Mississippi State football's transfer portal assignment: Find a No. 1 wide receiver

Stefan Krajisnik
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

STARKVILLE — Mississippi State football’s Mike Leach, back when he was coaching at Texas Tech, frequently sensed movement out on the practice fields. When he’d look out, it was hard to make out exactly what it was.

“It’s too big to be a rabbit,” Leach remembers thinking.

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It turned out to be Michael Crabtree — the legendary Red Raiders receiver turned NFL talent. Props, ranging from Coca-Cola cans to dip cans, would be set up along the field as Crabtree worked on his craft.

Leach, who prefers late nights to early mornings, would approach Crabtree out there.

“Michael, you know it’s midnight?” Leach asked.

“Yeah, it’s no big deal,” Crabtree responded. “I was sitting at the apartment and just got to thinking if I come out of my cut like this instead of like this, I’ll get the ball sooner and I’ll be able to get up the field quicker.”

With the help of old cleats, Crabtree had little issue hopping a fence to get onto the field — even with spikes on top of the fence.

Crabtree is among a list of players Leach mentioned Monday when asked who the best receiver he ever coached was. Wes Welker and Danny Amendola also earned mentions.

The common trait among them?

“People do about what they really, really want to,” Leach said. “If you really want to, you’re probably going to be able to do it.”

“Jerry Rice is Jerry Rice because he first decided to be Jerry Rice,” he added.

Mississippi State doesn’t have that guy right now. Most programs won’t have players as talented as Crabtree, Welker, Amendola or Rice, but MSU is also lacking the mentality of those greats.

The Bulldogs don’t have a player who demands the ball, Leach says.

“Right now we’ve got a group of nice guys that like each other, like the ball, like the team, like the social activities that go along with it,” Leach said. “We want somebody that really wants the ball for the sake of having the ball because they believe they’re better with it than the other guy.”

Oct 22, 2022; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama linebacker Henry To'o To'o (10) makes a tackle on Mississippi State wide receiver Caleb Ducking (4) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated Mississippi State 30-6. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

This was a pressing question for Mississippi State entering the season. With Makai Polk, who caught 105 passes last season, gone, MSU needed someone to step up.

It was thought a committee of players might fill the void.

The Air Raid offense allows for eight receivers to earn significant reps each week, and MSU appeared deeper, even with Polk’s absence. That hasn’t proven valuable as redshirt-sophomore Rufus Harvey’s 44 receptions lead the team.

Hopes of players such as Caleb Ducking and Rara Thomas consistently performing like a No. 1 receiver have diminished, a fear Leach held entering the season.

“They all do some good things,” Leach said. “We need guys that are just that competitive guy that’s determined to be the best one.”

The disappointment leaves Leach with an offseason assignment unless something changes in the final two games, starting Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network+/ESPN+) against East Tennessee State.

Leach, who hasn’t relied on the transfer portal as much as some counterparts, needs to find next year’s top guy at another school.

Rather than rely on a current Bulldog to take a leap, Mississippi State can make a clear pitch to a player with a winner’s mentality sitting on the wrong roster. The Bulldogs throw the ball more than any team. Opportunities to post eye-popping numbers will be there.

Leach holds the invitation. It’s on him to close a sale in the coming months.

Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at skrajisnik@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.