Mullen met with media Wednesday afternoon to go over some final spring items, evaluate a few post-spring game questions, and look ahead to what passes for an off-season these days.
How was the final practice Tuesday? "Not bad, not bad. The opportunity for us to just really install some fundamentals, and then go through drills guys can work on on their own over the summer. I think the hardest thing for us now is August 4 is the next time we're allowed to be around the team as they work out. And that's a long time, football is really is really the only sport like that where you have no access to your players right up to the start of the season."
"That's why we kind of set it up that way, so they don't just finish with the spring game. We finish with something that we can show them what they need to continue to work on and have a foundation for when they come back in the fall."
Is August 4 set? "That's what we're looking at right now, obviously now that we've just finished spring that's our tentative set date we're going to try to go with. Unless we have another revelation, in the next couple of weeks we'll sit down we'll get everything laid out for training camp and our whole schedule."
What did you learn from the spring game and from 15 practices? "I was pleased. I guess spring games are different than a lot of the other practices and what I try to get out of it is very different. It's a reward for some older players where they get to go out in front of family and friends, a huge crowd and go have fun and play in a game situation. It's a test to younger players, it's their first time. Going into the spring game I wouldn't have been shocked to see the long snapper snap the ball over the head, us fumble the kick-snaps, our punters drop the ball and whiff on a punt. Our specialist did a great job."
"Our young receivers come out where Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis get some catches and perform in the stadium situation in front of big crowds. Even the quarterbacks were very efficient during the course of the game. That was good, those are the things that you look for in the spring game."
"Throughout spring , one of the things you really see is how young a team we are, once I take guys off the field. We go put our first team offense, first team defense on the field, it's an experienced unit that's played a lot of football we feel really good about. As I start pulling guys off the field you realize just how quickly you get young and inexperienced. That's something we really need to monitor and continue to develop through training camp, those young players to be ready to play next season."
Do you have fewer questions about the offense coming out of spring than the previous two years? "Yeah, I do. Because the receivers, there's a little bit of depth there and experience there. So you're comfortable. I still don't know if we have the go-to, play-making wide receiver. But I think we have mulitiple ones that are going to be comfortable in game situations. Quarterbacks that are comfortable in the offense, familiar with things. We don't have a lot of depth at tailback but we have guys that have carried the ball and had big games."
"I guess the thing that concerns you is the offensive line. Not so much tee ones, but as soon as you take one guy out there's not an experience guy coming in, it's going to be a rookie coming on the field. And that is the biggest concern, that we have to stay healthy."
"This spring we had Tobias Smith and Gabe Jackson out. You take two returning starters out, the trickle-down effect becomes huge in that there is not a lot of experience with the backups. Templeton Hardy got a lot of work with the ones, Dillon Day got a lot of work with the ones. Those guys have not played a lot of football for us come game-day Saturdays. So they need to grow up very fast. James Carmon and Blaine Clausell have not played left tackle in a SEC football game so they have to grow up fast."
"But if we can stay healthy with the ones, then you start to feel good about your depth because they will get their time to slowly develop and not be forced to be the starter at the other positions."
Is that the purpose of spring, you don't need to see the older guys as much? "It is. You still want to feel better about yourselves at times when you roll out the number one offense. I'd rather be able to roll out the ones and pull them out myself instead of roll out the ones and they're not all the ones out there on the field. That's the disappointing thing when you go through injuries. But when you look back on it, the fact guys had to step up, you hope it benefits you going into the fall."
Looking at the roster, who you recruited and who was here, did you feel you had a good foundation or was it player development? "I think a lot of development. We have four guys that have got a shot to get drafted, we recruited two of them with Chris White and Pernell McPhee. I don't notice that, because very few of the guys that are playing in the program now were playing when I showed up here. Every linebacker on the roster right now we recruited except for Jamie Jones. On the d-line, Cox, Boyd, most of them, so many of those guys that had to play since we've been here. I guess that's how I look at it, most of the guys we either took over as freshmen or we recruited."
