A Spring Football Q&A With Dan Mullen

It's been most of three months since the Music City Bowl victory. And seven weeks since another winning big on Signing Day. Now Dan Mullen can get to work with his 2012 varsity at last, with spring football practices opening this week.

Mississippi State's spring semester drills begin Thursday afternoon at around 4:30, the first of 15 working days scheduled for returning, redshirted, and a handful of early-enrolled Bulldogs. This fourth spring camp for Mullen concludes April 21 with the Maroon-White Game. Sessions on the practice fields are open to public view.

Mullen met with media Tuesday to go over goals and attitudes for the upcoming camp, with an edited for length transcript following.

Q: How is Tyler Russell's health going into spring? "Good. He ran a bunch yesterday, looked pretty good. I wouldn't say he's at100% going into this spring, but in our mind he going to be full-go doing everything that we need him to do."

Q: Will snaps be split evenly with he and Dak Prescott? "That's the plan. Unless somebody else tries out!"

Q: Is it strange having just two and how does that effect things? "No, you just have to balance it. We have to do a good job balancing the arms, how much they're throwing. I've gone through a bunch of different springs with two quarterbacks. So it's you as a coach making sure you don't over-do it with one of them."

Q: What is the difference in goals in spring compared to the first weeks of fall? "I think there are so many differences. One, in the fall you have a lot of practices built into a short period of time which lead right up to a game. In spring you have the ability to really take time to teach the offense, the defense, the special teams. We'll try to practice a day, then meet the next day; practice a day, then meet the next day. So you can not just practice it but also review it the next day and take your time to teach them. And it gives the guys opportunity to really let things really sink in over a little bit longer period of time. Where, in the fall you're going to teach it, practice it, and move on and you're already on the field learning another whole deal within a 24-hour period. That is the benefits spring gives you. In an educational institution it is a much better way to educate."

Q: Do newcomers like Denico Autry and Quay Evans start on scout team? "We don't have scout teams in spring so they're just going to try to get out there. One of the things I think you see in spring is a lot more balance of reps across the board for everybody. It's an opportunity for them to learn and for a lot of people to prove themselves. So I think you'll see them rotate in pretty regularly, trying to work with the two and the three group to start off and working their way up."

Q: How good is it having them early and what have you heard of them in off-season? "I think one, they're just getting used to it. I mean, you watch them run or watch our guys do agilities, they're both very, very athletic guys. But for any player coming in in the spring is an enormous advantage. You actually get to learn the proper way to learn."

"Where how the rules are set up in football, you have to crunch it all in in the fall really fast before you go play a game and that is not the most beneficial way to learn. So these guys, the opportunity to come in spring is to really get a grasp for everything that is going on and let it sink in, puts them in a great position to be able to contribute and play next fall for us."

Q: This is the first year to keep all the staff together? "I think it certainly helps. Because with our guys you're not spending a lot of time administratively making sure everybody knows what is going on. Everybody knows the plan, knows what our expectations are at practice. Now we're always looking to change and improve ourselves, when you get out there on the field there is a big comfort level of what they're expecting and everyone's personality meshes together, what my expectations of them are as a coach. They understand those things and that really makes things a lot easier."

Q; Is anybody out for spring? "Tobias Smith will be very limited, Nickoe Whitley will be very, very limited. If they do anything at all they'll be out there at practice but very limited. We expect Archie Muniz to be able to do some things this spring."

Q: Is there any group area need to questions about? "Obviously we need the d-line to step up big. When you're losing a top player in Fletcher Cox and an experienced guy like Sean Ferguson and Trevor Stigers who was a rotator a little bit. With those guys all moving on that's a spot that you have to see some guys step up."

"Linebacker there is some youth there, even though there is some experience starting to come back. And the safety position which this spring with Nickoe Whitley not going to practice and with Wade Bonner and Charles Mitchell both gone. On the defensive side of the ball the safeties is probably a big one."

