With Signing Day having come and gone, so many fans across the country are looking at their team’s class and trying to project their future success or failure. Dan Mullen always used to say you can’t judge a class on Signing Day, you have to look back after five years to get the true measure of them. So I thought we’d do something like that today, looking through the way-back machine to MSU’s classes from 20, 15, 10, and 5 years ago, to see how it all shook out. I’ll be focusing on three things, who was the highest rated player, the lowest rated player, and the player who I deemed to have had the best career overall from that group. We’ll start with the group who came to Starkville after the Bulldogs’ lone trip to the SEC Championship game.
1999 was incredibly similar to this year in that the in-state crop was particularly strong, and MSU got its fair share of it, landing six of the Clarion-Ledger’s Ten Most Wanted. This was also the last class until 2017 that the Bulldogs were able to get a large contribution from its junior college signees, as nearly all of them panned out and were part of the 1999 defense, a group that was widely regarded as the best in school history up until this past season. That said, there are some big time busts in this group, led by the top rated player in the class.
Highest Rated: Dontae Walker
Walker was regarded as at worst, the second best running back in the country, when he signed with MSU out of Clinton High School. His first two years in Starkville had you believing he was destined for future stardom, but a down junior year was followed by a senior season that saw him balloon to nearly 300 pounds and eventually walk off the field in the home finale against Arkansas after receiving some boos. Walker’s tale took a an even worse turn in 2005, when he was arrested on drug charges in Starkville. He served five years before being paroled.
Lowest Rated: Tommy Watson
As you might imagine, there are no recruiting rankings available for this far back, but 247Sports has them listed in a fashion other than alphabetical order, so I am going on the assumption that Watson, who is listed last here, was the low man on the totem pole. That said, Watson had a good career at MSU, a two year starter after a redshirt season. You can definitely say he overachieved.
Best Overall: Fred Smoot
This was a pretty easy decision, although this group has a lot of guys who had long NFL careers, but Smoot stands out not only for his play, which led him to being a first team All-American and runner up for the Thorpe Award, but his place in Bulldog history as the undisputed king of smack talk. Smoot paired with Robert Bean to create the nation’s best cornerback duo in 1999, and followed that up with another strong season in 2000. He would go on to play nearly a decade in the NFL.
Sylvester Croom’s first class at Mississippi State definitely suffered from his decision to remain with the Green Bay Packers until the end of their season. The late start led to one of the lowest rated overall classes in Bulldog history, with only one four star and four three star players total in the 23 signees. Croom did find a couple of undervalued prospects, and they would go on to have solid careers in maroon and white.
Highest Rated: Rory Johnson
Johnson, a linebacker from Vicksburg, MS, was the lone four star to sign with Croom in his first campaign, but academics kept him away from MSU, and he never actually played a down for the Bulldogs. He did play against them though, as after his time at Hinds Community College, Johnson would sign with Ole Miss.
Lowest Rated: Anthony Littlejohn
Littlejohn came to MSU as a lightly recruited linebacker from Jacksonville, FL, and he sort of defied the odds, as most players of that low a ranking don’t usually make it to senior day. Littlejohn overcame his ranking and ended up playing in every game from his redshirt season on, including seventeen starts. He didn’t receive any kind of honors or awards, but you can definitely say he played far above his recruiting ranking. He did not, however achieve as much as the second lowest rated player in this class.
Best Overall: Titus Brown
Brown was that second lowest rated player in the class, but he turned out to be one of the best Bulldog defenders in the 2000’s decade. Brown started out as a linebacker, earning first team All-Freshman honors, then moved to defensive end, where he would be named second team all SEC as a senior. Brown spent four seasons in the NFL with three different teams, definitely proving that in his case, the recruiting ranking was just a number.
Again, the first class for a head coach, as this group started the Dan Mullen Era. It is easily one of the best classes in Bulldog history, loaded with NFL players and college stars.
Highest Rated: Chad Bumphis
Bumphis was indeed the highest rated player to come into Starkville that year, and he delivered from his first day. Bumphis would finish his career at MSU as the school’s all time leading receiver in yards and touchdown receptions, earning a second team All-SEC slot as a senior. Bumphis would have a couple of seasons in the NFL before moving into the coaching ranks, as he currently is on former Bulldog assistant Mark Hudspeth’s staff at Austin Peay.
Lowest Rated: Johnathan McKenzie
McKenzie, a local product by way of Starkville Academy, left football after the first month of the 2010 season, to concentrate on academics. His career stat line reads four tackles with one tackle for loss.
Best Overall: Fletcher Cox
Cox is the perfect example of a highly rated player that panned out at MSU. The second highest rated player in the class, Cox would have an incredible career at MSU, earning first team All-SEC and All-American honors as a junior. He would leave Starkville early for the NFL, where he was selected 12th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the pros, Cox has been dominant, an All-Pro selection, and currently the highest paid defensive lineman in all of the NFL.
We’ll wrap up with the group that just wrapped up their careers at Mississippi State. 2014 was definitely viewed as a down year for Dan Mullen’s recruiting efforts, especially coming off a season where the Bulldogs topped the polls and won 10 games. It ended up being a classic Mullen group, with a lot of quality in the lower rated guys.
Highest Rated: Jamoral Graham
Graham’s career at MSU started out in great shape, as he provided the 2014 team a spark as a punt returner and slot receiver, but he lost his form in midseason, and would eventually be converted to defensive back. He became a starter in the 2016 season, picking off three passes, but left the university after his junior year. He has since played at Delta State and Jackson State.
Lowest Rated: Ronald Cochran
Cochran was a signing day flip from USM, and has never drawn more than spot duty as a backup during his time in Starkville. His addition to the class keeps Deion Calhoun from this spot, which would have been a more interesting story, as Calhoun was a three year starter for the Bulldogs. He was part of a group that found themselves in the bottom of the rankings, but delivered a lot of starts, stats, and wins for the Bulldogs.
Best Overall: Nick Fitzgerald
It was a tough call here between Fitzgerald and Elgton Jenkins, but I have to go with the quarterback. One of the most polarizing players in recent Bulldog history, Fitzgerald ended his career as the all time leading rusher among quarterbacks in SEC history. He took the Bulldogs to three bowl games, and perhaps most importantly, dominated Ole Miss in his two full games against the Rebels. Fitzgerald’s legacy is a complicated one, but its safe to say when he was signed as the second quarterback in this class, nobody thought he’d have the career he had.
So what does all this mean for the class of 2019? Well, looking through the years, you can see the best player hasn’t always panned out, the worst player hasn’t always been an benchwarmer, and there’s been some quality finds among the lightest of recruited players. As Mullen said, we’ll have to revisit this in another five years.