For summer do you talk with guys about taking that next step to compete for a championship? ""That's what it is. And a lot of it is on them now. That's the hardest part, we can't be around them until August. That's where some of your maturity and leadership has to step up. How hard they're able to push themselves and push each other now until August will really determine our season. If we take some good strides forward between now and then I think we'll have a great year. If guys go through the motions and they're not pushing themselves to the next level on their own it will be a long season for us."
How do you handle the higher expectations with the players? "To me, I guess its very simple. You're never going to reach your goals or expectations if we don't improve on a daily basis as a team, if we don't take little baby-steps."
"There are not giant steps to success. We can't just cruise through now and say OK, once we hit game week we'll turn it up a different level. If we want to get up here, and we're down here right now, there's not one step to get there. It's going to be a little step every single day for us to achieve our goals. That's the mindset our players have to attack the summer with."
Do you mention the SEC Championship? "That's always going to be our goal, to find a way to get ourselves to Atlanta. That's it. I look at two goals that we'll always keep in this program. How to be better, how are we going to be a better football team. And the way that happens is every player makes themselves individually better, each position group makes their group as a whole better, each unit—offense, defense, and all the kicking phases—make their unit better. And as a team we grow better as a football team. You've got to take care of each one of those steps."
"And if we are improved as a football team next year from where we were last year, that's a positive season. Now our goal on the season is to find a way to win the West and get to Atlanta, because that's what we can control. You can't really control anything beyond that. We'll go with trying to win the West and whatever other rewards come for us from that point we'll go from there."
How much has Quentin Saulberry changed from when you first got him? "A lot. I mean, a lot. He was a guy that was just playing raw talent as a younger player, that really has had to invest to learn the game. Those are big steps that guys take forward throughout their career. All of the guys we've had, Derek Sherrod last year who I think started here almost all four years of his career; you go back and watch him and how he developed as a player. And how I know now he'll continue to develop. That's a question I gets asked all the time, that he'll continue to develop because of the work ethic that that he's instilled in himself to become a great player."
"That's a big deal. But to me our program is all about player development. To me I'm a lot less concerned in how players show up as I am in how they walk out the door. Our job here is whether you show up with a one start, five star; whether you're a returning starter before we got here or you never played before we got here, that's completely irrelevant to me. Since the day that I got here, since the day that these young guys have been in our program, how have they improved and how are they going to be noticed when they walk out the year compared to when they came in."
With concerns about the offensive line, how much does having a veteran quarterback who makes plays himself help simplify things? "You always want that experience in one aspect or the other. When you have a quarterback that is going to be very relaxed in situations, that now is able make sure we're always going in the right direction with things, he can help some of the younger linemen."
"You always want that strenngth one place or the other. Where last year it's a pretty calming influence on a quarterback to have a senior center; where this year it's going be calming to a left tackle that's a rookie to have a veteran quarterback who can just get the ball out of his hands. And hopefully helping you out in situations where you need help. I'd love a situation where we just had all veterans, one of these days we'll develop and get the program to that level!"
Did you see enough out of Curtis Virges this fall that he could be part of the second wave of d-linemen? "You hope so. He's got a long way to go. To me he's going to have to take another giant step forward this summer and the fall before he's going to hit that rotation and play to the level we expect all our d-linemen to play with."
Can you update some health situations at the end of spring? "Sam Watts is just a reoccurring injury, so we don't know with him. Tobias Smith is supposed to be full go for the start of training camp. Nickoe Whitley, Gabe Jackson, as we saw they're ready to go. Nick Griffin, the expectation is October 1st, we're looking at a six month injury. He had the surgery April 1 so he should be cleared to play, that's what their thought is. Now the great thing about Nick is he's a really hard worker, so hopefully he works that hard at the re-hab and is ready to go October 1st."
