Coach And Quarterback Are A Winning Team

Brian Johnson just couldn’t wait for the locker room. All the way from his press box perch, the quarterbacks coach ran out to the midfield mob to give Dak Prescott a huge hug. A long one, too, so caught-up were both Bulldog in the moment. “I was just extremely proud of him.”

Rightly so. Just, not entirely for the obvious reasons.

Oh to be sure there’d have been no post-game embracing without a Mississippi State victory. One which kept the Bulldogs unbeaten overall and in the SEC alike, and pushed them to top of this week’s national polls. That in itself was reason to celebrate.

What first-year assistant Johnson has enjoyed in the working days since are lessons he can apply to a still-young Dog already earning regard as the SEC’s top triggerman. Beating Auburn became Prescott’s newest defining moment as a winner; but without the efficiency shown against LSU and Texas A&M. So Saturday’s hugging is now bye-week teaching.

“We talked about that actually today in our meeting, I thought it was a good lesson,” Johnson said. “Not only for him but for our younger guys to understand having an even-keeled personality throughout the games. From the quarterback position, if you play the game long enough you’re going to have a spot of adversity. How you respond is obviously key to it.”

Prescott’s game-response was outstanding. Shaking off two first-half interceptions, as many as he’d tossed the previous five games, he directed decisive scoring drives in the second and fourth quarters to assure Mississippi State’s unbeaten status at mid-season. And clutch counts for more than quantity with great quarterbacking.

Not that Prescott lacks numbers to reinforce his explosive rise to Heisman status. His passing percentage is actually better for SEC season than in non-conference games, 63.0 to 60.0, which goes against every league-play grain. A better numerical measure is that whether throwing, rushing, and once even catching a throw-back pass, when Prescott makes a play it produces a touchdown every 11.4 snaps! That’s good for any conference but great in the fratricidal Western Division.

Johnson is not at all surprised. From the day he reported to campus, hired away from Utah by the one-time position coach who recruited him, he has proven the perfect go-between for now-head man Mullen and a fourth-year junior ready for some final polishing.

“You just continue to see him mature every single day,” Johnson said. “I definitely think he’s worked and made himself a better football player, a better leader, and a better teammate. No one works as hard as he does at wanting to be great and I think he has all of the intangibles you look for at the position.”

Those intangibles are why Johnson and Mullen did not rattle when Prescott threw two balls to the wrong team, even though it was a battle of then-#3 State and #2 Auburn with the West lead at stake. They and for that matter the entire team knew Prescott’s physical tools and built-in intangibles would rise to the challenge soon enough.

“We were able to stick it out, continue to battle and we ended up making some keys plays to help us win the game,” Johnson said. Then this week, with no game prep demands, the offensive staff and quarterback worked through all that had gone right in six wins, what did not, and re-tune the MSU offensive machine.

That, Johnson said, is priceless for a program with larger ambitions…and for a quarterback on the verge of greatness.

“No one is going to go 13 straight weeks playing absolutely perfect. It’s always a learning lesson, always a teaching moment we can look back on and try to get corrected. It’s good to get that stuff on film and get it in the live situation and make the necessary corrections.”

For that matter Johnson has found Prescott an apt pupil from the first pre-spring meeting. Which was not really a surprise. Johnson got a ‘read’ of sorts months before he knew he’d be the one calling plays for Bulldog quarterbacks.

“I watched him on Thanksgiving Night (in the Egg Bowl) and saw him come in in the fourth quarter. Watching it on TV probably didn’t do it enough justice from all the stories I hear now. But you could tell at that moment he was a very, very special player. What he did to come into that game, and everything he’d been through, it was nice to watch him perform the way he did.”

It is even nicer to do so first-hand, or via their headset connection between series. Johnson suggests the play; Mullen alters to taste on the sideline; then it is up to Prescott to say go-or-no as suits his on-field judgment. With an unscathed record so far, and the biggest pile of six-game statistics in program history, yeah. It’s working very, very well.

And as Johnson said, the system can get even smoother, more productive. Because Prescott isn’t a finished product even. But he’s getting there.

“Yeah, just the overall gamesmanship and general presence of playing the position. I think he’s drastically improved his footwork which has made him a more accurate passer. And he’s really taken whatever myself or Coach Mullen has told him and worked hard at it. He’s really, really been coachable on getting him to do what we need him to do for us to be successful.”

With all the so-far success comes different pressures on all players and the top Dog most of all. High-profile missteps in other programs point to the pitfalls. Johnson can call on his own experiences with an undefeated Utah team as well as Heisman Trophy candidacy and eventually being picked for the cover of the NCAA Football 10 game. And of course Mullen knows something about how hot the sports-light burns from his seasons with Tim Tebow at Florida.

With Prescott, fortunately Mississippi State has someone seasoned by on- and off-field life. “Not very many people at the age of 21 get that type of attention on a weekly basis,” Johnson said. So I think he’s handled it extremely well. He hasn’t been naïve to it but at the same time it’s an exciting time not only for him but everybody all through our program or involved with the University.”

Prescott himself has tried to get ahead of some traps. Such as putting a ‘personal’ touch to most items he autographs to prevent mass-production appearance. Or handling major media requests with just enough personality for appreciation, without letting the lights dazzle this Dog. And yes, he can call on some elders’ advice.

“Fortunately we’ve had some people in the program between myself and Coach Mullen and other coaches who have been around guys with high profiles,” Johnson said. “So any knowledge we can pass along to him, we’ve done.”

The October trick, Johnson agreed, is to enjoy the moment without risking distraction that so much season remains directly ahead. In that sense this open date couldn’t have come at a more prime time. “We have a mature enough team that no one is really naïve to the fact of what’s going on,” Johnson said.

“But I think everybody understands any given Saturday if you don’t play your best things won’t turn out very good for you. It’s very unique to have a team that has the ability to do that, and I think it goes to say a lot about our leadership and our veteran players who have been in these big moments. To see them prevail in those big moments has been fun to watch, for sure.”

Know what is even more fun for Johnson, though? Prescott is his lead Dog but the coach has three more quarterbacks to work with, a true sophomore and two true freshmen. Talk about an Exhibit A to apply in instruction…

“There’s nothing greater for our room than what’s going on now. Having Dak in our room really lets those guys understand what it’s like to be a big-time quarterback in the SEC. Not only what’s expected on the field, but more importantly what’s expected off the field. How you handle yourself each and every day, how you stay humble, how you stay hungry and continue to try to make yourself a better football player.

“The thing we always tell our guys is to follow Dak; do what Dak does. He’s doing it the right way and it will make you a better player in the long run.”

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