Cohen Turning Team Attention To 2011 Campaign

The season ended with the regular schedule, which is certainly not what John Cohen was planning back in February. Yet if there are no more games for the 2010 team to play, it doesn't mean Mississippi State coaches have gone on cruise-control for a few days. There is just that much more work for Cohen and aides to get done in coming months so the '11 season goes much longer. And much better.

Cohen has just done a wrap-up of sorts on the completed campaign, two days of ‘exit meetings' with the current club before everyone heads off in separate ways. And with that done the Mississippi State skipper took a Tuesday morning hour to meet with local media and discuss…well, just about anything that came up. The over-riding topic was the still-shuffling shape of the 2011 roster, several health situations, the comings and goings of underclassmen in months ahead, and what impact the fast-approaching Major League draft is likely to have.

The full transcript follows, beginning with a quick overview to the just-finished '10 season.

"I guess you'd have to say there are two general thoughts I have about our season, and I shared it with our players. The first, our kids I felt like day-in and day-out for what they went through gave us an incredible effort all the time. And it's really easy to give a great, great effort when things are going well. But our seven seniors in our dugout had a tremendous attitude and got after it every single day.

"The flip-side to that is we're really disappointed in our season. But if any one of you had had a crystal ball two weeks before our season and said you're not going to have the use of Jarrod Parks, Brent Brownlee, you're not going to have Nick Routt, Michael Dixon who threw his last pitch in the fall 95 miles an hour; you're not going to have Paxton Pace, Frankie Rawdow…seven scholarship guys. When you're trying to rebuild a program, and you don't have use of the components you're bringing in, or the parts that are going well, and they're stymied during the course of the season and it's uncontrollable…that makes it very, very difficult.

"Now having said that, I'm somebody who doesn't talk about injuries a lot. And I want to have the type of program in the future to where we can lose some key components--because that's natural for any team in any sport to lose players—for us to be recoverable. But for us it was extremely difficult. I mean, at one point we were traveling with 12, 13 positional players and it really became an issue for us. You take a Brent Brownlee as an example. Here's a legitimate 6.5-sixty guy who is one of the better defenders not only in the SEC but anywhere I've ever seen, and he's a non-factor for you. Nick Routt who had really the only substantial numbers on our pitching staff over a two-year period, the only guy who had extended innings with success attached to it, and he's two innings into a SEC season and is done for the year.

"So I think there are so many times you can be in a dugout where it's just miserable, things are not going well…that was not the case with this group. I really enjoyed them because they gave us everything they had every day. And of course it's neat too when you have that many young guys that are experiencing things for the first time, you see them gradually get better and pick things up."

Q: You've talked about being in the same position you were two years in at Kentucky, how so? And maybe where are there differences? "Well, when you take over a program of course you're dealing with a lot of players who are being coached by two completely different styles. And you're asking a lot of those kids, that's tough on the kids. No matter how good the kids are it's a big transition for them. That's very similar to the Kentucky situation.

"The other thing is no matter how hard you try with returning players, when you bring in recruits there is a little bit of a situation where older guys can say ‘well those are his recruits, those are his guys' and you have to fight through that. So you're fighting battles over a two-year period that nobody you're competing against is, unless they're going through the same thing. When you're competing against a coach who's into year-eight or nine he's already experienced that stuff.

"It's funny, I guess in an eight-year period I've been through the same thing three times. Now I was an assistant at Florida and it was a little different because we inherited a team that went to the SEC Tournament and had 33, 34 wins. And it was a very, very talented roster from the amount of draft picks it had. The other thing that is really different is the sheer numbers, when you go to a place like Florida and have 46 guys (Ed. Note—pre NCAA roster reductions) because there are no limitations on how many guys can be on scholarship. We inherited 33 guys at Florida who were on some form of aid, now the most you can have is 27 and I mean that is a significant difference. Same thing at Kentucky, there were no rules at that time involving how many guys could be on scholarship and on the roster.

"That makes the situation at Mississippi State a little bit more challenging. It probably takes a little bit longer to do the things that I know we can do. But it's the same challenge for everybody, it's the same rules for everybody, not just for Mississippi State."

