Monday with Mullen

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen held his weekly press conference on Monday to discuss the Bulldogs’ 45-17 home win over Troy and preview their game against Louisiana Tech.

Opening Statement…

“Wrapping up last week, I thought we played really well in the first half. That’s the type of team we’ve gotten used to seeing here at Mississippi State. We played to the standard we expected to play. Defensively, we played with a little chip on our shoulder and were flying to the ball, the aggressiveness we played with defensively. We made a lot of plays. They gave us some one-on-one opportunities and we made some big plays down the field. I thought we really played well in the first half, and to be honest with you, we came out solid for the third quarter, but I think some of the guys hit cruise control. For us as coaches, we can’t let that happen. We have to play four quarters. Within the standard and expectations, we have, we want guys to strain and play for four quarters. Human nature creeps in every once in a while. You see that scoreboard and take a look at where we were, and we didn’t play as hard as we needed to in the second half. The great thing is showing on film. We still have a lot of execution things we have to get better at. I love the edge we played with Saturday. If we can keep that and get better with our execution, guys performing at a higher level, we’re going to be in good shape.”

“This week’s game, obviously a real tough game. Louisiana Tech is a good football team. They have a lot of talented players. It starts with their quarterback (Jeff Driskel), who I think is a big-time player. I’ve gotten to watch him over the last couple of years in conference games, even though we didn’t face him. I think he was a guy who was unjustly blamed for a lot of things happening on the team he was at. His performance level is big-time. He’s got a great arm, an accurate passer, can make all the throws. He’s a big, physical guy when he runs the ball and he has a lot of athleticism. He’s the real deal at quarterback. I think you’re seeing it in his performances and how he is playing right now. They have one of the best running backs in America (Kenneth Dixon). He didn’t play last week, but I view that as he’s extra rested for our game. If you put them in the backfield, that makes them a really dangerous combination with some great receivers who can stretch it down the field and make catches underneath. They are an extremely explosive offense. Defensively, they have some veteran players. They run the ball really well. They are a really well coached and disciplined team. They play hard not just hard but with a lot of confidence. You can see why they are such an excellent football team with what they’ve done, how they are coached and how hard they play, and you combine that with all the great talent they have, it makes it a real challenge for us.”

On the offensive line’s performance against Troy…

“I thought we played solid at times. A couple of mistakes here and there that were glaring. There are times we were excellent, then there were times we had some glaring errors within our technique or scheme. I wouldn’t put it as their best game but I thought they played solid.”

On wide receiver Donald Gray’s development…

“He’s made some great plays vertically down the field. I think he’s becoming a better route runner and better every-down player. He still makes some glaring errors that you may not see. You have to kind of know what you’re looking for to see but that’s just an experience thing for him. He had a couple of missed assignment plays that you can’t have and can hurt you. His playmaking ability, we’re seeing that come through. I’m also seeing him making some great plays on special teams for us. He’s a guy that’s really learning how to be a football player at this level. He has bought in the right way and will continue to grow and develop.”

On Manny Diaz’s experience as defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech…

“It helps with familiarity. If there is something out of the norm, it’s not bad to know why they are doing it or what they are trying to accomplish in that. That’s why we study the film. Hopefully by the time the game hits there are no secrets out there.”

On Dak Prescott’s development between junior and senior seasons…

“It’s very different. Last year, he was a big playmaker and made a lot of plays, maybe some flashier plays. His control of the game is so much better this year that this year in how he handles plays or sees what’s going on out on the field. His calm and his demeanor, whether we have been ahead or behind, you see him try and get the job done, and lead the team to victory and do whatever it takes. Last year, it might be him saying ‘I’m going to try to make a big play to change the whole game around,’ now, it’s ‘I’m out here making sure I do what it takes to win the football game.’ I think that growth and maturity is huge.”

On Ryan Brown’s performance and garnering SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors…

“He’s the leader of the defensive line for us right now. When you turn on the film and see how our defensive line played as a whole, they played the best game they have played this season. I think Ryan was the beneficiary of that. It wasn’t just Ryan putting out show on the field, it was our entire defensive line playing at another level. He’s the guy that ended up with the best stats because of what they were doing. That is as much everybody else on the defensive line as much as it is him causing some issues in the backfield and creating negative-yard plays. He’s the guy that ended up as the beneficiary from all the penetration we got up front.”

On backup quarterback situation…

“I think (Nick Fitzgerald) goes into the game right now as the backup. If something happened to Dak, it’d be a wide open deal. I think they are pretty even. (Fitzgerald) has an advantage since Elijah (Staley) was hurt in the spring, so he’s got a couple more reps. If we had to make a change at quarterback, I don’t know that would be the case today. He’s done a great job. We wanted to get him in about the third series into the first half. The fact that I get the call Saturday morning that Elijah had been throwing up since 1 a.m. and Dak since 4 a.m., to me, I’m looking a Damian Williams thinking, ‘I know we have a plan in place, but you have to be ready.’ That was more it than anything else. I’m really pleased with how Nick handled it. I don’t think you could have asked a better situation for Nick Fitzgerald. He didn’t find out that he might be playing a lot until that morning. When you’re the backup I think you see that a lot of times. There’s really no better scenario. He showed up Saturday morning, and he became the one. He got a good night’s sleep and didn’t have to worry about it. He got to prepare all day leading up to kickoff. It ended up being a good situation for him. I’m pleased with how he handled it and think he did a fabulous job.”

