"Young guys figure it out because they've never been over there. Where we go, what it's like, looking for shade…and there's none out there!" There surely is none of that, much less anywhere to hide when the rookies inevitably get off-timing or take the wrong direction. "But that is always the first reaction when you change it out there."
The other annual reaction is how hot things get on the single, if over-sized, practice field. Though, this week's forecast temperatures are not especially high by early August standards. Steamy? Now that is another Mullen matter.
"I think they got a little bit more rain out there than we did here believe it or not, even though it is about a half-mile away. It was a little bit soggy out there today." Still the coach isn't letting anything dampen Dog enthusiasm for these crucial camp days, particularly the allotted three dates of two-a-days this week.
"But it is that mindset that there is no school, it's just football time. It's training camp. I love being at a different location for our training than our normal location, this is a different time of year and being out there at the Farm makes it feel different."
TRIGGER MEN: True, it was expected based on both his spring performances and general character. Yet Tyler Russell has impressed his head coach all the same so far this preseason by upgrading, well, everything about his game.
"I'm really pleased because Tyler is much, much better right now than he was last year at this point. In understanding the defenses, in understanding the offense and decision-making, and throwing the football. Doing everything he needs to do. He's really improved from last year to this year."
Which would seem only natural under the circumstances. Junior veteran Russell is transitioning from alternate to starter after all and has spent three years preparing for exactly this job and this season. Still Mullen, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks and their development, has noticed a most encouraging attitude.
"And the interesting thing, if you look at human nature, is last year he was in a competition; this year he is going to be a starter. So you would think this would be the time you could actually take your foot off the gas if you wanted to. It's human nature.
"He's actually continued to speed-up and really improve himself. That to me shows he has what we need, that he has that winning attitude that he is going to continually work to be the best he can be."
Actually there is a degree of competition under-center this preseason. Dak Prescott is the rare redshirt freshman who has had two spring sessions, thanks to early '11 enrollment, for learning the offense and last fall to watch it in action. Now it is time for Prescott to play, and Mullen plans exactly that.
"We have to get him on the field. Last year we had two quarterbacks that had played in games, so the desperateness to get them on the field wasn't as high as maybe it is now. Because the only quarterback we have on our roster that has taken a snap is Tyler Russell. We could be a play away in practice tomorrow from him not being the quarterback. So we have to make sure for the team we have other guys ready not just now in development but as the season goes on. Early in games, in meaningful situations, we have got to put Dak on the field so he can understand how to play and what it is like to be out there in the spotlight on game day."
FIRST CLASS: Russell is among the 13 current Bulldogs signed in 2009, Mullen's first recruiting class at Mississippi State. Five of these Bulldogs open the season on watch-lists for various post-season trophies and awards and many will see their names on all-conference teams come December.
The count could even be expanded, Mullen said. "Actually a couple of them are in the NFL, because you have Pernell McPhee, Chris White, Fletcher Cox." Mullen wasn't even counting another State signee likely to soon go to the top level, baseball standout Billy Hamilton.
"It ended up being a pretty good recruiting class." A class that turned Mississippi State entirely around and put the program on its current trajectory.
"But you go back, the funny part is look at the stars everybody had or the expectations of certain guys and then how they panned out. That ends up being a huge deal as we look back and see who we hit on and who we missed on." There were a few misses in the group too, reasons ranging from personal to production. It also leaned a lot on junior college talents such as McPhee and White, not to mention kickers Heath Hutchins and Sean Brauchle and receiver Leon Berry.
Instead of just celebrating that class, Mullen and staff keep looking at it for cues to future recruiting plans. "If you hit on somebody why were they successful? Is there something we missed in recruiting where this guy turned out even than we thought he'd be? Is a certain personality, a certain drive that that allowed them to succeed in our program…or vice-versa? Why did somebody not succeed? We always try to evaluate that in recruiting. Well, he could run a 4.3 in high school; he still ran a 4.3 while he was here but wasn't successful so that wasn't the statistic that changed it.
Of that class no less than 19 were Mississippi high schoolers, or came to the state to play their juco ball. Coincidentally, of the seven watch-list Dogs five—CB Johnthan Banks, WR Chad Bumphis, DT Josh Boyd, OG Gabe Backson, and LB Cameron Lawrence—who were signed in 2009 are all state natives, too.
"That first class had a lot of great players from Mississippi and a lot of them have had very successful careers," Mullen said. "And hopefully they continue to have great careers. We still have some of those guys and hopefully a couple of them can follow."
NUMBER ONES: Follow Cox, he meant, after the Mississippi kid turned professional following his junior season. As a first-round draft pick at that, giving State back-to-back players tabbed with first picks. Derek Sherrod started it in 2011. Mullen celebrates their success…while noting the natural consequence of losing someone a year ahead of schedule.
"It's obviously good and bad problems for us to have guys leaving early to go in the NFL draft, that shows the direction the program is headed and the talent we're recruiting here in Mississippi. The players know they can come play for us here in the state and have great things happen. But that's one thing that always sets you back depth-wise. We try to plan two or three years out with depth in recruiting to keep that balance."
BIGGER AND BETTER: Speaking of balance, the 2012 roster might be more even in terms of positions-and-classes. But it is definitely tilting towards the large side. Put plainly, the Bulldogs are getting big. Really big.
Mullen counts 40, repeat 40 players he considers linemen. That would be 22 offensive and 18 defensive linemen on this preseason practice chart. "That's more than I've ever had anywhere as a coach. And that's fantastic." Especially so given the state of the lines, both sides, when he arrived. There was some good offensive talent on hand in '09 such as Sherrod, J.C. Brignone, and Addison Lawrence who keyed the turnaround of 2010.
Depth was a whole ‘nother matter or just plain lacking. Now there are not just a lot more bodies available to practice with but big ones with bigger potential than anything seen at State in a long, long time. The 2012 group is heavier, no pun intended, on the defensive side, what with the offensive side able to be picky and bring in just tackle Cole Carter and center Devon Desper. The defense welcomes freshman bulk from spring enrollees Quay Evans and Denico Autry with Nick James now joining them.
"That helps an awful lot across the board," Mullen said. "I don't know how many will actually contribute, but we have more linemen in camp this year than I've ever had as a coach."
As for the smaller and faster frosh, even impressive young talents like Cedric Jiles and Brandon Holloway might have to wait a year before putting their speed on the field for real. Or maybe not. There are open jobs for such players Mullen said.
"The one place I see it a lot for us is on special teams, that is a great area where I judge depth. Who are guys that can go play special teams at the speed you need to in the SEC? If you want to try to save some starters and get a couple guys who are going to play 60 reps on defense and I want to give them a breather on kickoff, even though that's one of the most important plays in the game, I have a guy I'm very comfortable going on the field with. And as we fill out the special teams depth chart there's a lot of names in those slots."