The top 10 Mississippi State football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. WR Fred Ross, Sr.
An all-star talent both in the classroom and on the field, the 6-2, 207-pound No. 1 target came up with 88 catches for 1,007 yards and five scores. Will he come up with the same production without Dak Prescott throwing his way? Can he rebound after undergoing a surgery on his injured groin? It’s asking a lot, but he’s a good enough receiver to make any quarterback look great. Quick as well as fast, he averaged 10.47 yards per punt return with a touchdown and ran for a score. When he was on as a receiver, he was unstoppable with ten catches or more four times with a run of four straight 100-yard games to close out the regular season. All five of his touchdowns came in the last five games of the season.
2. LB Richie Brown, Sr.
The team’s leading tackler did it all with 109 stops with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss with a pick. It’s impossible to earn all-star honors as a linebacker in the SEC, but Brown deserved it starting out the season with 11 tackles or more in four of the last five games and with 22 tackles combined in the final two regular season games against Arkansas and Ole Miss. At 6-2 and 245 pounds he’s got the size to provide the thump against the run with the instincts to find ways to get behind the line. He’s the leader of the defense and should be a lock for another 100-stop season.
3. S Brandon Bryant, Soph.
Bryant took over a starting safety job in his redshirt freshman season and now looks like an all-star over the next few years with NFL athleticism, speed and skills. 5-11 and 205 pounds with elite sub-4.4 wheels – and all-star smarts – he’s got all the tools to work anywhere in the secondary and be a force. He could move to corner without a problem, but he’s a hitter making 63 stops with three interceptions highlighted by a ten-tackle game against Ole Miss to close out the regular season.
4. DE A.J. Jefferson, Sr.
While it helped to have Chris Jones up front, Jefferson did his part as a do-it-all interior defender coming up with 47 tackles with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Athletic enough to work as an outside pass rusher and tough enough to be a pounder of a run defender, he’ll move around where needed. No matter where he works, he’ll camp out behind the line and will be the team’s key playmaker up front to work around.
5. RB Brandon Holloway, Sr.
Very small, but very, very fast, the 5-8, 165-pounder is an all-star in the classroom and now has to match the production on the field. The team’s leading returning rusher came up with 413 yards averaging 4.5 yards per try – he can do far more. Stronger as a receiver when he can get the ball in the open field and work, he caught 33 passes for 396 yards and five scores to go along with a kickoff return averaged of close to 24 yards per try with a touchdown. There’s no power to his game, but let his quickness take over and he’s special.
6. S Kivon Coman, Sr.
The team’s third-leading tackler came up with 76 stops and a pick with four tackles for loss, coming up with nine stops twice – including the Alabama game – and with eight in the win over Arkansas. At 6-3 and 196 pounds he’s a tall, rangy player who doesn’t look like a hitter, but he can deliver. An academic all-star, he’s a good leader in the defensive backfield and doesn’t make a whole slew of mistakes. If he can come up with more plays when the ball is in the air, he’ll be in the hunt for all-star honors.
7. DE Johnathan Calvin, Sr.
A promising end with good bulk and enough experience to be a solid all-around producer, the 6-3, 263-pound veteran will play a bigger role after coming up with 27 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. The former JUCO transfer isn’t a big-time pass rusher, but he has the power to make things happen behind the line. His biggest worth is as a run defender on the outside.
8. QB Nick Fitzgerald, Soph.
Is it going to be his quarterback gig? It’s hardly a sure thing with other decent options ready to make a run for the job, but Fitzgerald has more time in the program than the others, he has the size, the arm, and the poise. He looked just good enough throughout the spring – even if statistically he was behind the others – to put him in the lead going into the fall. It’s hardly a sure thing, though. He’s not going to come anywhere close to running like Dak Prescott, but he can move well and has the arm to press the ball deep enough to make the good Bulldog receivers shine. First he has to win the job.
9. C Jamaal Clayborn, Sr.
Is he ready to be the leader of the veteran line? A big, nasty, attitude blocker, he’s 6-4, 315 pounds, and versatile enough to play just about anywhere. He’ll get the call at center after spending last season at guard, but he was just okay last season and didn’t quite build on his promising sophomore campaign. Always going full-bore, he’ll have to be steady.
10. LB J.T. Gray, Jr.
Way undersized for a linebacker but a great special teamer and fast on the outside, the 6-0, 196-pounder finished fourth on the team with 65 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Consistent, he did his part getting in on plays and being a nice part of the run defense puzzle, coming up with his biggest day against Louisiana Tech with ten stops. With his athleticism and speed he should be more of a pass rusher and do more in pass coverage – he’ll get the opportunity.