Or make that smiling just a bit bigger than he already had been. And while at least some of this was from sheer relief at wrapping up another signing season, the larger portion of Dan Mullen’s pleasure arose from just how satisfied the coach was with his second Mississippi State recruiting class. Though it needs remembering that even as he pulled together that hurried first class inked only seven weeks after arriving in Starkville, Mullen had already set in-motion the process that concluded today.
On the whole, the coach likes the result. It’s a 26-man group that, boosted by a couple of needed late additions, will do much to address how Mullen intends to continue rebuilding Bulldog football. No less than ten of these newcomers play in the trenches, which was the most obvious priority for the MSU staff this time around as both the offensive and defensive lines need continued strengthening. Half-a-dozen are excellent high school running backs to fill the roster-gaps left by graduation, though some will end up seeing other duties.
Then there is the usual collection of all-around athletes, linebackers and defensive backs and receivers; though as Mullen makes clear there is little ‘usual’ about many of these freshmen based on both prep resumes and college projections. In fact State could just as correctly listed the greater part of this class simply as ‘athletes’ or ‘linemen’ and let everybody find their own future here in Mullen’s program. Which, the coach actually explains in the following transcript, is what will indeed happen.
Not surprisingly for those who have tracked both commitments and Mullen’s own public statements, the group is dominated by Mississippi products; 18 to be exact. This means in his first two MSU classes the coach has signed 37 of the total 53 recruits from within the state’s borders. But this does not mean the State staff is taking any easy way out; nine of Scout.com’s top 20 Mississippi prospects signed-on with Mississippi State. Half of the Jackson Clarion Ledger’s preseason ‘Dandy Dozen’ chose to become Bulldogs, and four of their post-season top ten prospects. Nine of the 37 state members of the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game roster were signed by Mullen.
No wonder he was smiling. And his following comments ought to give Mississippi State fans reason to smile about the future of their football program as these new pups find their berths alongside returning Bulldogs.
COACH DAN MULLEN: “Obviously this is the exciting day of the year here down South, like a national holiday, Signing Day! We’re really excited about this class that we’ve just signed, wrapping up a bunch of great players. I want to thank our staff for their hard work. Our staff put in a tremendous amount of work out there on the road, not just evaluating, recruiting, getting to know these families, spending time away from their families to have these young men come and join our football program.”
“I’m excited about the talent we’re bringing in here, we have a lot of talented football players in this recruiting class. But I’m even more excited about the character and the students that we’re bringing in. We signed a recruiting class full of young men that are very high character kids, great students, and are going to be great representatives of Mississippi State University in the future.”
“It’s amazing. When I got hired here I wanted to make the statement that we were going to recruit the state of Mississippi. For the second year in a row we’ve recruited 16 high school players from the state of Mississippi, which is more than Southern Miss and the school up north combined this year. That’s the foundation of our program, recruiting high school players from the state of Mississippi.”
“We had six ‘Dandy Dozen’ members in this year’s signing class. We also for the fourth straight year signed the Gatorade state player of the year. For the second straight year we signed a PARADE All-American quarterback from the state of Mississippi we’re very excited about. Over the last two years since we’ve been here we’ve signed twice as many players than Southern Miss from the state of Mississippi and three times as many as the school up north. So, we’re really happy with how the young men in this state are deciding to get behind us. They’ve come, and they’ve seen. I want to thank the fans, they got to see the exciting environment that you put forth every Saturday, in an electric, filled stadium. They got to see a team that’s up-and-coming and accelerating into the future. And I think they got to see a program that is definitely on the rise, and they wanted to be a part of it. They see all the great things that are going to happen to Mississippi State University football and the state of Mississippi in the future.”
“Finally, I want to thank all these recruits, these young men around this state, and our men from out-of-state. I want to thank all of them for deciding to come represent the state of Mississippi. They are Bulldogs everywhere, on the football field and in the classroom. And these are a group of young men that are going to make this, the premier university in our state, very proud for years to come. I’m happy they’ve decided to come represent all of us in that way.”
Q: You had a unique situation recruiting Jay Hughes? “It really was. Actually when I interviewed Tony (Hughes, MSU defensive backs coach) a year ago, during the interview he said you know, my son is going to be one of the highest-recruited kids in the state next year? I said I did not. So I said, well, the issue is I’m going make sure that we completely separate you from the recruiting process. I didn’t want him to be involved in the process unless he was sitting on the other side of the table, he needed to sit in as a father not as a coach in any way, shape, or form. Jay’s mom Marian did a great job, she was able to take Jay around the country last spring and summer to see a lot of different schools, go on several different official visits. The fact that Tony as a father decided to have his son come play for our staff, our University, shows you the direction he thinks; that as a football coach with a tremendous amount of football experience that wanted his son in this environment…if that is not a recommendation or stamp of what our program is about and the direction it’s going in, I don’t know what is. I will say a funny story in this process, Marian did yell at me at one point in the official visit weekend. As Tony was doing the recruiting while Jay was in his academic advising meeting on campus, she said I don’t care what recruiting has to do, he’s a father when we discuss academics so get him in here! So we pulled him out of one meeting to get to be a Dad for a little bit.”
