Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen met with the media one final time before game week to discuss the Bulldogs’ quarterback battle and update their injury situation. He also gave some insight on the running back position as well.
What has happened the last couple of weeks to move the quarterback position? “Guys developing. We’re getting close to game time. So its those guys getting ready to go. At this point who is ready to get on the field; who is going to give us the best opportunity to move the offense and make plays; and gives us the best opportunity to win the game.
“So it’s starting to sort itself out. I see us playing more than one quarterback in the first game. Because part of the competition also comes down to, I probably feel good with knowing who is going to start by Monday. I hope. And see how they handle it.
“The problem is we come out Monday, OK, this guy is ready to start; now we transition to game planning and they really don’t handle it well. I might have to flip and go back. Then the other aspect is getting into a game. Even though a guy’s a starter we’ll make sure that they’re ready when the lights come on. If he collapses, another guy really is much better when the lights come on and we’ve got to look at that aspect of the evaluation, too.
“And you’ve got to have more than one quarterback ready to play, as we know through the years here. I mean, we’ve had some years where we had to go to #3 and be ready to go to #4 on the depth chart.
“But I think all the guys have progressed. I’ve seen good improvement by everybody moving forward.
How many of the three are in contention to start? “Ahhh, all of them. I mean there’s always that opportunity to do it. But I think the guys kind of are getting that feeling of how it’s going to shake out a little bit themselves. If you ask them I bet they’d have a good feeling, even though I haven’t met with them all about it.”
Have you narrowed down reps with any of those guys? “No, we’re still getting tons of reps. Once it went down to three guys here, three guys getting reps, especially this time of year there’s plenty of reps to go around.
“The one thing you saw at the monitor was the throw spike after it went from four to three. The number of throws in practice spiked up on our charts. Like holy cow, what did we do today in practice that caused this big giant spike in throws?! It was we went from four quarterbacks to three. So they were still able to get a lot of reps all three guys.”
Donald Gray told us even with extra snaps the quarterbacks still showed arm strength at the end of practice? “Yeah, they all have really strong arms. And we balance it. Brian (Johnson) does a good job of monitoring it and rep counting and making sure guys are ready to go.
“I’ve been impressed in their preparedness to come into the season. There’s been minimal fatigue with the quarterbacks at all during training camp. So that’s good.
“I think they’ll learn about their work ethic and how accurate they have to be in working all the little things. Dak (Prescott) ’s the last guy that was here, but every quarterback you see improving from one year to the next. That summer is so important. I think they did come in being prepared for camp that way. They’re going to know hey, I’ve not only got to be prepared. I’ve got to be ready this way, this way, this way in the future.”
This last week who has been the most consistent? “At quarterback? There hasn’t been one that’s been above everybody else. Like I say, I have a good deal to sort now. And it hasn’t done this, there hasn’t been one guy that’s way up here and everyone else is down here. Or whatever, whether these guys perform poorly and one guy performed great.
“It’s all still everybody is right there, pretty close. Even in the grading system. You think that will sort it out. It’s all within one percentage point of each other after about 2,500 snaps. So they’re all pretty much right there.”
Coach (John) Hevesy said he saw improvement from his line in the second scrimmage? “A little better. A little bit better up front. I thought we were able to run the ball a little bit better which is important. That sets everything up there, the efficiency in running the ball. And with the younger guys. (Brandon) Holloway we’ve rested a little bit, so to do it with some of the other guys and be ready to have depth at the running back and be able to run the ball with depth is going to be really important for us this season, with young wideouts and young quarterback.”
Has there been any separation at running back? “No, not at the top. Brandon (Holloway) I know has had an excellent camp even though we’ve rested him a bunch. Ashton (Shumpert) has played really well, and Aeris Williams has played really well. D-Lee (Dontavian Lee) is coming along a little bit.
“And the other guys are still coming along. But those three, I haven’t seen much separation in those top three.”
