Pleased was one way to evaluate reactions, whether from professional or the public, to Mullen's first Mississippi State signing class. The specific final ranking of this group is still being tallied but those who make evaluating prospect posses their business are unanimous that a quality corps of new Bulldogs are being added for the 2009 roster. Or in eight cases—six junior college and two high school—already have been, in the form of mid-year enrollments.
Mullen and his staff (which itself has been finalized this week and will be formally released tomorrow) had every indication Signing Day would be as un-surprising as it was obviously-productive. When the last letters-of-intent rolled off the fax machines every single prospect that had publicly committed had indeed inked a Bulldog grant. None were lost to last-minute offers by opponents. Nor did any unexpected names turn up, either, though this wasn't an issue for Mullen and MSU as this class already exceeds the limit of 25 new scholarship players for 2009. Of course this list will trim itself the usual way over summer as a handful of today's signees will be delayed in coming to campus, either by grades or by choice.
So while Signing Day '09 didn't produce much in the way of last-chance excitement, it was certainly satisfying to the first-year coach and his staff…who, he said, have already begun thinking about the next class. Mullen did say that the assistants will have a short break here, especially those who have yet to move anything more than a suitcase to Starkville much less their families. In fact the head coach himself has some new-home matters to attend to now, as he and Megan prepare for the expected February arrival of their firstborn.
But that's tomorrow. Today, Mullen and Mississippi State can celebrate the arrival of a lot of new pups; many of whom come fall will be instrumental in bringing Bulldog football back to the SEC spotlight.
The complete Wednesday press conference transcript follows:
Opening statement: "I was a great day today. I'm pleased, we have 27 signees in this class. Eight have already enrolled. I'm really pleased 19 of those 27 players are from the state of Mississippi, which was one of our goals when I was hired here to make sure we recruit the top players in the state and keep them in-state and let them come play for us. And to get 19 out of 27, we're pretty pleased with that ratio for us, I think it's the highest ratio of any of the schools in the state.
"(We have) Great balance, we have 12 defense and 13 offensive players, two specialists joining this class. We already have eight of those young men enrolled and they're training with us, doing a great job.
"I'm very proud of the job this staff did. When you get hired as a new coach and with the new staff coming in here there can be the risk with all that turnover and all that turmoil. I think our staff did a tremendous job putting this class together. Especially the guys I retained--David Turner, Reed Stringer, Rockey Felker, and Melvin Smith-those four guys holding the bulk of this class together, as well as our new coaches coming in and making an immediate impact. I think our coaches did a fabulous, fabulous job and I'm pretty pleased with these players we have coming to play for us right now."
Q: This class has a lot of defensive backs and wide receivers, but you said you wanted to sign the very best players possible. "I think we've tried to assign a position on here as best as possible for release. But a lot of these guys we're going to find out what they can do. One of the guys that is here right now, Cameron Lawrence, we're going to find out this spring; he could be playing offense or defense for us. But there are a lot of guys on this list that have flexibility, and they're real solid football players. So what we want to do is get them here all on campus eventually, put them through a little bit of conditioning this summer—the guys that aren't here yet—and once we get on the field find a home for them and a position for them to play with in our system."
Q: Does the fact you signed seven receivers show the emphasis on that in the system? "We're a little short at that position now. I usually like to keep 11 to 12 on scholarship, and when I took over we were at four. I think last year with my (Florida) team we had five different receivers catch touchdown passes in the SEC and national championship games, and there were only four on scholarship when I got here. So we needed to make some adjustments, get some guys in here. Obviously getting Leon Berry in a mid-semester and already practicing with us was a huge step in the right direction. Then the other guys, we're going to need them to come in and make a pretty immediate impact for us. So we're pretty excited about those things and getting those guys on campus to get us rolling in the right direction."
Q: Was there any position you wish you had gotten more guys? "The corner position is going to be a big emphasis for us. I don't know, we might look at some of these guys and see if one of the receivers, one of the safeties we signed if they could possibly play corner to balance out the class a little bit. That's going to be a big point for us next year, even though every year you're trying to get the best players possible at every position. I'd say that's one spot we're lacking, as well as next year it will probably be a pretty decent offensive line-year for us and fill some of those positions up."
