Mississippi State signed 23 players on Wednesday marking Dan Mullen‘s sixth recruiting class at the helm of the Bulldogs.
Mullen met with the media Wednesday afternoon to discuss the class. The following is a transcript of that press conference.
Mullen: “It’s a great day to be a Mississippi State Bulldog. It was another exciting signing day for us. I couldn’t be happier with what happened and who we got.
“The class we have coming in will obviously fill some needs for us in the immediate, and also for us in the future. That to me is so important.
“Some of the immediate needs that I know I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about are the two guys who came in early – Jocquelle Johnson and Nick Fitzgerald. Obviously those are two high-need positions, one on the offensive line with some guys leaving last year. Most importantly we fill in at the quarterback position, where fortunately, we had three this year. I’ve gone a couple of seasons with two and that wouldn’t have worked out so well for us this year. Those guys are here to go through spring practice and I’m really excited about them.
“When you look at the class as a whole, I’m really excited about not just the quality of players coming in, but also the character of players coming in. That to me is really important in what we’ve tried to build here and what we think is important.
“To me when you look at the class, it is headlined by Gerri Green. He has all the tools and is a big time linebacker. We’ve had him in camp and got to work with him, but then he has all the leadership and character you’re looking for. He has a chance to finish as a valedictorian of his high school. That’s the type of guys who you look for.
“On the defensive side of the ball you look at the linebacker position at Deshon Cooper. He was a young guy we had out at camp, an extremely athletic play-making guy. He played on both sides of the ball [at Columbia HS]. He was a wide receiver as well. That shows his athleticism. He was a basketball player in high school and he is going to be a guy who is going to come in and add a lot of athleticism. You look at our linebackers and that’s a place where we have depth, but we are going to have a big senior class next year and these guys are going to have to step up and go play.
“The defensive line is obviously of huge, huge importance to us. When you look at the inside guys we got, Braxton Hoyett and Cory Thomas will be huge for us. Those are guys who are going to have to make immediate impacts. It might not be in game one next year, but it’s going to be in a hurry with four senior defensive tackles on the roster for next season.
“Next year there will be a huge gap for us, when you look at what we are losing. We will lose offensive linemen and defensive linemen. We will take big hits after next season. You have to have guys ready to step in and fill those positions.
“Will Coleman coming in as a junior college player is an explosive pass rusher off of the edge on one side. Grant Harris as a big, strong, physical, athletic defensive end on the other side.
“I am really excited about the defensive line group coming in. I knew that was going to be important for us. Maybe not to fill our gaps that we would have in our August 30th game, but they will certainly be critical for us in the future.
“You look at offensive line, which was another group that we have a lot of seniors on the roster next year. Deion Calhoun is a guy who we had in camp who is extremely athletic. When you got to watch him play at Restoration Academy, he played at a small football school. One thing you noticed about him is that he’s got the size. He was 6-foot-3 320-plus on his visit here. He wasn’t quite 330 pounds, but he was 320-plus. Hopefully we can keep him under that 330-pound mark. When you have a guy with that kind of thickness and explosiveness, with the athleticism that he has, he is a guy we will really need.
“Elgton Jenkins is one who I couldn’t be happier with in this class. I don’t know if there was a better athlete for us. On the line coming to camp last year, our concern with him was his size. He came on his visit at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, so that kind of threw the size concerns out. Over the last couple of months he’s put on a lot of great weight and has really matured. He has filled out and grown. That to me gets us really excited.
“Both of those guys [Calhoun and Jenkins] if you look at them, they have amazing athleticism we got to see first hand. Then you look at the size that they’ve grown into and it’s really special.
“Ronald Cochran is a really athletic young guy out of Olive Branch who we project to be a tackle for us with his athleticism. He’s a guy who you look at and try to judge and where he is now and where we expect him to be in the future. He’s obviously a guy that we think will be pretty special for us.
“Jordan Harris is a monster out of Stephenson High School in Atlanta. We are excited to have him on board. I know he fought back from a terrible injury his junior year and really fought back and got healthy his senior season.
“Elijah Staley at quarterback is obviously one of the most important positions on the field. As I said, we had one quarterback enroll early, so we will have three scholarship quarterbacks going into spring ball.
“It’s a good day for Mississippi State basketball as well as football, with getting Elijah. He’s a guy who when you look at his skill set of what he can do, he has size, he has great athletic ability, he’s a very natural thrower and the ball comes out his hands smooth. There’s no wind up or elongated motion. He’s an accurate passer.