How is the health of the team? “Coming out of camp we’re fairly healthy. We’ve got a lot of guys banged-up, bruised up.
“We have two guys that are going to miss significant time. Tolando Cleveland is going to miss the year with a torn ACL. So he’s going to be out for the year, we’ll visit later whether he’s going to use his redshirt year and come back. I think we’d lean towards that right now but we’ll see moving forward.
“The other guy, Cedric Jiles, broke his arm and so he’s going to be to about mid-season. See how that recovery goes for us. But everybody else at this point we expect to be healthy for Game 1.”
Can Jiles still apply for another year? “Yeah, I think he has the opportunity to have a sixth year to come back. And again, one of the things I do with the guys is we don’t visit that immediately. Because it’s all emotional. Guys work so hard to get into these situations and it’s so hard to go play. Especially when you’re a senior, an older guy, to have it taken away like that is so emotional.
“One of the things we worry about, is let’s worry about getting our health back on track first. Then we’ll decide on the future a little further on down the road.”
With those situations have you adjusted any guys? “Guys have got to step up. We’ve got to get guys to step up. Maurice Smitherman has played corner, he’s rotating in there. Jamal Peters has the physical tools to go out there and play some corner. And the young guys have to step up and go play.”
Could a true freshman like C.J. Morgan be in that? “Well as you move guys away from safety it opens other opportunities at the safety position. So we’ll see. We’ll make sure we get guys ready and get guys on the field.”
Are you comfortable with the depth? “I mean, comfortable is an interesting word right there! I’d be much more comfortable without the injuries.
“But we’ve always kind of played around here, guys know and they develop. They know if I’m giving an opportunity you’d better be ready to go take that opportunity as well. One of the things of this year’s team, injuries are tough on us because we’re already a very, very young team. When you have a really young team like that it’s not the single injury. It’s the trickle-down effect. Instead of hey, we’d like to play a lot of guys. Instead of we’re rotating these two guys to rotating these two guys, it’s not the one-for-one change. You go from these two to these two, and that’s one of the things that it does hurt with the development. Especially when you’re a very young team.
You said you weren’t pleased with the quarterbacks in the first scrimmage. What were your impressions the second time? “I thought they played much better. I’ve a pretty high standard for quarterback play, and my expectations. And I think they know that.
“So I think they’re improving. I’m seeing things. To me it’s making the mistakes, if you make a mistake once make it again; you’ve got to get a lot of reps of things to see things because it happens really fast out there on the field. But making sure they’re recognizing and making better decisions and making quicker decisions on the field. That’s most important to me.
“I think the decision making gets to a lot of the performance. A lot of guys will say oh, his release or his speed or he’s off-balance. The throw is off balance because he was off mentally and he was late getting there. He just got a little discombobulated with it, his technique and fundamentals. So it’s getting all those reps, getting that mental sharpness, being prepared and game-ready is the most critical thing for us for those guys.”
You led the conference in red zone offense last year. Without Dak (Prescott), without Bear (De’Runnya Wilson) how do you continue that success?“I mean, we practice a lot in the red zone. I think both sides of the ball we’ve been very good in the red zone. And it’s just a mindset within the program. We practice a lot in the red zone, you know.
“So the defense gets comfortable playing down in the red zone and making stops. Offense, it’s a constricted field, some things that you don’t have, you can’t stretch people vertically down the field. So you have to execute at a cleaner, higher level in things that you do. So we spend a lot of time down there, so the guys are comfortable being in that situation.”
Billy Gonzales said Fred Ross played inside and out; Keith Mixon, Gabe Myles. How does that versatility help in the red zone?“It helps everything. Like rotating players, and guys get nicked and banged up. And our depth at receivers has been devastated with departure of guys.
“And not just that, you’re also looking at Gus Walley. I mean the two that are obvious at the receiver position, but Gus Walley the trickle down effect as well. You look at the skill position, you expect something and it’s not there. So the young guys have to be very versatile. Because we don’t have the depth at that position that we’d be expecting to have this season.”