Q&A With Coach John Cohen

The season ended just three days ago, so the emotions remain fresh. Whether from the excitement of a rousing postseason run, or the frustration of how it ended, there was no shade of gray to Mississippi State's June. Still John Cohen has been able to resume work on wrapping up last loose ends of 2011 and getting up to speed for future seasons.

The Mississippi State skipper took some Wednesday morning time to meet with local media for an annual end-of-season review, as well as a preview of coming Diamond Dog attractions. The slightly-edited transcript follows.

Cohen: "As I mentioned in Gainesville I'm really proud of our kids and I loved the way they competed, the last two weeks especially. But our expectation is to get to Omaha. The moral victory thing is not what we're into. But I think we do have to sit back and recognize that we have to take steps, and I did think we took some major steps this year moving in the direction we want to go."

Q: What were your realistic expectations back when the season began? "I really felt like we could get to the SEC Tournament. I just felt like we were going to pitch and play defense a lot better, and for the most part we made some huge strides in that area. We're still not exactly where we want to be.

"But when you look at where we were as a staff and as a program when we walked in the door, I think we have made some huge strides in all areas. And we're really excited about our young players and what we think they can do and the heights we can achieve together at Mississippi State."

Q: Do you go back and evaluate the guys coming back but the staff as well and what you could have done differently? "I think every good coaching staff in the country does that. You're always evaluating your staff and your players, and yourself. When you play 63 games you're definitely going to look back and say what could I have done differently? But especially from a recruiting, evaluation standpoint, I love where we are.

"But I do think we'll be constantly improving our staff and the way we do things. We can't demand certain things out of our players if we don't demand the out of ourselves as coaches."

Q: Despite not wanting moral victories, you have to like some of the achievements to build on? "No question. For sure. My vision when I came here was to win a national championship and I think we're on the tracks. I think we're moving in that direction.

"The first thing you have to establish when take over a program that is 23-33 is you have to get to where you can say can we compete with the best? Now I think we've accomplished that mission, we can compete with the best. Now we have to be able to win, not just compete but win at the highest levels. I cannot tell you how important it is for young players be in the environment of a regional and see the ingredients of winning, and then being in a super regional and seeing we're nine out away from going to Omaha.

"Even if young players are not playing what they are taking in at that time is just crucial. Young players make mistakes when they encounter things they've never been around or never experienced. Once you experience those things the next time its much, much easier. So you've got a group that's experienced in the SEC Tournament, for some of our older guys for the first time in their careers. But the younger guys are doing it as freshmen and that really pays dividends in the future."

Q: Do you feel this year was a chance to show how effective your philosophy can be with the requisite talent and experience? "Yeah, and I've said all along. This is not a knock to our older players because I think they have skill. I think collectively our group of freshmen this year probably has more talent than our seniors. Not probably, they do have more talent. What the seniors had is a lot more experience, that is why we went with such a senior dominant lineup down the stretch.

"But when you look at the ability on a daily basis, when we get the opportunity to evaluate a Hunter Renfroe, a Taylor Stark, obviously C.T. Bradford, Adam Frazier, Daryl Norris… I mean, the last three week of the season in our drill work Daryl Norris was taking better swings than anybody on our whole ball club. I just look at him and think this guy is going to really hit. Same thing with Hunter Renfroe, you just keep looking at all these freshmen. Evan Mitchell has got a chance to be a star, we started to see glimpses of that. Just with the experience they got this year and the things they got to see I'm just thrilled.

"The other thing too is when we got here we were in a recruiting frenzy from the standpoint of we were really far behind. And it's nobody's fault, there's no blame there. It's just whenever you take over a program you're automatically behind because everybody around you has commitments of juniors, sophomores. When you come in and everybody has this range and you're starting from scratch, you're just behind. And I feel we're at a point right now we're not in a frenzy. We can take some deep breaths and really evaluate and be very, very choosy. And we've been choosy from the moment we've gotten here, it's just the pool was different by the nature of the timetable."

Q: Some guys were not available for injuries, do you expect them to be healthy in the fall? "And I didn't even mention Demarcus Henderson, he might be the best athlete in our freshman class. Demarcus' issue was an eye issue, he was wearing contact lens for the first time and really struggled with them. He went ahead and had lasik surgery, not a traditional baseball injury.

"Brayden Jones is another freshman we've sent off, Brayden arguably could have been one of our top five or six hitters if we wouldn't have redshirted him. But he's a third baseman and obviously one of the best players on our team if not the best was our third baseman (senior Jarrod Parks). We have a lot of confidence in this group, so I think we're in a pretty good injury situation.