“When you take the natural things that he has and get him coached up, you’re going to get a good football player. You’re looking right now at a guy who hasn’t gone through many off seasons. He goes from football right into basketball, to AAU and right back into football. Now he is going to get into a little bit more of a structured training session. He has a chance to be a very special player.
“I have a pretty good quarterback track record. Not perfect, but good. I had him as a five star on our board. I don’t know where everybody else ranked him, but we had him as a five-star player nationally on our board. We are thrilled to have him coming in at quarterback for us.
“We have two running backs in this class. Dontavian Lee led his team to a state championship. He’s a big, physical runner. He’s very athletic and also played both sides of the ball on his high school team.
“Then you look at Aeris Williams who was the state player of the year here in Mississippi. He’s another guy who played both sides of the ball on his team. He carried the load at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. He is a load a running back. He’s going to put on some size and some strength when he gets here. With the athletic ability, the strength and speed he has, the game-breaking ability that he has, I think he is going to be a pretty special player.
“We recruited him at running back and we are excited to have him at running back. He is one of those guys who you watch and know he is good enough to play on both sides of the ball here at Mississippi State. He may end up doing that before it’s all said and done, because he has that type of athletic ability.
“There are two wide receivers in this class. Jamoral Graham out of Newton County High School is probably the top playmaker in the state. When you watch all the guys on film from the state of Mississippi, he’s the most electric guy in the state with the ball in his hands. We are excited to have him and to get the ball in his hands in the open field. I see him doing a lot like what Jameon Lewis has been able to do for us and become that big time playmaker.
“We’ve got Jesse Jackson out of Petal High School. He is a highly rated player but what was the most important thing with him is, when he has come up here and worked with us, is his unbelievable work ethic. Whatever he has been in high school, I can promise you he is going to get a whole lot better in college because he has a work ethic and a drive and push to be great.
“I know he is a top student as well, but I am really excited about him. I think he will be one of those guys a couple of years down the road who everyone will look and say that he is even better than we thought he would be. That’s based off of his work ethic and pure attitude of what he does.
“I’m thrilled about those two guys. I know we didn’t graduate any receivers last year, but we have a bunch of seniors coming up this year. They [Graham and Jackson] will have to grow up fast to get ready to go.
“We have a few other athletes on the board for us. In the secondary, Chris Rayford might be one of the most underrated players in the state who I’ve seen. He can flat fly and is one of the fastest kids we had all year on campus when he was working out and practicing at camp. He is a guy who has natural cover skills and played just about every position on his team at Byhalia High School. When you watched him this year, he played most of the year with a high ankle sprain and toughed it out. He’s over a 3.0 grade-point average student with a great ACT score. He is, I would say, probably the most underrated player in the state of Mississippi.
“J.T. Gray is coming in at the secondary. He’s another guy who played all over the field from Clarksdale High School. He’s another over 3.0-GPA student in high school. He has high character and a high work ethic. Here’s a kid who we have game film of playing defensive end, and he played corner in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic. He is a kid who is going to do what it takes to be successful. You need him to go play corner, go play corner. You need him to go play defensive end, then go play defensive end. I think he led the team in rushing, too. Those are the type of guys who we love.
“Brandon Bryant is another defensive back who certainly has the skill set to play at a lot of different places. You watched his film and he played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety, outside linebacker and corner this year. He’s that type of athlete and he has big shoes to fill to keep the Rosa Fort High School trend alive. Benardrick McKinney kind of set the bar high.
“You look at these guys and I hold them to standards. For the two guys coming out of Clarksdale, Charles Mitchell for me has set that bar at a certain level for my expectations. So has Benardrick McKinney. Brandon has that to live up to. I think he is a really solid player.
“Logan Cooke is a specialist coming in. You go watch him play basketball and see him dunking and high flying around the gym dunking on people. Doing that as a punter, it’s pretty exciting. We first noticed him a couple of years ago. We watched the kid kick and watched the ball explode off of his foot. I think he was only a sophomore at the time, but I was thinking, ‘Man make sure we get him on the list and pay close attention to him.’
“I am really excited about him. I know punting and kicking off is his specialty more than being a place kicker, but I know for his high school team he did all three.
“Lashard Durr is a corner who is really athletic and explosive for us. He came on early with us and is a great cover corner. He has all the skills you need out there.