Q: What was the difference in the first signing day as a head coach? "I guess during your career, when you start off as a young position coach and a recruiting coach you're worried about alright, I have one quarterback going to sign, and three other guys I recruit are going to sign; so you're up all night worrying about those three. As a coordinator you're thinking OK, we're signing nine offensive players right here, we've got to get all nine on-board.
"I had 27 names rolling through…well, eight are already here so I felt good about those, but I'm thinking they'd better wake up on time for our workout at 5:45 this morning! But the other 19 are just going your mind over and over and over, making sure have we covered every possible angle to make sure that these guys are going to be coming and playing for the Bulldogs? So I think last night our whole staff did a great job. We sat in the room and called every one of those prospects, and everybody felt pretty comfortable with the position we were at. We had really no surprises today, so we were pretty pleased in how it worked out.
"I didn't sleep a whole lot last night, just thinking. You get paranoid at about 2:00 in the morning, thinking boy, OK we've covered that angle? Montrell Conner has told me he's coming, he's good to go. But you're just always thinking, making sure that you're all set with everything, and hoping that this morning would turn out the way it turned out for us."
Q: Have you been pleased with the reception at Mississippi high schools? "I have. And I think we've put together a staff that has a lot of respect of Mississippi high school coaches, they already had a lot of relationships built here on your staff. I'm pleased also with 19 of our 27 players coming from the state. I think we've started to make a push today for next year's class, before our coaches get out of here talking to the top players, juniors in the state already for next year to get that started. Because we want to make sure every year. I hope a year from now I'm coming up here talking about a majority of our class are high school players from the state of Mississippi. That's very important, that's one of the reasons I took the job so we don't have to travel around the country to find great talent. We have it right here in the state, we just want to get it to come play for us."
Q: Are there any thought that some of these guys will go to junior college? "I think that's up in the air. With our coaches we're going to do a real, thorough concentration for us working with the counselors and working with these grades to get these guys all eligible. That (placing) would be a last resort for us.
"Let me see if there's one I know for sure. I think Darius Slay might be the one we're pretty set that he's going have to go to junior college at this point within the recruiting class. And that was kind of talked about during his visit, even though we still have a plan for him trying to make it. But at this point are coaches are going to work over the next couple of months with the counselors. I know there's a big ACT test coming up this weekend that's important for a lot of these guys getting the job done, getting them eligible so we can get them here on campus in the fall."
Q: Can you assess what kind of player Tyler Russell is, what chance he has to come in and play? "To play immediately, I have no idea. We're going to find that out in fall when he gets here. Here's what I do like about Tyler, he and I during the recruiting process getting to know each other. At the quarterback position, throwing and running is probably the least important part of what they do when you recruit a quarterback. It's the mental and physical toughness, the leadership, the intelligence, decision-making. Those are the important things you look for in recruiting a quarterback. And with Tyler winning a state championship showed he had those things. I did a lot of research talking to players, not just on his team but players that played him in the all-star game. What type of personality did he have, is he a leader? They felt he was. So I'm excited about that.
I know when I went to visit with him at the home and I said you're not allowed to say I'm still committed, I'm coming. You need to jump and call me and say I want to be your quarterback, I want to lead this program in the future. I said I'm not willing to take your commitment until you're ready to do it with a lot of emotion behind it. The kid actually called two nights before the national championship game, he called me and said that. And he had that passion in his voice, that he wanted to be our leader for the future.After that phone call I was pretty sold he was going to be our guy and he was going to have a great future to play quarterback for us. So we're excited to have him and I expect a lot of leadership from him, coming in with this very talented freshman class."
Q: Do you project that these players will fit in your system? "I hope so! Here's the one thing, I think coaches try to give themselves too much credit. Go recruit great football players. Then have the ability to fit the system to those football players. Tyler Russell is a perfect example of that, we're going to fit the offense around his talents just like I have every quarterback that I've ever recruited. We need to find the strengths of each one of these individual players and make sure we're putting them in a position to be successful. That's what we're always going to do. We're going to run the spread offense, we're going to spread the field and try to create matchups.
"But there are a lot of different ways to create mis-matches out there on the football field. So our objective is always to go find those best football players we possibly can find, and find a way to put them out there on the field in a matchup situation where they can win their matchup and be successful. And I think we've found a bunch of guys that are going to create matchup problems for people here in the Southeastern Conference."