Q: What is Nick Routt's status and maybe some other guys? "We had a long meeting with Nick yesterday, it was very positive. He had the opportunity to pitch in the Cape (Cod League), collectively we're decided he is going to continue to rehab here in Starkville on the recommendation of the doctors. Nick is very anxious to try to put this behind him and move forward. He desperately wants to pitch, I think he has a chance to be very, very good. But like every other player in America he has some adjustments he needs to make to climb the ladder and be the player we think he can be. I think staying here and working camps and going through rehab with our training staff and being around our coaching staff in a camp setting, I think he will be full speed and ready to go. We're definitely not going to push it.

"Having looked at the specifics about his situation I think it's very reasonable to assume he can get a medical redshirt, although that's not determined until the final year of eligibility. And just looking at Nick's situation, if he does the things we all think he can do I don't think that's a factor because I think he ends up being a professional baseball player.

"Jarrod Parks is doing very well. If you feel you're going to have a good team you have to have a Jarrod Parks-like person. He's a young man that his first year here coming in from Meridian Community College just didn't feel like he was ready. He played sparingly his junior year, goes out and has an unbelievable summer, works hard on his stroke and defensively, and comes back. And you say wow this guy has made a jump, he is ready to be a SEC guy. He had had back problems before he got here but they were manageable. In the course of the fall it became unmanageable for him, couldn't sleep over the Christmas break. He came to me and said he can't do this any longer, he had to have this surgery. I really feel like, just seeing him hit some balls up and take some ground balls, and he's a guy with experience that has seen things freshmen having, that's just really valuable. I think having Jarrod back will be a big plus for us, and he can play either first base or third base.

"Michael Dixon is going to be real close to being ready when our season starts. He's a power arm, he has a chance to be special. He has a professional level fastball and slider. He really took the opportunity when he hurt his arm. And that's how good Dr. Linton is, he did an examination the first week of school and felt some looseness in his elbow and warned all of us there could be an issue. Of course we'd seen Michael four weeks earlier and it's hard to believe there's problems with an arm when he's 100 pitches into a game throwing 94-95 miles an hour. But Dr. Linton was right on the money and his first game in October that ligament tore. We feel he's going to be ready to go as well.

"If we can get Brent healthy, he's dying to show the world what he can do. He's a tremendous competitor, he came out of fall ranked by many of our players as the number-one player on the team. He can fly, he can cover, he's got some arm strength, he really started to figure out some stuff in the outfield. He's a guy that made big-plays when it mattered in SEC games, jumping over fences at Ole Miss and here. That's the guy you want coming back in your program to be a leader and say watch this, follow me. When guys like him and Nick and Jarrod can't be a part of it and show those kids when it matters, obviously it makes it difficult.

"Paxton Pace shows flashes of a great breaking ball and some arm strength. He's been injured since he showed up on campus, had arm surgery his first year here. He's had four different arm surgeries but he's a great competitor. I told him in our meeting it takes a lot of courage for a guy like him to keep doing this, say I think I can really do it, because a normal person after four arm surgeries might say I've had enough. But he's a tremendous competitor and we think he can do it."

Q: Has it been a cultural change here? "No question I can't connect with kids that don't treat it the same way I do. That's why I feel really close to a Connor Powers, I mean it's a life-or-death thing to him, that's how serious he is about his game and improving it. Those are the types of kids that I can really connect with, that are that serious about the game and I have to be surrounded by those types of kids. That's why we spend so much time, documented time, as much as anybody in the country on the recruiting part of it. Like asking high school and junior college coaches the same questions eighty different ways. It's not a perfect science, we are going to make mistakes. But we do need that certain type of player. And I think we do have those types of players in our program at Mississippi State."

Q: Who are some players who you want to ‘shut down' in the summer for rest or surgery? "Chris Stratton logged a lot of innings as a freshman, so we're really fortunaet there are some local leagues our arms can go pitch once a week. And once a week is kind of a nice schedule have that pitcher on. Becauss Coach (Butch) Thompson in the course of the year has introduced a ‘week' program, a six-day program that involves swimming, it involves yoga, all these different things that our young pitchers had to get used to on a daily basis.

"Chris really thrived in that system and he's just going to continue in that path, probably pitch once a week in the Cotton States League. I think that's going to involve five or six, maybe more than that, seven or eight. We went through our meetings and it seems several of those guys are going to be on that path.

