Hughes certainly counts as a real expert in this area. Not only does he coach the kids signing with Mississippi State, he coordinates the overall recruiting program for Coach Dan Mullen. So his opinion on this topic ought carry a little more meaning.
And his primary point is that 2014 was always going to be about quality over quantity. Which was known all along by anyone taking time to study the 2013 Bulldog varsity roster.
"That's true, because it wasn't a large class," Hughes said. "Because of course we didn't have that many seniors. So the turnover wasn't a big year for us. The numbers, I think they always work themselves out. But the quality of the player that we got in every position, we really did a great job of evaluating and felt like they fit the program or the profile that we were looking for at each position."
Those are key words Hughes is using; fit, and profile. Every program claims to seek new players who fit their particular profile. Many times they are actually using it as recruiting cover when signing season doesn't play out as planned. In Mississippi State's case these words are, well, fitting. Especially so in 2013-14.
The number of available scholarship slots certainly was an overarching. And Mullen's staff was taking it into account as early as two years ago. Maybe longer, even, since from year-one when so many freshmen were activated or junior college players inserted State coaches could project ahead to 2013 as a modest-sized senior class. It is almost an irony, in fact, that the normal attrition which comes with new coaching regimes never really happened here. Most of the players Mullen inherited stayed around and were rewarded with success.
The only downside to such devotion was losing a little room under the 85-scholarship limit over time. But Mullen and Hughes knew that lay ahead and were planning accordingly. Also, Hughes said, there was another positive program development over the last five years. By and large the rosters has been stabilized by position and depth and there were few absolutely immediate needs for 2014 inking.
"So we kind of took our time in the evaluation process," said Hughes. "It wasn't just ‘let's go get this guy and let's go get that guy'. It was does he fit every mode or qualification of our program? Which like you said, that's the ingredients for a solid program and continuing what we've already started."
This is quite a comment on a situation which has taken five years to build up. Bulldog football could approach this past recruiting year with, not to say picky but somewhat selective look at available prospects. To be sure there is never a year where there isn't at least one genuine ‘need' as the notion is loosely understood. The difference this year was simply that Mississippi State was not desperate for any single position or area. Margins already exist and gaps are few.
"That's exactly right," agreed Hughes. "We're not desperate. We're not panicky."
As Hughes does his coaching duty on defense it's natural he look to this side of the recruiting roster for examples of how 2014 signings reflect a level of continuity.
"We ended up getting four defensive linemen, two defensive tackles and two defensive ends," Hughes said. "If those kids stay for four and five years they should be projected the starting defensive linemen four years from now. If you do that every year, you get four with two tackles and two ends every year… Now some years you're going to get more or get less, but if you do that then that is four times five. That's twenty defensive linemen at a SEC school, you're in every football game that you play.
"And the same way we talked about defensive linemen; we signed five offensive linemen. And a big tight end. So if you sign five offensive linemen every year you're talking five, ten, 15, 20, 25 and then. So if you've got 20 defensive linemen and 25 offensive linemen four or five years from now you're going to be very competitive in the Southeastern Conference."
Note Hughes isn't talking about becoming competitive. These Bulldogs already are. He meant that when State is able to annually add muscle and size on both sides of the trenches competitiveness should be consistent. The same holds true at all the skill and speed positions, though these can sometimes be more quickly rebuilt. In the SEC though everything begins with the big bodies making first contact where State just added ten in total.
Something else to consider is how Mississippi State's staff has in the past four and five recruiting years built in a degree of safety. As in, the program now ought not be vulnerable to any down-cycles in available prospects, particularly in a small state such as Mississippi. By any measure this was not a banner year for prime offensive linemen in the home state, so two of the five signed are imports. Fortunately the Bulldogs were not overly exposed in this area thanks to prior signings, and being able to ink a mid-year junior college transfer already working towards spring competition.
It would have been even more if not for a prominent out-of-state prospect who came down to the very last day before signing elsewhere. That is just what happens when going after top talent to be sure, yet there is a more encouraging angle for State folk. Bulldog football battled regional and national heavyweights and while most such battles were lost, if that is the word, the program gained just a bit more prestige in the process.
Put another way, Mississippi State contended directly for prospects who not all that long ago would not have come on official visits or welcomed Mullen and staff into their homes. If the extra effort didn't produce signees this season, it can show up next year or the next as State makes more inroads everywhere.
"Exactly, exactly," Hughes said. "And that is the thing. The perception with us sometimes is we ‘settle' or don't try to ‘challenge' for the five and four star guy. But in that case we were challenging for the five and four star guy and jumped into one and had the lead on it and were probably going to bring it on home, but at the end circumstances and things like that.
"So it's a misconception that we don't go after the top players and try, and that we get all these ‘sleepers'. Which that philosophy is working for us! But at the same time it's not true that we don't try to go after the so-called four and five stars. We have a routine in the program and it's OK."
Meanwhile what of the proverbial ‘sleepers' that to be fair almost everyone does sign? Hughes is correct by the way, that picking up such players has been positive for State football. But not all ‘sleepers' are the same. It is inevitable in a state with so many small high schools that players with real if raw potential are easier to overlook by those who assign stars and rankings in summer. Many a Mississippi-born-and-bred sleeper has drawn a NFL paycheck and several are right now.
The larger point which needs noting is that Mississippi State is not tossing out unused scholarships just to pad class numbers or make folk feel good. These coaches do their due diligence at camps and watching games and reviewing video. If they see something in someone which fits what Bulldog football already is, and what Mullen's staff believes the signee will add to the program or can ultimately be developed into, scholarships will be found.
"Take Benardrick McKinney, a quarterback in high school, who is arguably our best player on defense," Hughes suggested. "Not highly recruited. We gave Taveze Calhoun a scholarship the night before signing day because we had somebody to drop off." It's safe to say the 2013 Bulldogs would not have spent New Years Eve bowling without either of those critical contributors.
There is another part of fit and profile which needs to be appreciated. Mullen has always said a program's best recruiters are the players already invested, and that is true. Interestingly though in recent recruiting seasons there has been much more talk among the committed prospects; who themselves reinforce the decisions made to cast their lot with Mississippi State.
Hughes is proud of how signees Gerri Green and Jesse Jackson made themselves representatives of their intended program. For one thing this kept them from listening to further wooing by State's competitors. "And they were solid. They didn't waver, they didn't take other visits, and that means a lot. Especially nowadays." Even better, many commits become recruiters for the un-announced and helped sway some later decisions the right way.
When young men who haven't even worn the uniform are selling the school and football operation…"Well, that is our program," Hughes said. "Our program is built on a family foundation. With us there is no fake, no counterfeit. We don't have a hidden agenda. We really want to help kids, we want to see kids be successful in life.
"And kids that come here that commit early, they and their families see that and they believe in us because they know that we're sincere. So kids that come in here say I'm going to Mississippi State; why? Because those people really care about me and want me to be successful in life, and they're going to help me develop as a football player. I can go to a great program that is on the rise and I can have an immediate impact; come on, go with me so we can all together and all help lift Mississippi State up to a higher level. I think that's why it happens like that."
And 51 weeks from now it can happen all over again. Because there are big boards now up in the Football Office for the recruiting classes of 2015 and 2016, and a few of those names are already committed. The difference now is that in the 2015 class Mississippi State will not only go for the same quality; they can again go after quantity with a full sheaf of scholarships to offer.