Steve Robertson - Genespage.com

What Questions Could Confront Coach, Players at League's Annual Press Fest?

Ahhh, SEC Media Days. It’s supposed to be about football, and sort-of is. Or was. Now, the four-day affair in the Hoover (Don’t Call Us Birmingham) Wynfrey Hotel is a self-congratulatory conference confab to remind who is big dog of the college sports world.

And the press corps with its proclaimed Billions Served showing up each year? Well, some actually show up expecting to do work. The rest of us are basically willing props to again prove SEC prominence. And to sop-up a whole lot of Dr. Pepper. Their real purpose more often seems to talk to each other…

…because on the whole coaches and players arrive groomed and guarded (certainly in the case of Alabama and now Auburn’s us-too escorts which would’ve impressed Stalin) against saying much of anything informative. Much less interesting. If the SEC were to create a permanent timeslot for the much-missed Steve Spurrier, none would object.

OK, this is not entirely fair to the SEC Office. Commissioner Greg Sankey knows his stuff and if he is no more likely to stray off-topic than his predecessor, he certainly does it with more gracefully. The SEC really tries to make this event productive.

It’s the objects of our interviews that leave media forced to interview peers. Because most coaches know better, and the players are warned if not threatened outright against saying something stupid that will go on their program’s permanent record, so to speak. Or at least not provide more bulletin board material than necessary after a couple hours of numbing questions.

All this set-up said…what should Dan Mullen and his trio of Bulldogs expect to be asked Tuesday morning? Hopefully, nothing that media relations and just plain common sense have prepped them for. This includes the chance that a recent high-profile and non-sports issue like last week’s Dallas tragedy, policing in general and race relations in particular, will be raised. See, nowadays college athletes are expected to hold-forth on such heavy topics with cameras and recorders running and not stumble or stammer. It also makes last year’s try-to-inflame topic of paying college athletes seen quaintly charming now.

So then. What should Mullen, Richie Brown, A.J. Jefferson, and Fred Ross expect to hear from media mouths Tuesday? One unavoidable has already been thrown at other coaches Monday.

 

1.Jeffrey Simmons in particular and domestic violence/sexual assault in general. Don’t get mad at the messenger. It’s coming. Mississippi State knows and has practiced for it, as are all schools and for that matter teams here in the post-Baylor era. And don’t fume about non-football questions, much less asking about legal issues of a high school student that occurred far from and before he arrived on the Starkville campus. It is a different world.

Mullen will be asked variations like why was Simmons allowed to enroll, why a one-game suspension was announced so far in advance of the season, is that sufficient in the light of circumstances, etc. and so on. The three seniors will likely get another variation, about what type of teammate Simmons is. By the way, word from MSU sources is…outstanding. Great grades in summer, big results in the weightroom, and obvious talent that tickets 2016 playing time without redshirting.

Ideally, to the mind of this former p.r. flacker, Mullen will address it before it can be asked to set the framework for any follow-up. More ideally, someday soon the SEC Office would be listing Jeffrey Simmons on an academic honor roll and a freshman all-conference player. And in a couple of years outside media can come back and get the whole story. If they want and haven’t found other juicer topics.

Oh, and it might go even tougher on Tennessee at their turn given latest developments which not only involve the social issues, but include cash penalties. It’s not pretty, but it is our sports world now.

 

2.How are the quarterbacks stacking up going into August? Otherwise interpreted as suggesting with Dak Prescott gone is State’s offense falling off the map? At least we’re back on football.

But of course no SEC school and particularly not Mississippi State (accept it) can lose a two-time All-SEC quarterback and not take an expectations hit. The good part for us who cover the Bulldogs full-time is we finally get to hear the head coach talk about the quarterbacks again, first time since April.

What do I expect to hear? That it remains wide-open competition and there is no number-one going into August. What do I believe? That if the season opened next week, against South Alabama, Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams would be 1-2 or 2-1. If it were against a good SEC opponent, I’d expect Williams to be the starter just on comfort factor. Certainly not on sheer potential.

Either way, it’ll give us something to write about.

 

3.Can State adequately replace De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Brown in the passing game? Well, spring showed there are numbers to work with…infinitely better than when Mullen arrived in 2009 to find a near-barren corps of quality receivers and had to play a lot of freshmen. Now if rookies play it’s because they’re good.

Mullen should be able to provide encouraging updates on Donald Gray’s recovery, as we got from strength coach Nick Savage last week. And Ross is there to speak for himself of course. A good side-question is with Ross locked into the lineup what will Mullen do to get Malik Dear on the field more often and in more ways.

Also, asking about the passing game—and in conjunction with the quarterback battle—gives State excellent openings to talk about progress in a reemphasized running game.

 

4.Has the Egg Bowl become too intense for the good of the teams or state? Here too there is an interpretation: is State playing catch-up after losing three of the last four meetings? Actually it won’t be shocking if this is asked this outright. Answers will depend on phrasing and presentation in that event.

To the original query, the answer is: of course not. It’s good for us all to have a rivalry this polarizing and passionate. It’s football and sports, for goodness sakes. If the Egg Bowl didn’t count for as much as the rest of the season combined, more even, then it would not be a rivalry. Ditto for any state an all conferences that have such life-and-breath annual feuds. Without them league administrators, most coaches, and especially media members would have to get real jobs.

At least there shouldn’t be any suggestion of a ‘hot seat’ for a coach on an unprecedented streak of extended success. Repeat, shouldn’t. This is Media Days and you never know…

 

5.How has the new defensive staff performed and will the defense be competitive? With two defensive Dogs picked to appear, this will get answered easily and accurately. The new staff is a hit, so to speak. And the defense they inherited not only suits their schemes but by all accounts, public and private, meshes with the mindset and emotions of Peter Sirmon’s playbook.

Oh, Richie Brown will be low-key, with humor so dry most media will miss it. That’s why he is a cool captain. But A.J.? For a guy who a year ago this time said he hated doing interviews, Mr. Jefferson has become a press corps favorite. He more than maybe even his coach can set a team-tone at Media Day with his sly grin and open fun handling questions.

At the same time I’d expect at least one p.r. staffer to stay close. Because A.J. always runs the risk of getting a little too loose with media. We locals love it and won’t burn him of course. Outsiders are another matter.

Also as to pre-season All-SEC this year…my hopes aren’t high. Brown is worthy but his profile isn’t flashy enough in this linebacking league. Defensive end is loaded this year, maybe more so. And while Ross may be the offensive MVP of the team, attention will go to wideouts at Alabama, A&M, and others first. Second team, maybe. Brandon Bryant is too young but wait for the real All-SEC teams in December in his case.

 

Finally, while it might not be a question, it will be shocking if Mullen himself doesn’t raise it in his intro-talk About being picked last in the West again. Now, maybe State won’t booked for the cellar be this time, if only because Arkansas’ situation is so uncertain. And of course the voting won’t be tallied until Thursday, by which time some of the MSU media will have left without voting. Like, me.

Fact is though since about his second Media Days Mullen has all-but-challenged the press corps to tab State last. And in general they’ve accommodated. It can’t simply be history either because, painful as it is to admit, yours truly might be among the 2% of folk there who remember the original Media Days at the downtown Sheraton…much less the ancient Skywriters tour.

No, most of the current press corps came along when Mississippi State was usually competitive and often a contender. But that doesn’t stop them from making MSU their default last-place pick.

This does allow Mullen of course to attack the issue without asking, and comment on how consistently his teams have exceeded expectations. Which they have. So the coach can’t lose in the perception game, hey?


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