And what the Bulldog coach had to say was upbeat. "I thought we had a great spring as a team. I'm happy with the direction our program is headed in. We got through spring keeping everybody healthy, for the most part. No serious injuries coming out of spring practice."
Mullen, 36-28 after five seasons in Starkville and already fourth in coaching victories, oversaw perhaps…no, not perhaps but definitely the smoothest spring session of his Mississippi State tenure. This was largely a factor of what sort of squad he is organizing for 2014. And, how strongly his fifth team finished up too.
The '13 Bulldogs rallied in November for a pair of overtime wins against SEC West rivals Arkansas and Ole Miss to earn bowl eligibility. There they destroyed Conference USA champions Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl. It was the third post-season victory of Mullen's tenure, the most-ever by a Bulldog coach; and is part of a school-record stretch of four consecutive bowl teams.
Of the Liberty Bowl starting lineup including specialists, 20 are back for this season; though officially Mississippi State counts just 18 returning starters. That reflects some end-of-season changes forced by injuries. But it also reminds that over the course of 2013 a lot of Dogs were thrust into either starting or primary alternate duties from opening day right through New Years Eve. This certainly cost some consistency during last season…
…but it should only make the '14 roster that much better-prepared and positioned.
No Dog had his development accelerated faster by other injuries than QB Dak Prescott. When ‘13 senior Tyler Russell went down on opening day, Prescott took over for six regular-season starts. There were all sorts of struggles, not hardly all of his own sophomore-making, but Prescott learned on-the-job. Ironically it was his own left arm and shoulder injury at Texas A&M which set the stage for Prescott to become the unquestioned '14 leader. His fourth-quarter return in the Egg Bowl and overtime touchdown for the victory wrote a whole chapter in rivalry history; then he directed the romp over Rice.
Interestingly, Mullen is not exactly awarding the starting job to a junior who is already on the national radar for 2014. This coach likes competition even when it goes on outside coaching view in summer.
"The guys continued to work really well with Brian Johnson coming in as new quarterback coach this spring," Mullen said. "He brought some fresh ideas to the table, and they responded well." They being Prescott, true soph Damian Williams, and true freshman—and early enrollee—Nick Fitzgerald. Williams won the Arkansas game in overtime, then helped State hold serve for three Egg Bowl quarters.
So, "You have two guys coming back with starting experience. You've want to see them really take strides in the right direction in their development and moving on to the future. We have Nick already here and that's a huge advantage. Those guys will be competing into the fall to see how it goes. One big thing there is so much extra development those guys have to do on their own."
Mullen did announce that preseason reporting date for the 2014 team is July 30.
Quarterbacking was the only position given any teleconference time today, with just three questions asked during the allotted timeslot. So Mullen wasn't able to relate how things stand in other areas; such as how the offensive line is reorganizing with the graduations of guard Gabe Jackson, who should hear his name in the early rounds of next week's NFL draft, and tackle Charles Siddoway. Or how senior center Dillon Day is recovering from one of the rare spring injuries, to his left arm. Few on squad or staff seemed concerned about the blocking during camp, fortunately. More the opposite in fact. And all who watched drills and scrimmages came away impressed with the runners and receivers who should make this an even better offense than 2013 under a big-play quarterback's direction.
The Dog defense is not simply established; it is as well-stocked as any unit here for many, many years. Graduation didn't take much toll here, though with his big, no make that huge play output in both those overtime wins safety Nickoe Whitley will be remembered fondly too. Regardless, the openings were filled quickly in bowl and spring practices; while at the same time the second unit showed just how successfully State has recruited in all defensive areas the last three years.
The off-season wasn't entirely quiet. Mullen responded to the departure of five-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Les Koenning to Texas by first hiring Johnson—who Mullen signed for Utah back in the day—to mentor quarterbacks. At the same time Mullen returned to his offensive organization of the early years with line coach John Hevesy taking charge of the running game and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales of the passing game. Mullen himself is now the acknowledged overall coordinator.
The rest of the offensive staff stands pat with running backs coach Greg Knox and tight ends coach Scott Sallach, two of Mullen's 2009 team. The defensive side was unchanged despite some nervous weeks as other programs courted some State staffers. Giving linebackers/coordinator Geoff Collins a raise and two-year deal kept him running this side, overseeing line coach David Turner, safeties coach Tony Hughes, and cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend. Also, Knox is officially now overall director of special teams though most staff contributions will continue as before.
So there were changes but nothing on the order of the major 2013 leavings-and-hirings. In fact, to have almost half of his original ‘team' still working together in year-six says something about the program's stability.
Speaking of stability…the day's overarching theme for all coaches was the SEC's decision to stay with both the eight-game conference slate and one permanent inter-Division opponent. Though, the conference has announced intent beginning in 2016 to assure all league members play at least one game against a member of the four other major conferences. Mississippi State did that to open 2013 by playing Oklahoma State of the Big XII to open the year.
"In retrospect it didn't work out very well," Mullen said. But he added that the exposure for the program, and the experience it provided his players, are a longer-term benefit. The real downside was giving up a home game and this is something Mullen hopes is not a result of the inter-conference directive.
"We want to try to maintain being able to play seven home games a year. I know some teams play up to eight but our goal is to play seven, moving forward," Mullen said. "The hardest thing for me is the short turnaround." As in having two years to evaluate existing contracts and how things might be forced to move to meet the SEC mandate by 2016. "We're going to look at changing the schedule for that year," said Mullen.
"But we've made an attempt to schedule teams from those conferences," he reminded. Mullen meant getting home-and-homes from the SEC's major-conference peers. The coach said all the reaching-out to such programs and proposals didn't attract responses. "But we're going to continue to do so."
"I know we've tried to schedule teams from all the five major conferences in the past. We haven't had a lot of luck with teams wanting to schedule games with us. But now with the mandate we're going to do that." Meanwhile he said State will be hosting Southern Mississippi to begin the coming season, renewing a rivalry not played since 1990.
"I know on a national level it is not much. But everybody in the state of Mississippi, it's a huge game and a great series not played in a while. We've been very proactive trying to play a game that means a lot to people here in Mississippi." As in being the first state SEC school to host SWAC opponents, for example.
This SEC Office will assist members in arranging such matchups, a necessity given the sheer complexity of modern football scheduling and within the context of existing inter-conference rivalries for a few programs. A few SEC programs vouched for a nine-game slate; others wanted to adjust the rotation from the current 6-1-1 plan that replaced the original 5-1-2. Mullen is inherently conservative on such things, as in if it ain't broken…
"It's put a lot of teams in national championship games so I guess I'm in favor of that, until we need to do something to change to make things better." Along that same line Mullen is wait-and-see about the college football ‘final four' playoff scheme about to debut. "There's so much change going on in college football right now. It looks good, but we haven't been in it. Until we know how the whole system is going to play out we don't know if it's going to be a good system or a bad system."
What he does know for himself and MSU is that the 2014 Bulldogs kick off their season August 30, hosting Southern Mississippi. The opening day is also the ‘debut' of the expanded and renovated Davis Wade Stadium with its north end zone bowl, premium seating and suites, matching video/scoreboard and grand entrance. Capacity will grow to 61,337 from 55,082.
A bigger and better Dog house is a great thing. And the timing is excellent considering the prospects for this 2014 team. Not, Mullen said, that this is any sort of end-game point. It is just the next step in an ongoing process of progress.
"So we need to keep moving forward and continue to build on the success we've had the last couple of years."