Mullen: "I'm Really Looking For Effort"

Presumably—hopefully?--Dan Mullen was teasing as he wrapped up Thursday's informal interview. "We have a media off-season conditioning with Coach Balis before you're allowed out at spring practice," the Bulldog football coach announced. "You have to get through a mental and physical toughness, I'll have him call and arrange that day for you guys."

Which portion of those drills the media would flunk worse is amusing speculation. But it was a fair and fun indication of the Mississippi State coach's frame of mind as he anticipates his first spring session with the Bulldogs. Four months after taking on this job, Mullen will put the spring squad on the practice fields March 24 to begin an intense four-week camp. And first drills can't come quickly enough for the new Bulldog boss and his staff.

"I'm ready to go. Our whole staff is ready to get back, they've been moving their families, trying to stuff settled this week. And it's been a great off-season. So we're ready to get going on Tuesday."

Mullen spent a half-hour Thursday morning discussing prospects for this camp, the state of State bodies and psyches going into the on-field portion of spring and what he hopes to accomplish by the April 18 Maroon-White game. The 14 practice and scrimmage dates are packed into these intervening weeks, and are open to the MSU public. Whether any reporters remain able to cover them depends on just how serious the head coach was about sending them to Coach Matt Balis' care.

But for now, the full Thursday transcript follows, including updates on 2008 injuries, curent suspensions, and talk of the new 'Champions Club' for exceptional efforts from players this spring to-date.

Q: What made the off-season great? "I think a lot of the guys bought into what we're trying to get done. Just the work that they've done. They've put in a lot of effort, come a long way from that first workout to our last workout. So I think we're in shape good enough to get into spring practice."

Q: Besides installing the spread offense, what is at the top of your spring agenda? "Everything. What I'm really looking for is to find guys that play hard this spring. That just give great effort, that's number-one. If we have to only run three plays we'll only run three plays, but we're going to play with great effort. That's one of the main things we're looking to get done."

"The same thing defensively. I met with Carl (Torbush) and that is the main focus on defense: get our guys playing hard."

Q: Do you look to balance things out in practice or do a whole lot in one practice? "We force-feed early, installing a lot to try to put some mental stress on everybody. The first two days we're not in pads so obviously those are bigger installation days, with a lot of time apart. Then that first Saturday we'll get into full pads and get after each other."

Q: Do you have a timetable for making progress? "W have the installation schedule set, I know we're going to try to stick to it as best we can. If we need to pull back a little bit, we will. I've always been a big fan of just pushing forward, seeing what sticks. But I think a lot of it is just going to be the evaluation of our players this spring."

Q: Back to the workouts, was it a tough process? "It takes a little bit of time. I'm not surprised because I've been with Matt Balis before and he's the best strength coach in the country. So I know kids buy in. When they see him at first they think he's a little nuts, but they do buy in and believe in what he's doing because they see the progress. And I think as this off-season went on and as our kids started seeing the development, seeing their bodies change, seeing themselves physically improve, that it became a lot easier for them to buy-in."

Q: What makes Matt the best in the country? "It's his attitude, his relationship with the players is amazing. Then his commitment to excellence. I don't think anybody works harder than he does, and believes in it. I mean if you have a big early morning workout and go into the office at two A.M. Matt will probably be sitting there getting ready. So his commitment level is off the charts to seeing these kids succeed. That's what makes him special."

Q: Have any players left or do you have any transfers in? "I haven't had any transfers join the team. I don't think anybody's left. We'll see after spring, a lot of times in spring guys look and see where their role is or how they'll be able to play, you sometimes have a little more attrition then."

Q: Have you yourself spent any more time with any particular players or groups this spring? "I just try to hang around a lot with the different players. I try to go over to the training table and eat dinner with a different player each night and find out about him. And have different groups over to my house. So me, it's a lot about trying to get to know individually all these players, because I didn't get to go through the recruiting process with a lot of them. I find out a lot about their backgrounds. That's been my main focus."