Q: With the loss of three seniors, talk of the running backs you signed? “We’re excited. To get a Vick Ballard who is already on campus, the top junior college running back in the nation last year and to get him in mid-semester, kind of brings a little maturity to that group. We still have a young group with Robert Elliot and now Vick Ballard as our juniors and the old men of the group.”
“But when you take Nick Griffin, he led his Division with over 2,000 yards rushing, he’sobviously a huge addition for us. As well as Matt Wells, who can do all different things on the field. I see him being a player that we can put in the backfield, we can put out in the slot, we can move him everywhere and hopefully he can cause some matchup issues. So we’re excited about those guys coming in. And they’re going to have to come in and contribute right away.”
Q: All through your first year you stressed the need to sign linemen, did you reach your goals? “It was huge. That’s been a priority from the beginning. We were down five offensive linemen from what we want to carry right now. With our two seniors from last year and four seniors next year, you’re looking at we have nine offensive linemen to replace in a two-year span, and we only had four freshmen-sophomore offensive linemen on scholarship. So it was a huge deal for us to go out and get the offensive linemen. Obviously Blaine Clausell coming in mid-semester is a huge help for us. But the pick-ups of Archie Muniz from Texas, who we think is a tremendous talent we can develop. Eric Lawson is the youngest but Coach Samsell at Olive Branch really thought he had the potential to be the best of all their linemen up there; as well as Damien Robinson, I don’t think there was a higher-recruited kid in the state than he was this year. So for him to pick our program (and) the combination of those young guys coming into the offensive line boosts us for the future.”
“But the offensive line with four seniors, it will be a priority for us in next year’s recruiting class as well.”
Q: What does a player like Brandon Hill bring to the program? “When you look at our recruiting class… obviously I don’t work for Scout or Rivals or whatever the dot-comers are! So I don’t get to rate players. If I did Brandon would be a much, much, much higher-rated player than he is. I can’t imagine the major dot-coms spent a lot of time at West Lowndes High School to see what type of player Brandon Hill is. But when you take a young man that is a senior in high school, that is 6-3 and 220 pounds on his visit; that is an athlete; it’s special. Now you combine that young man and the small-town values he brings over here; an excellent student, tremendously high character young man. And to his credit didn’t get caught up in needing to have his own press conferences and all those things on television. He got to go meet the coaches and visit the schools and did things, how I look at recruiting, the right way. So we’re really excited about him. You take an athlete of that caliber, he has a really bright, bright future ahead of him.”
“I don’t care how many stars our guys come in with; it’s more important how many stars they leave with, that four years from now they have a whole lot more stars next to their name than when they came here.”
Q: What position groups did you make the most strides in this class? “I’ll start with the quarterback. I’m sure there are a lot of people that look back on another quarterback of the same name that we just got and say I wish we had signed him a long time ago. When you look for a quarterback you want to find a winner. It’s all about intangibles. Dylan came to our camp, we saw him, met him. Our coaching staff said boy, if he were 6-3 he’d be perfect. At that point we said OK, let’s go see if we can find somebody that matches the criteria. Dylan proceeded to go out and set every single state passing record, single-handedly carry his team to a state championship game; absolutely dominated an all-star gamefull of the most talented players in the state; became a PARADE All-American; became the Gatorade state player of the year; and basically too any doubt out of anybody’s mind of what type of winner he is when you put him on the field. That is the type quarterback we look for. I know Dylan, nothing was ever talked about how many yards he’ll pass for, what his responsibility is within our offense on an every-snap basis. 100% of his concern was how he gets to come to Mississippi State lead us to a championship. And that’s the type of quarterback we look for. So we definitely hit our goal by getting a championship quarterback in this recruiting class.”
“I think we hit home runs basically wherever we wanted to go. In Curtis Virges and Kaleb Eulls we got the top two defensive linemen in the state of Mississippi, to go along with some of the other young talent we have here. We’re very excited about them. Getting some depth on the offensive line with the others. Dillon Day led his team to a state championship in Louisiana this year. So I think we added a lot of solid depth on the defensive line. We got some playmakers on offense with Malcolm Johnson and Robert Johnson--not related! But when you add in the running backs we got; and Michael Carr is probably the top wide receiver of Mississippi this year, I’m very excited about that. And then the athleticism of defensive players is what I’m also very excited about. Fernando Bohanna, Christian Holmes, just keep going down the list here. Chris Hughes has a tremendous amount of speed on the defensive side of the ball. Brandon Hill who I think can be a great defensive player for us. When you look at those guys we’re really excited about the position we’ve put ourselves in for the future.”
