STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State hired Joe Moorhead nearly two years ago mainly because of his reputation as an offensive savant.
Year one didn't go exactly as planned. The coach expects much more progress this fall.
Mississippi State's chances of staying competitive in the Southeastern Conference Western Division likely hinge on its ability to get more offensive production. The Bulldogs finished 8-5 last season because of an elite defense, but couldn't win games against tough competition because the offense couldn't score.
For Moorhead, the task is straightforward.
"For us to be the type of offense we want to be and the team that we want to be to compete for a championship, we need to improve our efficiency and our explosiveness in the pass game," Moorhead said.
The person who will throw the majority of those passes hasn't been decided. The focus of Mississippi State's preseason camp has been on a two-man quarterback competition between junior Keytaon Thompson and Penn State graduate transfer Tommy Stevens.
The winner will be throwing to an experienced group of receivers, including returning starters Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry.
Thompson had the inside track to be the program's starter before Stevens came to Starkville in May. Stevens was Trace McSorley's backup for three seasons at Penn State.
"There's always competition and I always want to go out there and get better each and every day, and prepare as the starter no matter if you are first or second or third string," Thompson said.
The Bulldogs are trying to rebuild a defense that had three players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, safety Johnathan Abram and defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.
There's still experience on that side of the ball, especially at linebacker. Junior Erroll Thompson was second on the team last fall with 87 tackles, including nine for a loss.
Here are a few more things to watch as Mississippi State prepares for its Aug. 31 opener against Louisiana in New Orleans:
Mississippi State has a chance to gain some momentum with a relatively manageable schedule during the first month. The Bulldogs open with a neutral site game against Louisiana before three straight home games against Southern Miss, Kansas State and Kentucky.
STATE CAN RUN
Mississippi State's offense certainly had issues last season, but not because of the running game. The Bulldogs were very good on the ground and return starting running back Kylin Hill, who ran for 734 yards and four touchdowns. He might have an even bigger role now that quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is gone. Fitzgerald ran for a team-high 1,121 yards and 13 touchdowns during his senior season.
SHOOP'S SECOND YEAR
Mississippi State's Bob Shoop will be in charge of the team's defense for a second straight year. That might not sound like a big deal, but it's the first time in six seasons that the Bulldogs aren't making a change at that position. Shoop's first season was outstanding: Mississippi State gave up just 13.2 points per game.
SOMEONE STEP UP
All eyes are on the quarterbacks, but Mississippi State needs improvement from the receivers, too. Mitchell led the team with just 26 catches a year ago as the Bulldogs struggled to find a true No. 1 option. Mitchell, Guidry, Deddrick Thomas and Kansas State graduate transfer Isaiah Zuber are among those with an opportunity to earn that role.
NEW DEFENSIVE LINE
Mississippi State's strength last season was a deep and talented defensive line, but now Simmons and Sweat are in the NFL. Now the Bulldogs will be relying on players like Chauncey Rivers, Marquiss Spencer and Fabien Lovett.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP