Mullen has been in Indianapolis since Sunday for the AFCA convention and is due back in Starkville tomorrow. But being away from campus hasn't interfered with staff work, just the opposite. On Tuesday, the hiring of Rick Court as strength and conditioning coach was confirmed. Court is moving to Mississippi State after two seasons as director of S&C at Ohio State. He replaces longtime Mullen aide Matt Balis who late last week accepted the same post at Connecticut.
In his five Mississippi State seasons Koenning worked hands-on with what now are the top-four Bulldog quarterbacks in career—not just season, career—passing percentages. The Mullen/Koenning combination turned still-raw athlete Chris Relf into a reasonably polished passer and great read-run quarterback with consecutive bowl victories and three dominating performances in the Battle for the Golden Egg. Yet drop-back passer Tyler Russell re-wrote most season and several career records in his differing style, and leaves with the most touchdown passes ever tossed by a Bulldog.
Thus the mark made by this offensive staff is greatest in the position of most importance. Koenning leaves with rising junior Dak Prescott poised to smash all quarterbacking records in his next two varsity seasons. As well as soph Damian Williams seasoned already by one game-winning performance and a historic true-freshman start in an Egg Bowl; and early-enrolled Nick Fitzgerald already exposed to the system by bowl camp and readying for spring competition.
So while making a coaching/coordinating change now might seem a concern to outsiders, the fact is that a strong quarterback development system has been established that ought suit anyone Mullen puts in charge of the position. It echoes the situation Court inherits from Balis, both on the roster and in facilities. Mullen and Balis arrived with an adequate collection of athletes and decent (by SEC standards) weightroom to work them.
Now, not only is the roster loaded with physical talent either already being developed or beginning the process; but the Seal Football Complex weightroom is literally a standard-setter. Court arrives at an ideal time and with all the resources—human and technical alike—to thrive in the job. Just as will the new quarterbacks coach. Not that things will be entirely new, it appears.
Initial indications are that Mullen may promote a current offensive position coach to the coordinator and bring in a specific quarterbacks coach. An obvious, and easy, transition would be giving current wideouts coach Billy Gonzales the coordinator's title. Gonzales worked alongside Mullen from 2001 through 2009 at Bowling Green, Utah, and finally Florida; and was hired last January to coach Bulldog wideouts. His impact was immediate and obvious and not just on the statistics. When the Liberty Bowl victory over Rice was winding down a couple of receivers gave their one-season coach the Gatorade bucket shower; a remarkable sign for a position coach.
Gonzales left Florida to work as passing game coordinator at LSU for two seasons and was co-offensive coordinator at Illinois one year before rejoining Mullen at Mississippi State. All those years with the now-head coach obviously included a longtime working partnership with line coach John Hevesy. And if Mullen does indeed pursue the first ‘hot rumor' target for quarterbacks, current Utah coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, there is an obvious "getting the band back together" aspect to such a potential staff. Johnson was recruited by Mullen to Utah, after all.
But interest from quality candidates is no longer an issue at Mississippi State. Not after four consecutive winning seasons and the historic four-straight bowl trips under Mullen. The Seal Complex is one proof of how far Bulldog football has advanced in just half-a-decade with the current program and administrative operation. The other, and larger, is still taking shape in the north end of Davis Wade Stadium. That renovation and expansion is on schedule for August opening.
The other fact for considering is that Mullen has gotten used to post-season staff changes and adjustments. A dozen months ago it was the defense largely in-flux with need for a new overall coordinator, line coach, and cornerbacks coach. Those jobs were filled quickly and 2013's results reinforced showed competently as well. And the sudden move of popular one-year receivers coach Tim Brewster only opened the door for Gonzales to re-link with former cohorts and inspire a still-young wideouts corps to better things.
Also, while fans naturally obsess over shuffles by their own team, the last fact is…it happens everywhere. And it happens now, as firings and hirings ripple literally across the country in assistant staff moves. While no one in the program has been happy to see popular aides go, it speaks to Mullen's and MSU's rising status that most departures have been for sound professional reasons. That is a show of respect as well.
At the same time it does increase pressure to increase incentives for staffers, which informal comments around the program show will be taken care of by the administration in due time. With big things forecast for a mostly-veteran 2014 team, more Bulldog aides will rise on that radar. A couple of defensive coaches are now hot topics for jobs at both the college and NFL level, though their stock should be boosted even higher by this fall's results.
Whatever else shakes out in coming days Mullen has two months to realign his staff before spring practices begin March 18. The Maroon-White Game is April 12.
With these two departures, there are still four members of Mullen's original staff still at State.
Mississippi State Football Staffs 2009-2013
2009—Offense: Les Koenning Coordintor/quarterbacks, John Hevesy linemen, Mark Hudspeth wide receivers, Greg Knox running backs, Scott Sallach tight ends;
Defense: Carl Torbush coordinator/linebackers, Tony Hughes safeties/recruiting coordinator, David Turner linemen, Melvin Smith cornerbacks
2010—Offense: Koenning, Hudspeth, Hevesy, Knox, Sallach;
Defense: Manny Diaz Coordinator/linebackers, Chris Wilson Co-coordinator/line, Hughes, Smith
2011—Offense: Koenning, Hevesy, Knox, Sallach, Angelo Mirando wide receivers;
Defense: Wilson, Geoff Collins Co-coordinator/linebackers, Hughes, Smith
2012—Offense: Koenning, Hevesy, Knox, Sallach, Tim Brewster wide receivers;
Defense: Wilson, Collins, Hughes, Smith
2013—Offense: Koenning, Hevesy, Knox, Sallach, Billy Gonzales wide receivers
Defense: Collins coordinator, Hughes, Turner linemen, Deshea Townsend cornerbacks