MSU Media Day: Dan Mullen

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen breaks down his team during the MSU’s on-campus media day on Friday.

Opening Statement

“We’re excited. This is one of the best times of the year. We’re excited to be back out there on the field. As a team, today is practice number five for us. We’ve had four practices already, a couple in pads. We’re seeing guys get back in the swing of things and getting back into the football mentality. This is that transition from offseason training and conditioning into football. Final exams just ended yesterday, so today’s really the start of training camp for us. No more distractions, just football right now. We don’t have a long time, just a week. We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage with our academic schedule here at Mississippi State because classes start so much earlier than other schools. We have a really small window in which we can have training camp days so we have to try the best we can to try take advantage of this next week.”

On this year’s team’s personnel …

“I’m excited about the team we have coming back. We lost a lot of good players last year. A lot of players graduated and moved on to other careers in their life. Some of them went to go play professional football. We had some in business, some in education. So this is a whole new team. Even though there will be a lot of new faces, there will be a lot of recognizable faces coming back and we’re excited about that.  On offense, I think it all starts with our quarterback (Dak Prescott). We need him to have the best year of his career. I think he has really driven himself and pushed himself this offseason to put himself in a position to do that. You can look at some of the new faces that we’re excited to see. At the running back position, there are familiar faces with Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway. Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams waited for their opportunity, and now they’re trying to take advantage of it. At the receiver position, officially, we only have one returning starter back, but we have a bunch of guys that started games coming back and a bunch of guys who had pretty good numbers coming back like Fred Ross, Fred Brown, Gabe Myles and Joe Morrow. Those are all non-starters coming back that had pretty legitimate numbers at the receiver position. I think we do have a lot of depth there, maybe more than what it looks like on paper.

“On the offensive line, there are going to be some new faces this year. Our center is kind of the guy that leads our offensive line for us, so there’s a lot of pressure on Jamaal Clayborn for him to be the center that we need him to be. We need him to be the leader up front for that whole group. At right tackle you have Justin Senior, a multi-year starter back, and Justin Malone is a multi-year starter, too. So there’s experience around him on either side, and we feel pretty good about it in that way.

“Both of our kickers have experience coming back. Our long snapper (Winston Chapman) is returning. Logan Cooke has kicked off, punted and even attempted a field goal in a game. Devon Bell has punted, kicked off, and kicked field goals. He kicked a 50-yard field goal four years ago in the Gator Bowl. So there’s some experience in the kicking game. They’re a little bit older and a little bit more mature. So we feel pretty good about the special teams game for us.

“On defense, looking back now, you see the difference between spring and now. We held out Taveze Calhoun and Kendrick Market in spring. You see them back out there on the field and it’s a different feel in the secondary right now. Add Will Redmond, even though he hasn’t been a starter. He has a bunch of experience. And then at the safety position, we have Deontay Evans, Kivon Coman and Brandon Bryant who we expect big things out of. You look and say ‘Well maybe the secondary is a little deeper than we thought it would be.’ At linebacker, we obviously lost some great playmakers in Benardrick McKinney, a top NFL draft pick and All-American, and Matt Wells, who was probably our most valuable player on defense last year, at least to me. Those are tough guys to replace. But when you look at it, there are younger faces moving in there. You saw Richie Brown, who was an SEC Defensive Player of the Week last year. We have Beniquez Brown at inside linebacker. We have Dez Harris back now off injury and Gerri Green, who we’ve been excited to see out on the field. To replace a Matt Wells, we’ve got a young guy in J.T. Gray that didn’t redshirt last year and got a little experience on the field. Zach Jackson has played a lot of football, and we have Traver Jung, a young junior college kid who is fighting for that spot.

“Defensive line, to me, is probably where we have to see the most guys step up. When you look at losing P.J. Jones, Curtis Virges, Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith, that’s a lot of guys who played. We like to roll guys in and out on that defensive line. That’s not just productivity, but that’s a lot of snaps being played. So there’s a lot of opportunity, even though we feel good with Ryan Brown, A.J. Jefferson and Chris Jones. Those guys have played a lot of football. For us to be able to rotate the defensive line the way we want to, those are the younger guys on the defensive line that maybe haven’t had a whole lot of experience and that are going to have to step up. At defensive end, we have Johnathan Calvin and Will Coleman. They don’t have much experience, but we need them to step in and play right away. Braxton Hoyett and Cory Thomas on the inside need to step up and perform for us at a very, very high level. I like the effort, and I know that David Turner does a great job with our defensive line. He’ll get those guys ready to go play when we kick it off with that big in-state rivalry in Hattiesburg.”

On Dak Prescott being on the cover of Sports Illustrated …

“I think it’s pretty fantastic. I think it’s a huge honor for our program and our university. Actually, I think it’s the third time we’ve been on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the past eight or 10 months, which is a lot. It’s a huge honor for our university and for an individual like Dak, who chose Mississippi State because we believed in him. We saw what he could become, and to see him accomplish those goals, well, that’s why you coach. To see young people achieve goals and live out dreams and to know that you were a part of helping that, that’s why you coach. It’s just a neat honor to be a part of it.”

