Mullen Turns Attention To Completing Staff

Now that recruiting season is done—for the 2014 class that is—Dan Mullen can finish some other pending business. Between now and the start of spring practice the Bulldog coach will fill in the blank in his assistant staff.

The departure of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Les Koenning in January left an opening in the football office. Koenning, who came to Mississippi State with Mullen for 2009, accepted an offer to become receivers coach at his alma mater Texas.

Though this was a high-profile position, Mullen has not been forced into any fast fixes. And now that recruiting is completed the head coach said he will do the same with the offensive staff "in the short term."

"When you look at a priority in a position sometimes you can get pulled in different directions," Mullen said Wednesday during his signing day press conference. "In coaching January is the silly time in college football. You have the close in the recruiting, you have the dead period followed by the finish of recruiting. Right as soon as you finish the season there's no time to catch your breath, even reflect, review."

This might sound curious since only last year Mullen moved quickly to revamp much of his defensive staff in advance of signing day. The circumstances were different though. Both aides who left, coordinator/line coach Chris Wilson and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith, did so before the Gator Bowl. Mullen was able to essentially promote Geoff Collins from co- to full coordinator in time for the bowl, and start looking for new aides.

Or an old one, as David Turner returned after a three-year stint at Kentucky to coach defensive line as he had in 2009. The new one was first-time college coach Deshea Townsend, taking over cornerbacks. The results of those hirings and adjustments were nigh-serendipitous, as the defensive staff became a smooth functioning unit and their unit showed steady improvement all season. Right up to the point that the Bulldogs held Rice to one scoring series in the entire Liberty Bowl and State posted the largest margin of post-season victory of the winter.

Koenning's departure came post-bowl and during the hectic early-January weeks around the coaching convention and recruiting trips and visits. But the timing wasn't as tough for State as might seem. "You have obviously opportunities for guys to move on. And then you're trying to move on and hold on to recruits. So we were fortunate with situation with the one change that occurred on the staff this year," Mullen said.

"But it wasn't one that had major impact in recruiting. It kind of allowed us to have patience and get through recruiting before I really focused on it. And I think the recruits know, I mean, I called the plays for us. I think I called all the plays last year. I spent a lot of time with the quarterbacks." This confirmed publicly what was pretty well understood, that the head coach superseded the nominal coordinator. Though, in Mississippi State's flow-chart for calling plays, what Koenning in the press box advised Mullen and was transmitted to the quarterback wasn't merely subject to change at the line; it often as not was changed by Tyler Russell, Dak Prescott, and Damian Williams.

This confidence though was earned over time and on the field. It also reflected sound practical preparation by Bulldog quarterbacks which showed from the first year. No better measure of how improved this position has become in Mullen's tenure is who are the top-four State players in career passing percentage: Tyson Lee, Tyler Russell, Dak Prescott, and Chris Relf, in that order.

Certainly Koenning had a big hand in this development, but so did the top Dog. So when the position coach changed jobs, it did not shake the confidence of committed quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald (already on campus anyway as an early enrollee) and Elijah Staley. "So I think the two guys that are coming in know hey Coach, you're the quarterback coach a lot of times, so we're good to go, we don't have to wait and see who is going to be my position coach," Mullen said.

But there is some wait-and-see for everyone else in that regard. And with signings settled, the staff can be too. "Fortunately how that worked out allowed us to take our time," Mullen said. "Within the next week we'd like to have something in place."

Returning on the offensive staff are three members of the 2009 staff; line coach John Hevesy, running backs coach Greg Knox, and tight ends coach Scott Sallach. The latter had planned on taking an administrative post with football a year ago but stayed on the coaching staff after some other shuffles. Sallach was likely glad he did as the still-young Bulldog tight ends had an impressive season as a group.

The new kid in the group is receivers coach Billy Gonzales, after one season at State. But he was not new to Mullen, having coached with him and Hevesy at Florida. Gonzales has served before as a passing game coordinator, at LSU in 2010-11, and that might be a strong staffing possibility when Mullen is finished. In his first seasons here at State, he had a run game coordinator in Koenning and passing game coordinator in Mark Hudspeth, who was receivers coach too. Splitting those two areas of the offense between two staffers with Mullen as coordinator not just in fact but name too seems reasonable, with a quarterbacks coach to hire.

Or, perhaps, a designated special teams coach? Asked specifically this Mullen said it was among the ideas he has had time to think about.

"The great thing is when we go to hire positions is we didn't have to go rush. We have a list of candidates and come from any different direction. But we'll have candidates that are at others schools and you can put their coaches in a bad position. I wouldn't want to have any of our guys a week before signing day say hey I'm leaving. Let's finish up and get through the whole recruiting cycle, and then look. This is the time of year you do see some movement in coaching staffs."

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