Q: Can you talk more about the linebackers signed? “If you look at this group, Bohanna is a young man we think can possibly contribute or get a significant amount of playing time for us next year. He comes in with college size and college speed already. He played up in Memphis but his family is actually from Senatobia and he spent his first two years at Senatobia High School. We’re really excited about him. Christian Holmes we think will grow into being a linebacker for us, we got in on him late and Greg Knox did a tremendous job not just recruiting but evaluating a young man from Puckett High School. You’ve got to be going to Puckett to watch kids at Puckett play! If you’re not going to recruit the state of Mississippi hard you could easily just jump over Puckett High School and hit the big schools and move on. But he did a tremendous job of getting in, evaluating and seeing the talent that he had. We’re really excited about the steps he can take for us at linebacker.”
“Corvell Harrison-Gay is a young man that can possibly do some swing-things for us, he could grow into a defensive end at some point. He was the starting linebacker in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game. Then with Chris Hughes and Brandon Hill you’re taking two very, very big athletes that may grow into being linebackers at some point, to give us a lot of speed and athleticism at that position. So I think it’s a real solid group with also a lot of flexibility that I like; some guys that can grow into another position, or if they don’t are already athletic enough to play the one they’re at.”
Q: Talk about Michael Carr, a player you got in on early but was under the national radar? “Our guys on our staff recruit hard, we go out and try to recruit this state early. We had a big recruiting meeting yesterday, ranking and evaluating and getting offers out to the top players next year. We’ve already offered a bunch, to make sure we’re on top of it for next year.”
“Michael was a dominating basketball player as well, he’s concentrating on getting the school work done right now instead of playing basketball this year. He’s a guy that we’re really, really excited to have. I think it’s a huge thing, when you look at young guys that win state championships. We had several guys in last year’s class that have won state championships; several guys in this year’s class have won state championships. When you have that mindset, when those kids step on campus they know how to win. They come from programs that know how to win. And the know the competition and the commitment level it takes to win. I think that’s what is really exciting for us, to get not just great players, great kids, great students. But guys that have won and expect to win when they get here.”
Q: Could you see the difference from year-one to year-two in how the staff was able to cover the state and get to players others may overlook? “Well, it is. And the staff before us had done a good job, and the guys that were carry-overs on the staff have done a tremendous job. But I look at the recruiting trip I took out to East Webster High School to see John Banks with Reed Stringer, who was recruiting him. I’d been head coach for about three days, I said this young man is committed to us, who is going to come in and get him? He said I don’t think you can even type East Webster High School in a GPS, it doesn’t exist, you either know where it is or you don’t! I went there and it’s very small, a great community, the school. When you have those type of schools, a lot of people overlook them.”
“The commitment we’ve made to recruit the state of Mississippi, I’ve told our staff in spring we need to be in every single high school in the state in spring recruiting before we cross the state lines. We need to evaluate every player in this state to make sure we don’t miss on the next Jerry Rice, that we skip over him just because he’s at a small school. We don’t miss on John Banks that is at a small school. That we don’t miss on a Kaleb Eulls at Yazoo County or we don’t miss on a Christian Holmes from Puckett. That we get into every school in the state and we get to evaluate those players.”
“And those are the players that can have a lot of pride for us, especially that final game of the season when they know what they’re playing for; that’s bragging rights for the rest of their life in this state.”
Q: Of this class who might be grayshirted or go to junior college? “You don’t say at this point. There’s one or two we think might, but our plans right now are to try get them all qualified. One or two might end up in junior college but I‘d rather wait and let them see how they do with the ACTs on Saturday and some of their classes before we end up making those final decisions.”
Q: Are you finding an intangible in Mississippi players that might give them an edge over out-of-state recruits? “I don’t know. The one thing I do like, a lot of our young men from Mississippi have tremendous family values. Parents raise their young kids the right way with a tremendous work ethic, a tremendous set of values on what is right and wrong. Those are the kids we want because they’re going to work hard in the classroom, work hard in the weightroom, work hard on the practice field, and play hard on Saturdays. And they come from great family backgrounds. Those are the type of things that we look for that a lot of Mississippi kids have.”