On if any players on the roster can replace Matt Wells’ versatility …

“There aren’t that many 6’2”, 225-pound guys that run a 4.3 40-yard dash in the world. J.T. Gray is probably the guy that’s going to be closest to doing that. He’s one of the fastest linebackers and one of the fastest guys on the field. He’s a low 4.4 guy for us. And Matt was different. One of the mistakes that you can make as a coach is trying to replace former players. Who’s going to fill that role? I wish I had a roster full of 6’2”, 225-pound guys that could run a 4.3. We would be freaky on defense. There are not many of them. What we’ve got to do is look at the guys that we do have here and at what they do well and make sure that we build around their strengths, instead of trying to replace former players.”

On if any tight end can fill the role of Malcolm Johnson …

“We feel really good about Gus Walley. He was our back up last year, and we’ve got to keep him healthy. I think he’s really ready to step into that role of being able to give you what Malcolm gave you last year. He’s a guy that you can flex him out into the perimeter or you can bring him in motion as an H-back or tight end. He’s going to be able to bring a lot of different aspects to the game. He can create mismatch problems. Behind him, it’s a wide-open race right now. That’s where we have to see. We have Darrion Hutcherson and B.J. Hammond and two young kids – Justin Johnson and Farrod Green. We have to find out who the guy is. You have to be good at a lot of different things and bring the most to the table at that position.”

On Rufus Warren’s move from tight end to left tackle …

“It was always a fight for him. I would say ‘Alright, you have to slim down to 270 to be able to function as a tight end,’ and it just kind of became a situation where we were fighting the inevitable. Instead of trying to make him lose this weight and getting him to stay as small as he can to be a tight end, tell him ‘Hey, go have another burger at lunch and eat a biscuit at breakfast and go play left tackle.’ That really became an easy adjustment as we were looking at him trying to make that move. We were just trying to fill him out to his natural body size.”

On how to measure the returning experience of a team …

“If you rotate, I don’t really know that you are a second string guy because your rep count is up pretty high and you have a lot of experience. You might not play in the first play of the game or might not be in the spotlight of being a starter, but on the field you have that experience. I look at Will Redmond as a returning starter. He might not have played the first game of every game, but he played the last plays in a lot of games with the game on the line. There’s a lot to that, in my mind. You might also look at Devon Desper, who started a game last year for us at right guard but maybe didn’t get a big number of reps. We don’t rotate that much on the offensive line. We didn’t last year. So even though he’s got game experience and has started a game, he’s going to be at a different level than maybe a Will Redmond or a Richie Brown even at that position. To me, if you want to look at the experience of a team, look at career snaps. How many times have they played a live snap in a game? If a kid has played over 150 snaps during his career, he’s played a bunch of football. If he’s played over 150 snaps in his career, you’ve played well over three full games in your career on the field. So if you have those types of numbers, to me you have the experience to go play. The starting role is going to be, honestly, a lot more of your name on the jumbotron and being in front of the media because the starters are generally the ones that get called to the media.”

On Nick Fitzgerald’s early arrival …

“I think it’s certainly helping him compete. He got three or four practices that first bowl prep, but that was a good adjustment for him. I bet you he couldn’t even tell you what he did or what plays he ran in any of those practices, but that allowed him to get prepared to go through spring football last year and get ready for a season. I’m excited to get him into a game to get him that game experience because he certainly has practice experience.”

On Martinas Rankin and how offensive line depth has helped his development …

“I think it helps him in a lot of ways and the program as a whole, too, in that he’s allowed to develop and get on the field at the time he’s ready. We’re not forced to throw him out there on the field. We have pretty high expectations for him, and I think that he’s going to have a very good career for us. He has a great work ethic and a great attitude. He wants to be a good player. That to me is what’s really, really important. I think he’s going to have a good career for us. The fact that we have depth doesn’t force us to putting him into positions when he isn’t ready to go. It helps with his development, too, and also his confidence.”

On his goals for the rest of training camp …

“I want to see us develop depth. There are a lot of guys that have played a lot of game reps, and I have a good feel for what they’re going to do and what they can do. Hopefully, they’re going to do it better than they ever did it before. Our big goal at training camp is to find the guys who maybe don’t have a lot of game reps that have earned the right to put themselves in the position to go get those reps come the opening game this season. We talked about all those seniors that graduated and have gone on. We lost a lot of good players, but we still have a lot of star power on the team. What we lost more than anything is depth, and that, to me, is what these young guys become. And not that we don’t have depth now, but we lost experienced depth. Now, we have depth. We have four groups that can go in practice, but guys in the second group have never stepped foot on the field in a game before. That’s the depth that we need to create to have them game ready.”

I have covered Mississippi State in some capacity since 2004 and joined the Daily Journal staff in 2013. I enjoy short walks on the beach, performing concerts in my car and watching professional wrestling.

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