Mullen: "You Can Be #1 At Mississippi State"

“Go downstairs and see if you can find anybody,” Dan Mullen challenged. “I bet I’m the only one still around here.” The boss could afford to turn the crew entirely loose. The list of prospects he and staff signed for 2015 is beyond question a job well-done. Very, very well-done.

Mississippi State announced a 28-member class for signing day 2015, one which if analyst opinions matter rates as the best of Dan Mullen’s seven years here. Pending any adjustments, ranks it 18th nationally. Four of the signees are in the nation’s top-300 high school prospects. Four more are in the junior college top-100.

Not that Mullen ever needs outsiders to affirm either his recruits individually or a class in general. “Every signing day is a great day for us. You get to welcome a bunch of new guys into our family.” At the same time…that Bulldog family just got not only bigger but potentially better if ratings and rankings count for anything.

“I think all the rankings have us as one of the top classes in the country,” said Mullen. “That’s fantastic. We’ll wait a couple of years to judge to see if that’s true or not.”

Mullen wasn’t being cautious, by the way. He was just reminding that his first six classes typically received modest grades, or stars, or points, or whatever. As Mississippi State’s records the last six falls show though, either the experts were too pessimistic or Bulldog coaches superb spotters of less-noticed talent.

The reality is obviously, both. And, as Mullen often proudly points out, his program is more about developing players than ‘winning’ the signing day scores. Then again, if everybody else wants to call this class a winner, who is Mullen to argue?

“But I will say this. I know I’m very happy with the guys coming in. Our coaches are very happy with the class we’ve put together. Of not just great football players but great young men. Character to me is such an important part in our recruiting.”

If character is counted by keeping commitments on-board, 2015 certainly scores well. Practically every prospect—those who had actual offers—who announced intent to sign with Mississippi State the past dozen months held true. Though to be clear, Mullen doesn’t regard the ‘commit’ label the same way media and fans do.

“You make your commitment today. Before this, it was a reservation.”

By that higher standard, MSU just checked-in as strong a class as any in many winters. There are a number of clearly-elite prospects headlining the list. Mississippi State definitely dominated the state of Mississippi again, with half of the Clarion-Ledger’s “Dandy Dozen” prospects signing. Mullen stressed how of the 15 in-state signees, eight were in Mississippi’s consensus top ten prospects.

“That is so, so important for us. Those guys have so much pride in playing for Mississippi State and also playing for the state of Mississippi. When you have that pride, that you’re representing everyone in the state, it’s special.”

Leading the list of elite home-state signees was a pair of prospects of national interest. Though, they chose very different time-frames for making their reservations as Mullen calls it. Defensive back Jamal Peters was a relatively early commitment who stayed State’s course despite every sort of courting imaginable.

“Obviously he’s a special talent back there in the secondary,” Mullen said. “But also a huge need for us at that position. If he showed up on campus today, without stepping on the field he might be in the two-deep rotation right now.”

For that matter, Mullen added, Peters’ talents are so special he might not be confined to his projected safety position. “Because when I watched him play in high school he was pretty electric. We might have to create some things to let him play on the other side of the ball as well.”

Leo Lewis ought become an electric linebacker for his part. Rated by most as the top Mississippi prospect of all, he was also the last ‘reservation’ received…which came with his ‘commitment’ too. After keeping the SEC West and nation guessing the past few weeks, Lewis spurned LSU and Ole Miss in the wee Wednesday hours to sign a Mississippi State offer.

Mullen had always stayed in touch, even when Lewis originally made it seem he was going to go outside the state. “The great thing through all of this, was that he was always really humble,” Mullen said. “I would always ask but it was hard to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about him.” State coaches got to see Lewis’ abilities and even intangibles in campus camp, where a young man with all-everything reputation still worked like a kid just trying to make a name for himself.

”He’s an explosive football player, but the thing that’s the most exciting is he has a tremendous work ethic,” Mullen said. “Everything he’s told me he’s followed through with, even through the whole recruiting process.”

Naturally State didn’t confine recruiting within the borders. Seven signees will come from Alabama, four from Tennessee, and one each hail from Louisiana and Missouri. Bulldog football has always cross the boundaries to find players. In recent years though the rating of those signed recruits has improved almost annually.

Whether in- or out-of-state though, this recruiting campaign got a healthy boost by what the 2014 team achieved. “I think we obviously got a lot more national exposure than we’ve had in the past,” said Mullen. “I don’t know that that changed our recruiting philosophy a whole lot. But I think it really solidified all the guys here.” Particularly, Mullen said, the local prospects who in the past have found outside temptations irresistible.

“I mean, It’s been proven. You can be #1 at Mississippi State. That’s a very, very comforting feeling that you can stay home and represent their state university, when they know they have the opportunity to come win a championship.”

State has scored last-day signees of national note before under Mullen. By the same token there have often been late ‘flips’ by committed, sorry make that reserved, prospects who opt elsewhere as late as signing day. It did not happen in 2015.