"Wes Rea is throwing from 180 feet, I talk to Wes almost every day either phone or text, he's doing great. He's in Danville right now. I think as he progressed during his redshirt year watching him swing the bat in live situations, I think he has a chance to really hit for us, too. And he's got a chance to be something really different we didn't have this year, the real power threat in the middle of our lineup.

"I think Ben Bracewell is ready. He battled some back issues but is going to give us a component next year, some competitiveness. He is a real SEC weekend guy and to get him back is going to be huge for us."

Q: You mentioned how much better guys get over the off-season, is that the #1 priority this summer with so many seniors and most of the offense leaving? "To me, when I played at Mississippi State—and the coaching staff was outstanding, in my four years I played for eight different Division I coaches. But, to me the real benefit, when you make your biggest jumps as a player, is when you have the ability to see guys doing it on the field and say that's how it is supposed to look like. Once that happens as a program; your younger guys see oh, that's how you turn a double-pay in a key situation; that's how you throw a fastball and freeze that guy in a key situation on national television; that's how you put the barrel on the right spot when it matters late in a game; when young guys have a chance to see that and say I want to do that, that's when you make a huge jump in your program.

"And quite frankly we just didn't have a lot of that our first two years, for younger guys to say that's what it supposed to look like on the mound, that's what it is supposed to look like defensively, that's what it is supposed to look like at home plate. When you do have it happen and there is success younger guys can gravitate towards that.

"I just remember when I first came into the program as a player, John Mitchell was on that (1985) College World Series team. And they lost everybody on the team. But I got a chance to hit with John Mitchell, not even in practice settings, and it was like OK, this is how you do it. I remember seeing this guy on TV hitting a home run in Omaha, I want to be like this guy. Once you have that happen in your program it really turns things around.

"And it's so difficult because every body in the SEC has that because everybody is playing at such a high level. That is why what we did in this season just catapulted (us). That and the combination of skill level we have in our younger players, those two things coming together are really exciting to me because those are the things that have to happen."

Q: But also losing seven starters and entire infield, how much concern do you have of a drop-off? "Well, when you lose seniors there's the possibility of drop-off. If you look at the pitching staff we're going to lose Devin and that's a loss because he is a real talent. I think there is a possibility you could lose Nick Routt because he is going to go pitch in the Cape and people are waiting to see how healthy he is. We'd love to have both those guys back.

"But I think with the experience our pitching staff has and so many new components contributing this year your pitching staff gets better. I don't think its as many freshmen stepping in, you're going to have sophomores instead of freshmen stepping in, that's a big difference. Although I think we have some very talented freshmen, especially in the middle-infield. If they can come in and play the same role that a Frazier did and do some things like he did as freshmen, that would be very exciting, too."

Q: Are there any pitchers you are shutting down for the summer? "We're going to shut Caleb Reed down for probably three or four weeks, then if he tells us he wants to pitch I'm sure we could have and opportunity to send him to the Cape or Alaska somewhere and have him pitch for three or four weeks. That's going to be completely up to Caleb. But obviously a lot of other guys are going to go and pitch, Chris Stratton is at the Cape, Routt is in the Cape, we have a ton of arms out there."

Q: Is Jones definitely gone? "He hasn't signed yet. We had a great discussion yesterday and Devin really enjoys being part of our program. It just really depends on his personal financial situation. We'll just wait and see how that unfolds. I had to say unfolds, that's my Pat McMahon-ism I haven't brought out yet!"

Q: Have you talked to drafted signees Woodruff and Lindgren? "Oh, we talk to those guys every day. You just don't know. I think so much of it is happening behind closed doors that you can't control as a college coach. Who are they signing in front of your guys, how much do they have in their budget? All those things go into it. And again, the guys who drafted these players are friends, they're quality people, they've been doing it a long time. So your communication with the organization is big, too. I just feel there are so many quality people that are scouts in our area, it's really fun to deal with those guys."

Q: Are all the redshirts playing summer ball? I think every one of our freshmen is going out to play. Wes Rea was the only question, we were waiting to see how his throwing was progressing. We went him to Danville."

Q: The image is you don't want to play with power. Was it just a matter of you didn't have it, and would you like to? "When I got to Mississippi State I felt we had some power. With the new rules of 27 men who could be on aid, my opinion was where do we need the most help and where are our scholarship dollars going to be best spent? With the solid power like Connor Powers, Ryan Duffy, Jet Butler, I loved that about them, if I'm at Kentucky or Florida it is different.

"We play 35 games in this ballpark. That coupled with the fact that our pitching just wasn't good, in order to stay in games you have to pitch. We basically spent an entire year's worth of scholarship aid and entire recruiting cycle just to get us competitive, just to see if we could stay in games. Because if you look at the numbers that's where we were getting killed.

