October 19, 2017 10:11:35 AM
STARKVILLE -- Total offense numbers were kind to the Mississippi State football team entering last week's game against BYU ranking the Bulldogs among the top half in the Southeastern Conference. Cutting those numbers down to explosive plays generated, particularly those done through the air, presented another story.
Halfway through the season, MSU (4-2, 1-2 SEC) ranks tied for 111th in the nation in passing plays of 30 yards or more with five, meaning fewer than one per game.
Still, when MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw a 32-yard touchdown pass against BYU, it's possible the bigger development was not the pass itself, but the person who caught the pass.
Sophomore wide receiver Jamal Couch can be seen as the future of MSU's downfield passing game given his combination of youth and size, 6-foot-4, and its rarity within the MSU receiving corps. (Of MSU's receivers that have caught at least five passes this year, none are as tall as Couch and only two are taller than 6 feet.) That status of his is no secret.
"I feel like I'm emerging as it," Couch said.
Recently, Couch has been given quite the opportunity to prove it: MSU coach Dan Mullen said during the bye week he would practice Couch and redshirt freshman Reggie Todd with the starters. He didn't do so in hopes of unearthing a deep play threat, but that may have been the result.
"One of the things is we're trying to get that depth to be able to roll guys through and I think each guy gave us something different," Mullen said. "It's great to see Jamal making plays down the field."
After that week of practice and his touchdown against BYU, Couch's teammates were raving.
"I sense they're hungry. They want to be the ones out there making plays," senior wide receiver Gabe Myles said. "I see a lot of confidence in these guys. That's kind of the silver lining in me getting hurt, a lot of guys got to get up there in the rotation. I think it's good for their confidence."
Said Fitzgerald, "He's coming along a lot. He's grown a lot as a person and as a player. It's good to see him step up and fill the role as a player he was born to fulfill."
That began with the bye week, where Couch's baptism by fire into the rigors of a starter took the form of facing Tolando Cleveland, Lashard Durr and Chris Rayford on nearly every rep, he said.
That gave him the best opportunity to refine what MSU needs him for the most: going downfield.
Couch prioritizes getting off the ball and past the corner covering him on his first steps more than he does jumping over that defender when the ball arrives. As he put it, "I got a big body so I have to be able to get out in space."
Within the framework of the offense, though, it's more about doing so on command.
"We just take it slow. We call running plays, we have to block, eat them up, but once it's time for the shot to be called, we have to go full speed and take advantage of it," Couch said. "We do it all week in practice. We're just sitting there waiting for our moment."
While he waits for times to stretch the field, he's no longer waiting for the playing time required to do it. Couch is not waiting for opportunity; he's creating it.
"He's realizing it's his time, using that big 6'4", 6'5" body," wide receiver Donald Gray said. "He's a grown man."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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