"First thing about our team is I feel we are more of a team now than we have been in the three years that I've been here. I say that not just from my observation but from the feedback I get from the players. I think they are closer and interact a lot better with each other on and off the field. We have a tremendous work ethic. They worked extremely hard this spring. And there were never any negative comments about why we were doing this or why we were doing that. And we put them in some situations where I wanted to see that.
"My number one goal was not so much football. Because I know with repetition and if our guys stay healthy, at some point we are going to be a good football team. I'm not worried about that. It was the intangible things I wanted to see. Things like leadership, discipline, creating a trust between coaches and players and between players and players, offense and defense, and everybody sacrificing their own individual needs and putting the team first. Those were the things I was most concerned about. If we have a winning attitude and we are truly a close knit team with one heartbeat and one mindset, then we will be a good football team.
"If we started today, we would have no more than four or five seniors starting, but all of our starters, except for Brandon McRae, will have SEC game experience. Now, we have a much more experienced team going into the season. And that is a huge, huge improvement over last year."
You are going into your fourth year. Is this program about where you expected it would be?
"It is. To be honest with you, when I came into this, I wasn't worried about my coaching record. I knew it would be part of the process. Doing it the way I was going to do it was going to take some time. We were going to have to play young players.
"During the interview I asked them if they understood that a lot of players would leave. If I do this a lot of players will leave the program. Which meant that we would have to start all over from scratch. They told me they understood.
"I knew, based on how I do things, some people weren't going to stay because there are certain people who won't do what we asked them to do. Those people just wanted to come to college just to play football. They didn't want to go to school. That wasn't going to happen here. And there are certain guys who don't want to go out there and practice for two and a half hours. If you don't want to practice hard and work hard, then this is not the place to come.
"Now, with the players I have, I trust this football team. During two-a-days this fall we aren't going two days in pads. We are going to have practice in pads one day, then the next one will be in shorts because I trust this football team. In the past, we had to establish a work ethic. Now, that work ethic has been established. I know we will work. Nobody is going to work harder than us. Now, we want to make sure they are healthy and that they are learning."
Is it now to the point where the other players, not just the coaches, but the players who are teaching that work ethic to the younger players?
"Yes, the players now know this is the Bulldog way of doing things. When those freshmen come in here, the older guys are going to tell them this is how we do things. The first two years the coaches had to take that lead. Now the players are doing that."
What are some other things you've seen that satisfies you about your team and program?
"Our players really believe in what we are doing. I think they take pride in putting that jersey on. I think they take pride in that M on their helmet. We haven't won a lot of games, but they are proud to put that jersey on and to have that M on their helmet. That had to be first because you have no chance to win without that.
"I am pleased with where we are academically. We've had two years where we have had the second and third highest GPA this football program has ever had. I'm pretty excited about that. I am looking forward to us having the highest one ever and we are going to do that in the next year or two.
"I am ecstatic about where we are headed with our facilities, especially the new academic center with the cafeteria. That will be a big boost for us. I am happy with what we've done with our new dorms. And it's not just football, but all the other things that have changed around the campus. When you walk on this campus, you are glad to be a part of it. It makes you proud to be a part of everything that is happening. There are a lot of positive things happening on this campus. And when you drive around the city of Starkville, there is a lot of construction going on. A lot of things are happening in this community right now. It's a good time to be a Mississippi State Bulldog."
What about the record of your team the first three years?
"Really, from a record standpoint, I think we are about where I thought we would be. The amazing thing about it is the first two years we weren't competitive, we were not a good football team. I remember when people were so upset when we lost to Maine. When I looked at the film that week, I knew that Maine was a better football team than us. To be honest with you, I was surprised the game was as close as it was. I really was because I thought we were going to get beat two touchdowns. We were really that bad. Those first two years, that was where we were. We were not an SEC football team."
Are you still at the point where you can't afford an injury to a player like Mike Henig?
"I think right now we don't want to find out at that position, particularly early. I think as the season goes on, Josh Riddell will be good enough to carry us. But I don't want to find out against LSU because he hasn't played in the SEC. And we can't lose Anthony Dixon early. Those two guys are the key guys on our team right now."
You will have a very experience offensive line this coming season. How important will that be for this team?
"I'll give you a prime example. We had 22 sacks in the first six games and we had six the last six. I think that answers the questions. That's the difference. That unit has to work together better than any other unit on the field. You have to have the same guys, at the same position with some degree of consistency. People don't understand but on the offensive line a lot of things happen in that split second right before the ball is snapped. All five of those guys have to operate with a single mindset and have to all be on the same page."
What happens during that second?
"If one guy on defense moves, that changes everything. That changes all the calls and all the schemes. When they line up, the center makes the call that puts everybody on the same page. But if somebody (on defense) moves just before the ball is snapped, everybody has to recognize that move and what they have to do. And they have to do it all together. People talk about the quarterback recognizing coverages. But it's more important for the offensive line to recognize stunts.
"Defenses don't just stand still. Sometimes defenses line up and react to what the offense does. But sometimes they have a predetermined stunt where they are going to slant or run a stunt and twist. And those offensive linemen have to pick it up."
Doesn't the quarterback make adjustments for them?
"With the offensive line? No, the quarterback has nothing to do with the offensive line, absolutely nothing. The offensive line has to tell him what to do."
Is that why it's so difficult for a freshman to come in and start on the offensive line and be an effective lineman?
"There is no way. He can't see all of that. You can only pick things up on the offensive line through repetition. If the defense has a twist and he doesn't switch it off, then you have one guy running free toward your quarterback. That's why they spend so much time working with themselves. They are where your football team starts, those five guys."
And the guys you have now, do you feel they can handle those kind of things due to their experience?
"There is no question. We have six guys, six veteran guys who I know can play. This time last year, I knew of only two. But this year I know we have six that can play."
When I reflect on how difficult it is to play offensive line, it makes me even more impressed with a guy like Brian Anderson who played numerous positions on the offensive line
"A guy who can play all five positions on the offensive line, and he could do it, is phenomenal. And the thing about it is even if he's not a great player, it takes a unique individual to be able to do it. First thing, he has to be a highly intelligent person. And he has to be a guy who can take coaching because very little of the offensive line comes natural."
Since offensive linemen have to be highly intelligent and have to be very coachable, how important is it to you to get them to your camps to see if they meet that criteria?
"A great offensive lineman you can see on film, just like you can a great quarterback. But if you are a guy who has to be developed, just like a quarterback, you have to see them in camp. You want to not only see how smart he is, but what kind of work ethic he has.
"What happens is if he has the minimum SEC ability, but has a great work ethic, then he can exceed that. That's the kind of player I was. I wasn't a great player. That's why I didn't play until my junior year. I developed into being a good player. And a lot of good offensive linemen in this league and in the NFL developed into being good players. What they have is a high degree of perseverance built into their character. They will not give up on themselves, they are not going to quit. They will be at every workout. The guys who develop themselves come to every workout and do exactly what the coach says. Then, when they get through with the coach, they stay out there and do extra. A guy like that might not have great ability, you can win with a guy like that, maybe not all of them, but you can win with some guys like that."
If you have five solid players who are all on the same page, that kind of offensive line can help make a great play, can't it?
"Yes they can. If they have one heartbeat because they have worked at it and are fighters and are all on the same page, you can win with guys like that. Then, when you throw in a Mike Brown, a guy who is an excellent pass-protector on the left side, and you throw in a guy like Anthony Strauder, now that takes it up to the next level."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.