Mississippi State held its final practice in Starkville in advance of the Belk Bowl. Afterwards, Bulldogs’ head coach Dan Mullen talked about his team’s preparation, Tony Hughes‘s role and the senior tackle held at the end of practice.
Can you summarize how bowl camp went? “I thought pretty well. You look at the different phases. Phase one I thought we got some good work in, hopefully kick-starting us in the future, into the spring with the young guys getting opportunity to go get some reps. To kind of refresh and awake in their mind.
“The great part is now we come back in January they can go in and watch film, watch some cut-ups and they can watch themselves playing. Not just the older guys that get to go watch themselves on the field. So I think that was pretty positive. Phase two, one of the things that is always tough is transitioning to game week. I think we started slow a little bit. But the last three days have been really good practices and preparation.
“I mean, we’ve got to play an excellent football team in N.C. State. So we have got to make sure that we’re ready to go play our A-game. Play at the highest. You want to peak playing your best football at the end of the year. A couple of keys to that: one we have to execute at a high level with the time off. Two, we’ve got to be healthy and fresh. Which every day you kind of see guys a little bit fresher, now with a little bit of break coming to the bowl site I want to see us going 100 miles an hour.”
You played four true freshmen this year, what difference do you see with them getting to bowl practice? “I think it’s a little bit, not exhausting, just wearing on them. But I think at this point of the year those guys start to get it. I mean they realize how long of a year it is.
“And especially the younger guys, they just follow the lead of the older guys. And if you’re going to follow the lead of the older guys, older guys that have been through it, been to bowl games every year of their career, I guess you don’t know any different. You just go and do what the older guys are doing and do it as hard as you can.
How was last night’s senior dinner different with this class? “Well they’re all that way to me. Because we’re a family here. These kids are all like your sons. I told them I’m so proud of everything they’ve accomplished. But every year it’s kind of a neat deal. Those guys get to reminisce about their times here. You remember them.
“I kind of always think back to them sitting in my house on a recruiting visit five years ago. Just some young kid, and now they’re kind of grown men walking out the door with a degree in their hand ready to go attack the world and what it presents. I’m just so proud of those guys and everything they’ve accomplished. They’ve done an awful lot for the program. But most importantly I tell them it’s my opportunity to thank them. They believed in me and Megan and what our program is about.
“You go look at guys that have helped lead a team to be a #1 team in the country, a bunch of guys that have undergraduate degrees, guys that are getting graduate degrees. A guy from Ludlow, Mississippi (senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun) that is in New York City up for basically the academic Heisman, and National Football Foundation at the Hall of Fame Dinner. At a black tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria, probably not a lot of people from Ludlow, Mississippi have been in a black tie dinner where they are one of the main people there to celebrate at the Waldorf Astoria.
“You look at Dak Prescott, how far he’s come. Just all the success those guys have had from where they came from is what makes that kind of a neat dinner, a last chance that they’re going to be together at my house. It was a lot of fun.”
The ‘senior tackle’ practice today, how emotional is that? “It is. I mean, I think our guys have fun with it because they are family. But it is for those guys. Every year they try to kind of keep it funny but you can see with the seniors and the young guys. Because a little of emotions that are inside them. They know that’s their last time practicing out here on these fields. And it’s a special deal.”
Is this the first time a coach has gone through senior tackle? “Yeah, Tony (Hughes) got a rep at it right there. I asked Tony to come up, we haven’t had a coach to do that before. But he’s done a great job with this program, he’s been with me since the beginning here. And he’s as responsible as I am or all the players are for the success that Mississippi State’s had as part of what we’ve done. This organization, for us the program that we’ve built he’s put an awful lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making this successful and bringing pride to the state of Mississippi.”
How have you had to combat staff attrition as a head coach? “Well, it’s always going to happen. I think with the success that we’ve had here people want that success at their school so they want to try to come get our coaches. That’s just something that happens every single year. It’s great to me when a guy like a Tony that has left and had an opportunity to go on and be a head coach, I think that’s a fantastic opportunity.”