"The corners, no, everybody is back. So I guess it's really the mike linebacker and the safeties are the ones you really want to see guys step up. And see who is ready to get into the rotation on d-line."

"And offensively for us we're excited about the talent we have at running back, but making sure that translates into game production is going to be huge. That is probably where we lost our most production in my mind, is at the tailback position."

Q: Can Ferlando Bohanna step in at middle linebacker? "Yeah, boy, Cam Lawrence, Deonte Skinner, Bohanna. We want to put the best guys on the field and in position where they are the best of the group. What is our best combination to get three guys on the field. So it could really be any combination of guys, that is the benefit spring gives you. You're not rushed getting ready to go play a game, you get to teach and learn and really get to evaluate. And try moving some guys around different places as spring goes on to see if that's something we want to do or if we don't need to do."

Q: Is this the time you need the receivers to make a step forward? "They'd better, I think five of them are seniors this year! So if they're ever going to do it this is the time! They've worked hard this off-season and they understand what is going on on the field. So you have chances to make big gains when you're not out there just thinking of what to do every play. They know the offense, they know how to read coverages and what to expect on the defensive side of the ball. So they can hopefully take advanced steps into working on little things every single day."

Q: Do you have a preconceived idea how the offensive line will work? "Nope! But I try not to. You go into spring, you can get yourself caught that way where you just watch guys in shorts run around and say OK, maybe he can do it. Until you get out there and have to make the calls and make the blocks and do it with pads on and do it effectively, it is really hard to judge."

"I guess that's one thing, I don't go into spring with any pre-conceived notions on anything. I just want to use it to evaluate our players, make sure we're teaching everybody and evaluating who is ready to play for us next fall."

Q: How important is spring for the offensive line development? "It is huge that you can take time and really evaluate who is going to be ready to play next fall. I think when you finish spring you don't have to have your lineup set. And there's certainly no depth chart is going to be set. But you do have an idea of who is ready to go play."

"And then fall puts it all into the exact order of how much, and where-when-how-and-why. But spring is that evaluation for guys to improve and show they're ready to step on the field. And o-line is a huge position for that, there are some guys we want to get on the field that haven't played a whole lot."

Q: What is the timeline for Smith and Whitley? "For fall. That's it. Tobias looks pretty good, the trainers say he's ahead of schedule. But that is a guy that has played football for us for a number of years, we don't need to rush him back. Nickoe a lot the same way. A lot of guys you htrow into categories that we say we teach and evaluate; those are two guys that still need to be taught, now the evaluation part of it we have a pretty good idea of what we're going to get."

"I don't need to evaluate Jon Banks or Josh Boyd a whole lot this spring. I have a good idea what I'm going to get from them. Now, what I want them to learn and improve and take the next steps, but the evaluation process of are they going to be ready to play in the SEC, that's already been answered. With guys like Tobias and Nickoe that has already been answered. So it is making sure they're learning through the spring without getting the reps and get them ready to be prepared for games in the fall."

Q: Does Prescott go into this spring thinking there is a window for him? "I would hope so for him. I would hope so. Not just that there is a window of opportunity for him to win the job, but for him to see that you're one play away from whether you win the job or not you're the man! So that is important. A guy like Dak, the work the quarterbacks have put this off-season I'm pleased with. Now we see how it translates on th field coming up. This is going to be his chance to really get out there and take reps as, not a guy trying to make a play, but as a guy being a quarterback."

Q: Does having just two quarterbacks work to his advantage? "It does a lot. He's going to get a lot more reps than if there's four on the roster. Rep balance between the quarterbacks is not going to be hard this spring! Any time I put threes-against-threes on the field, I just have Les (Koenning) look at me like shrugging! You go out there and hand the ball off! It's alright, we'll get it done. I might have to work some of my skills, my magic out on the field!"

Q: Did you try to get any quarterbacks just do drills with? "No, there are guys on our roster who if we needed to very easily I could do that. Guys like a Chris Cameron that is back this year who played high school quarterback some. Here's a guy who knows his role as a big-time special teams guy for us, that hey I need you to take some snaps at quarterback."