"Ben Bracewell is going to have surgery tomorrow, there is a bicep issue (he had) when he walked in the door. He pitched a lot in high school, I can't remember his exact numbers but I'm saying he threw close to eighty-something innings and you just add up how many pitches he threw to strike that many guys out. And because high school season is so condensed he's not pitching on the kind of rest to necessarily be on all the time. It seemed the minute he got here there always some form of soreness. But Ben is one of the most competitive kids in our program. He wants to be in the mound whether he's healthy or not. I think there were times he was pitching because he talked us into it, when maybe he should not have. But I say this a lot, there's really only one person that knows how much pain they're in and that's the kid himself. Dr. (James) Andrews is going to do the surgery tomorrow and they feel it's a simple procedure, and there is a chance could be pitching for us next year. A chance. It's not a traditional Tommy John or traditional (rotator) cuff thing, I really don't know if I could explain it without looking like an idiot to the medical world. I come from a family of lawyers, whenever they hear a non-lawyer talk about legal matters they start rolling their eyes!"

Q: You had three or four young arms go down, have you and Butch got together and maybe thought about changing the program or are you confident with the program you have in place? "It's funny, I'm a big Letterman fan and have these ideas every once in a while. I listed my top-ten reasons why freshmen arms go down. Some of it has to do with before they show up, when you're the bell cow on a high school team and a summer team your level of usage is dramatic. And you're being used in a very comfortable environment. You're the guy.

"Now all of a sudden you go to Mississippi State or anywhere else and go through something as simple as conditioning. Well, when you're going through conditioning in high school, even if it's the same conditioning your heart rate is at a certain level because you realize I'm the best guy here, I'm the best guy maybe in my state. You come to Mississippi State and say hey, I'm not even sure I'm the best guy in the room right now. So everything you do is accelerated and it's not done effortlessly; it's dramatic. I'm throwing in the pen and I'm a freshman, and coach walks in that bullpen; I'm going to show coach right now and go from working 75-80% which is what you want out of a ‘pen to 150%, gosh my arm all of a sudden is hurting. I think Butch does a remarkable job of ‘less is more.' Let's take this down a notch.

"You can imagine a pitcher pitching at a certain heart rate, then it goes up exponentially in intrasquad game when Connor Powers who hit 19 jacks in the SEC last year is in the batter's box. He's not the typical high school player you were facing six months ago. So this is not a Mississippi State thing or program thing, this is by nature of having freshmen. If a freshman has never pitched in front of 5,000 people before and he goes to effort… That's the real value of having experienced guys on the mound. That's why maturity is every bit as important as skill level, and experience helps you gain maturity level. It's a really common theme, everywhere I've been, and I feel I've worked with some of the best pitching guys in the country. As an assistant on Team USA, being with three other highly-thought-of coaches, they all say the same thing about freshman arms. It's almost as if you had a freshman pitcher and you could put a chip in their brain and tell them to relax, calm down, slow down their heart rate. When you get into panic or accelerating everything you're trying to do all the time, that's when injuries show up."

Q: Do you expect any off-season attrition, guys not come back? "There will be some of that for sure. None of it is official yet so I can't comment on that. But yes. Especially with 27-man (scholarship) rosters, 35-man (total) rosters, I think that's going to happen more and more in college baseball. It's a very unpleasant part of your position, I can't imagine anybody who has to make tough decisions about personnel enjoys that. I don't enjoy it. But it's something that has got to be done. Because we've got to keep moving this program forward."

Q: With the upcoming draft can you speculate on anybody in the class or on the current team? "I'll just make a general statement. Of all the kids we have signed, we are very, very, very concerned about three or four of them. It's the old adage that it only takes one team to like them. I feel we have a great relationship with the professional baseball world, especially in this area. We're constantly communicating with those guys, they're very helpful to us and we feel we're very helpful to them. But this is why it's a 365-day-a-year job. Nothing against other sports on campus but having been part of five different athletic departments, there aren't many other coaches worried about the draft!

"I have made six trips to see one of our signees, just to constantly communicate the values of going to Mississippi State and his opportunities. In order to be successful you have to have a guy show up that you think might not show up. When I was at Kentucky I was totally convinced we had no chance for Ryan Strieby to show up. I sat in his living room in Seattle, Washington and told him I thought he had a chance to be the best player in the Southeastern Conference his first year. Thank goodness out of the fifty time's I've said that in my career it actually happened, I'm joking there! But a year later he was SEC player of the Year, and had he gotten a certain amount of money he wouldn't have shown up and it would probably have greatly altered Kentucky's baseball season.