Not for lack of opposing effort. Nor lack of opportunity, either, since so much of the projected class had taken shape by last fall. Mullen’s staff has had great success securing pledges in early spring, then battled to keep them for months. To go essentially unscathed this recruiting year was a welcome change of fortune. And, said Mullen, “It really solidifies my thought that we went after the right guys.”

“Because people are always recruiting, trying to sell kids on one thing or another. But we’ve been winning with these guys (the prospect) so long I think they felt very, very comfortable with everything going on. I think they committed for a reason, when they saw what our program is all about.”

As for the nuts-and-bolts of the 2015 list, Mullen said the ‘needs’ for this signing season were clear. “Everything. We had such a big senior class walking out the door, we took multiple players I think at every position except for quarterback. What did you need, it was ‘yes’. We need everybody.”

State got something of everything. “Except for a specialist, with all those guys coming back next year,” Mullen amended. Otherwise though, “We went across the board. Next year might be different, as we’re into that already we’re going to have a smaller senior class next year so it’s going to be a little different.”

The numbers broke-down just about evenly between defense and offense. In fact State could assemble an intact defense from the dozen signees here. The most apparent immediate needs are at safety, hence prioritizing Peters; and defensive line. Not that there aren’t enough linemen returning, but early in his Mississippi State tenure Mullen was caught short in this area at times.

So bringing in five new big bodies at tackles and ends keeps the roster stocked ideally. Plus, speaking of the d-linemen specifically, “I love the athleticism that a lot of these guys are bringing to the table for us. There’s that mix of length, and size.”

On the other side of the line, blocker prospects are at such a premium these days that inking four in a class is big news. Two are already on campus and one of them, juco Martinas Rankin, is already projected to step in at the open left tackle position. The high school linemen will almost certainly redshirt, and epitomize Mullen’s ambition of always getting bigger, stouter, and longer up-front. Harrison Moon at 6-5, 276 is the ‘little’ guy in the lot, compared to Darryl Williams at 6-4, 300 pounds and Michael Story at 6-4, 290 pounds.

Mullen could be even more selective with quarterbacking, what with a true junior and two redshirt freshmen already on the roster behind All-SEC triggerman Dak Presscott. In Nick Tiano, the State coach saw what has become his template. Mullen joked about all the “different shapes and sizes” of his quarterback signees over the years. The fact is that Tiano is much more in the mold of current second-year freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley. He’s another youngster that Prescott—no puny specimen himself--has to look upwards at.

“He’s a big, athletic guy,” Mullen said, adding that initial impressions aren’t always so impressive. “But all of a sudden you start watching him make these runs, like Dak did. The more you study them they end up being good runs, then really, really good runs.” Tiano caught Mullen’s eye during camp with a “naturally strong arm” as well as the leadership gifts.

“That’s the biggest thing Nick probably brings to the table, he’s a winner.”

Just about everyone on this signing list was a high school or junior college, or both, winner for that matter. Now they join a winning SEC program that has breathed the rarest of air just recently with #1 national rankings and playoff contention. Mullen won’t come out and say it, but what his last team did on the field and in the polls conceivably contributed to how the signing class was graded. It would be about time, if the analysts began giving increased credit to the kids Mississippi State evaluates and courts.

Besides, look at how some of the lesser-rated signees of years past ended up grading on the field. Or with pro scouts.

“You might look at some John Banks maybe, a Benardrick McKinney, a Taveze Calhoun, a Dak Prescott,” Mullen said. “You might re-rate some of those guys now on national signing day from a couple of years ago. So we want to see how these guys develop before we judge this as the ‘greatest recruiting class ever’.”

And after all, everyone has to report to campus to contribute in 2015 or beyond. Unlike last February when a few signees were known to be on the junior college track, as of today this class looks in good academic shape on the whole. A couple, most notably Peters and Lewis, also inked with junior colleges today.

Mullen is not worried either will be in Starkville this summer. “I don’t think there will be any doubt about that.” He posited that not only were the young men covering all their bases, but by signing a juco grant they could possibly induce the two-year school to offer a current teammate a grant.

Speaking of being in Starkville… Since the season ended Mullen has been able to re-fill the one staff opening, bringing 2010 defensive coordinator Manny Diaz back in the same capacity for 2015. In December the head coach began working on increases for the assistant staff, with announcements pending. What of his own deal?

An extension and increase are obviously in store, but athletic director Scott Stricklin and Mullen have slow-tracked it up to now so as not to interfere with immediate matters. Asked after today’s press conference, “It’s in the final stages of everything right now,” Mullen said.

“I guess I feel pretty comfortable being here, and I think Scott feels pretty good with me! I’m more concerned about taking a couple of days off and spending time with my family. I guess that sounds bad!”

Actually it doesn’t. Especially not when Mullen said that this February’s trip by the family will be to Puerto Rico. “It’s a lot warmer there!” That sounds awfully good to the rest of us. Almost as good as it is reading the roster of newest Bulldogs.

So even if they aren’t going to tropical climes, Mullen’s assistants can take breaks of their own time-and-place and relax after a recruiting job very well-done.

“Our guys worked really hard, had a great year on the field and had a great year in recruiting, we had a great year in the classroom and every aspect. So it’s great that these guys get some time away and go see their family.”

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