Dan Mullen held his weekly press conference to open the 2014 season against Southern Miss.
Here is a transcript of his session with the media.
Mullen: “We’re excited to get this season kicked off and get back out on the field and go play. Obviously kicking the year off as the prime time Saturday night game on the new SEC Network is really exciting. Kicking the season off in our expanded stadium, we’re going to have a record crowd on Saturday which is going to be pretty special for us; celebrating 100 years on Scott Field. It’s a lot of neat things going on.
“And do to that with a great rivalry game, against a team the first time we’ve played them since 1990 in playing Southern Miss, I know it means a lot to the people of the state. I know how a big a game it is for everybody. It was one of the first things when I was hired that was brought up, would I be interested in resuming this rivalry between the two schools. And I’m really excited to do it and be a part of this game that has a lot of tradition, has a lot of history and I know it’s been on a hiatus here for quite a while.
“But I know our guys are fired up about the opportunity to play against guys they played against in high school or played with in high school. We know a lot of the guys on their team from recruiting, we know most of the guys as in-state players. And it’s going to be really exciting for us to get this going, get this season kicked off and play such a fun opponent in such a great rivalry game. I mean it’s something special to start a season with a rivalry game like this.”
With Damien Robinson out, how is the right tackle battle going with Justin Senior and Rufus Warren?
Mullen: “They’re battling it out. We’re going to let all that go this week and continue to do it. You have to be prepared for all different scenarios now. That’s a definite that Damien is going to be out, so now what we have to do is prepare for all the different scenarios that possibly could hit us and prepare both Justin and Rufus at that position, but also the guys that are cross-over positions now. You know, there’s a lot more… And we were starting to feel good about being able to have a two-deep, a backup at every position. Now you’re going get into having to jumble everybody around at any time with another injury.”
How excited are the guys to hit somebody other than themselves?
Mullen: “Well you spend almost nine months just competing against ourselves, practicing. Whether you’re in the weight room, in conditioning, running sprints, at practice, everything you do has been against yourself. So I think our guys are really fired-up to go play another opponent. And you get to see where you’re at. You never know what type of team you have or how you’re going to be because you’ve always gone against each other. So it’s how we stack up against other people. And obviously playing such a big game in week-one for us is going to see where we’re at.”
What does Southern Miss bring to the table?
Mullen: “One, they won their last game last year. I know Todd (Monken) Tis trying to build the program there, from when he took over and what he took over. But like anything winning that last game I’m sure has really bolstered them going into this off-season, given them momentum going into the off-season.
“They’ve got a lot of guys back, they have a quarterback (Nick Mullens) with not a lot of experience but started last year, knows the system, Out of Hoover (Spain Park High School) which runs similar style stuff. He’s very accurate, can get the ball to the receivers. They have a bunch of play-making receivers on the perimeter. Their top rusher is back, the top receiver is back on the offensive side of the ball. They scored 60 points in the last game of the season so I’m sure they’re coming in with some confidence. Todd as an offensive guy in his background is going to do that.
”And you look defensively, they’ve got some solid players on that side of the ball. And year-two they’re getting used to their system and what they’ve run and how they’re run it. Now the guys have a little bit more experience and obviously finishing last year the way they did they are going to be playing with a lot more confidence. And coming into the season I’m sure they have really high expectations for this season, as we do, as everybody does coming into week-one. It’s going to be a huge challenge, obviously the rivalry aspect of it, the in-state rivalry aspect of it is going to be another huge challenge. Or not really a challenge, I mean it just shows how big a game it actually is for everybody here. Probably on a national level a very under-rated game; but on a state-wide level a game that has been waiting since 1990 to be played. So I think everybody is pretty fired-up about it.”
How much does that number of veterans help in a season-opener?
Mullen: “You can watch what they’re doing on film. So you get to see what you’re going against. I think some of the issues the last couple of years, and especially early in the season sometimes we’ve gone against new coaching staffs and all kinds of new stuff. You’re not actually watching the team you’re going to be playing. So the benefit is we get to watch in all three phases the team that we’re actually playing on Saturday, so our guys get a look of what their opponents are going to be like.”
Will there be any changes in where the staff is on game day?
Mullen: “No, everyone is going to be right where they were last year…except Les Koenning, he’s in Austin, Texas so he won’t be there I don’t think. But Brian Johnson will be sitting in the seat he was sitting in up in the box last year. Then we’ll get a couple of new GAs on staff, and a new strength guy getting everybody back.”
Is coach (John) Hevesy on the sideline?
Mullen: “Yep, yep. Everybody else is going to be right where they were lsat year.”
What does Brandon Holloway add even though he’s not the biggest guy out there?