When spring began you thought Carmon was headed in the right direction at left tackle, do you still think that or will Clausell step up? "I think the great thing between the two is there is competition there. As soon as there is competition that's when you see better improvement. And I want to continue to see that. Hopefully guys are stepping forward, we'll make that decision the Friday night before the Memphis game who it is; and maybe we'll play both of them to see who performs at a better level. Or is it Wednesday night before the Memphis game? On my schedule Wednesday is a Friday that week!">[? "But I think that's something that that completion will go. The position you see the most of it at is the quarterback position. Some guys that all expect to start next year that are competing; what you're seeing is a significant rise from top to bottom in the performance level of the quarterbacks. Because if you do want to compete to be the starter next season the standard is going to be very, very high to get out there on the field to get you playing time. That's going to continue to make improvements."
Were you most pleased with progress of the linebackers or were there other groups that stood out? "The linebackers, just because there was inexperience. There's still a lot of unanswered questions there. I didn't doubt maybe the talent level that we have there; the biggest question was the experience level that you have here. When you get in that live situation and the crowd is going crazy, you're playing an offense with some talented player and they're motioning guys, moving them all over the place, and all of a sudden you've got to make that read, hit the gap, fill it and make the tackle on a Heisman Trophy candidate tailback, that's when you're going to get to see it."
"So I do think guys stepped forward, I do think we have a bunch of SEC players at linebacker here. We've got to make sure that they're SEC ready this September. Not just that they're SEC caliber players but they're actually able to perform at that level come this September. That's a long way to go development-wise with these guys."
Are there any positions any incoming players could be factors? ""That's so hard to say. Obviously any of the guys that enrolled early have a huge advantage. There is no bigger advantage to a young guy coming in, graduating high school and enrolling early and going through spring practice. The guys coming in the fall we're going to have to wait and see as they step on the field how fast they can pick things up. Everything happens a lot faster in training camp so their margin for error is much, much smaller. You might find some small roles for them or they might come in and pick it up fast and they get a big role. That's so hard to determine."
What do you say about the confidence of a Favre to come out of the spring game saying he can make every throw, when that's not always what you'd want in a game? "I love confidence. The confidence is something that is great. And he can make a lot of throws, I think it's the maturity level. Which is good. I'd rather have a quarterback with a lot of confidence and I have to pull the reins back than I've got to try to get him going some! That's what Dylan has, and through out his development we're going to continue to watch. What we want is don't change your playmaking ability, what we want to do is limit your mistakes. That is the development of a quarterback right there."
His play seemed to push Tyler Russell to have a good spring as well. "Yeah, and the great thing is Chris Relf was very, very efficient in the spring in taking a step forward. For those two guys the thought ‘hey, you know what, I'm going to come in and beat Chris Relf out, I'm going to find a way to do it' with Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre and with the confidence level they have, that they're going to find ways to beat Chris out, I think that helped Chris pick his game up. I think that's where you saw a lot more consistency out of Chris not just in his confidence but he's looking over his shoulder and here come two hungry young guys that want his playing tie. The second that he puts it on cruise control, he's going to be out of a job. I think that helped all three of them push each other in how they compete."
Going into your third year what have you learned that you maybe thought you knew? "I don't know, I think you're always learning and developing. I'm probably much more relaxed now than when I first came in. Maybe delegate some responsibilities a little bit better. I'm still kind of a control freak, I like things done and I like them done the right way. But I'm also much more relaxed in letting our coaches go coach, and I want to evaluate the effort that our players give."
"I think now that our coaching staff has been around each other for a while, the staff continuity that we formed, I think everybody is much more comfortable adapting to the individual talents of our players. When you come in I think everybody has the idea, this is how we do things, this is what I know best, these are the plays that we've got to call on offense, the blitzes we're got to run on defense. I think everybody is much more comfortable in working together, in how we gel as a staff that it's much easier to put players in position to be successful. The communication is much better throughout everybody, just used to working with each other."
"I think its easier to teach a lot more with our players now, because you are not teaching run from drill to drill or when you've got to run when you hit the maroon line, or there's a certain toughness that we want to practice with, the physicality we have in our program on the field. A lot of the guys understand those things so you can coach your technique and fundamentals a lot more than coaching effort. Now that that's established in our program a little bit you get more done that way."
