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Spring football is enough to justify optimism in Starkville, Oxford

  • Parrish Alford looks at what we learned from the Ole Miss “Grove Bowl Games” and the more traditional spring outing at Mississippi State.

With spring football in the rear-view mirror, what have we learned about Mississippi State and Ole Miss?

The answer is not much.

There are a couple of reasons for that.

Spring football isn’t designed for the release of information. Coaches will hide their product from their public regardless of season, and spring football includes no mandated public display unlike the 12 playing dates of the fall.

They admittedly will show only a fraction of their offense or defense in these spring games.

Will Spring Games Become Extinct?

At Ole Miss, Lane Kiffin punted the spring game altogether in favor of the “Grove Bowl Games,” a collection of skill contests.

It will be the wave of the future. It gets people on campus and lets them spend a festive time in the stadium. It decreases the risk of injury and eliminates what coaches fear most, the risk of a play or player getting out on social media to be viewed and dissected by 12 opponents.

The heavy lifting of spring is done in the other 14 practices.

Mississippi State had a traditional spring game with traditionally bloated statistics, but for first-year coach Jeff Lebby this is important.

Baylor transfer quarterback Blake Shapen was 18-for-22 passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns.  

An intrasquad scrimmage is never a true measure of what might happen on Game Day, but it’s all you’ve got until games begin.

Shapen is a big get for Lebby, and while Super Bulldog Weekend won’t tell you exactly what he’ll look like in SEC play, Shapen, a redshirt senior, has a body of work as a two-year starter at Baylor.

The fact that he’s at his second school, and not his third or fourth, says something about stability in this Transfer Portal Era.

He could be the quick fix guy you hope for in a Power Five transfer. Jaxson Dart was a sophomore when he transferred to Ole Miss and needed a year to fully acclimate. Maybe Shapen can avoid that learning curve at State.

The most impressive thing about MSU quarterbacks in this new system is that no interceptions were thrown in the spring game.

Shapen was not a run threat at Baylor the way Dillon Gabriel at Oklahoma or Matt Corral at Ole Miss were for Lebby. 

That means either he or Lebby will have to adjust within Lebby’s offense. Last year, the MSU coaching staff did not adjust to the MSU quarterback, and that’s part of the reason there’s a new coaching staff this year.

It’s also important to note that the Lebby offense included successful running games at Oklahoma and Ole Miss.

Wanted: Bell Cows at Running Back

There’s no clear “bell cow” at State as Seth Davis, the leading returning rusher, is less than full strength. He ended last season with an injury in the Egg Bowl.

In Oxford, Ole Miss also finds itself in need of a bell cow at running back.

The Rebels have been successful in the run game the last few years largely because of Quinshon Judkins, whose off-season departure for Ohio State was a peculiar moment for a team otherwise returning its key weapons. The Rebels, who ranked 13th in yards and 16th in points last year have added considerable bulk and experience along the offensive line.

At each school the bell cow could turn out to be yet-to-arrive transfers. 

Miami running back Henry Parrish Jr. on Monday announced he will transfer back to Ole Miss for his final season of eligibility. 

Parrish played his first two seasons at Ole Miss. In 2021 Parrish, Snoop Conner, Jerrion Ealy and Corral each rushed for at least 550 yards.

Parrish was Miami’s leading rusher the last two seasons averaging 620 yards and five touchdowns over the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

Lebby is hoping for a quick impact from Rashad Amos, a thousand-yard rusher last year at Miami-Ohio.

The Portal giveth and the Portal taketh away.

The reason for high expectations at Ole Miss after an 11-2 season is Dart.

His acclimation was worth the wait as the Rebels punctuated their second 10-win regular season in three years with a dominant 38-25 win over Penn State in the Peach Bowl. The Rebels scored a touchdown in every quarter and put up 540 yards on what was then ranked at the nation’s top defense in yards per game, its third-best in points per game.

Not only did Dart not try to turn his rising fame into an NIL payday someplace else, he became a rigorous and successful recruiter for Ole Miss.

That was even true for defensive recruiting, Kiffin said, where the Rebels picked up a big haul of transfers, most notable Texas A&M interior tackle Walter Nolen and Florida edge rusher Princely Umanmielen.

On paper, Kiffin has amassed a defensive front not only with impressive talent, but impressive depth.

Kiffin’s comments on the roster differences following last year’s humbling 52-17 loss to Georgia have been well documented. He appears to have addressed those issues.

Come August, media relations staffs at both Mississippi State and Ole Miss will crank out optimism, and they’ll be justified.

In hiring a head coach, schools often go after a coach with prowess in an area of deficiency for the team. State has certainly done that after its troublesome offense under Zach Arnett last year.

Lebby would have been an attractive candidate for that reason alone, but having Zac Selmon as AD with his Oklahoma ties kind of sealed the deal.

Business contacts make the world go round, and Selmon’s best ones are at OU right now. He will grow in the job and create many more contacts in years to come. 

Lebby seems poised for a fast start with State’s offense.

Except for the bizarre finish to the 2022 season which included his flirtation with Auburn, Kiffin has had some nice win totals with the Rebels.

He’s got a team now that needs to show it can compete with the top of the league.

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