STARKVILLE — Mississippi State outside receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. didn’t have high expectations for his players early in the 2020 season.
With no spring ball, a late start to summer camp and a brand-new coaching staff touting a novel offensive system, Spurrier and his fellow coaches knew perfection wouldn’t be on the table.
“Going out there in the first couple games, we were just hoping guys knew where to line up and how to play,” Spurrier said Tuesday.
But this year, with a full offseason under their belt, the Bulldogs’ outside receivers will be asked to do more. Spurrier thinks they’re ready to deliver.
“We’re really far ahead of where we were last year,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys, and we’ll be ready to play here in a couple weeks.”
While inside receivers coach Dave Nichol’s room includes star sophomore Jaden Walley, who set Mississippi State’s freshman record in 2020 with 718 receiving yards, Spurrier touted the talent within his group.
Senior Malik Heath, who totaled 307 yards last season after transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Community College, will be a big target for whichever quarterback earns the starting job.
Heath showed his speed and catching ability in Tuesday’s practice, hauling in a beautiful deep ball from sophomore Will Rogers for a touchdown in team drills.
“He’s a guy who’s benefited a lot from being in the system, from being coached, from repetition, from seeing things over and over,” Spurrier said. “He’s a guy who’s really got an opportunity to have a heck of a year. He’s a talented young man. He’s big, strong, physical, runs well, great hands, catches the ball, and he’s well ahead of where he was last year.”
On the other side of the field, Cal transfer Makai Polk seems to have a hold on a starting spot. With three years of eligibility remaining, Polk said Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense was a key factor in his decision to join the Bulldogs.
“All we do is throw the ball, so that’s good,” Polk said Tuesday.
He said he’s picking up the scheme well so far, and camp results have backed that up. Polk has been perhaps the Bulldogs’ most impressive outside receiver in terms of his consistency, speed and ability.
“He’s a good addition and a smart, tough guy, knows how to play the game,” Polk said. “He can get open and catch the ball and make plays, and that’s what we’re looking for at that Z position without a doubt.”
Behind the pair, two players who have yet to see significant playing time have looked strong in camp.
Redshirt sophomore Quinton Torbor has softened his hands to the point where he should see more snaps, Spurrier said. Previously, the Louisiana native struggled to make catches consistently.
“Anytime you drop the ball in this offense, you’ll be identified by 10 different people that you struggled catching the ball,” Spurrier said.
Holmes Community College transfer Caleb Ducking, meanwhile, was held out last season as he adjusted to the Southeastern Conference and improved his game in practice. The 6-foot-5 redshirt junior will have opportunities to see the field, according to Spurrier.
“He’s a talented young man, and if we can get it all out of him, he’s going to have a good year,” Spurrier said.
Sophomore Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin is injured, but Spurrier said he hopes to get the Philadelphia High School product back at practice soon.
The speedster fills out a position group from which Spurrier expects considerable production. Walley and Osirus Mitchell each eclipsed the 500-yard mark last season, the first time any Mississippi State receiver did so since Fred Ross (917) and Donald Gray (709) in 2016.
Spurrier said he hopes to see more of the same from the Bulldogs this season. In 2019, his second and last year under Leach at Washington State, seven Cougars receivers had 500 or more receiving yards. (Quarterback Anthony Gordon finished with 5,579 passing yards, which would have been the best mark in the country were it not for an all-time season by LSU’s Joe Burrow.)
Spurrier said he expects to play eight receivers, hoping the Bulldogs can spread the wealth in a similar fashion this year.
“Putting the pieces together and the depth and the numbers we need at that position will take a while, but we’ll get there,” he said.
Spurrier expressed his confidence in the head coach he followed across the country, noting the improvement Leach’s teams at Texas Tech and Washington State made from their first season to their second and third years in the system.
It’s why he promised improvement from the Bulldogs this season, and his players have bought in. Polk said he and his teammates are full speed ahead as the Sept. 4 season opener nears.
“We’re not looking back or taking a step back,” Polk said. “We’re firing on all cylinders.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.