Q: Is getting junior college guys in early something you want to do? "I think it's a huge benefit. You know, I don't slam the fist when I talk to recruits on the table and say we need you to come in early. But I think that gives them a big head start, in two ways. One, they're getting the opportunity to go through our off-season conditioning program right now, to train with the rest of the team; as well as spring practice. When you practice in spring and you start off going every other day, they have an opportunity to learn and absorb the offensive and defensive schemes a little bit better. Where when you start in two-a-days it's accelerated, what you learn that morning is great but you're going to put in a whole ‘nother package in the afternoon, and another one the next morning. You don't have 24 or 48 hours to let it soak in. So I think they have a little advantage that way.
"We're going to have to accelerate the learning curves of some of these younger high school players enrolling in the fall. But I'd like to (sign mid-year JCs). I think that number is pretty solid, if we can walk away each year with anywhere from five to eight players enrolling early, giving them the opportunity to go through aspring practice and get their career jump-started faster is a big benefit for us."
Q: What was tough about recruiting on short notice in the SEC? "Just being in this conference for the last four years, we had the meetings with the staff and anybody that had not been in it before we sat down and made it perfectly clear to them this is the toughest conference that you're going to recruit in in the United States. Go look on-line and see where everybody's recruiting class ranks in the Southeastern Conference, you realize why it's such a great conference. It's not the fact that OK, every conference there's they say the three so-called power teams per conference and they have the top recruiting class and then everybody else is down in the middle of the pack. Most years it seems almost everybody in the Southeastern Conference has a top-25 recruiting class. That translates into the players you have to play against in this league on Saturdays. And it's not just when there's three schools that have top recruiting classes, you're looking at twelve schools that have top recruiting classes. I think that's what makes the depth of this league so tough. Every day you're going out on the road recruiting against the best recruiters in the United States. As a head coach I'm recruiting against it, our position coaches, our recruiting area coaches, they're going against the best recruiters in the United States of America, going against the best players in the best league. So you'd better come ready to work.
"And work on next year's class started today. It probably started a little before today actually, but officially I let the class know we have one year to sign a better class next year than we did this year. Because we don't want to stay the same, we want to continue to improve here. That's been made perfectly clear for our staff and for me, and hopefully we'll make it clear for all the high school coaches. And the work they'll see and the players in this state, the effort we'll put forth to put together another great recruiting class."
Q: When did you start looking at next year, what is next for you guys? "What's next? We've already started. We've got everybody assigned, finally, in who is going to be recruiting in what areas for us.The coaches right now have a couple of weeks to get the top players evaluated, talked-to and invited up for our junior recruiting day coming up here in the near future. I'm giving our coaches the next couple of days off so they can go see their families, finally, or get settled and try to prepare to move their families here to Starkville. As soon as we get back we'll start evaluating tape and get ready to roll on next year's class. Because recruiting is something you have to do every single day. It's year-round. And if you're not, you're going to fall behind. Especially in this conference. So we're going to try to get a jump-start and get after the young players in the state early. We'll start within the state and then expand out from there, that's always going to be our motto. You'll see one thing we'll do, every one of our coaches, we'll be in every high school in the state Mississippi before we go anywhere else to recruit; make sure we've exhausted the talent in this state. Then we'll go to Alabama, then we'll go to Louisiana, out to Texas and Georgia, Florida, up to Tennessee and the surrounding areas. But a lot of our focus is going to be making sure we don't miss a top player in this state."
Q: With signings done, are you ready to announce the staff assignments? "Yeah, we're there. I think tomorrow we're going to do the official release for everybody, just so today's focus can be just on the recruiting class and the great efforts of all our coaches. But I think tomorrow we're going to have all the official announcements of who is coaching what positions."
Q: In general, what is your philosophy on playing younger players? "We're going to put our best 11 players on the field, every single snap, however we can. Whoever is going to give us the best chance to be successful, whether it is a fifth-year senior or a true freshman. The only thing I want to make sure and we're going to be very cautious of, we're not going to play somebody until they're ready to play. I'm not going to put a young player in a position where they won't be successful. But if they're ready to play and if we think they give us the best opportunity to win, they're going to be out there on the field no matter what the position, no matter who the player is or what age or class they're in. Our best eleven players are going to be on the field at all times."