"None of it is luck. You make your own luck. But it is not exact. All you can do is work, work, work. It's funny, I was just checking a couple of weeks ago on documentation of all the (recruiting) work we've done in terms of hours we've spent off this campus. And it is in my mind pretty impressive. I wish all of our fans could know from a daily basis, inside and out, what our staff is putting into Mississippi State baseball and the seeds we're trying to plant."

Q: We hear there are a half-dozen kids you've gone after that other school wouldn't touch because they don't think they will show up? "I wouldn't say it's that many people. I'd say of the 15 (early) we have signed, three of them are risks in terms of not showing up because of having a great opportunity to sign a professional contract. But we're not going to back away from that.

"When I was at Kentucky, last night reminded me of this, Drew Pomeranz, we had him in an unofficial visit at Kentucky. They drove up there and we spent a lot of time with Drew. My assistant at the time said hey, his mom and dad went to Ole Miss, his dad played at Ole Miss, his father was a graduate assistant at Mississippi State, he's a Memphis-area kid, this is a little bit of long shot. But we're going to do this and we went head-long into it. I remember having he and Hunter Morris from the Huntsville area in the office. Maybe I was dreaming but I felt we had a decent chance of getting both guys.

"My point is both those guys were real risks out of high school as well. Hunter Morris was a second-rounder out of high school, of course Pomeranz was an 11th-rounder but could have been much higher draft pick than that had he come to terms before the draft. So I think you have to take those risks. Now you don't want to take risks with an entire recruiting class, if you're doing that with 15 kids you're making a huge mistake. But you have do it with a certain number of kids. Because you need that break. You need that kid to show up who you don't think is going to show up."

Q: Talk about your lineup next year, a lot of people are saying you won't be able to hit next year with a lot of graduation in the lineup? "Right. The thing we underestimate, and this is true of coaches and fans and everybody, is how much kids can get better during the course of a year. A great example is Jarrod Parks. After his junior year I was thinking he was a role-guy, then seeing what he did in the summer and fall last year I'm thinking this guy has made a tremendous jump. Brent Brownlee is just an athlete, he shows up last fall and I'm saying this guy is a prime-time centerfielder in the SEC after just being a part-time guy. That's what you underestimate, are the components you have within. I think a lot of young coaches, and I've been through this, you have a tendency to think that the answer is always from the outside. New, new, new, we need new players.

"But there's no question in my mind the Nick Vickersons and Jonathan Ogdens and Chris Strattons and Nick Routts, just go down the list here, those guys are going to get tremendously better. Cody Freeman is going to be a much better player.

"Even though I think we had a solid lineup, obviously having a guy like Connor in the three-hole, Ryan Duffy hitting in the middle, a Jet Butler who swung it well for us, a Russ Sneed…all those guys bunched in the middle. Even though those guys are great hitters, in our yard I think you want to go power guy, runner-type guy, power guy, runner-type guy. So I think our offense will be different. It's nothing against Connor or Sneed but you ain't gonna get a stolen base out of those guys in a SEC game! And you're concerned about who is going to be able to score from first base.

"So it's that nice blending of power and run, that balance we're looking for. Even though those guys were very productive, Duffy down the stretch really came on and we were so pleased with what he was able to do as a hitter. And of course Conner was ridiculously consistent from start to end. Even what Russ did, I know Russ didn't have a magical year, but I wish you guys could be on the bus with us and see a 22-year-old kid literally having to put his hands on the side of the bus trying to get on and off; and hit in the four-hole on a SEC team! There's a lot of courage there.

"So replacing those guys is difficult, at the same time it will be different. I think it can be appealing at the same time having a nice melting pot of different skill levels."

Q: What is your schedule in upcoming months? "I'll definitely be bouncing around in the recruiting process, trying to re-recruit some of our signee guys. We'll have a lot of camps going on. We'll have speaking engagements, all kinds of stuff. So we'll be quite active. I can tell you when we get into June and July are our two busiest months of the year. Just huge months for us. It's almost a relief when you get into the fall and get to be around your players for a significant amount of time. Because I'm bouncing all over the place. Although recruiting is something we really enjoy, getting to be around our players is more enjoyable for sure."


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