Mullen Ready To Take Quick Summer Break

After two months of evaluating spring's results and setting a summer-time tone, Dan Mullen has earned a few lazy days in the sun; on the beach, with family nearby, paperback in hand, and as little as possible on his mind. "Hopefully the cell phone doesn't ring 24 hours a day and there's no issues," he muses.

Back at campus, he means. Because Mullen is seizing this first true opportunity in the six months since he became head coach at Mississippi State to take a true break from the Bulldogs (who might offer a vice-versa standpoint). The June semester is coming to an end, the July semester doesn't kick off ‘til the 5th, and a whole lot of post-spring tasks have been accomplished. Why not get out of town while the getting is good, set the ‘coach' label aside a while and be full-time husband and daddy and temporary beach-bum?

It's overdue because things haven't slowed a lot on the second floor of the Bryan Building since the Maroon-White Game ended on a last-play field goal before a record crowd.

"This time of year there's a lot of wrap-up, a lot of coaching stuff and a lot of administrative stuff getting ready for the season," Mullen said last Friday in his office, already looking in shorts and golf shirt like a fellow preparing to take the break. "Then I get to go on vacation with the family for a week, get away and read a book on the beach and take a breather."

All involved with Bulldog football have earned at least some chance to catch a collective breath by the summer solstice. The players themselves, all the eligible varsity as well as five true freshmen, are involved in an intense strength/conditioning program as reported regularly here. The assistant coaches have been alternatively in their offices wearing out spring-practice video or out on the road hitting as many high schools as were open, not just in Mississippi but neighboring states and farther-away recruiting grounds. Then there were high school and junior high team camps with 58 schools sending some 400 campers. And as Mullen noted, he's had all sorts of paperwork to process when not himself looking at what he wants to do, or re-do, when the Bulldogs assemble in August.

Breather, indeed. But it'll be a satisfied sort of sigh from the new head coach.

"I'm happy. I think we have a long way to go still, but I think we've done a good job going back and really trying to evaluate who can do what, so that we are putting the right personnel on the field. Obviously that evaluation isn't going to be done until after training camp. I guess that's the one benefit of having three weeks of school before your first game, because when training camp ends you kind of have three almost-game weeks where we can really evaluate a lot of things to make sure we're going in the right direction with the right personnel."

Speaking of personnel, they've been a bit ‘insulated' from the head coach the past month because per NCAA policy there is no actual instruction work with players this time of year save by the strength staff. That doesn't stop Mullen from keeping track of how his first State squad is progressing; in fact he says at times it's hard for him to fully appreciate how his folk are progressing under Coach Matt Balis' care.

"I guess it's like my son, he's four months old and my Mom hasn't seen him in two months, she's like ‘look at the difference in him!'. I see him daily so I don't see the drastic changes." But what Mullen understands is how his bigger kids are not just getting stronger of body but of mind and heart. And he cannot wait until Balis completes post-summer testing. "Matt will give me height and weight and body-fat and body-mass compositions and all that. That's where you really get to see where someone has transformed their body, how they've put on lean body mass and hopefully an increase in lean body mass."

"Because there are going to be some changed bodies by the time we start again, guys who have going through two off-season cycles with us of training. And to see the improvement, if young guys are really improving; plus you're having an influx of freshmen in the program and we have to evaluate who can help us immediately in that group."

That quintet of early enrollees—defensive linemen Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, receiver Chad Bumphis, quarterback Tyler Russell, and tight end Johnathan McKenzie—are particularly benefitting from June exertions and improving their odds to be factors come fall. Mullen says their clearance in time for June semester was a bonus in several areas, though giving up their last high school summer can be tough.

"I think two big benefits these guys are going to see: one they're going to finish pushing 12 credits entering their freshman year, that's almost a semester under your belt putting you towards graduation which is our ultimate goal. On top of that the fact they're getting an extra four-and-a-half weeks workout time and summer conditioning with our staff. It's hard to replicate those things by themselves." The five frosh expect to be joined by the balance of their 2009 rookie class in July, with Mullen informing that three freshmen are as of now not certain of summer clearances—receivers Ricco Sanders and Brandon Heavens and linebacker Deonte Skinner.

