But with the White team trailing 21-14 before halftime, somebody on that sideline did call it by, well, whatever the name is. And sure enough, for yet another year Anthony Dixon was conveniently posted around the 25 yard line…ready to step on-field in the clear to catch the long strike and score. This year, it was redshirt QB Nick Fitzgerald throwing.
The play didn’t win the game right then. It just ultimately made the difference in Coach Mullen’s mind of why one side left Scott Field happy, and ahead 28-24; and the Maroons left knowing they’ll be back Sunday morning for clean-up duty.
“So it was a questionable final score with that playing being the difference in the game, without my approval,” Mullen quipped.
What Mississippi State’s seventh-year coach did approve of, was how both the annual spring game and the overall spring practice session ended. There was some more legitimate fun, with six first-half touchdowns and a field goal by the first and second teams. Or, what once was just about a whole decade’s worth of points for a Bulldog spring game.
There was a lot of yards, too, over 700 total and the best part of that coming in the two-plus quarters before the clock was left to run. Big plays? Yes again, especially in the passing game by both sides. Though to be clear the play-calling leaned that way; there were 61 passes thrown against 51 rushes and several of the runs were scrambled pass plays anyway.
And for all the offense, both defenses made a share of big plays, fun plays, and hard hits to keep everyone entertained. Which is the primary purpose of a spring game, of course. Just not the only one, as Mullen explained in the following press conference transcript.
What was your impression of the spring game? “I think it was OK. A couple too many turnovers there at the end. But you look at it, those guys now get their opportunity to go in a game. And here you are in front of a crowd, game on the line, how do you perform? That’s what it is about.”
“I think we had a great crowd here today. For us, that is what is so important to us in the spring game. Is putting players in a game-feeling situation. You know, we’ll come and scrimmage in the stadium and it’s important. But all of a sudden you put a lot of people in the stadium, people and cheering and all that, it’s a different type of pressure. And it’s good to have those guys those guys experience that.”
Dontavian Lee finished strong in the scrimmage and spring game, what did you see from him? “I think he runs the ball really hard. And I think he’s done a really good job of picking up the offense. That’s important for young guys. He’s a running back, you recruited him to put the ball in his hand and let him go run. But there’s so much more of the game than that, and I think he’s done a really good job of picking pu the offense and understanding those things.”
How does Gerri Green step out of Benardrick McKinney’s shadow and be his own player? “Well, because he is his own player. Just their physical attributes, in that they play the same position. It’s like wow, here’s a big guy; but Benardrick didn’t look like that when he was a freshman and Gerri does. But I think Gerri just understands with himself what type of player he can be and how hard he has to work. And he has such a great work ethic, I mean he’s got one of the best work ethics I have been around.”
What momentum did he create for himself heading into fall? “I think good. I think this is what this game’s about, is guys like him. As we put in guys with that second defensive group to go on the field, that last year we just freely rotated them out there. There’s a bunch of them that have talent but have never been on the field in a game situation. So he’s out there today, gets to be in a game situation, gets to experience what it’s like under pressure.”
“And we’re only a couple more months away and afterwards it’s not about cleaning a stadium. It’s about being really 1-and-0.”
You have a lot more depth at receiver, that was shown by substitutes making plays? “It was. We had a bunch of guys out, I mean with Malik (Dear) and Gabe (Myles) and Jesse Jackson all out. So I think it hurt our depth as the game went on to not get those guys out there.”
“But for us, it’s a position with some experience back. And the great thing, those guys are going to have a great summer. You know, with a guy like Dak that’s leading the way and really pushing all those receivers for everybody to get their timing down. He’s a great guy to lead them.”
Are you comfortable how the offensive line is developing? “Yeah, they’re coming along. We’ve got a long time until we’ve got to play. The one thing, I think we’ve got a bunch of good offensive linemen. We’ve just got to get them experience. They can’t get enough reps, I’d love to get another 15 practices with the offensive line, you know? Just to get the reps and get that experience.”
“They’re a very young group. There’s only about two of them that have had had like legitimate bunches of game reps. Damien Robinson has played some. Devon Desper has played some. Jamaal Clayborn has played some in games. But really only Justin Senior and Justin Malone have chunks of playing time. So we need to get them as many reps as possible before the season starts.”
What kind of next-level stuff do you want to see from Dak Prescott? “A couple of things. One, you want to see in his development his ability to get the second, third, fourth progressions. Make throws, off-balance throws, unorthodox throws, changing angles to get it around linemen. You know, protecting the football, making good decisions. Things that take some experience, you want to see.”
