley (come on, parents, Co-Eric?), a JUCO transfer rated as the #13 JUCO prospect in America by Rivals, that will likely see the field sooner rather than later.

Also returning is pass catching TE Eric Butler. Though he was bothered by turf toe all of last season, he started six and became the team's third leading receiver with 13 catches for 210 yards and a TD.

The O-Line

Although they'll lose the experience of three year starter at RG Brian Anderson, this should be the best O-line yet for Croom's Bulldogs. Seven players with starting experience return, six of them with five or more starts:

Player/Position Experience
#79 - C - Royce Blackledge Blackledge, a Jr, has seen action in 13 games so far, moving to RG and starting the final six games of '05 before moving back to C for '06, where he started all 12 contests.
#60 - RG - J.D. Hamilton Hamilton replaces the aforementioned Anderson at RG, after playing six starts last season at LT
#75 - RT - Craig Jenkins Jenkins started all 12 contests at RT last season as a redshirt freshman.
#77 - LT - Mike Brown Brown, a Florida transfer, was forced to sit out the first six last year, but started the last five at LT, prompting the move of J.D. Hamilton to RG.
#53 - LG - Anthony Strauder Strauder started all eleven at LG in '05 as a redshirt freshman, but only started six last year.

The Backfield

When you're talking rushing and Mississippi State, there are only two names you need to know: Anthony Dixon and Robert Elliott.

RB Anthony Dixon
169 707 39 668 9 4.0
Dixon was pegged to replace Jerious Norwood after the Bulldogs' career rushing leader went into the NFL. He rushed for 64 in week one against SC last year as a true freshman, but broke his hand during practice. He still played in all twelve contests, starting five, and gained 668 yds and 9 TDs, setting the MSU true freshman records for yards, attempts, and rushing TDs in the process. He had two 100 yard games in the last three games of the season, and is back atop the depth chart coming into 2007. Dixon is, however, a power runner without real breakaway speed, 'causing Coach Croom to bemoan the lack of speed in the backfield and to bring in speed back Robert Elliott.

Elliott, considered the #2 player in the state of Mississippi and the #11 running back in the country by, was originally committed to Ole Miss, but instead switched to State after also considering Memphis and FSU. His speed will be counted on to compliment Dixon's power running, and there is the strong possibility that each will line up in the backfield with Dixon at FB.

If the offense can stay healthy and perform up to expectations, this should be a much improved unit in the coming season. Plenty of opportunities presented themselves to the Bulldogs last season, but costly errors routinely allowed victory to slip away before their eyes, and hopefully for Bulldog fans this year's version will be wiser with age and able to make something of the offensive production they proved capable of at the end of last season.

Tomorrow we'll look at the unit that will, for once, be the weak side of the ball and figure out if the Bullies will have to outshoot opponents if they want to win.