Q: With both your classes heavy with Mississippi kids, skeptics will ask if there is enough talent to win championships this way? “Well, I would respond that I can’t imagine there are many teams that didn’t wish the could find a better quarterback than Brett Favre, a better receiver than a Jerry Rice, and a better running back than a Walter Payton. That would be a heck of a football team you’d put together. But I would say this, that per-capita there are more football players in the NFL from Mississippi than every other state besides Louisiana. We have a tremendous amount of talent. And our goal will always be to dominate the state and get the most players we can here. I truly, truly believe—like most states--if all the top players join together like they have started to do the last two years; and come to one school to represent the people of the state of Mississippi, they will be holding up a crystal ball and Mississippi will be able to call themselves champions.”
“If you look at top players in every state, most of those players go represent their state university. Our goal, for us to win a championship, is to continue as we have done the last two years, to get all the top players in the state of Mississippi to join together, play for their state University, and represent the people of Mississippi.”
Q: You’ve listed several signees as athletes, what positions do you project? “Well, Jeremy Lee, he’s really fast so, somewhere! Jameon Lewis might be the all-around best player in the state of Mississippi, I turned on the state championship game and watched him almost single-handedly win the game himself. Matt Wells, very conservatively listed at 6-foot, 190 which is good; because people are going to say wow, how does that kid get to 6-2, 215 in a short period of time? I like doing that, people underestimating us now. Brandon Hill is an athlete, Michael Carr. One of the great things about signing those guys is I think they are great football players. I love getting great football players. A great football player can do any number of things. That’s what you want. Dylan Favre even, he threw for 400 yards in the state championship game but also had 19 tackles. That mindset of being a great football player is what we look for because it allows us the flexibility.”
“One of the things we’ll do, the first day all of these guys get here we’ll take our offensive and defensive athletes…the linemen we usually let them go graze on their own field and do their own thing! But all the athletes we’ll take and do receiver drills with ever single one of them; we do running back drills with all of them; we do defensive back drills, linebacker drills, so that every coach can evaluate how these guys respond in those drills for us to project where their best position will be in college.”
Q: What will be the priorities next year? “Ohhh, running backs, quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends; defensive line and linebackers, safeties and corners! No, obviously we need to go get some tight ends in next year’s class. We’ll have a senior punter and senior kicker, so some specialists for us will be important. Every year you have to recruit a quarterback, that will obviously be a major point of emphasis for us. But really it’s every year, you want to get to the point where every year it’s a point of emphasis. If you get that balance where you are signing 22, 23 kids a year, and have a pretty balanced class of players coming in, it will be critical. But I would say defensive ends would be big for us, safeties, tight ends, and offensive linemen.”
Q: A year into your program, could you see the current players selling this program to recruits? “Yeah, I think our players believe in the program we have here. When you’re going to build a championship program it’s going to take a lot of hard work, takes a lot of discipline. That’s not for everybody. I think our players do a good job when people come in of showing them what our program is about. The hard work our players are going to have to put in, of things they have to do. I know two of our recruiting weekends we had early morning Saturday workouts, we ran stadiums. So recruits coming in need to know that to win a championship we’re going to put in hard work and be very disciplined. But I think our players also do a great job showing the tremendous community we have here, the tremendous campus we have here. I think our study body does a great job recruiting when our players are on campus; not going out of their, just being themselves in embracing our football team the way they have since I’ve been head coach.”
Q: Can you describe the process of recruiting Damien Robinson? “A long process, I know that. We certainly identified him over a year ago right after I became head coach. We knew he was probably the top priority for us, knowing that we needed offensive linemen in this class and he was the premier lineman in the state for us. Melvin Smith and John Hevesy both did a tremendous job of recruiting him, of building a relationship with his mom, his grandmother, with the high school coach. We worked and worked and showed Damien what type of program we were. What I’m really excited about is I think this is where Damien belongs. He belongs at Mississippi State, around people that are like him. He fit in great with the players on our team, our players fit in well with him which is a really important thing. Take football aside, I thought Mississippi State was a great fit for him. So all those things put together, I’m glad he made the decision he did and I think he’ll be happy for the rest of his life he made this decision.”
Q: There are proposals to eliminate junior college sports programs in the state, what are you thoughts on how valuable to recruiting? “I think in a state like Mississippi, junior college programs give some young people that maybe get overlooked in recruiting the first time through…I know we try to get into every school in this state, but I think there are also a lot of opportunities for young men that get to go to junior college, get to develop themselves, and then get a second chance at being recruited further down the road. Vick Ballard is a perfect example of that, I talked to his high school coach and he said you finally got it right, we told you a couple of years ago you should take him and now that he’s a junior college all-American you finally figured it out you should have him on your team. But it gives guys like that an opportunity.”
“I think all athletics are a tremendous boost in education. The lessons that young men learn in competing on the athletic field, in every phase of education from kindergarten through junior high through high school through junior college up even into the SEC levels, the lesson that are leaned in athletics by young men and young women are vital to the education process. So I think it would be a tragedy to eliminate those.”