Post-spring talk, that is, as all conference clubs have finally completed their camps. Mississippi State’s was done over a month ago, so Dan Mullen has had time to evaluate results and draw coaching conclusions.
But, as becomes the norm in the profession, Monday’s SEC teleconference was not so much about what went on with Bulldog spring camp. Other than the transition to new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the uncertain placekicking situation, and what is left for Nick Fitzgerald to develop.
A Dawgs’ Bite transcript, mildly edited for clarity we hope, follows.
Opening Statement “It was a good spring for us. We had some changes to our defensive staff, and I thought our guys stated picking things up quickly. We’re trying to grow some depth.”
“We have a young football team, we have 12 seniors on the roster so we’ve got a really young outfit. A lot of opportunities for guys to get on the field and go play. There are guys who took advantage of that. But a lot of work between now and the start of the season. Hopefully they continue to work all summer and pick up right where we left off going into training camp.”
What are your thoughts on the early signing period and how it will affect schools in the SEC? “I think it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in December. I think one of the big things to look at is if the majority of kids are signing December 15, then in the future that’s really going to become the new signing day more than an early signing day.”
“So it’s going to be interesting who the whole thing shakes out, how guys go about it. Are prospects looking to get more visits in-season or early December?
“Or are guys going to let the whole recruiting process play out and the early signing day be what it’s designed for; which is for guys that know where they’re going to school or have already made commitments to their school to just get recruiting over with and out of the way?”
Is that a concern for you? “I don’t know that it’s a concern as much as its something new. And it’s a change, so we have to look at all the unintended consequences or the general consequences of what that is going to be. And from there, adjust how we set up our recruiting calendar schedule and how we go about our recruiting cycle here at Mississippi State.”
What was the key to Todd Grantham’s hiring and how did spring go with him? “Well I think we were fortunate to get someone of Todd’s caliber at Mississippi State. Through the process, we met and kind of hit it off. It was really the first time I got to sit down and talk with him. I know obviously his record and his reputation as a defensive coordinator in the past. But it was also important to me that he fits in staff-wise and my philosophy of the program and how the staff is going to interact.”
“I thought he did a great job of that. And I thought our players really responded well to him. And I think we’re going to have the opportunity to have a much-improved defense.”
There has been a lot of transition at coordinator, is that just life in the SEC? “I don’t know. I mean you see offensively we’ve been able to keep some guys around, our coordinators on offense have been here for a couple of years now. The same with special teams for me.”
“I just think in today’s world there’s all kind of opportunities. And then there’s things that, we’re in an instant gratification world where we need to win right away as well. So that also puts pressure on everybody to perform at a high level and do it immediately.”
There were missed kicks in the spring game, and that was a struggle last season. How much of a concern is that and what message does it send to incoming freshman Tucker Day? “I think Tucker, it’s a great opportunity for guys to get on the field and go play right away. It’s something that obviously coming out of spring it’s not a position we’re comfortable in. But we still have a ways to go before we get to our first game to get comfortable and see where we’re at, how that’s going to affect decision-making with what we do with the program and game-managing and philosophies within the game with the kicking game.”
“But I think for some of the guys that are freshmen coming in, a couple of guys are coming in as preferred walk-ons. There is going to be opportunities for them to go earn a spot, go play right away. And it will be a wide-open race into training camp.”
You’ve had your share of success developing quarterbacks. What is the biggest challenge? “One of the things is (what) you don’t get to see when you’re watching the film, it’s hard to find a lot of the most important factors. Mental, physical toughness, the processing of information. The leadership is sometimes hard to evaluate, you don’t get to see it on film.”
“So what you do is you try to spend time with guys. But it is finding the time. Making sure that they understand they have to put in time on their own if they want get themselves to be a high-performing player in the southeastern Conference. If you’re going to play quarterback in our league you’ve got to put in the extra time. Not just film study, understanding every part of the game.”
“And there’s a lot going on for guys. As they grow, as they develop you’ll start to see the strides that they make. We have a guy right now, this is a huge summer for Nick Fitzgerald and the strides he makes between the spring. I thought he had a much improved spring, this was his best performance in spring that I’ve seen.”
“But he has to take a huge step forward before we get into training camp. And he’s going to do that on his own. We can’t be out there working with him on the field. So it’s the commitment that guys are going to put in on their own so that they continue to improve even when the coaches can’t work with them.”
Why is it so difficult to find that right person to fit whatever system the coach is looking for? “I think there are so many of the little things, of the traits you look for in the quarterback. I mean you can watch how the kid throws or watch how he runs on film.”
“But there’s an awful lot more to the quarterback position than that, and that’s what is hard to evaluate. So what you’ve got to do is hope you can get to know them and their personality, you’ve done as much research as you can on them. So that you know what you’re getting as a complete package at quarterback.”
“I mean on film you can see how far he can throw and how accurate he might be. But there’s an awful lot more to the position than just how you throw the football.”
There is a rules proposal which would allow playing four games and keep the redshirt regardless of when the games are played, including bowl games. Are you in favor of that? “I’m definitely in favor of that. You look at some of the restrictions with academic redshirts, with injuries, with numbers of scholarships, with length of season. We’re looking at health and safety of players.”
“There might be a guy you might like to play but he’s not quite developed, he’s not ready whether it’s safety reasons or whatever reasons in your program. But as the season goes on at the end of his freshman year you say hey, this guy could be ready, he could take some reps off of another guy. I think you should be able to do that.”
“The other tragedy is a guy that may be a senior, midway through the season starts to play and play and plays two games and he gets hurt. Well, that counts as a whole year even though he played less than the four games that would be allowed at the beginning of the year.”
“So I think it would be very advantageous to the players and for the game and the development of these young men as they move forward both as players on the field and for safety reasons.”
What specifically is Nick Fitzgerald doing in the off-season? What kind of stuff do they have to work on, on their own? “You’re looking at a lot of things right now where he’s got the drill work. He’s going to throw routes with receivers, work on timing and balance, release points, release angles, off-balance throws, all the different drills that we’re going to do in practice.”
“His last practice was early April. If he doesn’t work on his skill until August you’re going to have all kinds of problems. I guarantee guys on the PGA Tour you’re not going to see a great golfer that hasn’t picked up a golf club in three months, or a tennis player that hasn’t picked up a racket or a basketball player that hasn’t dribbled a basketball in three months and expect them to go perform at a high level.”
“So it’s all the things. It’s continuing to work on his drill, his balance, his footwork, the things that he’s worked on to improve from one year to the next. You have to get 10,000 reps to become an expert at something. And we don’t have 10,000 reps in the practice time allotted. So you’re going to have to go do that on your own just technically.”
“Now off the field it’s the mental development of how fast you can process information. The more you study and recognize and understand coverage, of reads within the offense and getting not just to your first or second read but to the third and fourth read. The faster your brain can process that the better you’re going to be. And the more you study the film and understand the game the faster you’re going to process those things.”
“So it’s a never-ending cycle, that you’re always working at your trade. And it’s how college football sets up. Going into the season there’s a three-month period where we can’t be around our guys. So they have to kind of do that on their own.”
You’re aware of the time demand legislation, this isn’t going to keep them from working out on their own? But is it going to have an impact on that development? “It’s going to have on development. The less you practice, the less time you put into something, you’re not going to be good at it. If you want to be really good at something you’d better work hard at it, work harder than everybody else.”
“So I think it might create some more separation in college football between players that maybe are looking to just take time off, and guys that want to be great players.”