Q: What has been your overall impression of the team? "I think we've got good kids. We want to win, what we're going to do is teach them how to. Right now, teach them how to give that effort, what it takes to win is what we're really trying to teach them. Hopefully they buy-in and do what it takes for us to win."

Q: What is the situation with Anthony Johnson, Maurice Langston, and Arceto Clark? "They're all suspended from the team until further investigation is done with everything. There is no timeframe with that. The University has their policy but that's what we've done with football right now. The University is working through their policies with those young men."

Q: You've been through spring practices, how does this one differ as a head coach? "It's just a lot more organizational. Of making sure everything is organized; offense and defense, practice schedules, meeting times, lifting times, all of those different things; instead of just worrying about what plays we're going to run and the offensive installation. It's just the bigger picture of things and it takes a little bit more time."

Q: The impression of the spread is it's a passing offense, how does the running game factor in? "Well we're going to be a big running team. I think the misconception of the spread is you throw; in our version of the spread we're just going to be balanced. Fifty-fifty. And really all the spread offense is about is making the defense defend the entire field and try to find advantageous matchups, whether it be in the run game, the pass game, whether it be three tight ends and one receiver or four receivers and no tight ends. That's kind of the deal for us, how to spread the field and create mis-matches."

Q: Anthony Dixon has been a 1,000-yard rusher, what do you see for him? "I'd love him to be again this year!"

Q: What kind of shape is he in, we've read he is at 225? "No, when he came in in January and weight in at 255. He finished up at 235 at the end of the off-season, he lost twenty pounds. I think he's in pretty good shape right now. I want him to be as big and strong as he can be, being as fast as he can be. So whatever weight that is, if he can handle 235 that's great; if he can bulk up and handle 245 that's great. If he can't we'll have him drop down. But there is not an exact weight we want him at, we just want him in great physical shape."

Q: Do you have anything like the old ‘Iron Dawgs' group? "Similar. We have our Champions Club. We'll do the ‘Ultimate Warrior' in the weightroom after summer, after a full cycle to see. Usually there's one or a couple of guys that are, but only a couple that put forth the effort we think is necessary. I think we had 17 guys in the Champions Club, which for us is they live their lives like a champion on and off the field. Academics, discipline, weightroom, conditioning, all of those things that make you a champion. We only had 17 this first quarter. I think you need about 65 to have a chance to have a winning team. But we'll work towards getting more. Our ‘second quarter' starts right now with spring practice."

Q: Who were the champions? "Just reeling a couple of the top of my head; Jamar Chaney, K.J. Wright, Tyson Lee, Derek Sherrod, Marcus Washington, Charles Mitchell, Wade Bonner, Zach Smith...to throw out some." (note: the full list is at bottom)

Q: The guys you mentioned all start or play a lot, too? "That's the good part for us. For us, we need champions. And being a champion I've always said is not a sometimes-deal. It's an all-the-time deal. So you need to be a champion in the classroom, you need to be a champion in the weightroom, you need to be a champion in the community, a champion with discipline. I look at those 17 guys as they have bought-in to what we're preaching. What we need to do this second quarter through spring ball is try to double that. I told all those 17 remain a champion and go get one more to join you, we'll be up to 34 and we'll be getting in the right direction."

Q: Have there been any particular guys make measurable progress that stand out? "It's tough to say. I think a lot of guys have come a long way. And we had some guys that were really, really out of shape. I think the defensive line group was really out of shape coming into the off-season conditioning program. They've done a really good job as a group working hard to improve. When you look obviously at the safeties right now we hopefully put a lot on them, three guys with a Wade Bonner, Zach Smith, and Charles Mitchell all being champions for us that's a group that as a whole has done a nice job for us. But I don't know if there is any specific individuals that really jump out in my mind."

Q: You said Bonner is with the safety group? "Yeah, he's been working with them right now. We're going to just try to find a home, he's a great athlete for us. So whether we use him offensively, defensively, we just need to find a place for him to make sure he's on the field for us."

