Players to Watch: Mississippi State

Players to Watch: Mississippi State

Alabama

LT Jonah Williams

The Alabama offensive line is coming off a performance against LSU that head coach Nick Saban said was not up to its usual standard, both in pass protection and run blocking. Indeed, quarterback Jalen Hurts was sacked a season-high four times and the offense had six three-and-outs, its most since last season’s national title game against Clemson. Recently named a Second-Team All-American by the Associated Press, Williams will face a difficult matchup against Mississippi State defensive lineman Montez Sweat, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Week with seven sacks this season. The Bulldogs defense gives up the seventh-fewest yards in the FBS, so the battle in the trenches will have much to do with the final score of this game. Freshman Alex Leatherwood has taken Williams’ spot in practice drills throughout the week for unknown reasons, but is unlikely to cut into Williams’ playing time on Saturday.

LB Keith Holcombe

With linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton, whom Nick Saban said was “one of the smarter players we’ve had around here in my time being here,” and Mack Wilson likely out for the season, Holcombe is expected to be the primary replacement. He made his first career starts earlier this season against Fresno State and Colorado State while filling in for Rashaan Evans, acquitting himself nicely with 16 total tackles. On Saturday he and Evans will have the tall order of containing Mississippi State’s rushing attack, as both quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams rank in the top six in the SEC in rushing yards. Holcombe, a junior, has proven to be a more than capable special teamer as well, having been named a special teams player of the week by the coaching staff eleven times in his career. Keep an eye out for freshman and five-star recruit Dylan Moses to get some playing time at inside linebacker as well.

S Ronnie Harrison

A ball-hawking strong safety, Harrison does it all for the Crimson Tide. He patrols the back end of the defense well in coverage, snagging three interceptions this season to tie for second in the SEC, but he also sets a physical tone for the defense with his bravado and big hits on ball carriers near the line of scrimmage. He leads the team with 50 total tackles, 10 more than any other player, and Harrison has shown pass rush ability on blitzes as well, accumulating 2.5 sacks so far this year. Last week Harrison shone while his fellow safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick, was injured, earning his first career SEC Defensive Player of the Week award for his six tackles, half a sack, and an interception against LSU. He had a career game against the Arkansas Razorbacks a few weeks ago, making 10 tackles to tie the most made in a game by an Alabama player this season.

DL Da’Shawn Hand

For the first time since spraining his MCL against Ole Miss on Sept. 30, Hand returned to action last week, making two tackles against LSU. With the team's depth at linebacker running thinner than usual, Hand’s presence brings more certainty to the front seven. However, whether due to quality pass protection or Fitzgerald extending plays – likely a combination of the two – Mississippi State has been quite good at preventing negative plays, giving up the fifth-fewest tackles for loss and the third-fewest sacks per game in the FBS. The Bulldogs also rank eighth in the FBS in first downs achieved on running plays, racking up nearly 14 per game. It will be tough sledding for Hand, the former No. 6 overall recruit in the class of 2014, to help contain one of college football’s most efficient running games in his return to a full workload.

Mississippi State 

QB Nick Fitzgerald

When you think of dual-threat quarterbacks, Fitzgerald – if he is not already – should be one of the first names that comes to mind. His ability to make plays with his arm and legs is a huge reason this Mississippi State team has reeled off four straight wins and is ranked No. 16 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Fitzgerald has racked up 1459 yards through the air and 801 on the ground so far this season. He is the only quarterback in the SEC to lead his team in rushing yards and passing yards and currently ranks fourth in the conference in rushing yards and is second on the list with 12 rushing touchdowns. Over his last four games, he is throwing for 169 yards per game and rushing for 114.5 yards per game, and has scored 12 touchdowns. 

RB Aeris Williams

Over the course of his three years at Mississippi State, Williams’ production has increased year by year. Last season, he racked up 720 yards. This year, the junior tailback has already rushed for 776 yards, which ranks sixth in the SEC. Williams’ 86 receiving yards also proves he has a presence catching passes out of the backfield. His best outing of the season came against LSU where he through the Tiger defense for 164 yards. In last week’s matchup against LSU, the Crimson Tide ran for a team total of 116 yards. Along with Fitzgerald, the two make for a dynamic duo that will surely keep the Crimson Tide defense on its toes Saturday. 

DE Montez Sweat

Even though Sweat is now playing 825 miles away from the college that he originally committed to out of high school, the junior defensive end is making the most of his time in Starkville. Sweat spent a year at Copiah-Lincoln Community College after transferring from Michigan State, where he became one of the nation’s most sought after JUCO recruits. Nine games into his first season with the Bulldogs, Sweat currently leads the team with seven sacks and nine tackles for loss. His 6-foot-6, 241-pound athletic frame make him a lethal pass rusher, and much like this Mississippi State team, Sweat is currently hitting his stride. He has collected at least one sack in five consecutive games, and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week against Texas A&M on Oct. 28. The Bulldog defense is playing its best football, and with the leadership of Sweat, will be looking to go after Jalen Hurts. 

WR/PR Deddrick Thomas

Thomas had quite the debut in his first game as a punt returner last Saturday against UMass. With the Bulldogs up by only four points late in the fourth quarter, Thomas took a Minutemen punt back 84-yards to the house to spoil any hope UMass had to pull off the upset. He may have been the fifth-string punt returner to begin the day, but due to injuries head coach Dan Mullen inserted Williams into the lineup. He did not disappoint, as he racked up a total of 104 punt return yards on the day. The sophomore proved he can make plays with the ball in his hands, and with the injuries and limitations to leading receivers Keith Mixon and Donald Gray, Thomas is poised to have an increased role against the Crimson Tide. Williams ranks fourth on the Bulldogs with 165 receiving yards and has hauled in two touchdown catches. Williams may not be the priority of the Alabama secondary, but if left open, he can make you pay

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