September 3, 2017 9:56:33 PM
STARKVILLE -- All indications pointed to Donald Gray being Mississippi State's feature wide receiver for the 2017 season, and by no small margin. He was already last year's No. 2 receiver with a sizable gap of nearly 500 yards separating him from the No. 3 option and the man ahead of him, Fred Ross, off to the NFL.
The only question remaining was who would serve as his No. 2 or No. 3, candidates coming from a deep cast of both veterans poised for a breakout and promising rookies.
Then Saturday's first quarter came and went. MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald had 124 yards on seven completions to five different receivers; Gray was not one of them. It took until the final four minutes of the first half for Gray to catch a Fitzgerald pass.
Gray ended the game with three catches for 57 yards, thus far from unproductive, but it was everyone around him that made the notable statement on behalf of the wide receiving corps. As Gabe Myles -- himself a key component of MSU's passing game -- saw it, it revealed a certain truth about the position group: it has no set No. 2 or No. 3 option, instead using its deep talent base to fill those roles as a collective.
"We have guys that can be explosive when we get the ball in their hands and they can make things happen. I think that can describe us," Myles said.
MSU coach Dan Mullen added, "We played a bunch of guys today and it was nice to see some guys step forward. Donald and Gabe made some plays today and they are the veterans of the group, but all the other guys getting that experience, making some catches, that was good to get that in. Hopefully they can build on it moving forward."
Gray and Myles ended the game with three catches each for 57 and 19 yards, respectively, with Myles adding a touchdown, but they weren't alone on the three-catch rank. Reggie Todd, a redshirt freshman in his first college football game, also had three catches for 24 yards. MSU's two most-used slot receivers, Deddrick Thomas and Keith Mixon, combined for three catches for 49 yards -- in doing so serving as a microcosm for the unit.
Thomas and Mixon were treated through the game as if they were interchangeable, being substituted for one another on a seemingly random basis. Mullen said after the game it was part of the plan, as he pointed out is customary for up-tempo offenses that try to run plays in volume. It's also part of what Myles sees as the strength of the group.
"It gives us so much more depth. When (Fitzgerald) sees two and three different receivers comes out and he keeps seeing the same results as far as making plays, catching the ball," Myles said, "it gives him more confidence out there. It gives the whole offense confidence.
Myles himself can be considered a strength.
"He really had a great training camp, performed at a high level and I think we saw that today," Mullen said. "It's the consistency in performance and play, and I think you see that from him."
Myles recognized the group is helped by a stable of tight ends that keep opposing defenses honest on the perimeter. Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas had two catches each for 68 and 18 yards respectively. They're another part of the formula that Myles and Mullen agree will only grow as time goes on: one example being Osirus Mitchell, who had one catch in his MSU debut.
It may mean less targets and less catches for Myles, not that he's worried about that.
"As a whole, man, we make each other better," Myles said. "We don't want (Fitzgerald) to feel like he can only go to one person in a situation; we want him to have confidence in whoever is running the route to get open and make the play.
"We put that on ourselves to make sure we get there."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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