"So yeah, Wes Rea is going to have power. Brayden Jones has power, those guys haven't even stepped on the field yet. I think Demarcus Henderson is going to have power. Hunter Renfroe has as much power as anybody in the Southeastern Conference. We're not running away from power, what we were doing is running toward pitching and defense which for two years is something we didn't have.

"If you look at first base just as an example, I think Daryl Norris who has real power also would have given us more power in the lineup. But as a freshman he would have given us a little more swing-and-miss. So we've got to play Ryan Collins down the stretch, he's experienced all this stuff, he's going to have less swing-and-miss, he's going to give us huge range at first base. For that moment in time that is what we needed most.

"Now Daryl a year from now, two years from now, yeah it's different. So yeah, we're going to have power. But what I think we're going to have in the future, which is ideal, is when situation dictates power we're going to have it. When the situation dictates running, defense, I think we're going to have that, too."

Q: What is the benefit of going to summer league and coming back? "Well, it just continues the maturation process of these kids. You're out of your comfort zone, you're with a whole different group of guys, you have to prove yourself. Geographically you're a great distance from your parents and friends. The thing I tell these kids is I want you to hit .300, if you're a pitcher I want you to throw strikes and pitch well. But the priority is your going somewhere for two months and staying there. It's human nature to want to come home, but if they stay in that one spot and gut it out and have success there, what they gain is incredible. What Caleb Reed gained by pitching in California I can't even explain to you, he'll be the first one to tell you just being out of your comfort zone and being around other kids from all over the country, having to prove yourself. Saying you know what, I'm pretty good, I can compete with these guys.

"No matter where you are you tend to put other people on a pedestal, from other programs around the country; the Stanfords, the Texas', the USCs, Arizonas, wherever. You know, I was at Mississippi State and we were ranked #1 in the country; I go to the Cape and here's this guy form USC, from Florida State. And I go you know, I'm as good as these guys. Even though we were ranked #1 you always wonder how you compete with people geographically. I think its a great experience for these kids to go out and do that.

"And I learned that from Pat McMahon. Pat placed all the players when I was at Mississippi State. I remember him looking me in the eye and saying you're going to Keeni (sic) Alaska, you're going to get homesick like everybody else, and you're going to stay there. Because if you come home early you're going to have to deal with me! That's all it took, and it was a wonderful experience for me."

Q: What does it say having five guys going to the Cape? "It says a lot. Again it is just another step forward. It's part of that foundation: winning a regional, being strong down the stretch, having some seniors step forward to be great leaders, being able to defend and pitch. All of those things just keep adding up, so I think all those are positive steps."

Q: Is one thing you look back on trying to develop dual-threat guys and how to mix and match? "Again, four or five years ago the dual thing wasn't as significant. With a 27-man scholarship that is important. The thing about the positional player that is different from the pitcher-only guy, because the positional guy has demands on his arm you have to constantly evaluate how they feel that day they're pitching. That is a challenge for sure. But there is no doubt in my mind C.T. Bradford is going to pitch for us. There is no doubt in my mind at some level Hunter Renfroe is going to pitch for us. There is no doubt in my mind Daryl Norris is going to do both as well. I think that really gives you some flexibility."

Q: Going back to philosophy, do you feel some are still trying to understand your approach? "I think our fans are pretty educated baseball people. That's one of the reasons I wanted to come back to Mississippi State, our fans are great. Yeah, I think the things we do are at times a little bit out of the box. But I think especially in the recruiting process they love the fact we do things different and they love we do things in an aggressive way. The kids coming to our program now are attracted to that.

"And by the way I hate the word philosophy! When our kids talk about philosophy, I say talk about precision, that is everything. Philosophies are things that can be argued about for hours and hours, precision wins. The teams in our league and teams that are headed to Omaha now have a level of precision and skill. We're so close but that is the thing."

Q: What are the primary positions for four guys; Renfroe, Jones, Norris, and Henderson? "The biggest challenge out of all those is Hunter because he brings so many different skills. Hunter got so much better as a catcher this year. We met with Hunter yesterday, our focus with him is catching. Until he proves he can't be a legitimate SEC-level catcher then we're going to keep him back there. From where he started to where he is now it's just unbelievable how much better he is. And from a talent standpoint, arm strength, he is more physically gifted than any of our other catchers.

"The thing the older guys two had was what was between their ears. They had experienced all the catcher's psychology, that the catcher is a field general. As soon as Hunter learns those things he can be an outstanding catcher. And of course we love that we have two junior college guys coming in we think are outstanding in those areas. When you recruit and you have enough time to break down the entire field of what is really out there, that is what we're looking for. That leadership type of guy that can help you get strikes and coach that guy on the mound. We feel we're in a very good position in terms of our catching.