What can you say about your two mid-year signees? “Very excited to have them. Two guys we knew a lot about in high school that we’re very excited to go recruit out of high school. Really proud of what they’ve done, a year-and-a-half later they’re getting out of junior college. They went, took care of their business not only in the classroom, also developed more as players from their high school days. So I’m really happy with what they’ve done and we’re excited to get both of them in here.”
“You have two senior corners walking out the door; to have Lashard (Durr) come in as a corner to compete for a starting position right away, especially going through spring practice is going to be huge. Then on the d-line we’ve got to play a lot of guys. Tre Brown is going to have the opportunity to come in and compete right away and get in the rotation right away for us.”
Is it decided if Hughes is going to coach the bowl game? “I think so. I keep telling him, and he looks at me now…they were all making fun of us on the practice field, right when we got on the field all the other coaches uh-oh, the special handshake, we’re not going to be allowed in that meeting, that’s a head coaches-only meeting.
“But I think the plan is for him to come to Charlotte. But again, his number-one responsibility has to be his program at Jackson State right now. If it works out, which the plan is for him to do that, then he’ll be with the team for sure.”
Was today Hughes’ first day back? “Yes. It was his first day back. But he’s been with the program, he knows what’s going on, knows our routine, knows all that stuff. It’s not something I’m concerned about. I think it’s fantastic if we get him at the bowl game…but I understand the issues that all of a sudden there’s stuff that happens when you’re the head coach that may get a little uncomfortable. But I think he would really like to be there and we’d love to have him there.”
Do you give Hughes advice? “Absolutely. Just little things here and there and tid-bits. But I think he knows I’m always here to call and ask how do you handle this situation. If something comes up how am I going to handle this situation or what’s your opinion on this going on? But I think he knows also he’s the one making decisions. You’re in a position now where you have to be the decision maker. I think he’ll probably lean on me for some advice and stuff but he’s still going to make decisions for what he feels best for his program.”
Prescott said this week he wanted to leave here ready to play the game, is the team close to that? “We’d better be. I think so. I think we’ve had a good week of practice. Human nature sometimes, it’s tough, but that’s been our stress all week. Basically today we finished a Thursday practice. So in our mindset if we’re not ready to play two days from now we’re not prepared for the game.
“I do, I feel coming off of Thursday practice we could go hang out, have our team family dinner tonight, and the best Friday in football tomorrow; and kick it off on whatever day that Saturday would be. That we’d be ready to go play now.
“But now we get a little chance to get a breather, hopefully get fresh, get them even a little bit healthier. Then we’ve got to come attack the bowl practice. We’ll have a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday (of a normal game week) practice there for our game week routine.”
How do you get back in the mindset after the Christmas break in the bowl game prep? “You have to flip it pretty quick. We’re going to get their Monday in my mind, you guys I’m going to mess y’all up! But it will be Monday night we get there (Saturday, December 26) and the reason we want to get there Monday night is sleep in the hotel so we wake up Tuesday morning and go into meetings, go into game plan review, get a Tuesday practice in. Come back and get ourselves right into a game week situation. That’s to me the whole key to getting to the bowl game and getting the transition ready. And feeling fresh and happy and excited to be there.”
Do you know if there will be a car at Charlotte Speedway that can carry Nick James? “Yeah, I’m not sure about that now. See him get in that window there, climbing into that seat.”
Do you plan on getting in the car and driving? “Yeah! Oh heck yeah! As long as it’s the Carl Edwards (car). I’m a Carl Edwards guy. You’ve got to have your driver, I’m a Carl Edwards guy. So I don’t know if I’ll be doing the back-flip getting out of it, though.”
You mentioned Winston Chapman might try to snap? “We’ll talk, we’ll see when we get to the bowl site. He did it a couple of days, obviously when we did it on air he was snapping. But we’re obviously not going to put him at any risk for his future. But if everybody felt good about it, you know, we’d give him the opportunity to go short-snap it.”