Q: What is the offensive line looking like? "They're really working hard as a group. One of the things we've got to do is place them, get our five best offensive linemen on the field somehow and not be too concerned with who is playing tackle, guard, or center. Just find a way to get our best five guys on the field and then get the backups ready to roll. That's going to be some evaluation going on, I think they've worked real hard. John Hevesy has done a great job getting them functioning as a unit together, now we've got to apply that to the practice field."

Q: You mentioned Bonner, is spring a time to shuffle some players around? "He's just a great athlete right now. And there are three senior tailbacks on the roster right now so instead of creating a massive logjam at one position…I think he was seen as a DB in high school. And he and I talked and (he) felt he need to start off at that position. That's all I need to hear, where guys think they can play the best and we'll put them there. He felt he'd do a real good at safety for us, I said alright, go play safety and let's see how that goes and if we need you somewhere else we'll ask to try some other things as well."

We'll move guys around a bunch. I anticipate a whole lot of just moving and changing once we evaluate where everybody's talent level is out on the field."

Q: How much has the mid-semester players helped for spring? "Well it's a huge advantage for us but it's also a huge advantage for them. They're coming off an intense off-season program so they're in great physical shape getting ready to start practice. As well as in spring practices are spread-out so you actually have a day of meeting time in between practices where you can really absorb the offensive and defensive schemes and kicking game schemes. Instead of when you get into fall camp, everything is extremely accelerated."

Q: Is your baby a month old now? "Yeah. It's awesome. When I go home I get to see my son, which is a big deal. And I'm very fortunate that my wife has bought-in, her life has changed drastically because she takes the onus of feeding in the middle of the night, trying to let me get some sleep when I get home. She brings him by the office. And it's been nice this week with spring break and nobody around, I've got to spend some time with the family a little bit."

Q: How much time have you spent with Tyson Lee and Chris Relf the past few weeks? "Probably not as much as I'd like to, doing all the other things with special teams and all the other responsibilities. But I know having Les Koenning here, he knows my expectations and I know he's going to do a great job. Our graduate assistant, Angelo Mirando helped with the quarterbacks at Florida so you have two guys who really know what I want out of the quarterback position in there getting those guys caught-up to where they want to be."

Q: Which players will be limited in spring? "Obviously Robert Elliot, we're going to be very cautious with him. Brandon McRae will be very limited. Marcus Green will be limited (note: Green had a follow-up procedure on his hip done last month), Eric Richards will be limited. O'Neal Wilder is going to be full-go, the thing with him is he'll be full-go for what he can do. I think he's going to wear down a little quicker than everybody else because he hasn't gone through as much of the off-season conditioning."

Q: What is going to be your biggest lerning experience this spring? "Probably to keep my cool. Because I get pretty fired-up out there at practice. I have pretty high standards and expectations of what I want to see and how I expect things to be. I expect there is going to be a learning curve for our players so I'll try to keep myself somewhat calm through spring so that I don't go too nuts!"

Q: Is there any thoughts of Cameron Lawrence getting a look at quarterback? "What we're going to do this spring is start Cam doing some quarterback stuff and then try to find where he fits in. But that's one of the toughest positions mentally, so he's going to start off day-one at the quarterback position just so he can learn the basics of the offense. We'll see what sinks in and if he does a great job we're going to keep him at quarterback. If we think he can help us somewhere else then maybe we'll try to move him. But at least he has the foundation, we can always bring him back."

Q: Now that you're more familiar with the players are there any surprises you didn't see at first? "The biggest surprise I see, one I think we have good kids. Then I think we have the ability to have a talented defense we'll have to see when we work through this spring. Those are some positives. I'd say the negatives is just the lack of offensive skill positions. I know right now with O'Neal and Brandon being injured just the ability, who is going to score for us, who has that skill level to take the ball and make a big play and score. Because in the SEC it's tough to say you're just going to drive up and down the field on twelve-play drives on everybody. You need some big plays. So I think that's probably a negative. Hopefully in spring we find some guys that are playmakers that can do those things."