“Darrion Hutcherson at tight end, boy he is a great athlete. He will add another dimension to us. When you look at the tight ends we have, Malcolm Johnson causes nightmare matchups for people. Now we are going to have the ability to go two tight ends and do a lot of that stuff.
“You’ll have a 6-foot-7, 250-pound guy who we can flex out, and who is athletic enough to have all the wide receiver skills you need. I think he will add another dimension to the offense and cause a mismatch nightmare. That’s what we like out of our tight ends. It will be tough to put a corner on him because of his size. You’ll have to put a big linebacker on him out there if you want to match his size. If you take the athleticism into account, then he is a tough matchup for them.
“Cory Thomas is a guy we have been recruiting for a long time. [Defensive line coach] David Turner and [defensive coordinator] Geoff Collins did a fabulous job of recruiting him, staying with him and making sure he understood what a priority he was to us and what an important part of our family he is and how he is going to be taken care of here as part of this family.
“I think in the end when the family all gets to sit together and get to these tough decisions, you look where the best place for your future is. I think when he looked at the quality of people coming to play for us, not just on the field, but the quality young men and the character of the people coming to play for us, it’s not hard for a parent or family to sit down and say that’s a great fit for my son.
“We’ve had five or six defensive linemen in the last four years go play in the NFL that I’ve coached here. That doesn’t hurt either when looking at that of part of their future of what could be ahead of them.”
On whether this class was more continuity class instead of a fill-all needs group …
Mullen: “Hopefully we are getting to that point now where we don’t have to overload at one position or another, but that you keep getting that balance. You want to try and avoid years where you need a large clump of players at one position because down the road it gets you in a situation where you get a large clump of players leaving at one position and its hard to get out of that cycle. When you look at this class I think there is very , very good balance throughout the group.
“Our staff did a great job. We identified the guys we wanted, priority guys for us early, and we got all those priority guys. That has been huge for us.”
On the recruitment of J.T. Gray …
Mullen: “He’s a great player in the state of Mississippi. With him we looked at the intangibles. He’s one of the few players who didn’t come through one of our camps during the summer. Part of that is due to moving from Arizona back here to Mississippi.
“Because of that [not coming through an MSU camp], we felt we had to do a lot more research on him. When we went through the research, we found he was a great student. We talked to his high school coaches and they said he was willing to do whatever they told him. We talked to the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic coaches and they all said he was an ultimate team guy. Then we turned on the film and he’s a pretty darn good football player on top of all that.
“When he came up on his visit, we got to spend a lot of quality time with him. You saw he’s a guy he wanted in our program. He’s going to help us win a lot of football games because of who he is.”
On having a small number of 2013 seniors, leaving few scholarships for this signing class …
Mullen “It’s tough. I’m sure we’ll be one of the smaller signing classes in the summer in the SEC. I think that’s a tribute to what we’ve been able to do in recruiting in the past. We’ve had a lack of attrition.
“A lot of guys come here, know what they’re expecting and what they’re going to get out of our program. Sometimes in recruiting they hear one thing but reality is something different. We try to avoid that in recruiting. That shows with our lack of attrition. That has led to a smaller class this year.”
On what makes a “priority” student-athlete …
Mullen: “It’s a lot of things. One, it’s a guy who ultimately fits our program to a tee. Gerri Green is an ultimate priority guy. He has all the physical and leadership tools. He’s an unbelievable young man in his academic accomplishments right here in Mississippi. To me that’s a priority guy. It was that way right up front.
“I put the pressure on him in recruiting. We expect him to be on posters. Not just football posters, but university posters. That’s what we look for at Mississippi State University in young men.
“Everybody has a little bit of a different thing you’re looking for. Some fit an ultimate football need and some or priority guys who, to me, fit the mold of what we want. When you think Mississippi State football, you think of a Charles Mitchell or a Johnthan Banks. Before Banks when to mini camp he came back and finished his degree in that short amount of time. That’s the character of young men we look for. That’s what makes them priority guys.”
On injuries to incoming freshmen …
Mullen: “From the last report with the trainers, we expect Gerri Green to be fully cleared for the fall. I imagine he’ll be full go. All of them should be full go for August based on the latest reports.
“Those are mainly guys who committed to us early and didn’t play games in recruiting. When an unfortunate situation like an injury comes up, it allows you to focus on getting healthy and back as opposed to playing recruiting games.”
