While he might be a big shy to say so though, it also looks very good for Mississippi State to have something familiar back in town. Rather, someone. Certainly Coach Dan Mullen made a clear statement by bringing Diaz back as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
To the same post as in 2010, when Diaz ran a Dog defense which played its large part in a breakout season. His successes that one year with Mississippi State earned Diaz opportunity elsewhere, and brought both triumph and disaster along the way. Fortunately, the four seasons of seasoning only expanded Diaz’ professional stature…
…and made him an easy target for Mullen to re-fill the defensive coordinator’s duties. Monday’s official announcement that Diaz was returning came after a Sunday sit-down with Mullen. Interestingly though, Diaz doesn’t look at this as just a second act at all.
”I don’t look at this as going back. I look at this as going forward. I know I’m a much better coach today than I was when I was here four years ago.”
That is exactly what Mississippi State hopes to hear, and more so see in 2015. In a ten-win 2014 season the Bulldog defense wasn’t working at the same high standards, especially in both bowl games. It wasn’t for lack of talent, individual or collective. There is no way now to know if Mullen might have made changes to that side of the staff for the coming seventh season.
The situation resolved itself with one coordinator leaving, and another being available. That Diaz was already familiar with both MSU and the coach makes this as smooth a transition as the business allows. Even if, as Diaz said, “Mississippi State is a very different place today than it was four years ago.” In the best possible way, he means.
Yes. Diaz was watching, during his time at Texas (2011-13) and Louisiana Tech (2014). He liked everything he saw from the distance. And why shouldn’t he?
“I’ve always felt a sense of pride in the continued steps Dan and the program has taken in the time I’ve been gone. Culminating with being ranked number-one in the country. You always felt a little pride in having a hand getting that going in that direction.”
Now though, Diaz is feeling something else. Not pressure. Responsibility. His task is clear if not simple, to get the Bulldog defensive roster playing to its complete potential. Though Diaz states this assignment within the larger State context.
”What I’ve got to do here is get the ball back for Dak Prescott.”
Meaning this is not one of the old-time defensive coaches who sees the game strictly from his side of the squad. Nor for that matter did the two coordinators who followed him, Chris Wilson and Diaz close friend Geoff Collins. They understood the total-team approach Mullen wants. Diaz simply works more on the same wavelength as his boss than anyone else calling defensive plays at State.
Not only is Diaz used to working with Mullen, the defensive staff should be a fine fit as well. Diaz had the services of safeties coach Tony Hughes in 2010 of course. His path has crossed that of line coach David Turner often over the years no matter where they worked. And Diaz knew well what kind of professional cornerback Deshea Townsend was. Now he is coaching them in college.
For now Diaz does not expect changes with his arrival. “It’s an outstanding staff with Deshea, David, and Tony. This is a hard job and you have to have people you trust and respect. Everybody pointed in the same direction.”
Before accepting Mullen’s Sunday offer definitely, Diaz did communicate quickly with Collins about what sort of defensive roster was already on-hand. But then Diaz had seen some of it for himself when watching Bulldog game broadcasts last fall. He certainly knew about many of today’s Dogs from recruiting.
Now the evaluation gets more serious. Diaz said he’s already going through cut-ups of 2014, but doesn’t consider if fair to comment on any player so soon. Plus, “You don’t want to make assumptions of what they look like off tape. You want to get them on grass and see.” Which can’t happen until March. Then he will give his first and really most important orders.
“The expectation of our players is they have got to play better than they played last year. It’s the only way it works. It’s how you become great.”
Still there are clues Diaz does want on the video though, and all the more so come spring camp. “The first thing you look for is effort, which in a Dan Mullen program and with the strength staff here there’s going to be relentless effort. I look for toughness, who runs to contact and who runs through contact. The kids we get here, they run through contact. And every defensive call works better when you have kids that run through contact.”
Then, “How they play in space, how they tackle, how they shed blocks, maybe some change-of-direction things.” But those are aspects to teach and refine. Effort is the foundation and based on prior experience here he expect it is clear, from fifth-year senior to freshman.
”Defense is a culture. The culture that Dan Mullen has instilled here will always breed outstanding defense. It’s number-one on the plan to win, and everybody that comes to this program understands you must play great defense. It’s an expectation, and I’m happy to be in charge to make sure that happens.”
Diaz’s own foundational approach hasn’t changed since 2010. There might not be a defensive Dog left from his year here and only one of their coaches. But all here today and those coming in for ’15 have heard the word. This will be an aggressive squad. Not berserk, hair-on-fire, out-of-control maybe…but State is going to set terms of the game every opportunity possible.
This does not mean Diaz is going to take inherited personnel and force-fit them into a pre-set system. Not at all. “After you have a chance to go through spring, and see the guys in summer, you can say this is what guys do really well. And we’ve always tried to be multiple enough defensively to put players in position to succeed.
“The input they’ll show is what they do in practice and whether they are productive. But they know the core of who we are won’t change. They know we’re going to be aggressive, that we’re about hunting the negative play, and forcing the offense into mistakes. And being on the attack. I haven’t met a player who doesn’t enjoy that.”
Or a fan for that matter. There may be some still unhappy how Diaz came and went so soon, but everybody enjoyed the way that 2010 unit played. Many of those Dogs are still playing too, as ten members of the defensive roster went on to professional football including four of Diaz’s linebackers. Six alumni are busy with this weekend’s NFL playoffs, too.
It is fair to say Diaz took over a 2010 defense on the cusp of great things. It’s equally fair to say somebody had to turn that potential into production. Or coordinate it rather. Comparisons for 2015 are inevitable. But maybe not so fair, just yet.
”When the year is over it’s more fair to compare eras and times,” Diaz said. “And you want to give everybody a fresh start. Because the thing we want to impress on them is you want to do better.”
Diaz will definitely be doing better on payday. He has a three-year contract, that in itself a statement since the first time around he and all State aides were on one-year deals. Collins moved that mark with a two-year contract. Diaz’s deal is for a $1.8 million total beginning with $575,000 this season, or over double what he made in 2010. It grows to $600,000 the second year and $625,000 for 2017.
So the new, or re-newed coordinator is setting yet another precedent. What Diaz also intends by signing this deal is signaling unquestioned commitment.
“I told Dan this is the last defensive coordinator job I want to take,” Diaz said. Of course that leaves the potential move to be a head coach someday, somewhere open. But as for running a defense, “This is it. This is where I want to coach defense. The contract, we made a pretty big statement I want to be the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State.”
Diaz is also making a statement of how he expects to work for and with Mullen. A good one.
“Dan is a guy personally I like and respect,” he said. Their Sunday meeting affirmed this had not changed. “We wanted to sit down and talk about how we’re not the same people we were four years ago.” Same coaches? In the fundamentals, yes.
”I think we see the game the same way. Dan has always tried to challenge the establishment, of is there a better way to do it? He wants everything we do as a program to be well thought-out. Preparation is where confidence comes from, we can’t be haphazard and throw things on the wall and see what sticks.”
Yeah, but this doesn’t mean that wall won’t get lots of use and abuse all the same. Ideas are going to fly around the staff room because that is what Mullen wants, and what Diaz likes. “I enjoy working for him, because he challenges me intellectually.”
But now Mississippi State presents challenges Diaz did not face before. Back in 2010 the Bulldogs were just trying to get the program off the ground, or into bowl play and winning SEC games. They did, and since then every standard has improved. Just as everything else has improved or expanded or increased. Speaking of which, Diaz liked seeing the bigger-and-better Davis Wade Stadium from long distance.
Now that he’s got a closer view? “The depressing thing to me is having to wait eight more months to get in there and play!” A real game that is. There will be scrimmaging and the April 18 Maroon-White Game before then to ease Diaz’s depression.
Oh, he’s joking about that attitude. Reality for Manny Diaz is that while he won’t call it a return or a second act or anything like that, coming back to Mississippi State is so easy as to seem, well, inevitable. Influenced, even, and not by coach or kin.
“I’m a big believer in God’s plan. That’s why it’s right and you can’t question it, it’s the hand of God.”
Sure there was the relationship with Mullen as well as MSU administration who stayed in touch over the years. And if so much about the program has changed, the setting is comfortably familiar. “My wife talked about how this move doesn’t feel like any other move we’ve had,” Diaz said. “So this is a very, very special occasion for myself and my family.
”Now the fun part is getting into this football team and finding out how good we can be.”