Talent on hand helped boost Mullen’s cause

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen had a project on his hands when he was hired in December of 2008 to coach Mississippi State. But one could argue that he owes Sylvester Croom a debt of gratitude for having some good raw materials already in place.
Mullen has received a lot of praise for turning the Bulldogs around. A team that had become an SEC doormat went 9-4 last season, pounded Michigan in the Gator Bowl and was No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll.
Such quick success is hard to do without some talent already on hand.
Of the 100 players listed on MSU’s spring game roster, 64 belong exclusively to Mullen, 25 to Croom, and 11 would be considered shared – that is, players from the 2009 class who committed to Croom and signed after Mullen was hired.
Others from that class, like receiver Chad Bumphis, joined up after the changeover and are considered Mullen’s.
When it comes to playing time, though, Croom’s players have accounted for 519 games and 171 starts in their careers, compared to 185 games and 46 starts for Mullen’s players. The shared players have combined for 176 games and 84 starts.
With only two recruiting classes that he can call his own – the 2009 class has to be considered a mostly shared one – it’s natural that Mullen has had to lean heavily on Croom’s recruits. The Bulldogs have been forced to use some young players, but more so in 2009.
Mullen was able to redshirt 18 of his 2010 signees last fall, sacrificing some possible short-term benefits for long-term gains. He’ll now theoretically have that group the next four seasons.

Developing the talent
But how has Mullen won so quickly with players recruited by a coach who had just one winning campaign in five seasons? Did Croom truly leave a strong foundation of young talent, or does Mullen deserve most of the credit for developing the talent?
Or is it a little of both?
“I think a lot of development,” Mullen said. “We’ve got four guys that have a shot to get drafted this year; we recruited two of them. Two of the four were our recruits. …
“Every linebacker on the roster right now, we recruited, except for Jamie Jones. On the D-line, (Fletcher) Cox, (Josh) Boyd, so many of those guys have had to play since we’ve been here. I guess that’s how I look at it, most of the guys are guys that either we took over as freshmen or we recruited.”
In addition to Jones, fourth-year junior linebacker Brandon Wilson was a walk-on under Croom.

Strong base
Offensive lineman Tobias Smith was a Croom recruit. The fourth-year junior said he thinks Croom left Mullen a strong base of young talent, and the scouting services would agree: Croom’s 2007 class was ranked 27th in the country by Scout.com (eighth in the SEC), while the 2008 group was 33rd (seventh in the SEC).
The 2009 class was 19th and eighth.
Some of MSU’s most important players for the coming season were brought in by Croom: Quarterback Chris Relf, receiver Arceto Clark, tight end Marcus Green, safety Charles Mitchell and cornerback Corey Broomfield, to name a few.
In fact, at least half of the 2011 starters will likely be exclusively Croom recruits.
Smith thinks Croom deserves some credit for raising the talent level from what it was when he took over a team weighed down by NCAA probation.
“We always had talent,” Smith said. “It’s an SEC school, so you know you ain’t just recruiting anybody. Coach Croom, he had some talent, but coach Mullen is helping us to exploit the talent and use it and putting us in mismatches against other teams.”
Mullen’s never been one to put a lot of stock in class rankings, preferring instead to trust his and his assistant coaches’ own eyes for talent. Once those players are in the program, then his goal is to turn them into four- and five-star players.
His theory will be tested soon. MSU’s 2010 class was ranked 38th and 10th by Scout, and the 2011 class is 45th and 11th.
“I’m a lot less concerned in how players show up, than how they walk out the door,” Mullen said. “Our job here is whether you show up with a one-star, five-star, whether you were a returning starter before we got here or you never played before we got here, that’s completely irrelevant to me.”

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@journalinc.com.