On gaining early commitments …
Mullen: “That helps us. We have a big senior class next year. Some years you have bigger classes and some years it’s smaller. Next year is going to be one of those bigger classes. You have to look ahead and have that mentality.
“We have a 2016 and 2017 recruiting board already up. The 2015 board is our biggest. I know I get messages from fans saying they have 2025 guys who are ready to commit.
“The foundation we put on recruiting guys from the state of Mississippi allows you to have a good feel looking into the future of where guys will fit into our program. Our footprint is clear and it makes it easier to see where those guys fit in. You always stay ahead of the game that way.”
On the ebb and flow of recruiting …
Mullen: “As you look, there’s about a 10 percent swing. Every year you look at guys and there are about 90 percent of your guys who are pretty locked in. The 10 percent make up for it. That 10 percent has a lot of drama.
“I didn’t see a lot of drama for us this year. There were only two that came down to the end for us – one was good and the other was bad. Everything else didn’t even waver from what our thoughts were.
“I think that’s the case for most people around the country. Every year there are a couple who vary. You don’t want a lot more than that. If there’s more drama than that, maybe you’re looking at some of the wrong guys. Maybe they don’t understand the hard work, sacrifice and commitment it takes to be a great football player. They may be focused on some of the wrong things.”
On potential offensive coordinators …
Mullen: “We’ve looked at a few things. When you look at the priority of a position, you can get pulled in different directions.
“January is the silly time in college football. You have a dead period and that is followed by the finishing of recruiting. As soon as you end the season, there’s not a chance to catch your breath or even reflect. There’s no time to even review.
“We get back now and go into review and we don’t even remember. We’ve played one game since Thanksgiving.
“There are also opportunities for coaches to move on. You’re trying to hire coaches and hold onto recruits. We were fortunate we only had to make one change on our staff. It wasn’t one that had a major impact on recruiting. It allowed me to have patience and get through recruiting.
“I called all the plays for us last year. I spent a lot of time with the quarterbacks. The two quarterbacks who are coming in know that I was sort of the quarterback coach anyway. They didn’t have to wait and see who it may be. Fortunately how that worked out it allowed us to take our time. Hopefully within the next week we’ll have something in place.”
On the goals of recruiting …
Mullen: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, at a lot of different levels. Honestly, I’m in the business to help young people. I take the most pride in watching young men have success in life. That’s what we take pride in within our program.
“When guys make decisions at the last minute, you hope they’re for the right reasons. I’ve lost guys before. I appreciate a lot of guys. We had some guys who we were in the mix with and they chose other schools. I knew we were recruiting the right guys even though they didn’t chose us because they called us and let us know.
“When it gets to that crazy time at the end, you hope guys are making choices for the right decisions. I’d hate for a guy to choose to come to Mississippi State if it wasn’t for the right reason. If he didn’t feel we were going to develop him to be the absolute best he could be, that we weren’t going to take care of him as part of our family and that he wasn’t ready to work as hard as he possibly can and be pushed as hard as he possibly can be to be the best player he possibly can be, then it was OK for him to go somewhere else.”
On high school students enrolling early in college …
Mullen: “It’s a battle. Gerri Green probably could have enrolled last summer. He could be valedictorian of his high school class. He was NCAA eligible last summer with all of his advanced-placement credits.
“Everywhere we go recruit, we are the only state where high schools refuse to allow guys to graduate early. We’ve had it on several occasions.
“To give a quick example of how it helps young people, I remember about four years ago standing up here and saying Blaine Clausell would make the biggest impact on our team. He was a two-star recruit. He’s going to be a four-year starter at left tackle for us. He graduated last summer. He was in grad school during his junior year on the field. He’s walking out the door with a master’s degree after next season.
“Dak Prescott graduates this spring. He’s a sophomore but he enrolled early.
“When you look at a guy like Green, you see the on-the-field and combined with off-the-field accomplishments, it would have been great to have a six-month head start. I hope it’s something school districts continue to look at and the benefits it provides to young people. It is such a tremendous benefit.
“When you look at the academic standards, if a guy can complete them early he’s obviously a great student. The opportunity to come play in the SEC makes him a great football player. When you combine those two together, that’s something your town can build off of and take a lot of pride in.
“I’d love around the state to look and see if guys can do it, let’s not hold them back. Let’s try to promote our young people to be the best they can be. That would be fantastic.”