Wednesday was the first day of the early signing period when thousands of young football players all over the country decide what university will take their career to the next level. Most of the activity comes on day 1, Wednesday. At Mississippi State, the Bulldog signing day was saved from being a disappointment again.
This time last year, head coach Mike Leach’s recruiting class was stunned following his sudden death. Many of those young players had committed to becoming a Dawg because they wanted to play for the legendary pirate. But that was not to be. It was then interim head coach Zach Arnett’s, and the other coaches’ job, to rescue the signing class of 2023.
Leach passed away on December 12th, so there was precious little time to keep the ship afloat before Signing Day. Somehow, Arnett kept the class together also working toward the class of 2024 at the same time. But the dismal 2023 season of the Bulldogs threatened to derail that class heading toward those early signing days once again. Amid a 5-7 season, Arnett was fired after the tenth game of 2023, a crushing defeat at the hands of Texas A&M 51-10. New athletic director Zac Selmon seemed to be ahead of the game. He quickly brought in a new head coach with a pedigree for powerful offenses at Baylor, Ole Miss, and the last two seasons as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Jeff Lebby. The new head coach quickly assembled a new coaching staff and assured existing commits that the Bulldog’s future is bright. They also managed to flip a few away from other schools. These are just a few of the quality players signed on Wednesday.
The Right Offensive Recruits
Lebby is known for high-powered offenses and combined with transfer-portal acquisitions, is on target to create just that for the Dawgs. Here are some of the signing-day highlights for Lebby’s offense.
Michael Van Buren – The Bulldogs went a long way to recruit this four-star quarterback from Baltimore’s St. Francis Academy. Van Buren led his team to finish in the top 10 of MaxPreps top 25 his junior and senior years, playing a national schedule. He comes in at 5’ 11” and 185 pounds but has speed in and out of the pocket.
Jimothy Lewis – This four-star offensive tackle hails from Bradenton, FL, but started at right tackle for Madison-Ridgeland Academy, Madison, MS. He helped to win the Mississippi State 6A title. Lewis transferred to national powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida. At 6’ 6” and 275 pounds, he provides quickness up front.
JJ Harrell – This 6’ 2” 185-pound four-star wide receiver was heavily recruited by LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas before deciding to come to Starkville. It was where he wanted to be from the start. Lebby refers to him as Hail Harrell and was one of his first calls. Lewis is a gazelle-like receiver who also took punts and kickoffs for six points several times.
Mario Craver – Another four-star wide receiver, Craver is slight of stature at 5’ 11” and 165 pounds, but has quickness, running primarily out of the slot. He’s from Pinson, AL, and had interest from Auburn and Alabama before deciding to play for the Bulldogs.
TJ Lockhart – This is one big, but quick offensive tackle. Lockhart comes in at 6’ 6” and 365 pounds from Winona, MS, and always wanted to be a Bulldog. He was actually at the Under Armour Combine in Dallas when he made his decision to commit to State.
Witnesses for the Defense
At times during the 2023 season, the Bulldog defense performed well. Other times, they didn’t show up. All-American, All-SEC, and multiple award-winning linebacker Nathaniel “Bookie” Watson, and his linebacker counterpart Jett Johnson are heading to the NFL. Their loss will be felt. But Lebby is covering his bases on all positions. Here are some of the defensive highlights from the Bulldog signing day.
Terrance Hibbler – This 6’ 3” 285-pound defensive lineman was courted by Texas and Alabama before signing with State. He comes from Lexington, MS playing for Holmes County Central. The Monday before his signing, he made his intentions known on social media. Then, Monday evening he played in the US Army All-American Bowl. This four-star recruit had offers from no less than 24+ universities.
Fred “Fat” Clark – Mississippi State has been pursuing this three-star linebacker for some time. He received his first offer from them a couple of seasons ago when he attended a camp at State. Clark comes in at 6’ 2” and 225 pounds and recorded 40 solo tackles this season playing for Winona High School in Winona, MS. Clark has the potential to fill one of the voids left by Watson and Johnson.
Cyrus Reyes – This 6’ 1”, 19-pound safety is a three-star flip from Memphis, mainly because of former Tiger coordinator Matt Barnes, who joined the Bulldog defensive coaching staff from Memphis. At his Katy, TX Taylor High School, he had 91 total tackles, two for a loss, and three interceptions.
Elijah Cannon – Cannon is a 6’ 1” 168-pound cornerback from Pompano Beach, FL. He flipped his commitment from FAU because of an already-established relationship with new Bulldog cornerback coach Corey Bell, who was previously an assistant at FAU. Cannon had offers from 12+ other universities before signing with State.
More to Come…
The players highlighted here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of those signed to become Bulldogs. On Wednesday, State signed 30 new Dawgs to be a part of the 2024 season. As you’re reading this, there will be more in a combination of transfer portal and recruit signings. But Lebby is less interested in the quantity and more in the quality of the players. In a post-signing-day presser, Lebby touched on this idea. “It’s still about people and putting the right people inside the locker room,” Lebby said. “There’s nothing more important to me and us to get that part of it right. You’ve flat got to be good enough first and foremost, but we’ve got to have the right people in the building. When you do that, you’ve got a chance to create connections, team, and culture. That’s something that’s as important to me as anything.”
Quality players like Will Rogers, Woody Marks, and Decamerion Richardson left the program via the transfer portal, while Tulu Griffin, Watson, and Johnson opted for the NFL. Those holes may have been filled. Of course, the full measure of the team won’t be known until at least the spring game, but there is hope, once again, for the Bulldog-faithful.