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Texas A&M Football

Lebby's Starkville arrival likely a step towards more explosive offenses

June 18, 2024

In the last 10 football seasons, Mississippi State has posted at least nine wins four times.

In each of those successful seasons, the Bulldogs averaged more than 31 points.

Therefore, when State opted to move on from Zach Arnett after one disastrous season, it made sense the Bulldogs would seek a successor with a history of explosive offenses.

Enter Jeff Lebby.

In five seasons as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma (2022-23), Ole Miss (2020-21) and UCF (2019), Lebby supervised offenses that averaged between 43.3 and 32.8 points.

In the spring, he began in earnest rebuilding the Mississippi State offense which last season scored the fewest points in the SEC.

“I like where we’re at,” Lebby said after spring drills. “Our guys understand what this thing needs to look like.

“We have guys who have played a lot of ball. … Maybe not here, but all over the country, that are going to play a lot of ball for us across the country. I like that about our unit on offense.”
- Mississippi State’s Jeff Lebby

“We have guys who have played a lot of ball. … Maybe not here, but all over the country, that are going to play a lot of ball for us across the country. I like that about our unit on offense.”

Lebby is known for being a brilliant tactician but may need to be a brilliant magician to transform Mississippi State’s offense.

The sought-after transformation is highly dependent on transfers. Quarterback Blake Shapen was brought in from Baylor. Receiver Kelly Akharaiyi came in from UTEP. Receiver Trent Hudson arrived from New Mexico State.

Three potential starting offensive linemen came via the transfer portal, including Jacoby Jackson (Texas Tech), Marlon Martinez (LSU) and Makylan Pounders (Memphis).

Whatever magic Lebby is able to work appears desperately needed to compensate for defensive questions.

Last season, Mississippi State allowed four SEC opponents to score 37 points or more. Another scored 27. Indeed, if not for Arkansas, which Mississippi State defeated 7-5, the Bulldogs’ SEC opponents would have averaged 33.4 points.

There appears little reason to expect a dramatic difference. The Bulldogs defense lost most of its top players from last year.

They tried to replenish through transfer portal additions, the best of which may be linebacker Stone Blanton, who recorded 52 tackles last season at South Carolina.

The Bulldogs also got a break when safety Corey Ellington withdrew from the transfer portal.

Still, it seems unlikely Mississippi State will be significantly improved, although replacing Arnett with Lebby may be sufficient to add another win or two.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

2023 record: 5-7; 1-7 in the SEC

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Blake Shapen appeared in 26 games during three years at Baylor. The Bears were 13-13 in those games.

Primary area of strength: The passing game isn’t what it was under former coach Mike Leach, but new coach Jeff Lebby has a history of supervising electric passing games as an offensive coordinator. He’s building the passing game around a cadre of transfers. Quarterback Blake Shapen is a transfer from Baylor. Twice he’s passed for more than 2,000 yards. Lebby also brought in three transfer receivers led by Kelly Akharaiyi, who had more than 1,000 receiving yards last season at UTEP.

Primary area of concern: The NFL Draft and transfers depleted much of the defensive line. However, senior DE De’Monte Russell returns after posting 24 tackles 24 tackles and 1 sack last year. Transfers Sulaiman Kpaka (Purdue) and Kedrick Bingley-Jones (North Carolina) were brought in. They combined for 12 tackles last season. The depth is extremely thin, too.

Top three players

  • QB Blake Shapen: In two seasons as Baylor’s quarterback, Shapen passed for 4,978 yards and 31 TDs.
  • S Corey Ellington: The returning starter posted 66 tackles and two sacks.
  • WR Antonio Harmon: He shifts from tight end, where he had 14 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown last season.

Top three additions

  • Coach Jeff Lebby: In five seasons as offensive coordinator, three of his teams ranked among the nation’s top 15 in scoring.
  • WR Kelly Akharayi: A transfer from UTEP had 48 catches for 1,033 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023.
  • LB Stone Blanton: Junior transfer from South Carolina, where he had 52 tackles, a sack and an interception last year.

Top three departures

  • WR Lideatrick Griffin: Last season’s team leader in receptions signed with the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent.
  • RB Woody Marks: Last year’s rushing leader transferred to USC.
  • LB Nathaniel Watson: A sixth-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns led the team with 137 tackles last year.

2024 Mississippi State schedule

  • Sept. 31 vs. Eastern Kentucky
  • Sept. 7 at Arizona State
  • Sept. 14 vs. Toledo
  • Sept. 21 vs. Florida
  • Sept. 28 at Texas
  • Oct. 12 at Georgia
  • Oct. 19 vs. Texas A&M
  • Oct. 26 vs. Arkansas
  • Nov. 2 vs. Massachusetts
  • Nov. 9 at Tennessee
  • Nov. 23 vs. Missouri
  • Nov. 29 at Ole Miss
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Lebby's Starkville arrival likely a step towards more explosive offenses

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