"We're not going to miss a beat," said Mullen of both hiring Collins as linebackers coach, and of promoting Chris Wilson from his 2010 status as co-coordinator to top Dog on the entire unit. "Not only not miss a beat, I expect us to be better on defense next year than we were this year."
"What Coach Mullen wanted most was a seamless transition," said Wilson. "So, we didn't have to make two changes, only making one with the group of guys coming back."
That group now consists of defensive line coach and coordinator Wilson; co-coordinator Collins after Mullen hired him away from Florida International this week; then the backfield tag-team of Tony Hughes (safeties) and Melvin Smith (cornerbacks) returning for a third season together on Mullen's staff. Even if Collins is the ‘new' guy in town, he's no young pup in this profession and should instantly fit into this quartet.
In fact Collins realized almost as soon as he and Wilson stepped away from the recent AFCA convention in Dallas that he had a place in the Mississippi State picture.
"We had a nice conversation. It was really positive, you could tell right away we were going to be really good to work together. And with Tony and Melvin I think it's going to be a good foursome, hopefully we do big things and continue what Manny and them put together."
Manny as in Diaz, who after one season as overall coordinator and linebackers coach took Texas' offer for a comparable job…if at what Mullen said would be a nice pay hike. This is the second time in as many off-seasons Mullen has had to find a new coordinator, and last year it took over a month to secure Diaz as replacement for Carl Torbush. It was still a case of Mullen getting his man.
So is this one, as Collins said he was contacted by a coach he first met in the mid-1990s when they were graduate aides in non-scholarship northeastern programs. "Dan called me. We've crossed paths over the last 15 years and always knew we had similar philosophies on football, coaching, and recruiting. So it was just a good time to finally find a chance to work together."
Working together was a hallmark of 2010 Dog defense on the field and in the staff offices alike. This made promoting Wilson just about as automatic an option as anything in the business.
"I was excited that we have some continuity," Wilson said. "I was hoping for it to happen, expecting it to happen." Oh, and besides an expected pay raise—athletics director Scott Striklin said last weekend he was waiting to have the entire staff settled before setting all 2011-12 salaries—Wilson has a few other promotion perks.
"My room has changed, my office changed, my car changed! That's been good because Manny had the better car, the bigger office! But other than that, philosophically nothing."
This is not just because Wilson and Diaz were on the same schematic wavelength last fall. Collins comes from a comparable mold, in fact he just spent a successful season in the same Sun Belt Conference from whence Mullen hired Diaz. Mullen makes much of finding and further developing young coaches (see interview posted Wednesday), yet in most respects Collins is far advanced in his own career. He spent much of his coaching tenure with George O'Leary at both Georgia Tech and Central Florida, and has the SEC awareness from a single year at Alabama where he coordinated recruiting.
That, by the way, made for some off-field fun when Collins moved to the Miami school in 2010 and met a slightly familiar face. He was met at FIU by former Mississippi State quarterback Wesley Carroll, who transferred after the 2008 season.
"When I first got there, ‘Hey, remember me? 17-12, Starkville!'" Collins said Carroll greeted him with, recalling State's 2007 victory over the Crimson Tide at Scott Field. Yeah, the coach remembered. "And I don't think I got my hearing back from the cowbells for, three weeks?!" Collins only laughs at queries whether Carroll ever cuts his hair.
He can laugh of course because the Golden Panthers made one of 2010's great turnarounds, finishing 7-6 with a Little Caesars Bowl win over Toledo with Carroll at quarterback. His side of the squad made the greatest gains though, after finishing 119th in NCAA defense for 2009 to best in the Sun Belt. On-field coaching was part of the package…but so was something Collins found already there only needing to be revealed. And developed.
"It was a bad situation. The kids were so beaten-down because they knew how bad they were. They walk across campus and everybody on campus knows how bad they are and they're constantly getting beat down. My first day I pulled the whole defense tougher and up on the wall was a powerpoint presentation that said ‘the best defense in the nation meets here'.
"I started from there, constantly preaching that this is the standard we're going to play at, that we're going to work at everything we do is to be the best defense in the nation. We used that as the backdrop of everything we did and fortunately the kids bought into it and were able to see results. The very first game we played Rutgers; the year before at UCF in the bowl game Rutgers killed us with 500 yards of offense or something like that. This group of kids at FIU that had been 119th held them to 170 or 180, something like that. The light came on and they knew they could really do something special."
Happily, Collins now gets to work with a defense already well on their way to Best status. Though, Wilson jokes, one item of MSU business wasn't raised during the interview: those guys wearing #50, #34, and #48 are, umm, graduated. "I kind of left that out!" Wilson laughed. "But I know he went to FIU last year and in every category that you could think of they improved. So he knows his stuff."
Stuff that should fit nicely into what Mississippi State is already doing. "Chris Wilson has the same mindset as Manny—because I'm closer to Manny—and the same mindset as I have," said Collins. "Maybe not Xs-and-Os when you call it, and they probably did more blitzing than we did at UCF. But very similar to what we did last year at FIU with the amount of pressures we brought."
For his part Wilson wasn't focused on schemes and sets when visiting with candidate Collins.
"It was more about ideas, visions, will this guy be able to fit into the room, will he be able to go out and recruit and get our players—not only the players in our program but the players we're recruiting—to see our vision. We'll talk about Xs-and-Os as it progresses."
With the understanding, of course, that when all those Xs and Os are put into a final game-week plan, Wilson has to sign-off on, well, everything. Mullen described last year's coordinator/co-coordinator as a 51/49 split in responsibility; now Wilson takes that extra two percentage points along with the other new stuff, besides keeping direct charge of defensive linemen.
"Obviously I'll be responsible from the front end all the way to the back end. The buck stops with me. When Coach Mullen walks in the door why isn't so-and-so playing the way he should, that's my question to answer." Fortunately head coach and co-coordinators alike expect to come up with lots of good answers in 2011. In fact Wilson has already seen some after the pre-Gator Bowl practices, two weeks of bonus December work that will give State a long jump on spring training as replacements for Chris White, K.J. Wright, Pernell McPhee are evaluated. And, as whatever subtle differences the revised staff puts into place. As Wilson noted, Collins will bring his own ideas based on experiences with other programs in other leagues.
Ideas which should fit right into Wilson's overriding goal for the Mississippi State defense, whoever has the title, the office, and the car.
"Our whole goal (last season) was for a chimpanzee on game day to be able to call our defense. We wanted our kids to be able to call it themselves if one of us fell down to the ground. That won't change much."