STARKVILLE — The question of who would be Mississippi State’s starting quarterback seemed to have a clear answer.
Sophomore Will Rogers, the only returning signal-caller who threw a pass for the Bulldogs last season, seemed the logical choice. Throughout preseason camp, Rogers’ teammates praised his leadership and consistency without fail.
And it appears those attributes — and the Brandon High School product’s experience — have paid off. On Wednesday, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach named Rogers the current favorite to start Sept. 4 when the Bulldogs open their season against Louisiana Tech.
“If we were to play today, it would be Will,” Leach said when asked about the Bulldogs’ Week 1 starter.
That certainly can change, but with less than 10 days to go until Davis Wade Stadium fills up with clanging cowbells, it’s Rogers’ job to lose. Leach said last week Rogers had shown more consistency than South Alabama transfer Chance Lovertich, the other lead contender for the job, and that Rogers’ work ethic set him apart.
“I think as far as just throwing the ball, they all do a pretty good job with that, and then they have various other physical attributes,” Leach said of his passers. “(Rogers) is a very committed guy as far as watching film and has thrown with these guys more than anybody else.”
In nine games last season, Rogers threw for 1,976 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had the 116th-best yards per attempt figure out of 128 quarterbacks in the country, however, and Leach stressed Rogers can improve “nearly everything.”
“The biggest thing is just keep polishing up, getting his eyes in the right place and getting the ball out as soon as he possibly can and good pocket presence,” Leach said. “The good news is there’s not one glaring thing, but everybody can sharpen up on all the little things.”
That goes for the whole team as the Bulldogs near the end of their mock game week, meant to simulate the routine they will be facing for the next several months. Leach said that includes shortened practices to fit the in-season format as well as a situational scrimmage this weekend.
And he said the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get. Mississippi State remains a “work in progress” in its head coach’s eyes after Wednesday’s workout.
“I thought that we had some good work today; I thought we squandered too many plays on both sides because guys gave in to the fatigue,” Leach said. “That’s why this is mock week: so that we work through problems like this.”
Cross leading improved O-line
Since Leach called out his offensive line for missed blocks and a lack of toughness after the team’s Aug. 14 scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium, he has had mostly praise for the unit’s performance.
“I think they’re playing together better,” Leach said Wednesday. “I think together they have a higher sense of urgency.”
Redshirt sophomore Charles Cross, who anchors the first-team group at left tackle, will be tasked with protecting Rogers’ blind side.
Cross was named second-team all-Southeastern Conference on Tuesday by the league’s coaches, and Leach called the Laurel product a “quiet leader by example” for the Bulldogs.
“You can run stuff back and use Charles as an example of how to get things done,” Leach said. “Charles at a young age is far along as any offensive lineman I’ve dealt with. He’s got a lot of work to do; I can’t say that he exactly plays like a senior. But he plays better than anybody his age.”
As far as the rest of the O-line, Kameron Jones figures to start at left guard, LaQuinston Sharp at center, Kwatrivous “Dollar Bill” Johnson at right guard and Scott Lashley at right tackle. Leach said he plans to give about seven offensive linemen regular snaps.
“They’re still a very young offensive line, but I think some are drawing on the experience they got last year, and then we’ve got some pretty good reinforcements,” Leach said.
Drop-eight coverage no ‘magic bullet’
Because of the pass-heavy nature of the Air Raid offense, Leach has prodigious experience facing teams who send three pass rushers at the quarterback and put the remaining eight in coverage.
“If anybody in America has seen more drop-eight than I have, I’d like to know who it is,” he said.
Many times last season, it worked as opposing defenses stifled the Bulldogs’ passing attack. But Leach said there are ways to be effective against a drop-eight scheme, particularly by recognizing and reacting to it quickly.
Additionally, he said, Mississippi State’s offensive line must hold its own against the three pass rushers, something that didn’t happen much in 2020 as the Bulldogs’ blockers were decimated by COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.
It’s why he expects more success against that type of coverage this fall.
“If the drop-eight was some kind of a magic bullet, I wouldn’t even be standing here right now,” Leach said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.