"When guys ask me what my goals are as far as won-lost record, it's got to be 11-0, because I don't know which ones we are supposed to concede."
What will your team be like this year?
"We are going to have some fun. We are going to be a lot more aggressive in every area. We are not going to play cautious. We are not going to play conservative. We are going to play Bulldog football. What I mean by that is we are not going to beat ourselves, we are going to be very physical, we are going to play fast, we are going to play smart football. And we'll never quit."
Do you have the talent level to compete (in the SEC) this year?
"I think we do, but the thing that concerns me is the improvement in the talent level is with young people, the freshmen. And it is tough for freshmen to play well in the SEC. The thing I feel good about is the maturity level of our freshmen. I think that is unusual. I'm expecting them to do well even though they are young. A lot of those incoming freshmen will have key roles as far as the outcome of our season. We are going to put them on the second units during the first weeks of training camp and give them every opportunity to play. Hopefully, they will pick it up fast and make a contribution early. We'll have to be patient with them even though we will have to push them. They understand that. Whatever mistakes they make will all be my mistakes. We are at a point in the building of our program where we have to improve our talent level in order to compete with the other teams in the conference. And putting those young men on the field will give us an opportunity to do that."
You've got a year under your belt. What are your thoughts about your second year?
"I'm excited about the second year. I'm glad that I don't have to talk about myself anymore. Now, we can talk about our football team. Our team will be better than last year's team. I hope our record will indicate that. I know our attitude is a lot better. Our talent level, even though it's probably not up to the level of some of the top teams in this conference - Tennessee, Alabama and Florida, just to mention a few -, will be much improved over what it was last year. Another thing is I know our attitude is better. We've also changed some players around so that we have guys in positions where they can really make an impact this season. They've done so very willingly. We are in better shape than last year. And there's no question that we are mentally and physically tougher than we were going into the season this time last year. Our coaches feel better about the system that we have in place."
What does it tell you about your team that you had 7 players selected to the SEC Coaches' All-SEC teams?
"That doesn't tell me anything that I don't already know. I know we have some guys who have potential. But right now, except for Jerious Norwood, (Kevin) Dockery and (Chris) McNeil, the rest of them are still potential as far as I'm concerned. The rest of them haven't done enough on the field. I do think it's great for our program and it's great for those young men, because it does say that they do have the ability to be outstanding players."
Do you think your team had turned the corner last season, then losing the last three derailed that momentum?
"I don't think it really derailed any momentum. The only thing I will say about the last three is during the Ole Miss game some things that I thought we had gotten corrected showed up in that game. Some things happened in the course of those last couple of days in practice from a leadership standpoint that let me know that we were going to have to get some things corrected in the offseason. I think we have gotten that corrected. I made a mistake by letting the players go home for Thanksgiving. I think we lost our concentration. They won't be going home for Thanksgiving ever again before the Ole Miss game. I can tell you that. The Ole Miss game was the only game that I was embarrassed for our fans. We were flat out embarrassed because we didn't show up, we didn't compete, we didn't play, we were beat from the first play of the game. They wanted to win the game more than we did. And when you play your rival, when you play Ole Miss, it's got to be more important than anything else. It wasn't that way. And I take full responsibility for that. And I promise you it won't happen again."
How anxious are you to reverse the trend against the Rebels?
"Oh, we are going to reverse the trend. That is going to get done."
Talk about your relationship with your starting center, Chris McNeil.
"There are certain positions that you have to be leader just by the nature of the positions. The center position is one of them. When we look for someone for that position, we not only look for the talent to play the position, but the intelligence and the leadership skills. That's the guy I count on to hold our offensive line together. That's the guy I count on to help Omarr (Conner) create tempo in our offense. There may be things that I tell him in practice like telling him to pick up the tempo. He knows exactly what I mean. And it may be in that game as well. He's the one who allows Omarr to get the plays and call the plays. He's in charge of the huddle. That's one of the things I liked about the position - you are in charge. And I expect our centers to take that role and take some of the responsibility from the quarterback."
I know you don't want to talk about yourself, but how's the knee doing? You had knee surgery earlier this year.
