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Jeff Lebby breaks down confidence in QB Blake Shapen, how portal helped Mississippi State

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos07/08/24


Jeff Lebby Post-spring Press Conference 4-20-24

Jeff Lebby was getting out of the office for a minute in a recent phone call with On3.

The Mississippi State head coach was walking over to Polk-Dement Stadium to watch his son at the baseball program’s youth camp. It’s been nonstop for the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator since he touched down in Starkville in late November.

Getting out of the office for a few minutes to watch his son throw the baseball was a nice respite after a busy month of June. The Bulldogs went all out for official visit season, bringing in more than 30 recruits from the 2025 class to campus.

“Shoot, man, we’re going to catch our breath for a couple of weeks and then get ready to roll,” Lebby told On3 in an exclusive interview.

Lebby immediately evaluated the roster he had when he started in November. The Bulldogs ultimately lost 27 players to the transfer portal while adding 19. He’s also continued to recruit 2025 four-star quarterback KaMario Taylor, who picked the Bulldogs in November but has remained with them since Lebby took over.

Taking a minute to think back to the long hours of his first days on the job are still blurry.

“One thousand percent it was getting to know the players that are in the building as players from their tape and then also as people, obviously,” he said. “That was the immediate part of the job is making sure we were going to attack the portal the way we needed to address needs.”

Jeff Lebby explains why Blake Shapen is right fit

Jeff Lebby’s most important transfer portal pickup was his first. With Will Rogers leaving Starkville and ultimately landing at Washington, the Bulldogs had a question mark at the quarterback position. Less than two weeks after accepting the Mississippi State job, the head coach picked up a quarterback who could run his offense and play immediately.

Baylor transfer Blake Shapen transferred in, helping Lebby and his new staff recruit in the portal and make Starkville an attractive landing spot. With 23 career starts, he’s thrown for 5,574 yards with 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He touts a 63.7% completion percentage.

Lebby knew he needed to find a quarterback he could lean on and trust in Year One. Mississippi State finished last in the SEC in scoring in 2023, averaging 21.8 points. The Bulldogs were held to 10 points or less four times in their final six games of the season.

“It was huge,” he said on landing Shapen in December. “Needed that and wanted that, and was able to get it, which is a big deal. I love where he’s at, and he’s a guy that’s going to get us off the ground here offensively and [show] how we’re going to play and the way we’ll be able to go recruit quarterbacks here. Being able to put this product together that he’s going to be a big part of.”

Shapen has what Mississippi State wants

An MLB draft prospect coming out of high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, Shapen wanted to play college football. He led Baylor to its win in the 2021 Big 12 championship game, stepping in for Gerry Bohanon who was dealing with a hamstring injury.

Shapen missed three games last season at Baylor with an MCL injury. He also missed the last game of the season with a head injury, playing in only eight games in 2023. He’s been healthy since landing at Mississippi State, impressing Lebby. He completed 18 of his 22 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns in April’s Maroon and White Game.

“He cares about being good,” Lebby said. “The guy is working his butt off. He’s spending a ton of time in the building, and he’s doing everything he can to put himself in position to go have a great year. And so I just, I love how he handles himself. He’s got great confidence, but he’s got great command. He’s a guy that has got a chance to have a great year.”

Transfer portal is ‘huge help’ in Year 1

Like any program going through a head coaching change, Jeff Lebby expected to lose some players to the transfer portal. But with multi-time transfers able to enter the portal and play immediately without securing a waiver, Lebby had a larger pool of talent to pull from.

On top of adding Shapen, the Bulldogs added former Memphis offensive tackle Makylan Pounders, who allowed just one sack in 400 snaps in 2023, with four hits and six hurries. The Bulldogs did lose running back Jo’Quavious “Woody” Marks, who has the most receiving yards by a running back (1,225) in program history.

Lebby had to find a running back in the spring, eventually adding Utah State’s Davon Booth. Miami (OH) running back Rashad Amos was committed to the Bulldogs before flipping to Colorado in April. Despite the portal headaches, Lebby believes college football’s free agency was a help.

“It’s nonstop, man,” he said. “I love it, especially Year One for me, just because we were able to go address the needs and get done what we needed to from a roster standpoint, and that’s a that’s going to end up being a huge help for us.”

Georgia, Texas highlight SEC schedule

Mississippi State opens the 2024 season on Aug. 31 against Eastern Kentucky at Davis Wade Stadium. But Jeff Lebby’s first real taste of the SEC as a head coach will come later in the season when the Bulldogs visit Texas on Sept. 28. After a bye, they travel to Georgia for an Oct. 12 matchup.

Those two games will be crucial for Jeff Lebby in Year One as a barometer of where Mississippi State is at. The first-year head coach admitted the passing game was an “absolute struggle” in 2023 from what he’s seen on tape.

“I knew taking the job – that’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted the job was to be able to do it with the best and against the best,” Lebby said. “There’s nothing better than coaching in this league. And there’s a lot of it that is incredibly exciting, knowing that it’s going to be really hard.”