Mississippi State coach and former Florida football assistant Dan Mullen was part of Wednesday’s first session at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
Mullen spoke a lot about leadership and specific players such as Dillon Day, who is expected to start as a true freshman at center. As with the rest of the coaches, Mullen also talked about his excitement to get the season started.
Here is a transcript of Mullen’s quotes on Wednesday:
COACH MULLEN: It’s great to be back here today. I know this kind of really reminds you the kickoff of the season is here. Obviously there’s nothing like SEC Media Days to remind you how important playing in this conference is, the attention that it gets.
I’m really excited about this coming season for our guys. We don’t have a huge senior class. We have some experience, guys that have been in the program for a while, guys that have great leadership, guys that throughout the spring have had a great sense of urgency about them in everything they do. To me it shows.
We have the third highest team GPA in school history this spring. I think our guys have worked out really hard this spring, had a great spring practice, and the leadership of guys like John Banks, Tyler Russell, Tobias Smith, and Chad Bumphis. Some of these guys that’s been in the program, Corey Broomfield, Josh Boyd, that have played a lot of football for us, been in the program since my first year, know what we expect, know what to understand. I’m really excited about it.
Also excited overall in the program, in the direction we’re heading, the great leadership we have within our athletic department and university with brand new 80,000 square feet football facility opening up in January, stadium expansion that is going to start after the last home game this year. There are all kinds of great, exciting things happening within our football program.
I think the future is really bright for us as we continue to strive to build a championship program, to build a team that can consistently win and consistently have the opportunity to compete for championships within the Southeastern Conference.
It’s been exciting. I can’t wait to get the season rolling.
I don’t want to take up all your time because I’m sure there are a lot of fun questions you want to ask, and let you start firing away.
Q. Coach, did you expect Dillon Day to play as a freshman at the center position? How unusual is that?
COACH MULLEN: Well, you know what,he was a guy during his redshirt year, we kept him up with the varsity just to prep him. We didn’t have to play him as a true freshman. But it is tough, that’s a leadership role on the offensive line.
The fact that we had some experience at other positions, certainly at the time made it easier for him, where he had some guys around him that had played some football. It wasn’t all thrown on his shoulders.
As he continues to move forward, we had some of those guys move on, go on to the NFL this year. His leadership role, his command and running the entire offensive line is going to have to pick up a bunch more. Hopefully now he has the experience, confidence and knowledge to do it.
He’s always been a tough guy, I know that. He plays the game hard. He’s tough. Now he’s got to become a great leader and be the leader of that group on the offensive line.
Q. When Tyler Russell came in, it was no secret you guys butted heads a little bit. How is the relationship now, knowing he has to be the starting quarterback?
COACH MULLEN: I think with Tyler, there’s a young man that came in with so much hype surrounding him. I remember when I first got here, we recruited Tyler. He came in. From the fan base, from the media, from every blog site, Tyler is going to be the starter. With all those expectations to come in, for a young man to handle it, not just he, but also his family, I give them tremendous credit.
We almost pulled his redshirt off him, but decided to redshirt him. He started to be a little bit of a role player. Last year he started a couple games for us.
But through all of that, all of those outside pressures that these young guys face, their families face, answering questions of, why didn’t you start as a true freshman?
He hasn’t let that affect him. He’s really worried about his development, his progress as a quarterback. I expect him to have a huge year. He’s played in almost every stadium in the league, so the stage won’t be too big. He started games, so he knows how to handle being a starter. He has four or five wide receivers with him. He knows the system and is comfortable in the system.
I think there’s a great deal of trust between him and our coaching staff that he knows we’re going to turn the keys over to him, put it on his shoulders, let him go, give him control of the offense, have a lot of input in decision making, give him a lot of freedom in play calling at the line of scrimmage, to put a lot on him that way that there is that trust in him.
I give him credit because he’s developed himself to be ready to be in that role right now.
Q. One thing people have pointed out is against the west, the only team you’ve been able to meet is Ole Miss. How important is that game against Auburn to set the tone?