Q: What is the base defense? "We'll be a 4-3 base. But we're going to be very multiple. I would think my offense will definitely drift towards the defense as well for us to be a very multiple defense and, again, try to take advantages of matchups and our personnel. After spring we're going to see exactly. It's important for me, and I know Carl believes the same thing, that we have our best 11 players out there on the field. Whether we have to be a 4-3, a 5-2, create a defense with two defensive linemen and six DBs, whatever it has to be we need to put our best 11 guys out there on the field."

Q: You aren't putting out a depth chart before spring. "I might be able to do that off the GPA or something, whoever has the best mid-semester grades we'll put out there the first day and then let everybody earn it from that point on on the field. You know for us that's just not a big deal. I couldn't even imagine a depth chart, I don't even know what positions we're going to be playing with until we see who the best 11 football players are."

Q: Do you think these players welcome that? "I think they do. Since I took over with them I've told everybody you have a clean slate starting from our first team meeting, what you've done in the past here—good and bad—doesn't mean a whole lot to me, what you do in the future really means a lot to me. So that's kind of what they've been told from day-one and that's going to be the case every day in practice."

Q: Have you set in your mind a standard that if it gets done this spring you'll be satisfied? "Yeah. Just play with relentless effort. That's all. I just want to defensively 11 guys that just fly to the ball, offensively guys that play with just relentless effort through the whistle. That's what I'm looking for from this crew. I imagine Carl and Les and John are looking for a lot more technique, and a lot more fundamentals and execution. I'm really looking for effort."

Q: Are you satisfied with your linemen? "I was disappointed with the defensive linemen starting off the off-season conditioning, but I want to see when we get on the field where it goes. And with the offensive line I think they've done a decent job in the off-season conditioning. But obviously we don't play a game in the weightroom. We have to put on the pads and go play another team, so we'll really find out in the next three weeks."

"There's a big difference in the athleticism of touching cones and running through a line than it is putting on the pads and making a play on the football field. Over and over and over again I've seen it, guys that are really fast and unbelievable in agilities and you put the pads on and they're not very good football players. And vice-versa, there are guys that aren't great in the weightroom, aren't great in abilities that are tremendous football players. We'll have to evaluate that as spring goes on."

Q: What is the ‘toughness' level of this team? "It wasn't very good, but it's getting there. And a lot of our off-season conditioning is to see not just the physical but the mental toughness as well. Do you have the ability to finish, do you have the ability to break down the barriers in your mind when you just can't go any more. That's a lot of what our off-season conditioning is about and Matt has done a real good job of pushing them. We'll see as we go here. Our mental and physical toughness is way, way better than it was after the first workout, I can tell you that much."

Q: What challenges does having open spring practices bring? "Me trying to keep my cool out there so the fans don't get like boy, the head coach is a screaming lunatic out there on the field!"

"Besides that, I think we have a great fan base here, we have a great Mississippi State community. And I want them to see what's going on out there on the field. And for our players, I tell you what, you go put 3,000 on the hill watching practice it's going to increase the intensity of some of those drills when people start cheering for them! So we're excited about it, and I just want the fans to be able to embrace the program even more than they already do."

Q: How important are the first three days to knowing the level of toughness? "It's huge. And the nice thing, we have a day off between the first three practices so they do have a chance to learn it on the board, physically do it, then watch themselves on film doing it. And hopefully through that three-pronged attack it sinks in. But it is going to be a mental stress on them of getting the system down and getting us going in the right direction early on. I don't have expectations where we'll be functioning on all cylinders right off the bat, it's going to be a little learning curve for some of our players. But I'll get on our coaches about that, I'm much more into making sure we have eleven guys playing as hard as they can."

CHAMPIONS CLUB MEMBERS SPRING 2009: S Wade Bonner, DB Marvin Bure, LB Jamar Chaney, DE Brandon Cooper, DS Aaron Feld, DT Devin Jones, ATH Cameron Lawrence, QB Tyson Lee, OG John McMillan, S Charles Mitchell, DT Reggie Odom, DT Rodney Prince, OT Quentin Saulsberry, OT Derek Sherrod, S Zach Smith, CB Marcus Washington


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