"Also it's really going to force us to develop some stuff we haven't done. Maybe like the single-wing stuff or where we're snapping the ball to somebody else, it's one of the things that always spooks you. You never get the reps at; how are you going to balance reps for that when I have four quarterbacks that need reps. Now you go throw that in, we have a little less quarterbacks, it kind of forces our hand to work on that package this spring. And I think that could be really beneficial to us in fall."

Q: Does being the guy aid Russell's development? "Yeah. I just think it is the next step of him in this development. He's done a great job since he's been here of improving himself, of understanding what it is to be a quarterback, of blocking out all of the outside distractions that come along with being a quarterback. Of not letting any of that really get to him, that he just has continually improved. This is going to be kind of that next step. He came in the first year and redshirted, and played a little bit the next year, last year played a little bit more, started some games. Now it is his turn to kind of be the guy. That is the evolution you kind of like to see."

Q: Do you expect the offense to be more vertical? "As you look at it you have a quarterback who throws the ball well, and an experienced group of wide receivers. So as we view things you're looking more to throw the football than you have."

"Where last year you're running quarterback and tailback are kind of the high points of your offense. That is always the tweak. There will be some stuff we're not going to do this year that we've done in the past; and there will be some stuff we've had in the offense for years that we just haven't had the need to run, as we continue moving forward and building it around the strengths of these players."

"A lot of spring is to see really who is comfortable doing what out there on the field. What can our running backs handle? We hit a ‘fear factor' a couple of years ago when Antony Dixon left, and we didn't have a fear factor the next guy stepped up and did the job. We'll see what these running backs can do. And it might lead us more down that path. I think there is so much up in the air of the exact direction that we're going to take but our vision is slightly different than it has been in the past."

Q: Do you take an open mind with backs like LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin? "Yeah, that is part of evaluation in the spring. Statistically looking at who does what and what they do well. Because you can really deceive yourself at times. Boy, LaDarius is not going to run well between the tackles, until you statistically look at it. Because he can run between the tackles. Or, Nick is a big power back and we want to pound him up inside, but he is actually better in the perimeter. Those are things statistically we'll look at at the end of spring just to really not just go with the eye-test; to make sure we have evidence, proof to back it all up with those guys. And there is Josh Robinson and Derek Milton that we want to see what those guys do with the opportunity."

Q: Is Joe Morrow another weapon or a different kind of weapon? "I do think he is different for us in his size and his speed that we haven't had. I wish we had a couple more bigger receivers to go stretch the field. Because if you line up our receiving corps there are a lot of similarities. I mean, because your bigger guys are Chris Smith, Robert Johnson, and Morrow, and really Chris is the only one that has been playing for us. The other guys are about step into that role a little bit more to have some bigger receivers. I do think that will help us certainly to have some more balance and different types of weapons having the big receivers. We have a bunch of smaller guys, but now that we have the balance you want to have the balance between both. I guess if you were 6-3 and 315 pounds and ran 4.3 and had incredible moves and quickness we'd take ten of those type of guys! But there aren't lots of them out there."

Q: But now you can throw that fade in the end zone? "Or a lot of different situations. Instead of just having one now you have multiple guys."

Q: Is there an identity you can install more with the experience you have this year? "That's not our focus. Our focus is how we're going to improve, how we're going to be different from last year. Last year wasn't good enough, so we have to be very different. The 2012 team was actually born when we showed up on campus, this is the first practice of our 2012 seasons."

"One of the things you can't lose is what we're know for, is playing with relentless effort and a passion for the game and reaching your potential every day. Those are thing we talk about that I think…we had some experienced players last year, well, you can get caught up in trying to be too schematically advanced and forget what makes you good, which are those things. That effort, that passion, and that improving every single day on any little skill. That, you can kind of take that for granted as an older player when you are experienced sometimes. So our focus has to be back to the fundamentals of what our program stands for and making sure we're following that from the second we touch that maroon line to get on the field until we finish. That you see that team that does play with relentless effort."

