STARKVILLE — During his first two years as head coach at Mississippi State, Mike Leach offered consistent reminders that the Bulldogs were one of the youngest teams in Division I football.
He can’t say that anymore.
While MSU isn’t exactly aged, Leach’s team can no longer explain away its struggles by pointing to youth.
But that isn’t a bad thing if there are fewer struggles to speak of.
“We’re not a real old team yet, but we are an experienced team,” Leach said Monday. “We’ve got a number of guys who have started for two years, so I think we’re going to improve.”
The Bulldogs improved by three wins from Year 1 to Year 2 under Leach, who came to Starkville after spending eight seasons at Washington State. A win in the Armed Forces Bowl was a positive cap on an otherwise tough 2020 season, and MSU beat three ranked teams en route to a 7-5 regular-season record last year before losing in the Liberty Bowl to Texas Tech.
One of those 2021 defeats was at the hands of the same Memphis team Mississippi State is set to face in its season opener at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. A questionable call allowed a Memphis punt-return touchdown to stand, and it undeniably made a difference — if not the difference — in a 31-29 Tigers win.
Leach previously criticized his own team for not making sure the bizarre play was blown dead for good. By Monday, he’d changed his tune.
“Without getting in trouble about any of that stuff, I think you can categorically assume nearly entirely the opposite,” he said when asked if the officiating crew in Memphis got the call right.
“And I never said that,” Leach added, still trying to avoid a potential fine.
It wasn’t just the call. Mississippi State made plenty of its own mistakes, and Leach chalked it up to some players overlooking the Tigers’ ability.
“I think we had some guys that owed Memphis more respect than they got,” Leach said.
With last year’s game still visible in the rearview mirror, there’s little chance the Bulldogs will repeat that omission.
Leach praised a Tigers roster that went 6-6 in 2021 and returns quarterback Seth Henigan, running back Brandon Thomas and more.
Henigan threw for 3,322 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a freshman last season.
“I think they’re a good team,” Leach said of Memphis. “I think they have good speed. They’ve got some big guys. I thought that their quarterback had an impressive first year, so I’m sure he’s better than he was last year.”
Leach’s own quarterback has improved. Junior Will Rogers, listed as Mississippi State’s starter on Monday’s depth chart, has gotten “bigger and stronger”; Leach said Rogers’ principal weakness coming into Starkville was experience.
That’s no longer the case, and it’s a good sign for the Bulldogs.
“I think that he’s gotten better at really all phases of his game,” Leach said.
Rogers has running backs Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson at his disposal as well as a receiving corps Leach called merely “average” Monday.
That ensemble might lack a star like Makai Polk, but Austin Williams, Jaden Walley, Rara Thomas, Lideatrick Griffin, Rufus Harvey and Co. should be a capable bunch.
Leach said Thomas — listed as the starter Monday — is still competing with Griffin and Georgia transfer Justin Robinson at one wideout position.
“I think we’ve got three quality guys, but we’re looking for somebody to aggressively try to take control of that position,” Leach said. “Right now, I think between the three it’s kind of a coin flip, so we’ll see how it unfolds.”
There wasn’t as much competition on the defensive side of the depth chart, with the top two at each position clearly delineated and no “or” designations in the way.
Speaking to Leach’s point about experience, every projected defensive starter is at least a junior, including three graduate students, two redshirt seniors and a fifth-year senior (Jalen Green).
“I think they play together better,” Leach said of his defense. “I think they play with more precision. Some have gotten bigger and stronger, which I think is good. … I think they’re better than they were last year, but now they’ve got to prove it. They’ve got to go out and play that way.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.