4 bold predictions for Mississippi State football in 2021: Will Rogers sets passing record

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

STARKVILLE — The first year under coach Mike Leach had its moments, such as a season-opening win over LSU and a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl to conclude the season.

Now, as Mississippi State enters the second season with Leach at the helm, expectations are heightened for a young team with all its major offensive contributors returning — quarterback Will Rogers, running backs Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson and wide receiver Jaden Walley.

So, what could Year 2 of the Leach experience bring to Starkville? Here are four bold predictions for what could arrive, beginning with the season opener Sept. 4 at Davis Wade Stadium against Louisiana Tech.

Will Rogers breaks Mississippi State’s single-season passing record

Dak Prescott, move aside.

Prescott set the Bulldogs’ single-season passing record with 3,793 yards in 2015, the quarterback’s final year in Starkville before heading to the NFL. But Rogers — assuming the sophomore is named the starter — has a serious chance to break that record.

Much of it comes down to the air raid system. In the eight seasons Leach coached at Washington State, his quarterback surpassed Prescott’s single-season mark in six of them. Under Leach, Rogers could drop back to pass 50 or more times a game. Prescott reached or surpassed 50 attempts twice in 13 games during his senior year while Rogers did it three times across six starts last year.

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Should Rogers play all 12 games, the Brandon native would need to average just over 316 yards. He already showed in flashes as a freshman his ability to light up defenses, passing for over 300 yards in consecutive weeks against Georgia and Ole Miss. But Rogers also showed the lack of consistency that can nag a first-year player trying to orchestrate Leach’s scheme.

Rogers completed 76.1% of his passes for a combined 1,002 yards and five touchdowns in a three-game stretch in November. However, in December, Rogers’ numbers tapered off. He completed 59.8% of his attempts across his next three starts for 648 yards, five touchdowns and three picks.

The sophomore’s consistency is what set him apart from other options at quarterback. The reintroduction of nonconference games this season could help boost Rogers’ numbers, too.

Dec 19, 2020; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers (2) makes a pass against the Missouri Tigers during the first quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field.

De’Monte Russell's time has come

De’Monte Russell arrived as a highly touted four-star recruit from Jackson, but his impact so far has been minimal. He appeared in three games in 2019 and recorded one tackle before he was redshirted. And then injuries held him for all of 2020.

But now the edge rusher has a chance to be a breakout player, particularly after an injury to defensive end Jordan Davis.

Russell isn’t part of the first-team defensive line currently, backing up Cameron Young, Jaden Crumedy and UCF transfer Randy Charlton. But Russell is one of a few players receiving extra reps, and defensive coordinator Zach Arnett said “nothing would make us happier than you proving us wrong” regarding where a player should be on the depth chart.

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Jo’quavious Marks exceeds 500 yards rushing

Nov 21, 2020; Athens, Georgia, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Jo'quavious Marks (21) runs with the ball against the Georgia Bulldogs during the first quarter at Sanford Stadium.

In Leach's offense, running backs aren’t known for putting up gaudy numbers.

Last year the Bulldogs averaged 43.9 rushing yards per game, with no one coming particularly close to the 500-yard mark. But Jo’quavious Marks could buck that trend, even if he and the other tailbacks are by design dual-threat options.

Marks finished last season with 312 rushing yards on 70 carries. Marks can take the next step — providing a change of pace for an offense that will drop back to pass with frequency.

Emmanuel Forbes leads FBS in interceptions

Emmanuel Forbes was near the top of the country last season, tying for third with five interceptions. The sophomore cornerback should be even more dominant this season if opposing teams are willing to throw his way.

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Forbes returned three of his picks for touchdowns, including a 90-yard return in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa. His efforts last season earned him a place on the Freshman All-SEC team. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him make more postseason honor lists as a sophomore.