COACH MULLEN: Well, this will be I think my eighth year as a head coach, assistant coach, in the Southeastern Conference. One thing is that first conference game is critical. That first conference game really sets the tone, no matter who you’re playing. You’re looking at a two game swing with that team. You’re in week one of the season, we win that game, and we’re two games ahead because we’re one game in the rankings and the tiebreaker. You’re two games ahead of Auburn, or two games behind Auburn week two of the season.
The first game sets such a big tone for the rest of the year for you in conference play.
Obviously that’s huge for us, to find a way to win that first game this year and put ourselves in position hopefully to make a run at an SEC championship.
Q. Now that you’ve been a head coach in the SEC West for a couple years, do you have a different appreciation for how tough the division is?
COACH MULLEN: Oh, yeah. It is. I have an appreciation. The league itself is so tough. I think you have to bring your A game every single week, on both sides of the league. If you’re playing a crossover game, you better be bringing your A game.
Right now what makes the Southeastern Conference to me different is the depth of quality teams that are in this league. You have got to play every play, every game for 60 minutes. The margin for error is so small between winning and losing in this league, that if you slip for one second, that will be the difference between winning and losing that game.
It’s not just in one game, not just in two games, every single game you play. It’s hard to look at schedules in this league and check off wins. You look and say, that’s going to be a battle. You’re going to say that with just about every conference game you’re going to play.
Q. Can you talk about your depth at the tight end position, especially with Marcus Green coming back for another year, and also when will Malcolm Johnson see some action?
COACH MULLEN: We expect Malcolm to play this year. He had an injury suffered this summer, probably be an extended injury. But we do expect him back on the field.
Obviously with that injury, it’s great having Marcus Green coming back. That’s one of our deepest positions that have already taken a hit before the season’s already started. But it is good having Marcus Green back, a guy that has experience that knows the program, believes in the program, and has played in games.
I know he’s had some tough injuries throughout his career. Hopefully we’re able to keep him healthy and keep some depth before a position gets completely devastated before you’re into third and fourth string guys having to be starters.
You have Brandon Hill, who is a good athlete, at that position, Rufus Warren redshirted last year. There are some guys we have a little bit of depth at tight end that we haven’t had in the past.
Q. Talk about the rivalry between Ole Miss. You’ve done a great job sparking that up. Do you think you can do the same in the future with Southern Miss?
COACH MULLEN: I think it will be different because it’s not a conference game. I think the fact that it being an in state game, they come on the schedule in 2014, 2015, and Southern Miss does, as you go to that, in the state of Mississippi, this year we do it opening with Jackson State. Maybe a national stage, it might not seem like much. On a local stage, you’re talking we’re the only team in the Southeastern Conference that has played a SWAC team. The players on each team know each other. The fan bases, you’re talking neighbor to neighbor. It becomes such a big deal.
I am excited. I think it will be a big game. It’s hard, because not being a conference game, that school to the north of us, being a conference game, becomes such a bigger game, not to downplay the other games, but the overall impact, the conference, one ends up being a little bit bigger.
Q. Ratcheting up of the academic standards on the horizon, what concerns you the most about that?
COACH MULLEN: The biggest concern I’ve always seen in looking how it affects the big picture. You look and say, Okay, recruiting, we have some guys that might have to academic redshirt. That’s fine. What it does, it takes numbers away, takes depth away.
The one thing to me that’s disappointing is maybe give the guys an extra reward. There might be a guy that is a great student, done everything the right way, that now because of depth concerns with other guys having academic redshirt, maybe you would have redshirted to give him a chance to develop and grow. Now this young man has to go play on the field and essentially be punished for being great in school because now he only has four years with you. He’s going to lose his opportunity to get a Masters because he had to play his first year.
If you meet this standard, are above it, maybe you get five years of eligibility as a reward. You don’t have to make that tough decision if you’re going to redshirt those guys that qualified academically. Everything was done more on a punishment basis, to punish the guys that didn’t do it, they’re going to have to academic redshirt and can’t play.
I would have loved to see more of that approach taken and you reward guys for doing well instead of punishing guys that don’t do as well with their academic standards coming in from high school.
