To be sure, not a college coach in this world was going to stand before a crowd, media or fans alike, and downplay their signing class. At the same time Mullen was maybe more upbeat than ever after this, his sixth recruiting campaign at Mississippi State.
"When you look at the class as a whole I'm excited about not just the quality of players coming in but the character of the players that are coming in. That to me is really important in what we've tried to build here, the type of guys that we look for." Bulldog fans have, or should have, learned by now that when Mullen talks of intangibles as well as talent he means it.
Fortunately the class does feature obvious talent on tape and in records and statistics. The ‘skill' positions took up just over half the roster, including a kicker. Muscle, both true linemen and linebackers, the other half so size was satisfactory too. For that matter some of the skill personnel on both sides have college size already coming out of high school so the whole class is more physical overall than numbers indicate.
The near-even split though pointed to something which should be expected in year-six. Five previous years of recruiting have rebuilt the roster almost to the point of replacing and restocking. Almost. Mullen pointed out that coming after a small senior class in 2013 the '14 team will graduate a larger proportion of personnel. But not so large as to pose serious problems at this point.
"Hopefully we're getting to that point now where we don't have to overload at one position or another and keep that balance," Mullen said. "You want to try to avoid years where you need a large clump of players in one position. Because down the road it gets you in a situation where you have a large clump of players leaving at one position and it's hard to get out of that cycle."
"When you look at this, I think there is very, very good balance throughout the signing class. Obviously there might be a couple of guys with some academic concerns that might not be here right away, that might have to go to junior college or prep school route before joining the team. But overall I think there is some great balance throughout the signing class." It is not confirmed but it is expected two of the 23 will not be eligible by August, a normal percentage.
Speaking of percentages… Of the 23 signees, 14 are Mississippi natives. Which unintentionally is almost exactly the same percentage of Mississippians signed by Mullen over his six classes, 88 out of 146 now. Junior college recruits ran about the same numbers, three this year which makes 20 in six classes. And of those 15 played for a Mississippi community college, even if not a state native.
What was down numerically from recent classes was mid-school year signees, with just two; the lowest total of Mullen's tenure. But that actually further reflects the overall strength of the varsity roster. State could be more selective this time and as Mullen said both of the two January enrollees count.
"Obviously two high-need positions," Mullen said. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald actually arrived in time for Liberty Bowl campus practices and while he didn't play in the game that week's work puts him ahead of spring pace. Offensive lineman Jocquell Johnson, is with the varsity in spring semester weight work under new coach Rick Court and preparing to compete for the open right tackle job. Which is exactly why the junior college blocker was inked.
On the whole then, "What I thought our staff did a great job of is we identified the guys we wanted, priority guys early," Mullen said. "And we got all those priority guys and that's been huge for us."
That comment is sure to provoke response, initially from on-line analysts who won't score State among this year's recruiting elite. Which is naturally irrelevant to the Bulldog coach, as Mullen knows better than to let the internet audience set priorities for his recruiting. It reflects his conviction of having a program built upon developing players for a season instead of competing for signing day headlines.
As to getting all his priorities, that did need a little expounding; first on what Mullen means by priority. "It's a guy that ultimately fits our program to a ‘t'." Not the offensive set, but the overall system.
Mullen used Greenville linebacker Gerri Green as Exhibit MSU of what he calls an "ultimate priority guy. Here's a guy that has all the physical tools, has all the leadership tools, that is an unbelievable young man in his academic accomplishments and what he's been able to do, right here at home in Mississippi. To me that's a priority guy. And it was that way right up front. I put the pressure on him, I told him that in recruiting too that we expect him to be on posters; not just football posters but University posters as what we look for here at Mississippi State University in young people."
"And everybody has a different thing that you look. Some of them fit an ultimate football need; some are more priority guys in this is what we want. When you think of Mississippi State football you're thinking of a Charles Mitchell, you're thinking of a John Banks that goes to mini-camp and before training camp comes back and finishes his degree in that short term period. That's the character of the young men we look for in our program, that's what makes them a priority guy that they're those type of people."
Compared to the waning days of 2013 signing season, dominated by the wild saga of Chris Jones, things were almost calm around Bulldog Country this year. The only major moves came on the day itself, when much-sought defensive lineman Cory Thomas abruptly spurned Tennessee for Mississippi State; then the bizarre case of juco receiver Tee Sheperd quietly turning course to sign with the losing program in the Egg Bowl.
On the whole though this signing season was lacking in drama, if only because so much of Mullen's class committed early on. Mullen figured it was a normal 10% swing.
"Every year you look at guys and there's usually about 90% of your guys—unfortunately I know for all the websites!—that are usually locked-in and solid. I know that doesn't help with your subscriptions! But the 10% make up for it, because there's usually a lot of drama involved. To us the drama, I only saw really two dramas this whole year; one good, one bad that came down to the end. Everything else didn't even really waver in either direction from what our plans were and what our thoughts were for the future.
"You know what, I think that's the case everywhere around the country. Every year there's a couple, I don't know that want more than that. I guess if there's a lot more than that you're looking at some of the wrong guys too, that don't understand the hard work and the sacrifice and the commitment it takes to become a great football player. That they're focused on some of the wrong things."
In fact, instead of sour grapes, Mullen was sweetness and light about the courted prospects who chose other programs. Even opposing programs. Because, he said, most of them were up-front and let State know ahead of time, man-to-man.
"When it gets to that crazy time at the end you look at guys and you hope guys are making decisions for the right reasons. I'd hate for a young man to choose to come to Mississippi State that wasn't for the right reason. That we were going to develop him to be the absolute best he can be, that we're going to take care of him as part of our family, and that if he wasn't ready to work as hard as he possibly can and be pushed to be the best player he can be; if that's not why he's choosing us then it was OK for him to go somewhere else."
Another reason this class won't get a lot of national status is simply the numbers. Mullen made clear all last year that this would be a somewhat smaller class, especially in eventual enrollment, because the 85-scholarship limit has finally become a factor. A good thing, Mullen believes.
"I think that's a tribute to what we've been able to do recruiting in the past. Which is a lack of attrition that we've had in our lineup. There's always some attrition in your lineup, but I think guys come here knowing what to expect, knowing what they're going to get out of our program. I think a lot of times in recruiting some guys hear one thing and then the reality is something different. We try to avoid that in recruiting. I think that shows in the lack of attrition we've had, and hence a smaller class this year."
Maybe the under-appreciated story of 2013-14 signings is that the class by-and-large was clear so early, Mullen and staff got to work even earlier than usual on next year. And the next. State already has commitments announced for 2015 and '16, as if football is borrowing from baseball's long-look playbook.
"That helps us in ways. But we have a big senior class next year. Some years you have bigger, some years smaller. Next year is going to be one of those bigger classes so I think you have to kind of look ahead and have that priority. But to be honest with I mean how it's going now, we have a 2016 and 2017 recruiting board already up. And obviously the 2015 is the biggest. But as names come up…I know I get messages from fans that have somebody for the 2025 class that is ready to go, too!"
Asked if that means he's already evaluating one-year-olds now, the coach played along with the joke. "They tell me they're ready to commit if we just send the papers!"
"No it's always important. And I think in the foundation that we've built here, of people in Mississippi and the priority we put on recruiting guys in the state of Mississippi, it allows you to have a really good feel looking into the future at guys within the state and in our local footprint. And it allows you to always stay ahead of the game that way."
In the happy spirit of the hour, it had to be asked: if Mullen was talking about recruiting children, was that a way of announcing he is committed to Mississippi State to 2025? "The way I feel right now, I'm hoping to be the coach here tomorrow!"