"It's not something done very often in Starkville," said Mullen to over 300 writers Wednesday, speaking of the three-straight winning years and bowl trips his teams have produced from 2010-12. "So I'm proud of our team. I'm proud of how they've embraced what we're trying to build and how we're trying to build it."
Mullen (29-22) has definitely done some building. And if SEC championship ambitions still seem, well, ambitious, stating it so plainly does show such expectations aren't just wishful thinking around Mississippi State any more. But an even better measure of how opinions of Bulldog football have changed, not just for the fans, are questions regarding the 2012 season. By any historical standard it was a great one with a 8-5 record, 4-4 conference mark, and Gator Bowl appearance.
By the modern, Mullen-inspired standard? Not so much. Not after the team started 7-0, then lost four of the final five conference games including the Battle for the Golden Egg, and dropped the New Years Day meeting with Northwestern. Suddenly what not that long ago would have been a milestone year left something of a millstone around the program's proverbial neck.
Now Mullen is turning a frustrating end to one season into, he hopes, increased motivation for the next. He's seen some encouraging signs from the squad in the six-plus months since.
"I think it changes the sense of urgency for some of the guys. They're guys that have been around our program for a while and are used to win winning. But I think that led, especially the young players who'd been used to winning bowl games, to a great sense of urgency going into the off-season."
Urgency doesn't translate as concern though. Mullen and Mississippi State have good reason to expect better results in 2013. The coach did get in the obligatory ‘we're young' that 99% of his peers will also say in such settings. Setting aside what a ‘old' team would look like in college football, Mullen has a point with just ten roster seniors.
But among them are some of the best in the conference which means anywhere. Two, guard Gabe Jackson and quarterback Tyler Russell, accompanied Mullen to Hoover. The latter, who already owns a stack of season passing records and will claim just about all career marks this fall, is the obvious key to greater success in '13.
Russell can do it, Mullen said, because he's a true veteran of the SEC wars. "Just his maturity how he handles everything. He's still a young kid and can be a little goofy at times, tell a lot of jokes…and most of them are bad jokes too which makes him even goofier!" (For his part Russell, talking afterwards, clarified that he doesn't tell jokes; that it is Mullen who tries to be a comedian in meetings. "And his jokes aren't funny. He thinks he is.")
It's no joke what Russell brings to the program now. Talent to be sure, yet Mullen—who has directed his share of great college quarterbacks—sees so much more that goes even beyond gameplans and play calls. "He understands why we're doing what we're doing as a football program. When the guy that is the leader of your team understands that, it gets translated to your team. When he gets in front of the team everyone listens to every word he says. When he understands the message and the direction as a while that the program is going in, why we're trying to go in that direction, it certainly helps you."
What helps Russell is having an All-American candidate like Jackson at left guard, and Rimington Award nominee Dillon Day hiking the ball. The offensive line returns four every-game starters from '12 and a budding monster at right guard in four-game starter Justin Malone. Every running back with a worthwhile carry also returns, led by 1,024-yard rusher senior LaDarius Perkins and underclassmen with maybe more explosive-plays potential.
What even outside media notice is the sheer quantity of graduated catches, yards, and touchdowns. The four leading receivers are indeed gone, as is their accumulated experience. Mullen doesn't downplay the loss of all those receivers from his first signing class.
He does play-up the potential in the ‘second wave' of wideouts recruited since. "Robert Johnson, Jameon Lewis, Joe Morrow have been in a supporting role the last couple of years, and got to see how the other guys have done it in front of them." Or in the case of hybrid tight end/big receiver Malcolm Johnson in the rotation.
"They're not young guys, they're a little bit older players," Mullen said. "They've been on the field, played in some games, watched how other people have prepared. Now they're going hopefully from supporting actor to the lead role." And this doesn't take into account projections for redshirt Brandon Holloway and a new class full of new receivers, several of them the taller targets State has sought for years.
The defensive story is another change in coordinator, with Geoff Collins the fourth coach to have that title under Mullen in five years. But this isn't a big change for Collins, the co-coordinator last year. The transition hasn't just been easy but enjoyable, Mullen said, based on players' response.