On team health after Troy game…

“There’s nothing new coming out of this game. I think we came out pretty healthy. This time of year everybody is bruised up. This week we have to see. Gus Walley, we hope to have him back this week. The plan was for him to be good to go at this point. I think Joe Morrow and Gabe Myles will be a little bit longer. They will be questionable this week. Talking to the trainers yesterday, they are both progressing. Gabe may be a little ahead of Joe right now in progressing and getting ready to get back. I don’t expect them to practice a whole lot. Rufus (Warren) should be good to go this week. He could have played Saturday. He may have played 80 percent Saturday and if he did that he’d still be playing at 80 percent again this week. Now, he’ll be back good to go this week.”

On approach to defending Louisiana Tech offense…

“You have to play sound. You have to get to the football, get to your gap and be where you are supposed to be. You have to understand they have two great players. Great players are going to make plays. You have to limit the number of plays they make. You can’t let that become a big issue for you. Their quarterback is going to make some great throws. We have to respond and stop the next one. He’s going to scramble and create offense. We have to stop the next one. Their running back is going to break some tackles. We have to stop the next one. You don’t get frustrated with great players, you have to stay sound for four quarters.”

On offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins’s first start…

“I thought he did OK. There are some things he could be better at. Overall he did well. Not many missed assignments. He did decent in his execution. I think that game is going to help him out moving forward in his confidence in that he can see how he played. He can see the ways he could have played better. A lot of times in a guy’s first start, they don’t want to make a mistake. Instead of making a play they are worried about making a mistake. Now, he can see how he can build his confidence on that and go play better in the weeks to come.”

On Dak Prescott’s performance despite less hype this year…

“I think he is much better this year. The production numbers may not be as high. He might not be making as many spectacular plays. But he makes some plays on the field that he wasn’t able to make last year. I’m not talking about running over a safety and diving into the end zone. He’s getting into a fourth progression and getting the ball out of his hands to a guy that’s wide open out on the field. I think that is a real progression he has made as far as becoming a quarterback instead of play maker. When you watch and study the game and film, you think, ‘Wow that’s great for a quarterback to do even though it was a seven-yard play.’ That’s where he’s developed.”

On the state of the program and getting to win No. 50…

“In coming here, I wanted to build a solid football program. We have had a tremendous amount of support from everyone in building a solid football program. From our athletic administration to university administration to our student body and how they support us to our fan base and alumni and boosters, this program has come an awful long way in the last seven years in terms of support, facilities and performance on and off the field. I’m pretty pleased. My goal is to win a championship every year. I think the program as a whole is in pretty good shape. This season, we have to continue fighting to win a championship. I guess it is a neat deal. They told me only three people have won 50 games here so that’s cool.”

On Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway in the punt and kick return game…

“One, I think those guys are more veteran players so they trust the scheme of what is going to happen on the field. When you have a guy that has the ability to go score but also trusts the scheme that’s going on, it’s huge. Our guys have a good understanding of what’s going on. It’s not just the one or two blocks at the point of attack, it’s the block 20 to 30 yards down the field at the end. Sometimes guys miss a block. But instead of chasing those guys down and block the guy they missed, they understand what our scheme is. Somebody behind might get that guy and then they blocked the next guy. And when they are blocking the last line of defense, they are not getting in the block too early or too late. They wait and understand when their block is going to become important. That understanding has really helped us and made us more dangerous of a return team. We’re getting a lot of roller punts and squib kicks on kickoffs so they are trying to kick it away from our returners.”

On Fred Ross emerging as returner …

“He catches it most consistently. To be honest with you, when you look at the punt return game, it’s as much loss of yardage as it is gained yardage. Statistically speaking, how much yardage you lost in not fielding punts, even when you have big returns, sometimes the lost yardage outweighs the gained yardage with a special player back there. If you have a talented guy back there who might be able to create a big play, in the long term, the statistics are if he isn’t fielding all the punts the right way he is losing you more yardage than he is gaining you with a big return. He ended up back there because of his consistency.”

On running back Dontavian Lee playing a larger role in the offense…

“I think a lot of people look at the carries. He had five carries and played 17 plays. The key is studying the 12, not the five. The 12 are much more important than the five. Both he and Aeris (Williams) are still developing. I can’t have a running back in there when Dak is going back to throw the ball, and he has now idea what he is doing, and now we lost our quarterback. It’s the play without the ball with young players as to how fast they develop that way.”

On kicker Westin Graves solidifying role …

“He was more consistent that first game week. When he got his opportunity on the field, he’s been pretty steady with it ever since. We’ve tried to keep him in good situations to kick the ball to build his confidence. He is kicking the ball pretty confidently. You can tell that not so much in his makes but his confidence in his misses. When he misses he thinks, ‘This is why we missed the kick.’ There is a confidence in the miss. Even when he makes a mistake he knows how to fix it.”

On redshirting quarterback Damian Williams…

“He would like to do that. At this point, especially how Fitzgerald and Elijah have come in and handled it, I think that gives the opportunity for that to happen to him. You never know with injuries, but at this point you have to feel pretty comfortable if something happened to one of the three playing now. I think he would have liked to redshirt his first year here but injuries didn’t allow that to happen. Our quarterback situation is what it is today. To me, the second No. 15 walks out the door, the whole slate is clean. Whatever you have done in the past no longer exists in my mind. Everything they have done in the past was done with a guy in front of them – a No. 15 guy who has been a leader of his team. That slate is going to get wiped clean come spring time, because now, somebody has to emerge not only as a good quarterback but as a leader of the program. That’s going to be the future.”

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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