"I like having it in my living room, or right here in my office to see!" Coach Mullen grinned. But soon the treasured trophy will be available for more public viewing. Mississippi State is preparing a secure case to display the Egg in the entrance hallway of the Templeton Athletic Academic Center. It means the football coach has to let the biggest prize of his debut Dog season go across the street.
"But I can tell you what: it's firmly going to be planted here on the campus of Mississippi State not just for this year but for years to come."
A big reason the head coach feels safe making such a promise is his 2010 recruiting class. His full Signing Day comments were filed last Wednesday and remain available. The overriding theme was Mullen's satisfaction with the 26-man class as a general whole; with specific excitement about the mix of big bodies on both sides of the line to restock those roster along with a collection of all-around athletes. In fact six of the signees had ‘ATH' as their listed position.
Not because State's staff is confused about what these high school stars could possibly do at the college level. But because they exemplify the degree of varied talents and versatile potential all present for future development. "These are the guys that turn out to be great players that maybe not a lot of schools evaluated," he said. Though in most cases these Bulldogs-to-be were indeed evaluated by SEC and regional rivals, had written offers, and opted to sign on with Mississippi State.
Of course the most-publicized fact of this class was the overwhelming percentage of Mississippi products. On Signing Day, it was noted that 18 of the 26 were in-state high school signees, along with last year's ratio of 19 out of 27. What was not said at the time was that four of the junior college signees of '09 and '10 might have been born in other states but played at a Mississippi JC. Adding them to the calculations means over 75% of Mullen's signees in these two classes qualify for a ‘Made in Mississippi' label.
"That's huge," Mullen said today. "We do a lot of evaluation, in the SEC for three of the last four years more kids have signed with SEC schools from Mississippi than from Alabama or Louisiana. So we have the talent here in state. Our job, our key is getting those great in-state players to come play for us." Yet Mullen sends signals to prospects beyond the borders that there is a place for imported Bulldogs.
"Now, we're going to recruit Alabama, we're going to recruit Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Florida. We're going to go recruit those areas." Of course State has always been able to attract Alabamans to Starkville and three more joined the roster this year. Memphis and Louisiana each provided a new Bulldog, and two Texans have thrown in their lot as well. Look for more like them in the future, Mullen said.
"I've recruited Texas for a long time, Les Koenning with his connections in Texas, Scott Sallach has recruited Texas. We have a lot of connections in the city of Houston."
Interestingly, while two-way lineman Jeff Howie signed out of Itawamba Comm. College, he's a Pennsylvania prep product…and the first yankee signed by New Hampshire native Mullen. "I got to get a great cheese steak on my visit with his Dad up there, it's hard to get that down here. They don't have a lot of catfish in Philadelphia but they have great cheese steaks!" Still expect Mullen to continue building his teams around athletes raised on deep-fried Mississippi fodder.
"We want to make sure we're not missing out on the great in-state talent that's here."
As Mullen went name-by-name through the signing class, another common thread kept showing through: the number of recruits who cycled through Mississippi State's camps and combines. Small wonder Bulldog coaches invest almost as much effort in organizing and structuring their days with prep underclassmen as they do planning spring practices.
"The camps are where we get to see what guys can do," said Mullen today. "That's our number-one evaluator. You get to see certain things on film but when they come to camps we get to put them through our drills. We get to see how they will fit into our program. That's huge for us. Almost all these guys came to camp for us and that's what we like to do in recruiting so we get to meet with them."
Speaking of meetings, many of Mullen's eventual signees commented upon their commitments what impact a single event had on their college decision. These prospects made time to come to campus last April for the first Maroon-White Game of the Mullen era, and it made an impression that lasted. The coach knows it and wants Bulldog fans to understand why April 17, 2010 can be a—literally—decisive date in accumulating the signing class of 2011.
"It's huge. We're hoping to get 40,000 at this year's spring game. The fans did a great job getting us to 32,000 last year, we're pushing for 40,000 this year. We're getting that message out to our fan base, that they realize how important a recruiting tool that is for us.
"A lot of these young men, that is their first big exposure to Mississippi State football. They get to see the excitement of the day; not just the game but the excitement in Starkville that day of everything that is going on, from the arts festival to the baseball game to the festivities on campus, the concerts, to the spring game. That, what an exciting place and what a great college town this is. And a place they want to go to school at."
Fans have another good reason to be at Scott Field for this year's intrasquad contest. While last spring's practices were wide-open for public viewing, year-two might be a little more controlled for the sake of efficiency and reducing distractions. Maybe. "We're still meeting on that stuff as a staff. We've thrown out a lot of ideas and we'll probably in the next couple of weeks have that announcement."
Spring camp '10 is beginning somewhat late by recent State standards, but the coaching staff likes how the calendar sets up this time. Coach Matt Balis gets extra time for this portion of off-seaon work that typically focuses more on sheer strength; compared to post-camp work that shifts towards conditioning. Plus any fall casualties get that much more recovery time before practices, though in this area Mullen says his roster is in good shape.
"We're thinking everybody is going to be healthy for spring but you never know. A couple of guys are still re-habbing, we'll see where they are at for spring practice. D.J. Looney would be the only guy close for spring practice, I think everybody else will be able to be out there. I don't know if everyone will be full-go, but we're hoping they are."
And once March 23 arrives it is full-go for four straight weeks to the spring game. Mullen wanted to delay camp until all returned from semester vacations so as not to interrupt the program.
"When you get going you want to get going in practice. I've never taken that break with spring break in the middle of it. We train all the way through spring break and when our guys come back they're at a peak in their training point. Then, we go out and practice. That's kind of how I've always believed in doing it."
Meanwhile the Bulldogs have five more weeks with Balis before they escape the weightroom for the practice field. It did not take long for the varsity and redshirts, as well as the four mid-year enrollees, to discover that just because they survived year-one with the strength coach…nobody is cut any slack the second time around. If anything, Mullen said, the demands are that much greater in 2010.
"We have a long way to go there still. It's much better than where we were at this point last year, but also we have much higher expectations for this season than we had last year. So we still have a long way to be a finished product."
Coming Friday: Coach Mullen comments player-by-player on the 2010 recruiting class.