“But the biggest one over the next couple of months is here’s a guy that knows what it takes when you’re on the field to go win. I think we’re probably the only sport in the world that the three months leading into the season the coaches can’t be around the players with a ball on the field. I know we can sit in a meeting with them. But now they changed up that rule where now you can’t be there with a ball, now it’s April 18 ‘til about 30 days before kickoff. So you need a guy like that, that’s going to make sure we continue to improve as a unit and as a team throughout the summer months.”
Do you expect any of the spring injuries to linger over into the fall? “No. we should have everybody back. I’m hoping they’re all back by June 4 when they show back up for summer school.”
With so many young backs and receivers, did you get enough snaps to learn what you have? “Oh, yeah. What I’m pleased with is nobody took themselves out of contention. You know, I don’t know that anybody earned any spot yet. But you certainly would earn less reps! We’ve got a long training camp to go for guys to continue to improve, continue to learn. So with a lot of young players, especially the running backs, they get a lot more time to continue to improve.”
Did anything in spring stand out to you? “I think we’re a young unit that has great attitude and the kids want to work. But they’ve got to learn how to work at our level. I think one thing as a young player, the strain you need to be successful in this league. The strain, the standard of which we set here at Mississippi State we expect guys to go play with is very high. So I think a lot of young players have got to learn. Even though they think they’re going hard they might not be yet. So that was a big goal of ours in spring. We’ll evaluate, we’ll set down with each player and evaluate did they learn to play and give maximum effort even more from the first to the last practice. And that needs to continue moving forward.”
Did you see that the first days? “A lot of times, no. I mean the end is where you want to see it. I mean they have no clue. When they get out there then they’re excited to practice. But I’m talking the real strain of covering a kick. The strain of running, straining to the football. Those type of things are critical. And young players think they go hard. But even though they think it, sometimes they’re not, you watch it on film. That’s something huge for us to give them to learn.”
Are you satisfied with Manny Diaz’s start to his second tour with the defense? “Yeah. Oh, yeah. I always know Manny does a good job in just getting everybody on the same page. The nice thing, we have a coaching staff that has been around each other. There’s no panic here or there.
“You know, there’s a lot that needs to be done and a lot of practicing that needs to be done before we have to go play a game. And I think everybody had that focus, we don’t play until September. Of making sure we continue to build, so when we hit September we’re ready to go play.”
After last fall, did you feel the vibe around the program change? “I think the expectations within the program are very, very high. This team expects to go compete for a SEC championship.”
”There’s not a guy in the program that doesn’t think that’s going to happen. So I think that attitude, that hunger to go back there…and we’ve been there. We’ve been in those big games, we’ve won big games. So I think that experience is a comforting fact. They know what they need to do to go be successful.”
Did a guy like A.J. Jefferson impress you this spring? “He did. But he did last year a lot. It’s a great thing, you look and say A.J. is not considered a returning starter for us. But he played an awful lot in games, you go watch a lot of highlight videos, you’re going to see a lot of A.J. Jefferson on there.”
“So I think the biggest difference though those guys have got to understand is when you’re going to be the one, when you’re a starter, it’s got to be every snap. It’s not come in and make some plays. Guys like A.J. and Chris Jones have got to understand it’s not about just coming in to make plays. It’s about doing it every single snap, the consistency you need to lay at is extremely high, and that’s important as you become a starter.”
You had the trick touchdown play. What does having an Anthony Dixon involved mean to the program? “Anthony is great. Here’s a guy that bought in, I mean completely bought into what we’re trying to do and build here as a program. And a guy I think that takes a lot of pride what has happened here in the program, even though he’s not the one out there on the field doing it.”
“I didn’t call the play this year, I didn’t even approve it. So it was a questionable final score with that playing being the difference in the game without my approval. But you know what, he’s such a great kid and believed in what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to accomplish. You look at the captains that year (2009), him and Jamar Chaney, of what they bought into. Here they are coming to their final year with a new coach coming in and they bought all in. so they’ve helped set the foundation of what has become our program, of where it is today.”
Is there a name for the play? “No, I don’t know how they got it figured out today to go do. I’m just like what are they doing…all of a sudden the ball is launched and I’m like ahhhh, there’s Anthony going to score! So even though I didn’t know it was coming, it happened.”