Joe Moorhead found a nice opportunity to be a first time FBS head coach when he replaced Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had already been running a spread-option system with all the right sorts of players for Moorhead’s own approach. The Bulldogs went 8-5 in year one, and managed a signature win when they beat then-No. 8 Auburn, while Nick Fitzgerald broke the record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Fitzgerald graduated, and S&P+’s No. 1 defense lost several starters, including first-rounders Jeffery Simmons (DT), Montez Sweat (DE), and Jonathan Abram (S). Moorhead’s DC, Bob Shoop, will look to reload with some talented JUCO DL and an experienced LB corps, but following up with stronger year two will require a step up from S&P+’s 32nd-best offense in 2018.
Fitzgerald had limitations, throwing for 2,000-plus yards only once in three years, but he was a brilliant and durable option trigger-man. As a senior, Fitz took 196 carries for 1,299 yards (after removing sack yardage) at 6.6 per carry. He rushed for 100 yards or more in seven games, over which the Bulldogs went 5-2. His ability to execute their power run game between the tackles made the task of replacing him fairly formidable.
But as it happened, another 6’4/230-plus pound QB with some athleticism and toughness — and three years of coaching in the Moorhead offense, with two of those years under Moorhead’s direction supervision — became available.
The man who played Penn State’s curious “lion” position, Tommy Stevens, grad transferred to play his final season in Starkville.
For the 2018 season, the Penn State staff planned to get him more involved, in a bid to prevent him from transferring. They failed to make much use of his position during a year with no shortage of struggles and seemed to be moving on to another QB (Sean Clifford) after Stevens missed spring practice with a foot injury.
While Stevens hasn’t demonstrated the same durability as Fitzgerald over a full season, he has similar capability in the run game. Here he is executing power against Michigan in garbage time in 2018:
In limited snaps over the last two years, Stevens repeatedly made the right reads on the power-read option play and went behind his lead guards for tough yards. Earlier in that same game, he flashed ability as the downhill runner on inside zone when Penn State lined him up at RB:
Even more interesting was the potential that Stevens flashed on Moorhead’s RPO designs.
Last year, Mississippi State regularly employed some triple option schemes in which the TE cut across the formation, like he might trap the DE or arc around and block a LB, only to release to the flat and give the QB a third option:
Stevens showed a lot of comfort in RPO designs that required him to throw on the move or keep it himself. Here’s one such design, adding a slant option to the power-read. Against Maryland, Stevens’ man is open, and he delivers the ball for a score:
A year later against Michigan, it’s covered up, so Stevens scrambles for a TD:
The Lions had some other QB-run RPOs, giving him quick options to throw a fade route or slant, with the zone run as a second option. He’s comfortable throwing on the move and potentially offers more both in the run and pass option game than Fitz did.
What helped the Nittany Lions break through in year one with Moorhead wasn’t their option run game, so much as their vertical passing attack.
Trace McSorley averaged 9.3 per throw as a sophomore and threw for 3,614 yards and 29 TDs, numbers he didn’t match as a junior or senior once blazing fast target Chris Godwin had headed for the NFL.
While Fitzgerald was never an outstanding passer, the Bulldogs also lacked some of the surrounding pieces. Their attempts to attack Alabama with the passing game were undone by their inability to block. On this play, Fitzgerald picked up the middle linebacker blitz and adjusted the protection, only for the linebacker to beat his RT anyway while Quinnen Williams beat the center:
When he completes his three step drop, he’s not stepping into a throw — he’s trying to avoid Williams. The Bulldogs held Alabama to 24 points and created a template for Brent Venables and Clemson to follow, but went scoreless while yielding five sacks.
While the run game figures to remain MSU’s focus, with RB Kylin Hill and blocking TE Farrod Green back, the Bulldogs do return their top two receivers, Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry, as well as frequently utilized slot receivers Austin Williams and Deddrick Thomas. They are sliding RT Stewart Reese inside to guard while turning their 2018 LT platoon of Tyre Phillips and Greg Eiland into bookend tackles. All five starters across the OL will have started games on the OL for MSU, and Stevens’ mastery of their playbook might very well be more extensive than Fitzgerald’s was in 2018.
In limited opportunities, Stevens revealed a strong arm at Penn State ...
... and was also pretty timely with the checkdowns in their spring games, getting the ball out to their backs in the flats with time and space to pick up yards after catch.
MSU can offer Stevens better protection and skill talent than it could Fitzgerald. If Moorhead’s pupil is ready, perhaps he can reveal why Penn State had been eager to keep him around.