In spring more prospects came to watch practices, how much of an advantage is that? "It's huge. The one big thing for us with recruiting that I want is young men to understand our program. We're a no-nonsense program, what you see is what you get. I want them to understand that before they get here. Them coming to campus allows me to spend time, meet the prospects, their families, that I'm not always going to get the face to face time. I get one in-home visit in the entire recruiting process, I get to go see them one time face-to-face. So getting them on campus with my opportunity to spend time and really explain our program. Our recruiting coach is going to go through this is how we do things, our position coach this is how we're going to utilize you. We're going to show them eveyrthing. But in the end the buck stops with me and when I can sit down face-to face with a recruit and their family and let them know the expectations of this program, that's invaluable to us."
How is it for recruits watching the spring game with such a big crowd? "It's a great opportunity for them to see campus life. They're getting to see people out and about, students out and about, getting to meet people in the Mississippi State family. Just by walking around you get that feel around campus on spring game day. And I think that's huge for them to really get to experience what it is to be a Mississippi State Bulldog, and what a great feeling it is and what a tight-knit family it is from our fan base to our faculty and out student body, and all of those things on our campus in that atmosphere it think it's a great day for them to be here."
Do you think about how has success changed expectations from the fan base? "I try not to. My expectations are always going to be so high and my pressure on myself. It's interesting. When I go home at night and put my head on the pillow I'm not thinking--I guess this will sound bad for our fans!--how did I impress our fans today? I'm thinking did we do everything we could do to improve ourselves, whether it be at practice, whether it be off-season condition, or on a gameday Saturday, did we give our best today? Did I give my best as a head coach, and our assistant coaches give their best, did our strength staff give their best; and did we get the most out of our players and did they give their best at whatever it is we're doing? That's kind of what I think about at night, and my expectations of just doing all you can do."
"If I felt we came out, we put together a great gameplan, we executed it well, our kids played hard, our coaches worked hard; and we came out on the short end of a game because we played a better football team than us, I'll be able to sleep that night. Whether that fits everybody's win-loss expectation I'll be able to sleep. I can tell you this, I've slept better after losses than after wins in certain games. Because I knew we went out and played a better team but didn't win, but I thought we played hard. We've won games I didn't think we played very well and felt very fortunate that we won since I've been here. That's disappointing to me that maybe we didn't play to the best of our ability. That is what I don't like."
Now you had the team over to Balis, he's the head coach in summer? "Well, that's why I tell people the hierarchy in the coaching staff I'm one, he's two. And then maybe you get down to some coordinators three, our academic advisors and head trainers, Joe (Galbraith) four or something, of course the position coaches! No, but I'm one, he's two; and that to me is the hierarchy of this program, how decisions are made, who people report to, how the program is run."
"You have to have somebody in that position that you trust. I'd trust Matt Balis with anything that I posses or own, I'd have no issue with him overseeing it. That's why it makes summer I guess a little bit easier know that he's in charge of this team."
What will you do this summer away from football? "What I do this summer that has nothing to do with football? I have a house on Lake Oconee, I will go out on a boat and float around and read my book. And that's relaxing to me. Right now I'm reading Karl Rove's book, I've got George Bush's ‘Decision Points.' I've got a couple of other books."
"And I'm big into historical fiction and those type of things too. I can't go like two serious books in a row, so I have to read a serious book like a ‘how to make yourself better' and then I need a story book that is a little more entertaining. I've read every Steve Berry book, I've ready every Grisham book, Stephen King, Dan Brown. Anything that's that sort of entertaining historical fiction stuff."
We'd appreciate if you'd follow our newspapers too? "They're on-line!"
Do some of our papers fall under ‘historical fiction'? "All I known is there's certain papers where I was Man of the Year and others I wasn't. So I have different loyalties! I will give you guys credit, I do read your newspapers just about every day, on-line most of the time. I don't always read what you say but I definitely read different quotes that our players had. Your opinions to me are kind of give or take!"