By now, you should know the numbers: 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground, and 2,423 yards and 21 passes in the air.
Those are the numbers Nick Fitzgerald put up a year ago after taking over for Dak Prescott. And, to Fitzgerald’s credit, he played well. Actually, better than well, which is why the bar is set so high for him in 2017.
Most of the ingredients for a potent offense are there: the quarterback, a retooled offensive line, depth at running back. But question marks still abound at receiver. In other words, who are the guys who will be catching those Fitzgerald passes?
A year ago, Fitzgerald had Fred Ross, who hauled in 72 catches for 917 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to setting the school’s career receptions record.
But Ross was a senior and slot receiver Malik Dear may not play this season because of a knee injury suffered this spring. That leaves Donald Gray as the lone proven threat with any experience.
Gray had 41 receptions for 709 yards, an impressive 17.3 yards per catch. But 48 percent of those yards came during four non-conference games. His totals in SEC play: 23 receptions for 366 yards. Gray now is tasked with being the go-to guy for Fitzgerald while coaches look for complementary receivers.
Fitzgerald should have some viable options in the slot and at tight end with Keith Mixon, Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas, but big-play, stretch-the-field wide receivers look to be missing from this offense. You hear rumblings about sophomore Jamal Couch and redshirt freshman Osirus Mitchell, that senior Gabe Myles is coming on and that junior Jesse Jackson finally is ready, but until the lights come on, you just won’t know.
Prescott truly came of age as a junior, when he helped the Bulldogs ascend to No. 1 in the nation. Similar things are of expected of Fitzgerald as a junior, at least when it comes to stats vis-a-vis Prescott. But there is a big difference: Prescott had a proven receiving corps in 2014, versus the unknowns for Fitzgerald and 2017.
Prescott had senior wide receivers Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson. There were talented young guys such as Ross, De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross and Fred Brown. Prescott also had future NFL tight end Malcolm Johnson coming back for his senior season, as well as veteran wideout Joe Morrow.
The receivers made huge contributions in 2014, giving the Bulldogs perhaps their most balanced attack in school history. This season, the Bulldogs have the quarterback and running game, but not near the depth and experience at wide receiver or tight end.
You know with Mullen you are going to get a good dose of smash-mouth football out of the spread – that’s his MO. But if the Bulldogs can’t stretch the field, or move the chains on obvious passing downs, teams will load the box, go man-to-man and make 2017 hard on this Mississippi State offense.
If the Bulldogs, in fact, have missed in recruiting and do not possess quality and depth at wide receiver, this could be a season that goes backward for Fitzgerald and Mullen’s offense. That begs this question: Why are the Bulldogs in this position to begin with?
After the 2014 season, when the Bulldogs threw 31 TD passes and had six players with at least 20 receptions, you would have expected to see a few quality receivers sign. Maybe they did and will bust out this season.
If the Bulldogs cannot find productive receivers, it doesn’t matter how talented Fitzgerald is. He can only do so much – and he sure can’t catch his own passes.
(You can follow Jake Wimberly on Twitter @jakewim)
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