By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Such a quiet, relatively calm December does not sit well with Dan Mullen.
For the first time since 2002, Mississippi State’s first-year head coach isn’t spending the holidays on a practice field helping a team prepare for a bowl game. In his six seasons combined at Florida and Utah, postseason play was the norm, and that’s been the case for eight of the previous 11 years Mullen spent as an assistant at the Division I-A level.
While his first season in Starkville can be deemed successful – 5-7 with a sweet Egg Bowl win over Cotton Bowl-bound Ole Miss – Mullen is feeling antsy.
His players are gone on Christmas break, and that recruiting trail doesn’t get the juices flowing quite like a full-blown practice in the crisp December air.
“I’d rather be practicing,” Mullen said last week. “This time next year we’ll be practicing. It’s different. I think it’ll hit you more over the Christmas break than now.”
Mullen then joked – or he might have been serious – that his wife, Megan, would probably have to keep him from daily calls to his assistant coaches over the holiday break.
His players share the same eagerness to return to work. Mullen said not a single player has talked to him about transferring out – offseason attrition is normal for most any school – and that they’re still riding the “boost” the Egg Bowl win gave them.
“Every guy (is) bright-eyed, ready to go, can’t wait to get back, can’t wait to start in January, going to be ready to go,” Mullen said.
There is much for MSU to look forward to. It returns seven starters on each side of the ball, has a year of running Mullen’s system under its belt, and possesses a world of confidence.
“The future’s looking real good for us,” linebacker K.J. Wright said following the 41-27 win against Ole Miss.
Questions to ponder
There are plenty of question marks, however. The foremost one is at quarterback.
If junior college star Cameron Newton decides to sign with the Bulldogs this week, Mullen has a ready-made QB for his offense. Newton ran it at Florida when Mullen was offensive coordinator there, and he excelled after transferring to Blinn College in Texas this season.
But if Newton goes elsewhere, highly touted redshirt freshman Tyler Russell should be ready to compete for the full-time job. Mullen said Russell made a lot of progress on the practice field this fall.
“We’re expecting a lot out of him when he gets back, and taking that next step of being an all-around quarterback and a leader and all those things,” Mullen said.
The other big hole on offense is at running back, where MSU loses its top three rushers. Anthony Dixon exits as the school’s all-time leading rusher, and also gone are Christian Ducré and Arnil Stallworth. There is a bevy of candidates to step in.
Robert Elliott will be a junior with significant game experience – he rushed for 221 yards, fourth on the team, and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Montrell Conner and junior college signee Vick Ballard should also be leading candidates.
What kind of back is Mullen looking for?
“Fast ones, that have good moves, and big and strong,” he said. “If we can find three or four Anthony Dixons out there, we’ll take the three or four Anthony Dixons.”
The big question on defense, for now, is who’s going to run it. Mullen is searching for a new defensive coordinator after Carl Torbush left for the same job at Kansas, but he won’t hire someone who’ll try and change the ball-hawking style Mullen prefers.
“I actually spent some time – I think everybody thinks I just do offense – I spent a good amount of time with the defense, too, and have a lot of input there,” he said.
To keep himself motivated during this down period – as if he needs any help – Mullen has been keeping the Egg Bowl trophy at his house.
“I think we’re having a staff Christmas party this weekend, so I’ll make sure it’s sitting right in the middle of my kitchen for that,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we try to keep it here as long as possible.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.