Mississippi State football: 3 offensive players standing out in training camp
STARKVILLE – There has been a lot of focus on the Mississippi State quarterbacks during the first week of training camp. Deservedly so.
Quarterback competitions are as compelling as it gets when it comes to football in August.
Dozens of other players take the field, though, and they need not be forgotten. Here are three offensive players, excluding quarterbacks, who have turned heads and raised eyebrows during the first few preseason practices for Mississippi State.
1. JaVonta Payton, junior wide receiver
There was an interesting moment during head coach Joe Moorhead's press conference Wednesday.
Moorhead was asked specifically about Payton, who transferred to Mississippi State from Northwest Mississippi Community College. The question was about how much Payton has impressed coaches during camp so far.
Moorhead seemed excited by the mention of Payton's name at first but then went off on a tangent about the state of Mississippi State's passing game.
"Having been able to pass the ball successfully essentially everywhere I've been, I was pretty optimistic of the strides we were going to take in year one in the transition of offenses," Moorhead said.
"I said it before, and it probably bears repeating; I thought we could go from A to Z, and we went from A to M... I think with the skill that we have returning and those guys having another year and understanding of the system in addition to the guys we brought in, that was one of our goals offensively into fall camp is improving the efficiency and explosiveness of the offense, and I think the guys allow us to do that."
The end of Moorhead's answer — and the complete context of it — implies that he considers Payton to be a player who can right some of the wrongs Mississippi State had in the passing game last year.
Payton, 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, is a playmaker. He's the type of wide out who Moorhead said he's been playing the 'Z' position during camp. He also said Payton is versatile and could play out of the slot in certain formations.
During sessions open to the media, Payton has looked quick off the line of scrimmage and athletic in going up to catch passes. He's running with the threes currently, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Payton push for serious playing time early in the season and beyond.
2. Devonta Jason, sophomore wide receiver
It must be refreshing for Mississippi State fans to see two wide receivers on this list.
Mississippi State ranked No. 13 in the Southeastern Conference and No. 112 in the nation in passing offense last season. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald struggled, and his receivers dropped passes too often.
Jason only appeared in three games as a freshman last season, but he has been running with the twos during camp. He's looked pretty good in doing so, too. At 225 pounds, Jason is heavier than any other receiver on MSU's roster. He uses his frame to his advantage to make tough catches some of his teammates can't.
Jason said there is a "new feel" heading into his second season in Starkville. He said he's ready to show the college football world his potential and his ability to make plays.
"This year, I've made a big jump from last year," Jason said. "I can do a little bit of everything. I came a long way. I have a great feeling about this year."
3. Senior running back Nick Gibson
Gibson is a guy who has never had a chance to have a profound role in Mississippi State's offense. That's a result of being in the same position group as guys like Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill.
Hill, a junior who Moorhead calls the "clear-cut No. 1," is fully entrenched as the starter. For the first time in his career, Gibson is slated to be the secondary ball carrier out of the backfield.
Gibson has been on campus since his redshirt season in 2015. In 2016, he only toted the rock nine times. He amassed 45 carries during his redshirt sophomore season in 2017. He was the third in line behind Williams and Hill that year. Last season, Gibson ran 27 times as he was once again behind Williams and Hill on the depth chart.
Hill can't carry the load on every possession. He was injury prone last year, and Moorhead will take every measure to make sure he doesn't get sidelined with injuries again. That means more playing time for Gibson, who has looked like a starter in his own right during camp.
Gibson, who owns a 6.2 career yards-per-attempt average, easily beat junior linebacker and team captain Erroll Thompson in a one-on-one drill during Tuesday's practice.
"Nick has played a lot of good football here at Mississippi State," Moorhead said. "He's the kind of guy who can do a lot of things. He really excels in pass protection. I think he's a guy that's going to have to share some of the load."
MSU training camp observations
Junior quarterback Keytaon Thompson had a good day in the 20 minutes media was allowed to observe Thursday. His timing with receivers was spot on with most of his throws.
At the beginning of practice, the receivers broke out into a couple drills that appeared to be new additions to their training regimen.
In one drill, the wide outs arranged themselves in a large circle. Wide receivers coach Michael Johnson stood in the middle of the circle and randomly fired footballs at the players.
In another drill, the WRs backed down a graduate assistant who was holding a foam blocking dummy. The receivers looked over their shoulders while maintaining their position and waited for a ball to be lobbed in.
The point of the drill was to work on high-pointing in traffic. It's evident Johnson is aware of the drops that plagued the receiving corps in 2018 and is working hard to make sure the same does not occur this year.
MSU training camp injury update
- Junior linebacker Willie Gay has been out since Tuesday with a lower body injury. He's had a walking boot on his right leg since then. Moorhead describes his status as "day-to-day."
- Senior running back Alec Murphy has been out with a lower body injury of his own since the start of camp, but he was back on the field Thursday night wearing a yellow non-contact jersey.
- Defensive tackle Kendell Jones has been wearing a yellow non-contact jersey since camp began. He sustained an upper-body injury during a scrimmage in spring ball. Moorhead said during SEC Media Days that Jones should be a full participant by Week 1.
- Freshman wide receiver Kyziah Pruitt had been wearing a yellow non-contact jersey this week, but he shed it for Thursday's practice. He was full
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