STARKVILLE — There’s an easy measuring stick for the difference between Dan Mullen’s old job as Florida offensive coordinator and his new gig at Mississippi State: His quarterbacks.
With the Gators, he tutored the Southeastern Conference’s largest quarterback — Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. As preseason practice opens Monday, the Bulldogs’ offense is led by one of college football’s smallest — 5-foot-11 former walk-on Tyson Lee, a guy who worked very hard all offseason to gain the 17 pounds he needed to reach 200.
“Hopefully I can truck some people,” a laughing Lee said when asked if he would be ripping off any Tebowesque runs. “No, no, not really. I just hope I’m more durable, especially in the spread offense. You take some licks a lot of times with there being five wide receivers.”
Lee can’t wait for his chance to run Mullen’s system. Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne wanted his new coach to fling the football around with the idea points on the scoreboard would lead to fans in the stands, and he got just what he wanted in Mullen.
As his former boss, Florida coach Urban Meyer, pointed out, though, Mullen may not have the pieces just yet.
“It’s all personnel based,” Meyer said of the spread offense. “If you have very good players, it’s going to be a good offense. If his players aren’t very good, it will struggle.”
Mullen, who at 37 is Football Bowl Subdivision’s fourth-youngest coach, helped turn Utah quarterback Alex Smith into the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. He followed Meyer to Florida where he helped win two national titles and elevated Tebow into a household name.
Making the spread work in his new home may be his toughest challenge yet, however. Only Lee has significant game experience after starting eight contests last season. But he’s on his third different offense in three years. After him, there’s little-used backup Chris Relf, who passed for 13 yards last year, and the team’s much-anticipated quarterback of the future, freshman Tyler Russell, of Meridian.
Lee’s is the ultimate feel-good story. He has leadership, charisma and toughness. He’s smart, deeply religious and wants to be a high school principal.
“The thing that’s unique about Tyson is he’s such a good person,” Bulldogs offensive coordinator Les Koenning said.
But he still proving that he is a good fit on the field in the sport’s best conference. At times last season he struggled to see over his porous offensive line. And fans cringed every time he got knocked to the ground, which was often in a very difficult year for the Bulldogs.
He’s answered every challenge so far, however. Shunned by major colleges out of high school in Columbus and assigned not a single star by any scouting service, he went to Itawamba Community College where he became a junior college all-American.
Still, there was no interest. He decided as a lifelong fan of the Bulldogs that he’d walk on at Mississippi State, where the only promise was that he could compete for a backup job. He was named the starter in Week 5 and completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,519 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
His impact went beyond the field, though.
“Tyson, I learned a lot from that dude,” tailback Anthony Dixon said. “He’s got a certain style, a certain swagger about himself. It just throws off on a lot of people, the way he talks to us, the way he keeps his composure. He’s been through some things just like a lot of us.
“To see him approach it the way he approaches it lets me know it can be done.”
Great guys don’t always make great quarterbacks, though, and the perception outside the program is Lee is simply holding the job till Russell surpasses him sometime early in the season. Mullen hasn’t done anything to discourage conventional wisdom, declaring the position open — just like the other 10 on offense — and calling it a “week to week deal.”
“I just let the quarterbacks go and compete and learn the offense,” Mullen said of August practices. “Going into fall camp, it’s about developing. Everybody that’s playing quarterback we’re developing. When we get into game week about a month later we’ll figure out who’s best prepared and ready to play at that point.”
He said he likely will play multiple quarterbacks and is comfortable with the public’s sense of uncertainty around the position. He’s been in similar situations before, it turns out. In his first seasons with Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida he rotated quarterbacks — most notably with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow sharing the role and a crystal trophy.
Since coaches can’t work with players until they report to camp Sunday, Lee is tutoring Russell this summer, surely tightening the competition. He wants to make it easier for Russell.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Koenning said. “It’s a competitive atmosphere, but it’s an atmosphere where he wants the best thing for the football team. That’s why Tyson’s leadership skills are so good.”
Brandon McRae, the only experienced wide receiver on the team, said Russell’s so talented he might be an all-American some day. But there’s really no competition at this point.
“I think Tyson Lee has that job hands down,” McRae said. “Tyson Lee is the ultimate warrior. Tyson Lee is great leader, a great motivator. He’s the hardest working guy on the team.”
Lee hopes there’s a little magic left in Mullen’s playbook for him. He believes the shotgun formation will mitigate his height disadvantage and loves the opportunity to throw the ball all around the field.
After the conservative offense of Sylvester Croom, Lee likened Mullen’s offense to driving a Camaro.
“I love it,” he said.
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press