April 13, 2018 10:10:46 AM
STARKVILLE -- Injuries robbed the Mississippi State football team of its two senior wide receivers last fall, but they were not alone. The first mishap for the position group was Malik Dear, many months earlier.
It was early in spring practice when Dear crumbled to the ground clutching his knee, near the end of one of few open practice periods that spring for media. Former MSU coach Dan Mullen eventually confirmed Dear tore his ACL, but refused to rule him out for the ensuing 2017 season. It morphed into a weekly dance, getting updates on Dear's rehab process and his potential return to a wide receiving corps that could use his services.
Dear ultimately redshirted last season, returned in full this spring as a redshirt junior and has practiced fully in all but one practice, which MSU coach Joe Moorhead said he missed with an insignificant lower-body injury. With his true return to the field looming in April 21st's Maroon & White Game, Dear outlined the process by which he ultimately took a redshirt season.
"It was real close, man. I felt great at the beginning of the season," Dear said. "The competitor in me wanted it, but I knew I wasn't getting in.
"I always think I can come back. I never let not coming back come into my mind. I always had a positive mind and had confidence in the trainers and everybody else to get me where I need to be."
That came to a pass in MSU's third game of last season, at home against LSU. Dear dressed out for the game hoping that he would play, but pregame warmups proved to be too much for him, much less the prospect of playing in a Southeastern Conference game.
"After that game, I went ahead and told coach it was time to make that decision," Dear said.
Mullen didn't announce his intent to redshirt Dear until a couple of weeks later. The decision gave Dear no choice but to sit and watch as MSU had the league's worst passing attack by yards per game, 166.9, with just 10 teams in the nation worse by yards per attempt (6.1). MSU finished its season with no receivers over 300 yards for the season, despite 37 receivers in the conference hitting that mark. It was the first time since 2011 MSU had no receivers with at least 400 receiving yards.
Dear could have helped in that regard: in his first two seasons, he put up 226 and 227 yards on 23 and 22 catches, respectively; with that yards per catch average of 10.06, he would have needed just three catches per game last season to be MSU's leading receiver by nearly 100 yards.
"It's the worst feeling ever. I've never felt so bad," Dear said. "I always watched the film, even if they thought I wasn't watching. I watched everything they did, even when they came out here to practice. It was hard watching, knowing I couldn't do anything.
"Really, it's a mental thing. You can't let anything get you down, keep that confidence and keep pushing."
That push to a return started in earnest for Dear toward the end of last season. He said by the time the team left for Jacksonville and the TaxSlayer Bowl, he was doing everything he was doing before he got hurt. He still does some therapy things even as he practicing fully this spring, but the spring to-date has been full-go.
"I feel fine, I'm ready to go," Dear said. "I've grown tremendously. The training staff, the coaching staff, the strength staff, they do a great job and they took care of me."
Now clear of a year since his injury, he is going through the same growing phase of every other Bulldog wide receiver: learning the Moorhead system. Dear said the wide receivers have come to help each other in picking up the system and teach each other when they can.
As for his role, he's not being picky.
"It's whatever Coach wants me to do," Dear said. "If he wants me to go out there and block a defensive lineman, that's what I'll do."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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