Leach looking forward to opener

Published 2:56 pm Thursday, September 1, 2022

By Joel T. Coleman

Hail State Athletics

STARKVILLE – Even after all this time, season openers are still special to Mike Leach.

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The leader of the Bulldogs has 253 career games under his belt as a head coach. He’s been a coach in some form almost every year dating back to 1987.

Still, when Mississippi State hosts Memphis at 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday night and Leach walks out of the tunnel to begin his third season in Maroon and White, he’ll be fired up and ready. His expression might be stoic. His background might allow his heartbeat to remain steady. But you better believe Leach is thrilled about guiding his team into battle for a new campaign, no matter how many times he’s done it.

“You’re just excited to play,” Leach said at his Monday press conference. “Games are the best part of it. That’s what you work towards.”

Lid-lifters are exciting enough for Leach. It helps even more when he has a team like this year’s that has so much potential and so many guys who’ve been through the wars already and know what college football is all about.

The Bulldogs head into this year with one of the most experienced teams anywhere. A total of 16 starters return – eight on each side of the ball.

“We’re not a really old team yet, but we are an experienced team,” Leach affirmed. “We’ve got a number of guys who have started for two years.”

There’s of course quarterback Will Rogers. The State signal caller is fresh off a sophomore campaign in which he rewrote the MSU record book and led the entire Southeastern Conference in passing yardage. Rogers’ 4,739 passing yards in 2021 are the third most in SEC single-season history. He became one of only two SEC quarterbacks over the last 22 seasons to throw for more than 4,700 yards and 35 touchdowns while completing at least 73 percent of passes.

Now, Rogers is a year older. He’s a year wiser. He has a chance to be the very best version of himself yet.

“He’s steadily improved,” Leach said of Rogers. “He is bigger and stronger than he was. I never thought he had glaring weaknesses. His weakness when he first started was experience, but I think he’s gotten better at really all phases of his game.”

Rogers is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing Mississippi State’s returning experience and the reasons for optimism at the dawn of a new year. The Bulldogs are bringing back players who accounted for 72.2 percent of their receptions from a year ago. State brings back the entirety of its rushing production. The offensive line features a projected starting group that has racked up a combined 5,175 career snaps.

On the opposite side of the ball, the Bulldogs welcome back players who accounted for 79.1 percent of last year’s defensive snaps – not to mention of the 22 players on the defensive side of State’s two-deep depth chart, 17 have spent the last two seasons under defensive coordinator Zach Arnett with three more playing at least a season in Arnett’s 3-3-5 scheme.

And remember, this is an Arnett-led defense that has finished fourth or better in the SEC in total defense in each of the last two seasons. They’ll now look to take another step forward.

“I think they play together better,” Leach said of his defense. “They’ve logged some snaps with one another. I think they play with more precision. Some have gotten bigger and stronger, which I think was good. I think they’re better than they were last year, but they’ve got to prove it.”

Prove it. That’s the kicker to all of this.

It’s common to get excited for a new season. To build on it though, it’ll require the Bulldogs to prove themselves and live up to their capabilities.

“I think experience helps, but you’ve got to utilize it,” Leach said. “We’ve had good practices. We’ve just got to mirror what we do [at practice] on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when we do it right. We’ve got to go out and play well. That’s the biggest thing is we can’t get too sidetracked with anything [opponents are] doing. We’ve got to just have a really hard focus on us and what we do.”

Again – to come back to Leach’s own words – prove it. Show you are who you think you can be. And the chance to prove it starts on Saturday.

Camp is over. The intrasquad scrimmaging is done. It’s time for the real test. The Bulldogs and their head coach are all ready to tee it up and get after it.

“There’s a point to where you’re tired of playing each other [at practice],” Leach said. “You want an opponent. You want to play somebody different. You get to a point where everybody knows everybody else [on your own team] so well, you want to test it out on something outside that you don’t see as often so I think we’re all excited about that.”