Mullen: “We’ve moved him now to more as a full-time running back for us, which is what he was in high school. And one of the things, for not a big guy he plays bigger. He plays well off contact. Which one of the things we saw in high school, he plays bigger than he actually is. And that’s why he was able to succeed at running back, and he still does that now. He plays off of contact not like he’s 160 pounds, but his athleticism with speed being that most important thing but quickness, he brings a real big change-up. Because he gets the ball in the perimeter fast, he hits a hole inside, sometimes he’s hard to find because he’s not real big and all of a sudden his acceleration is different than a lot of other guys out there on the field. So he’s a great change-up running the ball from some of the other guys we have in the backfield.”
How does this week change from last week?
Mullen: “Totally different. Last week is transition week kind of, it was cleaning up a lot of things from training camp for us. Things we needed to get work on, teaching our guys how to be on the scout team. After the cut-ups these are the things we needed to practice and clean up. This week is all game-planning for us. So everything you do, basically you have cut from training camp. You have this huge menu which guys are working from every day; now you get into the game plan where we’re cutting down to specific things we’re going to use for this opponent.
”But always in game-one the focus has to be on yourself. You have to go out there, you have to execute very, very cleanly. And everybody’s team is finding their personality at that beginning part of the season. Our team, the same with Southern Miss, the teams are going to be trying to find their personality. So that is a huge aspect of it. But I do think game-plan wise it gets simpler now because the older guys know hey, I’m comfortable with everything but this is what I’m focusing on and what we’re going to use to attack our opponent.”
Looking at what Jameon Lewis did last year, does it make it designing trick plays since people have seen that?
Mullen: “No, the key to trick plays is when you call them. Inherently you draw up a trick play and there’s a lot of danger to call it. It can be a big hit, it can be a big miss. So a lot of times it’s more the when, not the what you’re calling.
“But the great thing it does, it’s fun for us because it gives you the flexibility of a guy I think twice last year he ran, threw and caught a touchdown pass in games. I don’t know how often that’s happened, have we researched that? He did it in a half. And he did it in two different games in the same season which I don’t know if anybody has done. And Dak (Prescott) did that too, right? So we have fun stuff with guys doing it! I mean we have fun doing those things, and like I said the key is when you do it, not exactly what they are. But I think our personnel gives us the flexibility to be able to do that. When we get guys who are high school quarterbacks. Not just with Jameon Lewis but now you’ve got Gabe Myles out there as well that was a high school quarterback. You have guys that are going to be comfortable doing things and kind of a little bit more deceptive plays and fun plays as we love to call them.”
With all the experience on the team how was preseason camp different this year?
Mullen: “I think one thing in the camp was we talk to our guys to only worry about what is important. Sometimes everybody is like I’m competing for a job in training camp and trying to compete to be a starter. I think with experience a lot of guys know they’re going to play. We have I think 30 different guys that started at least one game in their career? So we have more a starter back at every position. I think guys know thought that is not as important as them competing for reps.
“And when you have that mature team, when they view things that way, everyone knows I’m going to play so I’m competing to make sure I’m going to get the reps I want. But also, I know I’m going to play so I need to be prepared to play. A lot of times young guys, they’re not sure how it’s going to play out or what games are going be like. Our guys know what to expect moving forward. So I think the training camp really allowed to helped them in that all-preparation more than worrying about are they going to be starters, what’s their role going to be on the team. Where they know if they get the job and done and prepare the right way they’re going to get to play. So they’ll control what their role is.”
What is your philosophy on using the tight end in the passing game with Malcolm Johnson?
Mullen: “Well, we love mismatches. Tight end is one of those positions. Everywhere we count on our offense what we want to try to do is find mismatches, where do we have advantage. And tight end is one of those guys, it’s a miss-match style position, who are you trying to cover the tight end? If it’s a skilled guy are we going to win the physical battle with the tight end. Or if it’s a big guy are we going to win the skill battle with the tight end.”
”So Malcolm is a guy because as a former receiver in high school he has good balls skills, is a tough miss-match in the pass game; but has the physicality at about 235, almost 240 that he’s tough physical matchup for smaller skill players within the run game, blocking.”
Mullen: “It’s huge. It’s an in-state game. It’s not going to be the same as that, you know what I mean? There is no game that is going to be the same as that for us, ever. The championship game is probably not going to have the same emphasis as that. I mean that’s something that is just different as everybody knows in the state here.
“But I think by playing those other ones our guys understand the importance of in-state rivalries.One, they know that from the Egg Bowl. But also by playing other in-state teams they know what it is like and what guys are bringing to the table when they show up here, how hungry this team is going to be that we’re going to play. And the fact that it is an in-state game and they’re going against guys they’ve known and bragging rights back home, our guys really understand that.
”It’s something that I’ve embraced since the day I got here, and our guys know in getting to play a team like Southern how important the in-state rivalries are and how big they are for you as a player and for your bragging rights and for you to go home and for your family in their home town and at your high school. And for all our fans. Our guys understand that so that what makes it fun. That’s why I’m glad we’re playing this game, it’s neat for me to be a part of this rivalry and it hasn’t happened in 24 years. Most of these guys, the last time we played nobody playing this game was alive, right? Who, Rashun Dixon? He was one-month old.