"I've made tremendous progress this week. Paul Mock, our trainer, has done a great job of helping me out. But, to be very honest with you, I didn't do what I was supposed to do during my vacation, so I had a little bit of a setback and got a little tendinitis in my quad tendon. In fact, I was afraid I had torn something. I'm not as tough as I used to be. But it feels a lot better today. I guess, because football practice starts next week, it has to feel good now."
What kind of reports have you gotten from your strength coach, Jim Nowell, about your players' conditioning?
"First of all, I think Jim Nowell is as good of a strength coach as there is in the country. We've made tremendous strength gaines during the course of the season last year. Now that the weight facility that has been completed and all the weights are in, the facility is outstanding. Our players have taken a lot of pride in the facility and the program itself.
"Jim has told me that most of our guys are already able to pass our conditioning test right now. I'm excited about where we are from a conditioning standpoint."
Your alma mater, Alabama, is coming to Mississippi State this season.
"I'm not going to make any bones about it - if I'm still coaching 10 years from now, when we get ready to play Alabama, it's going to be a big game to me. And that will never change, because it's my alma mater. All of them are big, but when we play Alabama and Ole Miss, those are big. They are what it's all about. And I want our players to feel that same way. While I want it to be intense everytime we go out there. I want us to play every game - Murray State and all the way through the schedule - like it is the only game we are going to play (this year). But, when we play Ole Miss and Alabama, I want them to play them like they are the last game that they will ever play."
What are your thoughts about moving a player from one position to another?
"I want to recruit guys that relish being a part of a championship team and relish winning. And in doing that, I want players on our team that trust our judgement and our evaluations. When we ask players to move, it is always first for the good of the team. But I do take into strong consideration the players potential for moving to the next level. One of the things I talked to Quinton (Culberson) about when we moved him from corner was the fact that there are no 220 pound corners in the NFL. His potential of playing corner in the NFL, based on my 17 years of experience in the NFL, is slim and none. By the same token, I felt Deljuan Robinson's only chance to go to the next level was by playing at defensive tackle instead of playing at defensive end. While I know it will help our team, I am also aware that every last one of our players want to play on the next level. We just had a young man come into our program who was a 260-pound tight end when we recruited him. He shows up and is 295 pounds. I don't know of any tight ends in the NFL that play in the West Coast offense that are 295 pounds. I don't want the guy starving himself to death just so that he can play tight end. Plus, we need him at left tackle."
Talk about a former player of yours, David Stewart?
"David Stewart, who will always be special to me, played every play, every game like it was the last time he was going out there. When I talk to our players about doing things the Bulldog way, if they will do it like David Stewart, then we will be fine."
Where does quarterback Mike Henig stand as far as the depth chart?
"We were fortunate with Mike. I played him one snap, then he had some health problems and we weren't able to play him anymore. We got last year to count as a redshirt year for him. He had a good spring. And we expect him to compete for the number 2 spot behind Omarr Conner. We need him to provide us with some solid depth as our number two quarterback."
How far along is your team in regard to understanding the West Coast offense?
"We'll know more once we start practice, but I know we are a lot farther along than we were last year, particularly in our three-step and five-step game. We were a very poor three-step drop team last year except for the plays where (tight end) Eric Butler was the primary target. We have to get more three-step game to our wide receivers. A lot of that not only has to do with solid protection at the line of scrimmage, but better routes by our receivers and better drops by our quarterbacks."
Talk about Jerious Norwood. Do you think he will step up this year?
"I sure do hope so because he's our guy. He's the only big-time back that we have. He's very talented and is a better back this year than he was last year simply because he has been in the system a year. One of the reasons we didn't (recruit) a great back last year was because we knew Jerious was our guy and was going to play a lot this year. And we had so many other areas that we had to addressed. We are going to be recruiting some great backs this year to come in and fill the void that we will have once he leaves."
What is the biggest challenge coming from the pros to the college game?
"Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting, recruiting - that is the biggest challenge. At any level, the game ultimately comes back to procuring of personnel. Personnel is what it's all about. You can talk about facilities, the meal plan, but it's all about people. It all comes back to getting a group of people to believe in a common goal. Then, having enough talent to execute the things necessary to reach that goal. That's what it's all about. It's about recruiting.
"The game is even now. The days when Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida are going to get all the players and redshirt a lot of them and stockpile them, those days are over. The 25 scholarship limit and the 85 limit ended that. That's why programs like ours have a chance to build."
With all the new academic requirements, has recruiting changed?
"We are all going to have to recruit a different type player. Not only do the high schools have to understand this, but the parents do as well. No longer can the players wait until their junior year to start thinking about going to college and be a college football player. They are going to have start thinking about that earlier than that because a lot of these kids that aren't getting into college is because of grades that did poorly on in the 9th grade. Most of them do well their senior year when they finally wake up. Something parents need to understand is if they take the ball away from them in the 8th and 9th grade to help them get their academics in order, they are going to do it because they want to play. Right now, we are waiting far to late. There are too many good athletes out there that are not dumb but are not able to get into college. You can't be dumb and play football any longer.
"I'll say this. In our state (of Mississippi) last year, we had too many kids who were making 17 and 18 on their math and science on the ACT, but were making 6 and 7 on the reading and comprehension part. How are you going to excel if you can't read, write or comprehend?"
Does the family atmosphere on your team make it much easier to recruit?
"We made a lot of improvement, but (the media) had a lot to do with it, too. All those interviews I did when I may not have wanted to do - they all paid off. It got us some exposure nationally and got kids calling us from as far away as Venice, California. It got us into some areas that I might not have sent our coaches to.
"We are a small town and our campus (population) is small. But there are players that don't want to go to a 40,000-student campus. They don't want to go to an urban area. They want to go where they can walk to class and walk on green grass. And live in a small town. Or be able to walk or ride a bicycle to get from one side of the campus to the other. And still have an opportunity to play in the best conference in college football. They want to be in a small family environment and still play big-time college football. Those are the guys we are looking for."
You mentioned facilities. How would you compare your facilities today to what you had last year?
"Right now, we are in a building frenzy at Mississippi State. And it's great because the timing couldn't have come at a better time. The Holliman Center houses our football team. We have a new weightroom. We have a new locker room. We have new meeting rooms. Our men's and women's track teams have a new locker room and new weight room. Our freshmen players are moving into a brand new dorm. We have another new dorm going up that will house our varsity players next year. Our new indoor practice facility, the Palmeiro Center, which was a gift from Rafael Palmeiro, should be finished about the middle of September. We will have a new welcome center being built near Davis Wade Stadium. We'll have a new Barnes and Noble Book Store inside that center. Plans are already on the books - and will, hopefully, be announced soon - for a brand new athletic academic center. Our facilities will be as good as anybody in the conference. We won't have marble walls in some of our facilities like some of our counterparts, but we don't think that we need that to get the kind of players that want to come to Mississippi State. We aren't going to try to keep up with Alabama and Tennessee because they build something every year, but all of our facilities will be first class."
What else would you want that isn't already on the books or being built?
"We have one more project. If you have a million dollars I would like for you to give it to me as soon as this meeting is over with. Once we finish the things that I have mentioned, the next thing we want to do is totally renovate our practice fields. We want two more practice fields that will tie in the current site to the Palmeiro Center. We want to change our lighting. We want it to be as good as anything in the conference."
You may want to call Fred Smoot about the million dollars.
"(Laugh) I've called Fred Smoot. We would love to put Fred's name on something at Mississippi State."
Who do you think is the class of the SEC West?
"You have to start with Auburn and Alabama. Auburn has earned the right because of the great team they had last year, so I would put them first. They did lose four first round draft choices. That is tough and will be felt somewhere. But they are still a good football team with an excellent football staff. Alabama is returning a lot of players and it's probably time for them to make a move. And I'm sure that they will. I know that Les (Miles) has an excellent staff at LSU. I know a lot of those coaches I know very well. He has two excellent coordinators. And they have a lot of talent. When we played LSU last year, I thought that they were as talented as anybody I saw in the country last year."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.