By Tyler Martin
Special to The Tuscaloosa News

When Joe Moorhead was hired in Starkville, his calling card was his offensive mind, which was showcased during his time as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. Instead, in 2018, his defense stole the show.

The Bulldogs defense finished first in total defense and ranked second in rush defense and scoring defense. In 2019, Moorhead’s squad must replace three first-round draft picks on that side of the ball – Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat, and Johnathan Abram.

Of the four starters returning on defense, linebacker Erroll Thompson and defensive back Cameron Dantzler will command the group in an effort to replicate the success from last year.

“I am excited for a mix of returning players and the influx of young talent,” Moorhead said during SEC Media Days in July. “Any time you have a number of open positions, it breeds competition and forces everyone to improve and get better.”

For Moorhead’s team to make a significant jump in year two, the offense must play at a higher level. After losing quarterback Nick Fitzgerald either graduate transfer,Tommy Stevens or junior Keytaon Thompson will be the team’s signal caller.

Stevens played two years under Moorhead during his time at Penn State and Thompson saw playing time in nine different games last year. Whoever wins the starting quarterback position will have all three leading receivers back from a season ago – Stephen Guidry, Deddrick Thomas, and Osirus Mitchell.

At running back, junior Kylin Hill and senior Nick Gibson will carry the load in the backfield. The strongest returning group for the Bulldogs is their offensive line, which helped the Bulldogs backfield finish 12th in yards per attempt, brings back three starters- led by team captain Darryl Williams.

“I am cautiously optimistic because of the holes we have to fill, but I am fired up about the talent we have,” Moorhead said. “Once we get to the season, we are going to go back to the old Mississippi State, blue-collar-chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that we have to earn everything we get this season.”

2018 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC/ 4th in SEC West)
All-time SEC championships: 1
All-time bowl appearances: 22

2018 results
Sept. 1 vs. Stephen F. Austin W 63-6
Sept. 8 at. Kansas State W 31-10
Sept. 15 vs. Louisiana W 56-10
Sept. 22 at. Kentucky L 7-28
Sept. 29 vs. Florida L 6-13
Oct. 6 vs. Auburn W 23-9
Oct. 20 at. LSU L 3-19
Oct. 27 vs. Texas A&M W 28-13
Nov. 3 vs. Louisiana Tech W 45-3
Nov. 10 at. Alabama L 0-24
Nov. 17 vs. Arkansas W 52-6
Nov. 22 at. Ole Miss W 35-3
Jan. 1 vs. Iowa (Outback Bowl) L 22-27

Starters returning: 13 Offense: 7 Defense: 4 Specialty: 2
Starters lost: 13 Offense: 4 Defense: 7 Specialty: 2
Returning offensive starters: Kylin Hill (RB. JR), Stephen Guidry (WR. SR), Deddrick Thomas (WR. SR), Osirus Mitchell (WR. JR), Greg Eiland (OL. JR), Darryl Williams (OL. SR), Stewart Reese (OL. JR)
Returning defensive starters: Leo Lewis (LB. SR), Erroll Thompson (LB. JR), Willie Gay, Jr. (LB. JR), Cameron Dantzler (DB. JR)

Returning statistical leaders
Rushing Att Yards Avg TD
Kylin Hill 117 734 6.3 4
Passing Att Yards Avg TD
Keytaon Thompson 18-39 458 11.7 6
Receiving Att Yards Avg TD
Stephen Guidry 19 440 23.2 3
Tackles Total Int Sack TFL
Erroll Thompson 87 2 4 10

2019 schedule
Aug. 31 vs. Louisiana (New Orleans, LA)
Sept. 7 vs. Southern Miss
Sept. 14 vs. Kansas State
Sept. 21 vs. Kentucky
Sept. 28 at. Auburn
Oct. 12 at. Tennessee
Oct. 19 vs. LSU
Oct. 26 at. Texas A&M
Nov. 2 at. Arkansas
Nov. 16 vs. Alabama
Nov. 23 vs. Abilene Christian
Nov. 28 vs. Ole Miss