With your expectations of good to great, where are they on that radar?
Mullen: “Well, it’s hard to tell because we haven’t played a game yet. I’m pleased with what we’ve done, I’m pleased with the maturity, I’m pleased with how training camp went. I’m pleased with the attitude and the work ethic our team has brought to the table every single day. But that’s all fine and good. Now to translate, this is very different now. Now we’re in season. That has to translate to performance every single Saturday. Everything we’ve put in to this point I’m pleased with, but it means nothing if that doesn’t translate to great performance on every Saturday. That’s what we have to look for and that’s what we’re going to find out here in five days now.”
You had to have Damian Williams ready last year as a true freshman, has a quarterback emerged from the two this year?
Mullen: “No, because I think they both bring something to the table, they’re both learning. I think that situation last year has helped those two guys. Because I can tell you this time last year Damian Williams was not thinking about playing at all. He knew he was the third-string guy, I guess he knew there was a chance, but in his reality probably that was not going to happen. And he had to play a major role last season for us to have the success that we had.
“So I think that happening helps a lot of the younger guys, especially at quarterback but almost every position those younger guys are saying hey, the worst thing that couple possibly happen…it might be tough be tough, if I’m really prepared and 100-percent ready to go and then I don’t get to play, that wears on your psychology to constantly do that and prepare and you never get to go on the field. But not as bad as the feeling would be is I get the opportunity and I’m not prepared. So I think that’s really helped a lot of the younger guys, especially the quarterbacks in that room to say hey, here’s this guy that can sit there and tell me I’d better be prepared because you don’t know. I mean when that number is called right now, going into game-one you’re two snaps away, you could be in on the third play of the game and going. It’s only Monday, hopefully we stay healthy all week but those guys understand that and I have to be ready to go play.”
How much responsibility does Prescott carry to call his own play, or will he do much of that?
Mullen: “Well, a lot. We have some that are automatic so against certain looks he might see something and we might have automatic. Each game within the system, game-planning against certain looks he’s going to see, we’re going to say hey when they are in this defense or they are running this blitz, this is the play we want to run against that. So what he’ll do is he’ll have those in there that we don’t have to check all of that stuff, that he has the option when he thinks he sees something out on the field he can get to it.
“My biggest question I give to quarterbacks is why, why did you do that? He said hey, this is what I saw, this is why I got us to this play. Because watching film this is what we want to do. And it’s not always right but I’m fine as long as he has a good answer to why he’s getting us into the situations he get into. And I think the more mature, the older the quarterbacks is, the more you see that. And not just because of their ability, just the confidence they have. He’s going to be confident right now in saying hey I wanted to run this play right here in this time because this is what I saw. I love this one-on-one match up so I took a shot. OK, I might say hey in this game situation we’d rather do something different but I can see why you would get to that check and that play and try to take that opportunity.”
Are Evan Sobiesk and Westin Graves still neck-and-neck at placekicker?
Mullen: “Yeah, they’re about a kick off from each other. So we’ll keep going, I’ll keep trying to create more pressure situations this week to see. But like I said, they might both kick in the opener, Evan and Westin might both kick in the opener for us. Unless we can create a situation where we get 60-some thousand people to show up at the stadium Wednesday afternoon and yelling and screaming out there and I’ll put them out there and we’ll try a couple of kicks. We can’t simulate that situation for them to see how they’re going to perform in the deal. If it is still basically dead-even we might rotate them for that first series to start the game off, and see who is going to perform in that stadium when that pressure hits.”
What do you think about your three captains?
Mullen: “One of the amazing things, I think we had 26 different guys get votes for captain from their teammates. Which shows the amount of leadership that is on this team. I thought that was pretty special. Those three had the most votes, and look at what they’ve done in the program; Malcolm Johnson, Dillon Day, Jay Hughes, all fifth-year seniors, all committed to the program. Dillon I think is one class right now away from graduating, and the other two already have their degrees. It just shows they are what our program is all about in the complete development of the individual. It also shows the respect their teammates have for them in that here’s guys that have done things right throughout their career. They’re not all three household names or they wouldn’t be considered the biggest superstars on their team. But I think within our program when guys look at those guys and say this is what our program stands for, this is what we’re looking for in guys in our program. They kind of fit that mode and it’s great that our team recognizes that.”
How do you balance so many things, a rivalry game, the stadium opening, all this and make sure they don’t go out and play crazy?
Mullen: “I think the benefits of maturity with our guys. I mean they’ve played games before. Friday night everyone is going to be fired-up, but when you have a veteran team they’re fired up to get back into their game preparation more than fired-up into holy cow I get to play in a game tomorrow. They get into that different game-week routine. I think a lot of our guys are ready to get into this game week routine right now, and not just get into game week and go play a game; get into their routine. And the maturity of the older guys helping the young guys get through that, not panicking, not over-hyping, just preparing like a pro at everything you do so you’re ready to perform at an extremely high level come Saturday night. And we’re counting on our maturity to do help us do that.”