Q: Would this be a year you might tinker and try some things more? "Just because of the teaching. One of the things you get into is counting reps. I can put in fifty plays on day-one; now we only have reps to run thirty of them. Well that's not very good teaching. So one of the things is making sure we balance up. That is one of the harder things, believe it or not is counting plays and making sure that everything we need repped gets repped at a practice."

"You can very easily say oh, we're experienced, let's go heavy and put in a lot more stuff. And you come off the practice field and you realize we've become a master of nothing. What about this play, we never even practcied it even though we spent time teaching it in the classroom we never go to it. And if you don't get to it in (spring) practice to be honest the chances are you're probably not going to get to it in fall. So you're just wasting a colossal amount of time and that's one thing we've really tried to focus on."

Q: What is the status of Michael Carr? "He is no longer with the team, he decided to quit the team. He just doesn't really want to play football any more."

Q: How do you feel about this time as compared to a year ago? "I feel better where we are, we'll have to see football-wise. I think we had a better off-season. Academically I think we're a little ahead of where we were last year. For us I judge it by how we act on a daily basis and what our hunger is. Last year was such a huge year because we had success, we spent the first time in a long time walking around and being patted on the back."

"I always said last year was one of the most important years in school history. We were able to follow that up with another bowl game. We didn't take a step backwards to having a losing season last year. That would have been a step backwards to have a losing season. And we followed it up with another bowl game. Now, as I look at it from the previous two years, I think there is a little bit more hunger for the guys. Even though we've made it to a bowl game and won a bowl game, won three-straight Egg Bowls, nobody is patting anybody on the back around her, which happened last off-season."

"So I think there is a little more edge to our guys, you know, of taking that next step forward. That's what I mean, it was fortunate we didn't go all the way back to start at the beginning, that it was a huge year for us just to get there. But I think our guys understand now you can't wait and enjoy any of your success, you have to get back to work. And that's what it seems we've done so far in off-season. And we'll see how it translates onto the field coming up. There is spring ball, then there is summer conditioning, then there's training camp, and that edge has to continue to stay out front in every phase of the year."

Q: What is the plan for day-one? "We're just putting base offense, base defense. To me, I want to see our guys sprinting on the field, sprinting from drill to drill. Playing with high energy and with that emotion and that excitement and desire. Not to just go through the drills. I'm going to see high energy from guys like Dak and Joe and Josh Robinson. We're going to see those things; I want to see that hunger and that fight that a Jon Banks is not saying hey, I'm going through the motions. I want to see that fight to get better every single day like he is a freshman fighting for a job. That is where you kind of lead to improvement. I mean, if he fights as hard as the guy behind him there's nobody going to pass him on the team and we're going to be a much improved football team if those experienced, veteran guys are desperate to get better. We're going to improve."

Q: Talk about placekickers this spring? "When you have Brian Egan coming back, he's played a little bit, getting you through the spring. And he knows this is his time this spring because there is going to be some talent coming in here in the fall with our specialist. So this is a real big opportunity for him to put himself in position to win the job, to get out in front. Baker Swedenburg was very, very consistent last year, I'd like to see him improve a little bit and remain consistent."

Q: Will there be any we see and say that guy looks different? "You know, it's so hard to say. I see them a lot every day. And I guess the hard part to explain that is I have a vision of what I expect them to be as they develop. So it's not like someone jumped way out of the ordinary; like holy cow, this is something totally different than we expected this guy to be. Because you have visions of where you see a guy moving forward. I guess a guy no one has seen a whole lot who has looked really good, Taveze Calhoun has looked really good. But we'll see, he's got shorts and a tee-shirt on now! He should be full-go all spring from his previous injury, at defensive back."

