August 6, 2014 10:08:49 AM
STARKVILLE -- Is there a more versatile weapon in the Southeastern Conference than Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis?
The statistics say no.
Lewis, the SEC's top returning wide receiver, came into his own in 2013 by accumulating more than 1,200 yards of offense. With MSU quarterback Dak Prescott, Lewis was one of only two players in the conference to score touchdowns passing, rushing, and receiving.
Now a senior, Lewis, who had 11 touchdowns as a junior, is one reason expectations are raised in Starkville this season.
"Playing quarterback in high school, I think that gave me everything I needed to succeed when I got here," said Lewis, who didn't take a snap at wide receiver in his final two years at Tylertown High School. "I've always been fast, so wide receiver comes natural to me. But when they need me to run it, I can do that. When they need me to throw it, I already know I can do that because that's what I've always done. Playing quarterback back then got me ready for anything."
Lewis isn't alone. MSU's 2014 roster is stocked with former high school quarterbacks who now play a variety of positions in Starkville, and most of them struggled to gain recruiting traction while playing key roles at quarterback at their in-state high schools.
There's Benardrick McKinney, a lightly recruited QB out of Tunica-Rosa Fort, who accounted for 2,036 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. All he has done in his college career is become one of the SEC's best linebackers and an All-America candidate.
There's West Point High product Justin Cox, an All-America performer at safety in his two years at East Mississippi Community College prior after a standout career at West Point High, where he quarterbacked the Green Wave to consecutive Class 5A state championships. Cox rushed for 1,136 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior. Cox is projected to start at safety for the Bulldogs.
There's redshirt freshman Gabe Myles, who led Starkville High to the 2012 Class 5A state title. Myles passed for 1,153 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 554 yards and nine scores. These days, the former quarterback will figure into the mix at slot wide receiver behind Lewis.
There also is redshirt freshman Dezmond Harris, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker who played quarterback at McAdory High in Alabama. Harris, projected as the No. 36 athlete in the country by Rivals.com as a senior, has turned heads at practice as a freshman this year. Like Lewis, Harris believes playing the most demanding position on the field in high school provided great preparation for the SEC.
"It helped get me ready for anything," Harris said. "I just wanted to be on the field, wanted to play ball. I think playing quarterback and knowing what goes into playing there helps me get better as a defensive player."
It's not unheard of for small-school quarterbacks to be the best athlete on the field at the prep level. It's common. Players like Lewis, Cox and Harris are following the lead of one of MSU's most famous examples of a high school quarterback who made a successful switch in college. Former East Webster High signal caller Johnthan Banks led his team to the Class 1A state title game from behind center in 2007. He went on to become one of MSU's all-time greats at defensive back, winning the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back in 2012.
Like Banks, Lewis is just trying to make plays wherever he lines up.
"I'm just a football player," Lewis said. "In high school, it helped me because playing QB meant I could touch the ball on every single play. At this level, I'm ready to answer whenever they call on me."
Winning is another common thread of MSU's cadre of former prep quarterbacks. Cox, Myles, and Lewis combined for six state championship game appearances. Each player led his team to Jackson in his junior and senior campaigns. Cox won twice, while Lewis and Myles won championships as seniors.
While lining up at quarterback at small Mississippi schools can allow a prospect to display versatility and can hone a knack for winning, some players get overlooked. Banks, after all, will earn $4.76 million playing cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. He was a two-star prospect coming out of East Webster High and had one SEC scholarship offer. Lewis, Cox, McKinney, and Myles all reported one SEC offer: MSU.
"I don't think we were overlooked because of where we played on the field," Lewis said. "I think coming from small high schools is why we got passed over. Looking at where I come from, it was hard to get attention. But when we went to state my junior year, (MSU) came and looked at me and I got my scholarship offer. It didn't matter where I was on the field. They thought I could play."
NOTE: The intensity in MSU's preseason camp continues to rise as coach Dan Mullen put the Bulldogs through two practices at "The Farm" on Tuesday.
Monday was the squad's first chance to work out in full pads away from the Seal Complex. That was followed by the camp's first two-a-day Tuesday, increasing the squad's toughness and endurance.
"They know what it means to be out there," Mullen said. "(They have) the attitude our guys take that you have to attack it out there. You can't find shade out there at any point during the day. There's not one angle that the sun is going to be out that will provide any bit of shade on the field, so it's that mental toughness that they learn out there. They know that is how they have to fight through it (practice). It's going to make us stronger."
MSU will practice once today, Thursday, and Friday before another two-a-day on Saturday that features a partial scrimmage. The SEC Network will be in Starkville on Thursday and Friday, filming segments for an all-access show that will run later this month.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat