Though spring practices themselves are often brutally boring to observe, for participants the interest level is obviously very different. Or most of them. Because thanks to a relatively small group of 2013 graduates, and a fine state-of-health for the returning varsity, Mississippi State welcomes a large proportion of familiar faces and proven players back from the team which closed out '13 with its very best football. Mullen's fifth team endured a long list of early- and mid-season struggles with injury to a few key figures and inconsistency of execution on both sides.
But when those Bulldogs put things together…it was thrilling to watch results. Most obviously the two gutsy—or even more blunt adjectives if you prefer—overtime victories, against Arkansas and Ole Miss which secured bowl eligibility for a program-record fourth consecutive winter. Then it all fell into place for a resounding rout of Rice at the Liberty Bowl, also clinching Mullen's fourth-straight winning record at MSU.
"With a very young, impressionable trough, they stuck together, they battled, thought fought through unbelievable adversity and injuries," Mullen said in the bowl aftermath. "I think we played the third-hardest schedule in college football. To do that and finish with our fourth-straight bowl game and fourth-straight winning season is very, very special."
The faster and at times furious finish did more than allow a handful of seniors to bow-out with winning careers. It got underclassmen, redshirts, and yes even recruits looking immediately ahead to what 2014 portends. In that sense then the Egg and Liberty bowls weren't so much finishes as starting points for year-six.
"My expectations are always very high," as Mullen said.
MATURED AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
High, even very high expectations are spurred for a very good reason. Eight offensive and ten defensive Bulldogs who were listed as starters at the Liberty Bowl are due to report again Tuesday. Wait, it gets better: there were just two more seniors in primary backup positions.
That, is experience. Not that Mullen will ever call it a ‘old' team; college coaches in all sports just refuse to admit any such thing exists. Every team is in some way ‘young' to the boss. But when the Bulldogs line up by-position for initial Tuesday warmups the ‘lineup' will bear quite a resemblance to what took the field in Memphis.
This does not downplay the losses, and even the Bowl lineup needs some clarifying. Two of the few '13 seniors, QB Tyler Russell and S Nickoe Whitley, did not play at all after post-season surgeries. And senior OLB Deontae Skinner wasn't on the Bowl depth chart at all though he assuredly did play and walk off a winner one more time. This in no way negates, much less diminishes the degree of returning experience State has to work with in 2014.
Of more concern are two losses on offense, the line specifically. As his younger teammates go back to college work all-star guard Gabe Jackson works towards NFL draft day where he is sure of high selection. Along with a four-year, every-game starter at left guard, two-year starting right tackle Charles Siddoway has also graduated. His '13 story got a lot less attention than deserved as he played on a bad back which should have kept him safely sidelined. But without him no fast finish would have happened.
Losing such talent, all their personal records on offense and defense, as well as cumulative game-experience in Jackson, Siddoway, Russell, Whitley, Skinner, do-it-all back LaDarius Perkins—who has opened lots of eyes with his freakish pro day physical feats—and DE Denico Autry is not to be dismissed lightly. What few fans appreciate is the role those veterans played in holding a ball club together during the struggles of September and October, and personal sacrifices of playing time and statistics as well. No better example is seen than Russell, a record-shattering passer who dealt with repeated injuries and loss of opportunities in what was to be his culminating campaign. He continued to mentor the other, younger quarterbacks all the time and in whatever ways help his own senior year end with victories while he watched.
That was on the last day of 2013 in Memphis. Now on campus for March 2014 the responsibility falls to the next group. And Mullen is already, openly optimistic.
"I think we have an opportunity to have a real good senior class coming back and some real good senior leadership," the coach said.
No less than six seniors return as offensive starters, and five more on offense. And the rising group of juniors is about as impressive, not to mention a collection of third-season sophomores who've already earned SEC snaps. There may be conference clubs with as-good developing leaders on both sides of the squadroom, but none any better than what Mississippi State expects from QB Dak Prescott and MLB Benardrick McKinney. This pair defines what college-club leadership is supposed to be…and even better, they have teammates not only willing to be led but able to exert their own personalities positively.
All through the 2013 calendar Mullen commented, correctly, about the small senior class. That was no accident of course, even inevitable given the need to immediately activate so many 2009 newcomers as well as glue things together with junior collegians. Mullen also noted an under-appreciated aspect: the modest group of '13 upperclassmen also reflected lack of fall-outs in the program for the first four seasons.
"But we have a big senior class next year," Mullen now says. "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."
REORGANIZING THE STAFF
It's not mathematically correct of course, but still amusing to suggest there was more shuffling of the coaching staff this off-season than in the lineup. In fact only two of Mullen's assistants needed replacing; both staff who came with him in 2009. Quarterbacks coach and official coordinator Les Koenning accepted an offer to coach receivers at his alma mater Texas; and legendary strength coach Matt Balis moved to Rutgers for professional and personal reasons. Mullen wished both well in the moves since a ‘development program' as he wants State to be develops more than players.
At the same time Koenning's departure allowed Mullen to re-organize the offensive side of the staff room, along lines that reflect the reality of how things will operate. Or, already did. "I mean, I called the plays for us," Mullen said on Signing Day. "I think I called all the plays last year. I spent a lot of time with the quarterbacks."
The head coach will be that much more hands-on with the triggermen this spring, joined by the new coach in town. New to Mississippi State that is; Mullen recruited Brian Johnson when the Baytown, Texas quarterback was all of 16 years old . Now Johnson has been ‘recruited' again, away from Utah where he's spent all his college and coaching years so far. It's a golden opportunity for him too, inheriting a rising star in Prescott along with already-seasoned soph Damian Williams and freshman Nick Fitzgerald. And, Johnson pointed out, "Eight returning starters (on offense) so there are guys that have played in this league. Obviously I haven't been on the field with those guys year. But I'm looking forward to it and I think it will be a good deal once we get it rolling."
Where Koenning was overall coordinator, for '14 Mullen is going back to a system similar to what worked so well in 2010…not coincidentally with a veteran quarterback, big-play backs, and some star linemen in front of him. The great difference is this year's receiver corps is much, much deeper and balanced than anything Chris Relf had to throw to. But even if just a coincidence, Mullen has split ‘coordination' of the offense. Line coach John Hevesy is responsible for the ground game, and receivers coach Billy Gonzales the passing game.
Two more of Mullen's first-staff originals, Greg Knox and Scott Sallach, keep the running backs and tight ends within this revamped offensive flow-chart. Both have a bonanza of play-makers to coach, too.
The defense, scene of serious make-over last winter, is happily intact for a second year. Making linebackers coach Geoff Collins coordinator was an across-the-board hit, even outside the defense. Though bringing back line coach David Turner, a 2009 staffer, after three years at Kentucky was about as critical to the entire defense's development. His impact on the still-maturing tackles and ends was increasingly obvious all fall and the outlook now is limitless.
He rarely gets the credit due but Tony Hughes just keeps putting safeties in position to make plays, besides organizing the all-important recruiting campaigns year after year. State is fortunate to retain him every year he chooses to stay. Holding on to Deshea Townsend will become an increasing issue though; in his first college coaching season he took a young group of cornerbacks—none named ‘Banks' or ‘Slay'—and put them in positions to make plays. Keeping the defensive quartet intact for '14 was as much a win as anything Mullen did last winter. Keeping them around will never be easy, especially if this year's defense plays up to greatly-increased expectations.
And while he didn't bow to frantic fan demand for a special teams-only coach, Mullen did make an off-season move to streamline things here. Knox will have overall charge of kicking and returning games, something he has been heavily involved with all five years already and understands thoroughly.
The other replacement has gone smoothly, with Ohio State strength coach Rick Court stepping into the Seal Complex weightroom and keeping the work going. He may not develop the ‘image' of his predecessor but then Balis never sought publicity himself; that was his boss' doing, and at the time necessary in reinvigorating Bulldog football. Court takes over a team already well along the way physically, and with a state-of-art facility to operate in.
The larger signal of that hiring, and for that matter how the on-field staff was reorganized, isn't about what will be ‘new' or ‘different' about Bulldog football this spring. There will be tweaks to be sure, but more because of how the players are maturing and developing than any need to shake-up the systems and schemes. 2014 appears about building upon what is already in-place instead of rebuilding.
Or put more bluntly: the goal this spring is to not mess-up the good things that are already going on with Mississippi State football. It's taken five seasons to get to this promising point. Now all the work can begin paying off.
In a big way, Mullen believes, if the just-born 2014 Bulldog ball team maximizes their potential between the first day of spring and the last whistle of the season.
"We have one year to go show what we can do. Our expectations are always to find a way, we want to win the SEC West and go represent Mississippi and the whole state of Mississippi in Atlanta next December. And we embrace those high expectations."
COMING THIS WEEK: Offensive Skill Outlook; Lines of Scrimmage; and Defensive Skill Outlook