STARKVILLE – Dennis Franchione wasn’t too sure about this wacky spread offense.
Some time after Franchione’s Texas A&M squad had finished up a 2004 season that saw it go 7-5, he was speaking with his offensive coordinator, Les Koenning.
“I just don’t know if it’ll work, Les, because the quarterback will get hurt,” Franchione said.
Koenning replied, “Coach, every quarterback in America wants to play in that system.”
Koenning had been paying attention. In the first game of the 2004 season, Urban Meyer’s Utah Utes ran roughshod over A&M with a spread option offense that was starting to turn heads around the country.
Koenning already had a background in one-back and no-back offenses at Houston and Rice, and he included some spread elements while offensive coordinator at Alabama (2001-03) under Franchione.
Franchione eventually relented and fully committed to the spread, and two seasons later, the Aggies went 9-4 and earned a Holiday Bowl bid. They ranked 18th in the country in total offense, averaging nearly 400 yards per game.
Now Koenning is, in title at least, the man in charge of Mississippi State’s offense.
The offense, of course, was brought to Starkville by Dan Mullen, a longtime assistant of Meyer’s at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Mullen knew Koenning from the Utah-Texas A&M match-ups. In fact, Franchione twice hosted a spread clinic, inviting Utah as well as schools like Florida, Oregon, UNLV and Northwestern.
None of the teams played each other, so ideas were freely shared. Koenning and Mullen got to know each other.
So far, their working relationship has thrived. The avuncular Koenning, 50, is a good complement to the tightly wound Mullen, 37.
“You’ve gotta have some patience to work with me, because I can be a nightmare sometimes,” Mullen said. “Les is very professional. He has that patience and that ability to put up with me and everything we do.”
Koenning paints a sunnier picture, saying meetings with Mullen have been “fun.”
This raises a crucial question, though: Who’s really in charge of MSU’s offense?
Mullen coordinated the spread offense for two BCS championship teams at Florida. Although his main role at MSU head coach and special teams coach, it’s hard to imagine him not having a big say in what the Bulldogs do offensively, and not just in practice and pregame preparations.
“I’m sure it’ll all be a group effort, but I’m going to be very involved in the offense,” Mullen said. “Who calls plays, I think it’s going to be a group effort. We’ve got to see as we go on how comfortable we are functioning in a game-day situation.”
Koenning sees Mullen’s involvement as necessary for success.
“We’d be absolutely foolish not to have him involved. He’s a great offensive mind.”
Then there’s the matter of who’ll run things between the sidelines. It would seem senior Tyson Lee’s job to lose, but the post-spring depth chart lists the quarterback position thusly: “Tyson Lee or Chris Relf.” Relf is a redshirt sophomore with little game experience but showed progress in the spring.
Then there is incoming freshman Tyler Russell, who led Meridian to the Class 5A state title last season and was named Mr. Football in Mississippi.
Koenning, who’s also in charge of the QBs, said an advantage for Russell – who Mullen has called the future of MSU football – is that Lee and Relf aren’t too far ahead in the playbook.
But the chances of a true freshman taking the reins of this offense?
“It depends on who the freshman is,” Koenning said. “We’re realistic as coaches, too. You don’t give them the whole playbook. You give them the things that they can obtain.”
Mullen’s offense has MSU fans and players alike re-energized. His schemes have injected hope back into a moribund program that has consistently ranked near the bottom of Division I in total offense this decade.
Once he gathers enough capable athletes at MSU, the expectation is that Mullen will again have an attack feared across the SEC, and beyond.
For now, it’s baby steps. Mullen has expressed a desire to win quickly, and the best way to do that is by keeping it simple.
“Simplicity is the key to success,” Koenning said. “Now you let your kids’ ability show up on the football field. When you become complex, it’s great clinic talk, but the kids have got to be able to react on the field.”
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal