That is exactly what Mullen and the Mississippi State staff spent Friday afternoon and evening doing: coaching some 150 high school football players who attended the special summer session on campus. Exactly, but not entirely. Besides instruction and action Mullen's men attended to other, equally important aspects of what it takes to progress as a high school player…and prepare for a college career.
Along with, as a smiling head coach reminded, just the pleasure of getting back on a football field with young men to teach and align and observe. Never mind these are not Mullen's own players…though an acknowledged goal of Big Dawg as well as any campus camp is accelerating the recruiting of premier prospects in attendance. Some will in time join the Mississippi State roster.
For today? This was as much about enjoyment as evaluation, by both sides of course. As Mullen said, Big Dawg is the signal that real football isn't so far away for everyone.
"It's a great thing. It is the last camp that we do for the year, and it is an exciting time. We have a lot of fun, our coaches have a lot of fun. I mean, doing this in the stadium is a great time. It is also looking forward to getting out on the field," said Mullen.
Mississippi State staff have been absent for much of the past four, five weeks. Everyone dropped by the office at times of course—they're top-tier college coaches after all and today's breed can never entirely disconnect from duty. But compared to his first two years in town, Mullen saw the need and the opportunity to allow a greater degree of relaxation following the success of 2010 season. (See story posted Wednesday from SEC Media Days.)
But break-time is over and when the calendar page turns it is full-blast preparation for the 2011 campaign. What better way to get back into a working rhythm than coaching kids, even if they are high school kids? In fact this seems the very best way for all involved, since Friday's campers are themselves just days away from their own training camps. A lot of high school coaches will benefit next month from a day's experience in the Mississippi State system.
Certainly, Mullen figures, everybody left campus in a good football mood. Most obviously his own aides. "That is what is really fun to us, because I know our coaches have been gone for a while and they want to get out there on the field and coach players."
Just as with the real Dogs, the Big Dawg participants began with coaching off the field. Once all had reported and registered there were meetings with assistant coaches, as well as instructions to individuals and position groups. This is no lip-service approach, either, but genuine coaching applicable to real competition. Remember, to Mullen work is fun when done right.
Speaking of doing-right, the Mississippi State system extends into an area many athletes don't find fun. As fans following this week's SEC Media Days will know, conference commissioner Mike Slive and his peers around the nation are studying—so to speak—ways to fix some of college football's ills. One by-product could be another round of increased entrance requirements, most notably a higher grade average. Mullen also addressed this at Hoover, in areas such as how raising the GPA for college eligibility can impact recruiting in this state and region.
He also talked about varying grading scales in state high schools, something beyond his working scope. What Mullen can do though is carry the message to young prep athletes…and those close to choosing a college. So Big Dawg campers got some extra education advice along with the coaching. Just, Mullen said, as he would do at any Mississippi State camp event.
"I'm always big into academics with the guys. One of the tough things is these young guys need to understand the importance of academics and the qualifications. I mean, being eligible to play high school football an eligible to play college football are very, very different. We spend some time making sure they understand the requirements to become eligible to play in the Southeastern Conference."
The subject is serious, true, yet Mullen doesn't let be boring. Ditto the instruction sessions and meetings with staff. It is a full schedule, Mullen says.
"We have a long itinerary, it covers everything possible. It will be a fun time, though."
Most obviously so when the players line up on-field and start running and throwing and catching and chasing and blocking and rushing and just playing at playing football again. There is something just plain fun about kids turned loose in a kid's game, maybe all the more so because in fall it is soooooo serious on Scott Field. Another sort of fun, Mullen would call it. Still a college coach always finds delight in seeing a high schooler's face simply light-up with the thrill of doing his thing on a great big stage.
"You put them in a great atmosphere, and we get to coach these guys," explains Mullen. "And a lot of young men get to come see how we coach, and what SEC football is all about. So that's what is really exciting about it."
The visitors were extra-excited by a trio of high-profile additions to the camp program. They being former Bulldogs and either current or former NFL standouts Eric Moulds, Donald Lee, and most obviously—and vocally—Fred Smoot. When the evening ended it was Smoot himself offering an impromptu talk to the crowd.
"It's all about team," he legendary cornerback said. "If you want to be part of something, be part of a family, become a Mississippi State Bulldog." Further motivation to come back this way was provided by a 2010 season highlight video that naturally was weighted to clips from the Egg Bowl and Gator Bowl victories. Though, the kids seemed most impressed with ‘decleating' hits in both those games by MSU receivers on hapless Rebel or Wolverine defenders.
In case anyone missed the message, the video board finally flashed a clear signal: We're On the Rise, Join Us on Our Ascent'. Make no mistake, Big Dawg Camp has Bulldog coaches watching the play with at least one eye focused on recruiting. This and other off-season camps provide a legitimate and monitored setting to judge just how fast/quick/big/strong/conditioned a prep standout truly is; to see things that aren't easily ‘measured' sitting on a stadium bleacher seat. So after check-in everyone took turns at 40-yard dashes, vertical jumps, shuttle runs, and L-cone runs. Thus the MSU staff doesn't have to rely on word-of-mouth or internet numbers; they have hard data of their own.
Recruiting is so demanding that a coach can't afford to offer grants off selected high school game video clips or local paper write-ups. They need to be eye-to-eye with a youngsters who've worked up a sweat and judge the physique directly; they want to observe how the guys pay attention in meeting room talks or personal settings. And, of course, how linemen match up offense vs. defense in two man drills, or receivers on defensive backs, and so on. By the way, the last on-field act was the sort of ‘do or pay play' that Mullen likes to end real MSU practices with. The offense won on a 35-yard touchdown pass play and the defense had to do up-downs.
And, Mullen says, there is one other thing he really, really wants to know. How they act on-field is just as telling about core character as how they perform there. In fact, Mullen may be watching more for intangibles than any other trait. Because to this coach it is very, very important a player ‘fits' Mississippi State and vice-versa.
The greatest intangible? "I just look for guys that love to play the game of football," says Mullen. "You know, guys that want to go out there and compete and have fun. And how they respond to the coaching. Our coaches want to be around guys that want to be coached and have fun in the game."
Big Dawg Camp has become something of a ‘game' in its own right what with all the preparation put into this late-summer event. This third year reminded how it gets bigger with each annual edition. Could it get too big to handle? Mullen won't let that happen.
"We don't turn anybody away. It continues to grow, but grow how we want it to grow. It is getting a lot of good kids on campus, and these are opportunities for young men to see a college campus. That is really an important thing, to see what a great place Mississippi State is."
Mullen of course could not comment on any participating players and prospects. Scout.com regional recruiting analysts and reporters Steve Robertson, Rachel Baribeau, and Laura McKeeman will update the news and results of this camp, beginning with a Friday commitment.