November 4, 2017 11:43:36 PM
STARKVILLE -- Fred Ross' absence at punt returner was a big one for the Mississippi State football team to fill at the start of the season.
MSU had plenty of options and opened them to even more, encouraging freshmen to prove their worth in the preseason.
It's also fair to say Deddrick Thomas wasn't a candidate to play the position. Injuries have changed that.
As fellow wide receivers Donald Gray (groin) and Gabe Myles (foot), among others, stayed on the sidelines with injuries, Thomas -- MSU's fifth-string punt returner, according to coach Dan Mullen -- was suddenly the No. 1. He didn't disappoint with an 83-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter that helped MSU beat Massachusetts 34-23 at Davis Wade Stadium.
Thomas admits he benefited from excellent blocking as he took the punt, dashed to his left, and reached the end zone undisturbed.
"I saw the coverage team going to the other side and just wanted to run away from them," Thomas said.
Mullen said he is unsure about Gray's status next week for MSU's game against No. 1 Alabama. He said wide receiver Keith Mixon and cornerback Lashard Durr sat out the game against UMass in hopes of being at 100 percent for Alabama.
Abram called for targeting
MSU safety Johnathan Abram made helmet-to-helmet contact with quarterback Ross Comis when he barreled into the pocket in the fourth quarter for a sack. The play was flagged for targeting and quickly confirmed, which resulted in Abram's ejection from the game. He will miss the first half against Alabama.
"We coach it all the time. You have to be smart," Mullen said. "It's targeting. I don't think there was an intent to injure. He was going to tackle a guy that's low. It happens. It was the right call. The rule definitely needs to be in place, but I don't know, the suspension part of the rule is hard. I think it's hard to judge intent. I don't think he intended to do anything other than sack the quarterback.
"The problem was there was nowhere to hit him on that play."
For the first time since September, MSU has its original starting left tackle in the fold.
His replacement, Greg Eiland, started the game, but Rankin returned and played the duration.
"It's awesome having him back. I'm really excited," said MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, adding Rankin admitted he felt the rust in his first possessions.
With Alabama up next, Rankin saw the game against UMass as a great way to get himself back into game condition.
"This was a good game to come back against a team that does a lot of moving and a lot of blitzing," Rankin said. "It's a great game for me to focus on my fundamentals as we move forward."
New position for Peters
MSU cornerback Jamal Peters made his first start of the season and had two tackles and a pass breakup.
He also took a turn on offense.
Peters entered the game as a wide receiver for MSU's first play of the fourth quarter and took a handoff for an 8-yard gain. Mullen said Peters worked at wide receiver in the spring. He said the injury issues at the position forced the move, saying MSU is looking for playmakers wherever it can get them.
"I was hoping he was going to take it to the house," Thomas said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, fast. I thought he was gone."
More milestones for Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's 135 rushing yards moved him up to 2,303 for his career, which moved him ahead of Johnny Manziel and John Bond to rank fourth all-time in Southeastern Conference history for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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