Mullen Getting Last Laugh

Just over four years ago, Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen stood before the media to talk about his team's signing class. The Bulldogs' 22 man recruiting haul was ranked 45th nationally and only ahead of Vanderbilt in the SEC rankings. Some began to suggest that Mullen was soft on recruiting and one newspaper scribe hinted that signing day was essentially a disaster.

If Mullen felt any anxiety about what turned out to be the lowest rated class in his Bulldog tenure, it failed to show when he stepped up to podium. When asked about the national rankings and perceptions about the players who had signed their national letters of intent to play at Mississippi State, Mullen sort of grinned like he was in on a private joke that no one else in the room knew about.

“We don’t put a lot of weight into that," Mullen said on signing day 2011. "What is key is finding guys that fit your needs, your abilities and fit your program and will stick with the team throughout their career and continue to develop into great players and great people.

"You can’t truly evaluate a recruiting class until at least a couple years down the road, in my opinion. You have to earn your stars or rankings on the field and it all starts over next year. This recruiting class will define itself the next four years.”

Four years later, Mullen's words by and large have rung true. There are hits and misses in every signing class, but Mississippi State signed some real difference makers with its' allotted grants for the 2011 calendar year.

Fresh off a season where the Bulldogs reached a #1 ranking in the national football polls, a trio of players from the class of 2011 joined fellow classmate Darius Slay as NFL selections and another is headed to camp as an undrafted free agent.

Preston Smith was the first Bulldog selected in the 2015 draft. Rated as a two star and ranked 171st nationally at his position, Smith came to Starkville unheralded. In fact, Smith did not garner enough respect to even make the top 20 at his position in his home state of Georgia.

With the 38th pick in the 2015 draft, the Washington Redskins selected the three year starter making him the fourth defensive end off of the board.

Not long after Smith heard his good news, Bulldog linebacker Benardrick McKinney had his name called as the Houston Texans nabbed him with their second round selection.

Another two star, McKinney was a diamond in the rough who earned an offer from Mississippi State after a strong camp showing under the supervision of then and now current Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Former Bulldog assistant, Melvin Smith was the area recruiter who unearthed the talented McKinney who took most of his high school snaps as a high school quarterback. In the end, Diaz pulled the trigger on the offer and the rest, as they say, is now history.

Before he became the Bulldog "bowling ball", Josh Robinson was a three star prospect who was considered just the eighth best running back in his home state of Louisiana. In fact, three LSU running backs ranked ahead of Robinson in the final tally, Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard and former high school teammate Terrance Magee.

With their college careers now over, only Hill was selected higher in the draft. Robinson's 6th round selection by the Indianapolis Colts bested Hilliard's 7th round tab by the Houston Texans. Magee went undrafted.

Robinson rushed for an SEC third best 1,203 yards last fall as the Bulldogs reached their third Orange Bowl in school history.

Another 2011 signee, Justin Cox, signed a free agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, which brings the total number of 2011 pro Dogs to five and counting.

Seven returning Mississippi State players were also members of that "disaster" signing class.

Starting linebacker Zachary Jackson returns for another year in what should be an interesting year in Coach Manny Diaz' blitz happy scheme. Jackson enters his senior season with 67 career tackles with 34 of those personnel stops coming in 2014.

Former tight end, Rufus Warren, is the team's starting left tackle heading into the summer workouts. Warren made the move to tackle last season. With a year of experience under his belt, Warren was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring.

Bulldog safety Kendrick Market is working his way back from injury, but has factored prominently in the Bulldog defensive efforts over his career. Market has started each of the past two seasons and recorded 111 career tackles.

Justin Malone will enter his senior season as a three year starter. Lightly recruited and regarded, Malone has blossomed into one of the Bulldogs' most consistent offensive linemen.

Joe Morrow was one of only two four star players who signed with Mississippi State in 2011. Darion Arrington was the other and he saw his playing career cut short due to injury. Morrow has made huge strides under Coach Billy Gonzales having his best campaign in 2014.

The last Bulldog player to join the 2011 signing class was Morton High product Taveze Calhoun. After showing out in the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star game, Calhoun earned an offer. Now 122 tackles and four interceptions later, Calhoun heads into his senior season as a three year starter at corner.

The final returning player, Dak Prescott, is a name you may be familiar with. The Heisman candidate was lightly recruited until his senior season brought offers from home state LSU and TCU. In fact, Prescott did not earn his third star until midway through his senior campaign at Haughton High School.

Now the face of the Mississippi State program, Prescott enters the summer as the league's top returning signal caller and a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate.

Of the 22 players who signed with Mississippi State in 2011, Shaquille Perry was the lone signee not to enroll. A short stint at Northeast Community College brought his playing career to a close.

Dee Arrington, Daniel Knox and Nick Redmond saw their careers shortened due to injuries. Three others, Derek Milton, James Maiden and Devin Fosselman elected to transfer. Those subtractions bring the 2011 class down to 15 members.

A third of those who remained will be in camp with NFL teams this fall, a number the Bulldogs will certainly add to next spring when the remaining class members exhaust their college eligibility.

Recruiting rankings only tell part of the story as was the case for the 2011 Bulldog signing class. A group that was widely panned nationally led Mississippi State to new heights and many program firsts.

Their legacy is still being written, but ironically Mullen's lowest rated class took the program to a #1 ranking in the only polls that really matter.

"I have to credit our staff this year for doing a great job of recruiting and evaluating our players and recognizing which guys are going to fit into our team and our program," Mullen said back in 2011. "I can tell you how this class will pan out in a couple of years but in our last three classes, we signed 53 players, 47 are still contributing to our football team, one is playing professional baseball with the Reds (Billy Hamilton) and one just recently resigned with us after completing his work in junior college (Darius Slay).

"That percentage shows we are finding the players that fit our program and they’re sticking with us and continuing to develop for the future. That to me is how you evaluate a recruiting class. We look forward to these guys that we signed today to continue to contribute and excel in our football program for many years to come.”

These comments were met with snickers and commentaries about how Mississippi State was struggling to add SEC level talent. The biggest difference between the Bulldogs' 2011 class and many others is that the Mississippi State signees made their best headlines on the field rather than on signing day.

Who's laughing now?

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