Mike Leach and his Mississippi State football players have a lot to learn about each other in a short period of time.
Given his successful background, it’s possible for the outspoken coach and the Bulldogs to become quick studies. For now, there’s work to be done as Leach instills his pass-heavy Air Raid scheme to the offense in hopes of turning things around.
“We’ve got it installed, now we just have to polish it up and execute it and be more automatic,” said Leach, who was 139-90 at Washington State and Texas Tech. “It’s still a work in progress, and I guess it’s continually a work in progress.”
Leach was hired away from WSU in January to replace Joe Moorhead, who was fired after two seasons.
His plan in Starkville is continuing what he did with the Cougars and Texas Tech: turn the mediocre Bulldogs back into winners and then contend in the tough Southeastern Conference West Division. The latter is a tall task by any measure, more so with the coronavirus pandemic eliminating spring drills and practices to August.
The challenge emboldens Leach, but he sounds patient. For now.
“As we develop, players are able to utilize a lot of people’s talents," he said. "I worry about how quickly we can get over the learning curve.
“You never know. There’s no real destination in this. I mean, you keep getting better.”
There’s room for improvement on both sides of the ball, though Leach’s resume’ makes clear offensive growth must come from putting the ball in the air. The defense has also embraced the faster pace, and the Bulldogs are eager to see where it leads.
“It’s totally different from last season,” senior receiver JaVonta Payton said. “How we practice now is like, every play is basically a pass play. We’re always running down the field, trying to get open. It’s constant running, both offense and defense.”
Some other things to watch as Mike Leach takes over at Mississippi State:
Running back Kylin Hill threatened to boycott during the offseason unless the Mississippi state flag, which included a Confederate emblem, was changed. Mounting public pressure eventually led legislators to retire the polarizing flag, and Hill is back and intent on following up a season he rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns. How he’ll be used in a pass-oriented offense remains to be seen, but Leach has liked what he’s seen of him running and catching the ball.
Leach hints at waiting until game week before announcing whether fifth-year senior K.J. Costello, sophomore Garrett Schrader or Will Rogers will lead the high-octane offense. Experience-wise, Costello appears to be the front runner with 6,151 yards passing and 49 TDs over three seasons at Stanford, including two as a starter before transferring. Schrader passed for 1,170 yards and eight TDs in 10 games with four starts last season.
The Bulldogs were next to last in SEC pass defense, allowing nearly 247 yards per game last season. The transfer of Jarrian Jones to Florida and Tyler Williams’ decision to opt out because of coronavirus concerns have only made the challenge tougher experience-wise. On the other hand, some underclassmen saw action and newcomers appear ready to assume immediate roles. “We all have some work to do,” sophomore corner Martin Emerson said. “I feel like if they buy in and lock in, the sky’s the limit.”
Williams is the only Bulldog who has opted out. Leach has chosen to discuss players who are staying in the program but said he respects anyone’s decision not to play.
The Bulldogs open at defending national champion LSU on Sept. 26. Their toughest stretch follows a bye, when they travel to Alabama (Oct. 31), host Auburn (Nov. 14) and visit Georgia (Nov. 21) over a four-week stretch. The Egg Bowl rivalry game at Ole Miss remains on Thanksgiving weekend.
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