"They're all on the edge right now, they're on track to be here the first day of camp, we're working oon trying to get them here for July to start the second summer semester," Mullen said. "From our feeling everyone but those three are pretty much done. We haven't got the final confirmation but on all of our calculations there shouldn't be any hold-up."

Two other Dogs are currently held-up by their own situations. As reported before, soph WR Arceto Clark is working out again with the team this summer but is ineligible to play in 2009 after failing the spring semester while taking care of legal issues. Mullen will put Clark on the scout team all fall, "to get him caught-up." Meanwhile juco signee Maurice Langston is also on campus but under continuing suspension pending his own court date next month. Though Mullen says the defensive back was serving a team suspension in spring when he was held out. Langston should at least be keeping physical pace with his classmates with his own workouts.

But doubtless he's a bit behind the overall learning curve for this squad, which was put into the equivalent of graduate-level instruction this spring in Mullen's new offensive and defensive systems. Mullen admits that "We threw a lot out there at the beginning" regarding the first spring with these players. Without saying it was too much too soon, the coach says since spring the staff's task has been to "tweak" the direction to take in the coming season.

"We threw it all in, now we're going to cut it back a bunch into things we want to do. But really cleaning-up a lot and I would say trimming away the fat that we realize we might not need for this coming season. I guess our playbook is still a reference guide. Our playbook is still real thick, we keep that as kind of a coach's reference. That still has all the fat in there. What we're done though is try to trim to what we're going to use for the season."

And one thing Mullen is comfortable with is trimming ‘fat' from gameplans even if he himself wrote it all out. In spring he commented often that the 2008 national championship Florida team only used about 60% of the installed playbook, the same rough rate as the '06 national champs Gators.

"But 40% of that was different than the 40% that was in this year's, with 20% carry-over," he said, since obviously the two quarterbacks were entirely different operators. This has to be encouraging for Mississippi State with two veteran quarterbacks, Tyson Lee and Chris Relf, of mostly-differing styles as well as rookie Russell who is sure to see action in his first fall. Contrasting quarterbacks are no big deal for Mullen; if anything he prefers the potential variety depending on how all three develop during August.

"You're always going to have to tweak around it," he said of the '09 offensive outlook. "And to be honest with you, we might not know until game four or five once we get going into the season. Sometimes you'll have a thought early in the season and get going, and see something really click with the team and take off and just follow that path and it might lead you in a different path than you thought. I can tell you two examples. Our first year at Bowling Green our plan was to be kind of 60/40 shotgun/under-center team, maybe 50/50, and we're using a bunch of two-tight formations. We struggled a little bit with that and all our shotgun-spread runs really worked for us, so we kind of went heavy to that one direction.

"Go back to the 2006 Florida team, we were spread-spread-spread and then 30-40% of our snaps in the national championship game were under center. We had some success as the season went and started to follow that path. That wasn't the original plan going into the season but it took off a little bit more as the season went on."

At the same time Mullen naturally intends to get as much installed and settled before the Bulldogs open at home against Jackson State. If this coach's debut spring at State was important, his first August training camp is a big deal. "A very big deal," he said. Just the week of two-a-days (actually only a handful of such dates spread around single workouts now per NCAA rule), Mullen points out, is practically an entire spring of work or a quarter of all the regular practices in the actual season. "Done in a very short period of time," he said.

"So for us it's going to have to be a whole different mindset. Training camp is not like prepping for game week, not like spring ball when it's spread out over different times." It is simply special, so much so this year that Mullen intends to take the team away from their nice practice fields. He'd actually considered leaving town entirely, as counterparts do these days. "Pack up the whole football operation and go to a junior college, or another school, a boarding school, somewhere around." It turned out somewhere was on the south end of campus; less than 2 miles geographically but a world apart emotionally.

"As we toured campus we found a nice facility where felt we could make it a separate ‘this is our training camp' facility." So after the mandated ‘acclimation period' will come a true training ‘camp.' "There's a lot of team building. It's very intense, hard-core training, that's one of the reasons we go away. Fence off the whole area to have privacy, training week is closed to everybody. That's where we build the foundation of our team and find out who is ready to push it to the limit for us."