Q: Did you go out and pick any brains this off-season? "We've had some people and talked to people and gone and studied places this off-season. But I think we did a lot, probably more so of checking on ourselves than saying this is something we're going to look at. I study every off-season, I studied a lot of Oklahoma State and Oregon, basically just take all the top successful offenses and try to study them a long and see if any of that actually pertains to us."

"And I watch every team in the SEC, unfortunately we don't visit those teams. But I study them, because there are some things that are going to pan out differently in the SEC than say they would in other (leagues). You study Oregon, then you go throw on their Auburn and LSU games and they rushed for 80 yards a game in those two games. I can go watch them rush for 300-some yards against other teams, but 80 yards against SEC teams. So I have to see what really fits us in the future."

Q: Is the sport less regional than it was in the past? "I think so. It's still a pain to try to get film and watch the film. Believe it or not in the way technology and everything is out there, coaches are still paranoid and secretive. I go under the assumption everybody has every one of our games around the country if they want it. So I don't try to be super-secret about anything.

"But if you look, SEC football there is a lot of defense in the SEC. And the bigger the game the more you see that defense a lot of times stand out, especially when you get outside of the league. So I do think there still is some of that. But it's not like SEC football is just going to be I-formation, three yards and a cloud of dust. I think that's changed. But how you go about it within your league you'll similarities by parts of the world. It seems like the Big XII is all throw it and score a lot of points, not a lot of defense played but a lot of good offensive players. Go out west and it looks like it's going to change this year everybody is going to be spread teams. The Big Ten is still a lot of power football, even though there are some tweaks in it the foundation of it is what it is."

Q: Did you feel last season the defense carried you and there is motivation to get the offense going in spring? "I think obviously there is. Because if you look at it defensively we gave up two more points or two less points, it was a two-point total differential in the last two years. I forget which one had the two more! So the points we gave up defensively are basically identical, but the records are not identical. So how do we find where the inefficiencies were?"

"Now the biggest thing is we played a lot more plays on defense last year, though. That means to me we weren't getting off the field as fast and we weren't giving the offense as good field position last year which is a true statement. That is where we have to look at improving. What were the offensive drop in numbers? A lot of it, you look at one big glaring statistic was field position, where we started drives. Two years ago we had much better field position than we had this past year, that to me was a big factor."

"Obviously I'm happy if we shut them out and score 45 points a game. That is not a reality. Then you find where you fit and where this team is going to be best. You know, we knock down a pass against South Carolina, OK, we win that game 10-7. Well, we made that play the year before and we won 10-7 against Florida, there was a play there. Offensive, defensive efficient, whatever, we were in a position to win the game; now we have to make sure we're putting ourselves in position to win and tehn find a way to win it at the end. You are going to be a special team to be up 31-7 at halftime for an average, I can go back statistically and check it out, it was 2004 at Utah our average halftime score was 31-7. You don't go back and review what team factor made a difference! Defensive coaches get mad because they have to put their twos and threes in because you're up by 31, so statistically they don't look great!"

"When you're in those real games, if we'd given up 10 points against Auburn we'd have looked pretty good last year. We didn't, why? We were able to score a bunch of points on them but we still came up short in that game. Those are things that I always view."

"I don't view it as just offense, just defense, just kicking. I know our offensive coaches want to be really good on offense, I know our defensive coaches want to be good on defense. I want to b really good in kicking. But most importantly I want to make sure we're doing what we need to do to win games."

Q: With Whitley hurt and two graduated are there any thoughts of moving some cornerbacks? "We'll see. It depends how spring goes and getting reps. The good thing is we have some experience at corner and we can experiment with some different things. The hard part of that is every time you do that, a young safety is not getting a rep. That's something that I don't know if we'll mess with a lot in the spring because I want to see our young safeties and evaluate who's ready to play."

"I know I have some corners who have actually played in games. If I need to make that move, we can do that in the fall if we realize we have guys who are not ready to play but we're probably not going to do much of that this spring, unless there are injuries."

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