Five Bulldogs had their names called during this year’s National Football League draft, including a pair of second-round selections. This was the highest total of Coach Dan Mullen’s six-season tenure at Mississippi State, and the most in two Dog decades.
In addition, as of Monday morning some seven more Bulldog seniors off the 2014 Orange Bowl roster had signed or were expected to sign free agent contracts.
Headlining the State draft class were two defensive Bulldogs picked just about where each figured. Defensive end Preston Smith, who exploded to SEC stardom as a 9.0-sack senior season as well as a blocked kick, interception touchdown, and many more big plays, went 38th overall to Washington.
It is an interesting selection. The Redskins use an odd-front defense and Smith played end in a four-front. Washington has indicated Smith will transform to outside linebacker to fit their scheme, something the 6-5 Dog is eager to try. He isn’t surprised, either, having talked with club officials during the February combine.
“I feel like it will go well because we had a lot of different looks from college, playing stand-up and doing a lot of drops, doing a lot of different defensive looks,” said Smith in a statement provided by Mississippi State media relations. “I feel like it’ll be a great transition, something I’m familiar with and it won’t be hard for me to adjust.”
Smith is the fourth Bulldog defensive lineman drafted in the Mullen era. That would have been most of any specific State position group…except now linebackers have taken the lead.
Benardrick McKinney, the team’s tackles leader and two-year starter at middle ‘backer, was also tabbed in the second round. Houston made him the 43rd overall pick, adding him to what is regarded as one of pro ball’s better defensive units already.
If being a second-rounder wasn’t encouraging enough to McKinney, how the Texans maneuvered to take him was an even better sign of his value. Houston exchanged fourth- and sixth-round picks for this selection slot.
“It means a lot to me, man,” said McKinney in the same provided statement. “They traded for me. It shows they really wanted me and were interested in me. When I get there I’m just going to work my heart out and be the best that I can be.”
McKinney was one of the SEC’s best linebackers for sure. He tallied 71 tackles, which looks low but is explained by State’s insistence on a regular defensive rotation. McKinney’s stats would have been several levels higher if played more snaps. He still had 3.0 sacks with three hurries and recovered three fumbles while ‘quarterbacking’ the Dog defense. Which was natural; he played quarterback as well as linebacker in high school.
McKinney also joined 2011 defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (1st round) as Dog juniors turning pro a year early. Though, McKinney did redshirt as a true freshman. He’s the second-highest Dog linebacker draftee since 1970 and highest since Johnie Chooks was #2 overall in 1982.
He isn’t the only linebacker drafted off this defense though. Outside ‘backer Matthew Wells had to wait until the sixth round to hear his name called. But it was the world champions calling it as Wells went to New England, #178 overall.
Wells, who came to Mississippi State as a defensive back, made the move to linebacker and thrived in every sort of scheme. He had ‘just’ 45 tackles as a senior but it was the variety of plays he made scouts noticed; 4.0 sacks and 4.5 more stops for losses in run- and rush-defense, with eight broke-up passes in coverage downfield. Wells also dominated MSU Pro Day with a 4.41 forty-dash for scouts from every NFL franchise and a 35.5 vertical jump. By coincidence, Wells will reunite with former Dog outside linebackers Deontae Skinner and middle-man Chris White in New England.
So through six seasons five Mullen linebackers have been drafted, and more are playing today—like Skinner—as free agent signs.
The surprise of State’s draft watch was tight end/receiver Malcolm Johnson, also a sixth-rounder and to Cleveland as #195 overall. He was the first offensive Bulldog taken. Johnson, like Wells, is an all-arounder sort of player. A high school receiver, he moved to what officially is called tight end in Mullen’s spread offense but is really a ‘big’ slot receiver opposite the ‘speed’ slot man.
Johnson caught 28 balls for 380 yards as a senior with three touchdowns. He finished his varsity career with 79 catches for 1,148 yards and ten touchdowns. Besides his route-running and receiving, Johnson might have been respected most in the squad room and in scouting reports for his blocking skills that set up teammates for bigger gains. He is the first Dog tight end drafted since 2003.
Teammates like, say, Josh Robinson. The ebullient and All-SEC back gambled by entering the draft as a junior and won with sixth-round selection by Indianapolis, #205 overall.
The popular ‘J Rob’ or ‘Bowling Ball’ or ‘Touchdown’, the most-nicknamed Dog ever maybe, ended his three varsity seasons with 1,997 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. The largest chunk of that came in 2014 with 1,203 yards and 11 scores as he became the full-time starter at last. What the Colts also saw was his 493 receiving yards and one touchdown out of the backfield. Robinson’s speed helped him tie the program record with 6.2 yards per-carry.
Something else Indianapolis knew; they have one former Mullen runner on the roster already in Vick Ballard, injured this past season. They and 2009 selection Anthony Dixon give Mullen three drafted backs. And with 2013 starter LaDarius Perkins also playing pro ball as a free agent, every starter under MSU backs coach Greg Knox has gone on to the NFL now.
As for total picks only the 1995 class, with six selections, topped this 2014 team for draftees and two of those were seventh-rounders. Six is also this program’s record for the ‘common draft’ era which began in 1967.
For those keeping score then, there have been 18 drafted Bulldogs who played for Dan Mullen; and for all his well-won reputation as an offensive coach, eleven of the draftees were defenders. This reflects the balanced approach to building a program.
What matters more to Mullen though is where his drafted Dogs came from and got to over their career courses. The coach emphasizes development for a good reason, as shown by the fact none of these five drafted players were ranked better than three stars out of high school and some were given just two by prep analysts. Four and five years later, NFL scouts gave their verdict on the development done at Mississippi State.
Yet the success story doesn’t end with draft day. There are the seven more Mullen alumni all headed to camps as free agents. Again the larger portion comes from the defensive side of State’s squadroom.
In fact tackle Kaleb Eulls could prove the ‘steal’ of free agency among league-bound defensive linemen. A four-year starter, tying the program record with 52 games-begun, Eulls has played both end and tackle and should find his place with New Orleans. Three-year partner at tackle P.J. Jones might well have been drafted on potential if not for nagging ankle and foot issues over his college career. Miami hopes Jones will stay healthy as a pro, though.
Injuries, especially in 2013, set back safety Jay Hughes. He will get a shot with St. Louis now, though there is also his eventual legal career to think about. Either way Hughes will make a winning case. And despite some off-field issues that cost him five senior-season games, defensive back Justin Cox has the athletic gifts—speed, especially—to keep him in scout minds. Plus, Cox played cornerback as a junior and safety as a senior so he’s got experience either way, not to mention kick return potential.
While the Dog defensive line is losing three starters to pro ball, so now is the offensive line. All three of the 2014 seniors will go the free-agent route. Guard Ben Beckwith was contracted by San Diego—a destination that likely makes up for going undrafted!—while left tackle Blaine Clausell signed with Baltimore and center Dillon Day with Denver.
As for the draft days standings Mississippi State tied for 10th-most selections in all college football, and tied for fourth in the SEC behind Florida 8, Alabama 7, and Missouri 6.
But for the development score? Here are the stars granted all of the Bulldog draftees and free agents on their signing day. Kaleb Eulls 4, Matt Wells 4, P.J. Jones 3, Jay Hughes 3, Josh Robinson 3, Preston Smith 2, Benardrick McKinney 2, Blaine Clausell 2, Dillon Day 2, Malcolm Johnson 2, Justin Cox 2, Ben Beckwith 0 (walk-on).
Development? Yes, it definitely feels fine blowing across Bulldog Country.