Along the ‘limits' line, recruiting is a year-round occupation for this staff and as of now Mullen is looking at signing a somewhat smaller class next winter. He ‘guesstimates' twenty recruits for 2010, though "It could go anywhere from 17 to 22 but the average number we're looking at would be twenty." That total can change with all sorts of factors between now and February including simple attrition; in fact Mullen reminds that the new regime is just six months into the new programming and he would expect other departures in months to come.

"We're pleased with the guys we have here but usually it's a full year cycle before you kind of get through who's in and who's out within the program. I feel fortunate we haven't lost many guys so far which actually kind of shocks me! It hasn't been a picnic over there with our off-season conditioning. But I think that shows the desire of our kids, they want to work and want to win and they're buying into what we're trying to do here. All but about three have stuck it out so far."

Meanwhile the big recruiting board in the football meeting room lists a pretty easy goal to remember for the upcoming signing season. "We do need a bunch of everything," Mullen said. Receivers, a priority in his first class, again tops the list; then linemen on both sides of the ball. And corners are going to be big. But basically we need one at every position, some we need a bunch more but we're going to recruit at least one at every position."

As for summer-time commitments, that's a tricky topic because Mullen thinks it's so early in that part of the process.

"think when we get to August and then season starts that's when you start to see a couple more jump on board. We're going to have a little bit more of a selective class, we're not going to have the big signing class that we had last year so we have to be more selective in spots." Along the selective line, Mullen has drawn a five-hour travel radius where Mississippi State recruiting will focus. Not that prospects in outside areas is ignored at all. "We have to be smart about those guys, we've got to know who we can recruit an if they're interested. I'm not going to fight a losing battle or waste time there. Our primary focus is the local area and then expand from there for other kids."

There are other ‘other' kids of great MSU interest, too: the unrecruited talents who can be encouraged through proper means to volunteer for Bulldog duty. Mullen says the walk-on program at MSU "can be tremendous" as for one thing this state is not to his mind over-recruited. Sure, the premium prospects are courted by programs all over the region and beyond.

Yet there are a lot of small schools or out-of-the-way addresses that are easy for outsiders to overlook or just plain ignore as not worth the effort and expense. This can be a happy hunting ground for State coaches, hence Mullen's spring insistence his aides get to every single school in their assigned area. The response from those coaches and administrators has been entirely positive and in time ought to be productive.

"When you look at Mississippi you have the opportunity to go get those kids, and a lot of those kids want to come to school at Mississippi State. And they're going to have the opportunity. Especially at certain positions where we don't have a lot of depth they're going to have the opportunity to come in and play right away or compete for a job. So it makes it a real attractive walk-on situation here." Not just to earn a spot on the roster but to get real playing time, a ‘M' letter, and in some cases a scholarship. During training camp some Bulldog walk-ons will get their grants as a reward for spring showings.

For his part Mullen spent much the post-spring on the road as well, though talking to fans instead of high school coaches. The impact on season ticket sales has been well-publicized and Mullen has found the reception around this state and the southeast region consistently encouraging. It's been a lot to ask a new coach and, more to the point, a new Dad, to tear away from family and football alike to meet and greet, but Mullen saw it as an essential part of the rebuilding job. Besides, he added, he was checking out the fan base as much as they were observing him.

"We're learning here this our first time through, seeing the reception that we've had in the state. We invest a lot of time and see what the return is. Just like our spring game, we had 31,000. If 5,000 had showed up we probably wouldn't have a spring game next year, we might do something different. But it's kind of trial-and-error on some of these things to see what works and what the interest level is in the Mississippi State family."

Now the interest level has been proven and given this staff that much more motivation going into their summer. Mullen will make a couple of public appearances later this summer. "But when we come back in July that's when it really shuts down into 100% football," he said.

"You're always selling the program. But when two-a-days start my p.r. tours stop. We will have hopefully sold our tickets by that point, the next thing we've got to do is go win football games." Fortunately there's still almost two weeks before the July semester, and another month beyond to training camp. So before going 100% football Mississippi State's coach will try to catch his breath and unwind (his likely beach-book roster will include historical fiction, he said).

Oh, and surely that cell phone comes with an ‘off' button.


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