"Last year Geoff had a lot of say in everything that we were doing on that side of the ball, to take over the coordinator role doesn't change much. It is going to add a little bit of different personality, but schematically it's not going to change very much what we do on the field."
Then again, on defense attitude can become a scheme in and of itself. And Mullen has seen this taking root on the Dog defense. As he said, "Players a lot of times are going to take on the personality of their coach." Since Collins is a go-get-‘em kind of coach, his side of the squad was already demonstrating a degree of aggression in spring that stood out compared to 2012's more static attitude.
"I think you're going to see a defense that is going to play extremely aggressive, but also have a great time, have a lot of fun, be excited while they're doing it. I think that is a reflection of just those slight changes. Schematically might not see a difference in what you're doing, you might see a change in personality."
As for personnel, the defense will look similar up-the-middle and at-the-front. The line graduated one starter, Josh Boyd, but moving end Kaleb Eulls into tackle alongside P.J. Jones has produced a quicker interior twosome that is still plenty stout at 290-295 pounds. They can rotate with a truly big second unit of Quay Evans, Nick James, and Curtis Virges who should be more effective taking turns and not getting burned-out by too many snaps. State certainly expects better pass-rush production from senior Denico Autry and young standout Preston Smith at the ends, with no lack of depth there either.
Losing a two-time 100-tackle middle linebacker in Cameron Lawrence looks like a blow; but Mullen brought Benardrick McKinney to Hoover for good reason. The sophomore, a 102-tackle man as a redshirt freshman himself, is already up for two post-season awards, a measure of his precocious talent. Veterans Deontae Skinner, Matt Wells, Ferlando Bohanna, and more guarantee there is a rotation at all linebacker slots. And redshirts Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown guarantee veterans feel the heat from behind as these kids are assured of action.
SEC writers naturally wonder how to rebuild a secondary without Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay, and Corey Broomfield, whose insane giggle will be greatly missed. The individual talents might not be directly replaceable, but Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun can match their graduated elders in speed. They have also prepared for this season to start…if they can stay ahead of Cedric Jiles, Will Redmond, and juco Justin Cox that is. The cornerback positions might have the best preseason competition of any area.
Another adjustment is safeties regaining control of the secondary, after deferring to their cornerbacks. Jay Hughes has trained for this and is ready to run the show at strong safety, freeing Nickoe Whitley to go hunt heads.
State might justify the ‘young' label Mullen applied but there are still a whole lot of familiar faces in familiar places. So the coach is putting the bad end of last season to good pre-camp use, to regain some of the old urgency. He has help from the schedule. Opening a season against Oklahoma State, in Houston and on the national stage, is not what most coaches want from a slate.
But this too can be turned into an advantage as far as preparing a roster that has already seen a lot of action and successes. At least Mullen hopes so. "I'll probably better answer that on September 1, the day after the game, to see how we prefer it better.
"But I think it gets the attention of the players a lot more. A lot of times in training camp they're looking at the season as a whole. Starting with a big time game, I think that really draws that urgency right from day one that the clock is ticking to kickoff. You don't have the opportunity to make a mistake or start slow, you have to come out and play a great team right from the start of the season."
That is still six weeks away. Practices don't begin until August, either, so Mullen has to wait a little longer before putting the team itself to work. Until then he can still think big-picture. See it even, in what has changed since he arrived in Starkville.
"Facility-wise we moved into a brand-new facility which is fantastic for us. We're working on stadium expansion right now. I think we're at 23-consecutive sellouts. So our fan base has bought into what we're trying to build."
Compare that to four years ago, Mullen said. Back then at his first Media Day he was talking about wanting to sell out the stadium, to change the program's image and expectations. And, of course, for the Bulldogs to play their way into a championship shot. Most of this initial list has been achieved obviously, but only earning that last item will fulfill his hopes for Mississippi State football.
"As you consistently win at that point you're going to have the opportunity to go on and continue to take those next steps," Mullen said. "Every year that is always number-one goal, try to find a way to get to Atlanta in December."