"Norris I feel strongly is going to hit, so think there are going to be opportunities for him at first base. But I feel that way about Wes Rea as well. You've got to love throwing the ball across the infield to a guy that is 6-6 and 275—I hope! Wes Rea is an outstanding defender at first base. His feet and hands, I can see where he must have been an incredible offensive lineman because they work together as well for somebody his size as I've ever seen at his age. But again you have a DH opportunity too. I think Norris could play third, he played that in high school.

"I think Brayden Jones is getting better every day at third base as well. Brayden can really hit. Again, if you had an intrasquad offensive game of the guys who redshirted or our freshmen vs. our starting guys, just from an offensive standpoint, depending on who they are facing on the mound, the guys who didn't play might beat up the team that is on the field.

"But the team on the field, the older guys, are going to make less mistakes, they've experienced a lot, they're going to defend it better, and not get overwhelmed by situations. That is why bringing this group of freshmen along at a slower rate in my opinion is going to pay really huge dividends down the road.

"Henderson is really getting better as a middle infielder. He's playing shortstop right now, in fact I was texting with him yesterday, he said he's played very well defensively. I could see him as an infielder or an outfielder. And I really want to get a good read. One of the neat things about having this many guys out playing is hopefully I might get a week or so to go see these kids play in their own element, without being in our environment. Stepping out and being independent and watching them play and hearing what their coaches have to say about them."

Q: People have gotten out of the habit of going to baseball games, did you see a bounce-back this year? "We have some things I can't really discuss right now that we are going to do, that I think are really going to help. There are some internal things about the nature of our stadium and the nature of our seatholders geographically and otherwise. I think we can meet our fans half-way and do some really out of the box, inventive things to help that matter.

"One of the things too that is really different about our ballpark, you go to Vanderbilt just as an example and see 2,500 people there, it looks like a packed house and it's raucous. In our place 2,500 people look like an empty house. We're in a town with 20,000 people, they're in a town with a million-and-a-half. So it's all about how you look at things.

"When we were at Georgia Tech we really saw what Mississippi State fans are all about. I don't know the exact number, you guys were there and is it safe to say we had more fans there than anybody we played against? I think that says it all about our fans. So we needed to meet our fans half-way, and we did. In layman's terms we gave them something to cheer about. I think during the season we did, too, it was a typical SEC season too with hills and valleys. But there was hope and we gave them some energy and boom we went to a regional and won that regional. I'm a big believer in that and I said that at Kentucky too. Nobody showed up at Kentucky, we had to meet them half-way. There is that give-and-take the relationship with your fans and nobody has better fans than Mississippi State does."

Q: Do you feel next year's team will be a better hitting team? "It's really hard to say. I really believe we're going to be a better pitching staff, I really believe we're going to be a dramatically better pitching staff. But I love the fact we have a lot of young guys who got to be around success. I really feel that is important to the future of our program.

"Again, I'm going to say this because I really believe it. I believe our freshman class is as talented as any freshman class in the country. And the great thing about that is several of those guys didn't even use a year of eligibility. My previous two years? Caleb Reed in a normal year should have been redshirt guy, but we had to use him because that is where our program was at that time. Boy, would that make a difference at this point. We got to redshirt some guys this year, and we got to bring some guys along slowly who really gained."

Q: You have a couple of speed guys coming in this class, do you expect to steal bases? "Again, it's that nice recipe of power and speed. We didn't have the power as much as the previous two years but we had more speed. And we were a much better defensive club, we were probably second in the league in fielding percentage, I know going into postseason we had the second-fewest errors in the SEC.

"Again, we want that nice mixture. Wind blowing out, we're playing in a small ballpark on the road, you have four guys with power in the middle. Then playing in an environment that it's not going to travel, it's a speed-defense-low scoring game you can really move guys in and out and have that flexibility. I think that's your ultimate goal.

Q: Is there progress on the 2012 schedule? "That's still in flux, we actually just had a cancellation that we're trying to fill now. We had a Pac 10 school coming in that because Cal is back in the mix and going to have baseball that changed their schedule a little bit. I think we'll have that in the next four to six weeks for sure, but that one kind of stymied us because it was the second weekend of the year, we have a hole that we've got to fill now."

Q: Will you watch the College World Series? "I will a little bit. That's kind of the jerk I am, I take my toys and go home! You want to be there so bad, and you're so close. I'm so proud of our kids, to see the ones gong to professional baseball and the ones that battled their hearts out and gave us everything they had, I'm just so happy for what they accomplished.

"But there is that other side, where you feel like putting your fist through a wall, saying if we'd just thrown some more strikes or some balls are in play we're in Omaha! So it's kind of the balance of the two. That's why you have to thank God for Nelle Cohen!"


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