"You can never take a day-off with recruiting," he says. "That's just the recruiting that we live in right now."
Now, this evaluation has to be put into a perspective. In no sense is Mullen implying a lack of effort in State's ongoing recruiting. In fact he and his revamped Bulldog staff were running all-out during the two months from his hiring to Signing Day last week…which is exactly why he has that vague feeling of trailing for next year at the moment.
" Oh, yeah, just because we were trying to much to get caught-up in 2009." As last Wednesday's results proved, the State staff did catch up completely and secure an excellent class of Bulldogs-to-be. Or, that already-are as all six junior college signees and a pair of prep stars are currently enrolled for the spring semester and preparing for March 24's start of camp. Still the catch-up efforts came with something of a price, in that 2010's process had to be initially limited if not delayed.
" A lot of schools have already had their junior days, we haven't had ours yet," Mullen says. Of course he plans to make up for this soon, and even turn it into a positive by hosting as many high school juniors as can come at the April 18 Maroon-White spring game. That event should, if State fans cooperate by coming in record numbers, more than make up for any perceived slow-starting.
Then there is the fact that Mullen is comparing his first months as Bulldog head coach to his previous spring semesters as an aide with Florida, Utah, and Bowling Green. There, even as one group was signing the next class was being organized. In fact, "I already had two commits in the 2010 class of my personal recruiting," Mullen says of his work with the Gators. "So I can tell we're a little bit behind.
"But we'll get caught-up, hopefully quickly here in the state, and make sure we get after these guys and that nobody is out-working us recruiting."
Out-working this young head coach will be a challenge to his SEC peers. Even as the State staff's focus shifts to spring practice planning (Mullen's overview on conditioning work was posted Monday) there is always the emphasis on recruiting…which will be further influenced by what these coaches see from the current varsity and redshirt roster during camp. How the Dogs already on campus fit into Mullen's schemes for offense, defense, and yes, special teams will be factored into the wish-list for 2010 signings, with no need to wait for actual fall competition. Besides, under this regime State players will be competing hard enough with each other this spring to gauge that intangible.
That competition will inevitably solve another '10 issue. If a full class of 25 new scholarship Dogs are on the '09 roster, State would be limited to around 15 grants next winter by the NCAA's 85-grant roster cap. Mullen is not worried about that. "We'll sign 25 next year," he said, "we'll have some attrition I'm sure, so we try to plan for 25 every year."
The 27 signed this recruiting year are a balanced class in terms of offense/defense/specialists. But the group leans heavily, so to speak, to speed and athleticism over size. Mullen was fortunate to inherit a roster with a reasonable stock of linemen on each side so only two offensive lineman and four defensive linemen were inked. Those areas will see increased attention in this year's recruiting.
At the same time, Mullen is bringing systems to State that are designed around single matchups; most obviously so on offense yet no less as intentionally with the defense, too. Thus an attention to all-out athleticism and a signing class dominated by players who run with or after the ball. And fans ought not read too much into Signing Day labels, or even where many of these newcomers lineup the first time they practice in maroon-and-white. "Football players are football players," says Mullen.
"Let's say, like the William Shumperts of the world. I don't know where I'm going to play him but he'll play somewhere because he's a heck of a good football player. Dennis Thames, he'll play somewhere because he's a great football player. John Banks, Mardrecas Hood. All these different guys that are great athletes. We're going to start them slotted-off in certain positions, but what we'll do is just find if they are great football players and find a way to get them out on the field somewhere."
Speaking of such, Mississippi State has signed some freshman this who could make themselves a place on another field, or the track. That could well come at a cost if, say, a Billy Hamilton if drafted highly enough this June by a Major League club to merit a big signing bonus. Mullen understands the risk, adding that he will always evaluate the options with the player's own best career—academic and athletic alike—goals in mind. But for those who come on to college and want a chance to compete for State in more than one uniform, this coach is encouraging.
"I love two-sport athletes," Mullen says. "If they're good enough to compete in two sports they're probably a pretty good player, you know?! I recruited a kid named Jeffrey Demps at Florida who runs a 10.1-100 meters, so anyone who wants to come here and run a 10.1-100 for us I'm sure the track coach would love him and I'd also love to have him on the football field! If they can compete at the highest level in multiple sports, they're our type of guy."
And that last line contains the key to what will make a good player for Mullen. "Just compete," as he puts it. In the weightroom, on the running field, at practice, even in the classroom. Compete and win, because a winner in those areas has what it takes to beat Mississippi State's opponents when the clock is running and scoreboard lit.
So as Mullen gets the 2010 recruiting campaign up to his preferred speed, the MSU message can be best summarized as Competitors Wanted and Welcome.
"I want guys who want to help the team out," the coach says. "I mean, I want guys that want to block punts, return kicks, cover kickoffs, that want to be on the field. That's what we like, is guys that want to play. And we're going to play them early. I don't have a policy about redshirting people here, we play our players you know? If they happen to have an extra year of eligibility at the end we'll play them a fifth year. If not they're coming in and they're all playing."
Playing ahead of schedule, if you will.