Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen joined the rest of the SEC coaches on a weekly teleconference to preview the Bulldogs upcoming game with Arkansas.
Here is a transcript of Mullen’s time on the call…
Mullen: “This is a big game for us right now. We’re kind of backed in a corner having to win this game to keep our chances of going to our fourth straight bowl game alive. I think our guys will come out focused, ready to practice and ready for the task at hand.
“Obviously there’s a lot of history available for this team. Mississippi State’s never been to four straight bowl games so that opportunity is still alive. From what they’ve told me, we’ve never won in the state of Arkansas so there’s the opportunity to do that as well. There’s some great opportunities for us this week.”
Can you give an update on your quarterbacks? Any idea who’s going to start and how those guys are doing health-wise?
Mullen: “They’re all doing much, much better. I don’t know who’s going to start for us yet. We’ve got to see who’s the healthiest this week after practice.”
Will that go all the way to a game-time decision?
Mullen: “You’ll know at game time, after warm-ups on game day.”
With the injury situation, do you have to come up with three offensive scenarios this week with how you approach this game?
Mullen: “We’re going to run our offense. That’s the reason we recruit guys. That’s probably more challenging for the defense because every one of the quarterbacks has their own little twists that they bring. We don’t change our offense depending on who’s in the game, they just kind of execute the offense a little differently and bring a little different flavor to it.
“For us, we get our plan in and expect our guys to be able to execute it. Each one of them has a little different strength that we try to highlight and a weakness that we try to defend against in their abilities.”
Arkansas has been vulnerable to the big pass this year. Does that change the way you play your quarterbacks this game?
Mullen: “No. Every game we try to take some shots. They’ve given up some big pass plays this year but a lot of them they’ve had guys right there in coverage. Other teams have just made plays. Guys are not just running wide open in the middle of the field. They play pretty good defense and have guys in position to make plays. I’m sure their guys are growing and developing and you see them making more and more plays every week. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
Last week, Alabama hit you with the back shoulder pass with (Kevin) Norwood. Why is that throw so difficult to defend and what is the best way to defend it?
Mullen: “Obviously the best way to defend the play is to dominate the receiver right from the line of scrimmage where you can turn to the ball and have him pinned in your hip and are riding him out of bounds. That’s the best way to defend the play.
“What makes it tricky is the receiver is looking to get going and the corner has his back turned to the line of scrimmage and doesn’t see the ball. He’s running as fast as he can to stay in position and stay on top so he doesn’t get ran by. The receiver can look back and see the ball because he’s anticipating a back shoulder fade. He knows where he wants to stop. The corner is trying to stay on top of him and that’s when (the receiver) can put the brakes on, adjust and catch it off the back shoulder.
“It’s not an easy ball to throw because there’s a lot of location involved in it. Each receiver catches it differently. Some guys like to throw it high, back shoulder and some guys throw more low, back shoulder. It’s just whatever their comfort level is.”
Does Damian Williams have a grasp of the entire playbook?
Mullen: “To me, he does. He came in as a very hard worker and is an intelligent young man. He had opportunities in training camp to learn the system behind two veteran guys really helped him. Because of different injuries throughout the year, he’s been the two going into games and gotten those reps and preparation.
“He’s comfortable in the whole entire offense. We’ll try to protect him a little bit in how much he has to check and different adjustments he has to make to try and take some of that pressure off of him.”
How difficult is it to build a program up in the SEC West?
Mullen: “As you try to build a program, especially in this conference and in the West, you have to look where the foundations are within the program. Here we’ve gone to three straight bowl games and trying to get to our fourth which would be the first time in school history. Fans think that would be great for us but we’re not satisfied. We’re looking for ways to win a championship.
“One of the biggest challenges in the SEC right now, especially in the West, to take that next step from a winning team to a team that’s competing for championships means you’re going to be that next national championship team. That’s a bigger step. You have a few steps that are missing in there trying to build a program that you have to leap to the top from.
“I think every program has its own unique personality. I don’t know how much budget has to do with it. You just have to make sure that your personality matches with the school’s personality when you’re building a program.”
Are Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell cleared at this point?
Mullen: “They’re both limited in practice right now. A lot of that is us limiting them to get their health right for the weekend. They can practice today but if they do they’ll be sore tomorrow. We have to ask what day we want them to do stuff and how much do we want them to do. That stuff factors in. Our biggest goal is to get guys healthy for Saturday right now.”
Having played Texas A&M twice now, how much do you think Johnny Manziel improved this year over last year and in what areas?
Mullen: “Oh boy, he was pretty good both years when we played them. We certainly did a better job holding him in check running the ball this year than we did last year which was part of our game plan. He threw for a lot more this year. I think he does a good job of taking what defenses give him.
“I don’t know if that’s an improvement this year over last year but so much of his game is improvising outside of their system. We found out that about 30-percent of their offense was him scrambling around and improvising. I think that’s what makes him special. Last year he ran a lot against us and this year he threw a lot against us. That just shows he has the ability to take what people give him.”