Q. Any billboard plans for the fall?
COACH MULLEN: I’m sure there are. I usually see them post. They give me a copy after the billboards have already been up of what they’re putting up and what they’re putting out there.
I have the one on my desk; they give me a mini version of whatever they’re putting up.
Our marketing department has done a fabulous job of creating excitement around our program, around the state of Mississippi. The billboards I think are just part of the excitement they’ve created and the buzz they’ve created in the state for us.
Q. Do you have a favorite?
COACH MULLEN: You know what, no. I think the neatest one was the three in a row one, our three Miss Mississippis, in a row. It had all three of those young ladies with the crown on. I think that was a pretty cool one that they put up there.
Q. Tyler is a little bit different than quarterbacks you’ve had in the past, he’s more of a pure passer. Any schematic changes to take advantage of his physical traits?
COACH MULLEN: Absolutely. He’s probably a lot like Alex Smith, who was really a pure drop back passer. I think everybody thinks of Alex. Alex really worked on his athleticism throughout his career, but you’d never mistake him for a running quarterback. Statistically no one got to watch him much where we played out there, weren’t in the national spotlight. You look at the stats, he put up rushing yards, he would run an option play, no one would tackle him, run down the field for 70 yards, which Tyler can do. If you don’t get near him, he’s fast enough; he can run in a straight line.
I think every year, you take your playbook, you take what you have in your playbook, you’re not going to use a hundred percent of it. You have to take whatever percentage, 60, 75, 80, whatever, fits that year’s team.
I’ll be honest, I’ve said 30, but there might be 40 to 50 percent of your playbook that this is what you’re going to do. You’ll adjust it to maybe only 30% in that year’s team.
Our philosophy won’t change, but you’ll see differences in this year’s team utilizing Tyler’s passing abilities. Five wide receivers this year that we might lean more or use 30% more of the offense that we haven’t used as much the last couple years.
Q. Back to the non conference schedule. How did the trip to Troy come about?
COACH MULLEN: As we sit and schedule with our athletic director, I try to play non conference games within our region as much as possible. One, for our young men, their families. Their families can watch them play without having to buy plane tickets. Our fan base can come watch our team play.
I think last year we played up at Memphis, a lot of our fans came, player’s families got to come and watch their sons play. That’s a huge deal. This year it happens to be at Troy, which for us as a team, we’ll bus to that game.
Skyrocketing budgets, how do you handle it? We schedule a non conference game that’s not going to cost us millions of dollars to get on a plane. The friends and families of our players can come and watch them play, our fan base will come and watch them play.
Q. Last year your defense averaged less than 20 points a game. How do you intend to build on that this year a? Who are your leaders on defense?
COACH MULLEN: We were kind of a bend but not break defense. If you look total defense, statistically we weren’t great. Scoring defense we were very good last year.
I don’t want to give up any more points. In fact, I’d like to give up a lot less points this year in doing that. I’d like some focus to find ways to get off the field faster, not run as many snaps on the defensive side of the ball, and create plays to get off the field quicker.
On the defensive side of the ball, you have John Banks, Corey Broomfield, Nickoe Whitley, three starters returning in the secondary from last year’s team, that there’s some experience back there.
Cam Lawrence coming back is a linebacker, has experience. Josh Boyd is going to have to step up from maybe the co star or the supporting actor role to the new role this year with Fletcher Cox gone. He certainly has the talent, the abilities; he has the mindset to step into that leading role. We need somebody to be the leading role so he can be the star for us on the defensive line this year.
In the Southeastern Conference, if you’re going to win, you have to have great defense, play great defense, and have talent there. Hopefully our young guys that are going to be stepping into new roles are ready to do that and perform at the level we need them to compete for a championship.
Q. How important is it to have Johnthan Banks back on that defense? Is the secondary kind of the strength of that unit this year?
COACH MULLEN: I would say the secondary is our strength right now. John Banks, I give the young man a lot of credit. Last winter had a tough decision to make, whether to go on to the NFL or come back for his senior year. I couldn’t be happier with him.
The reasons that he made his decision to get his degree to leave his mark on the program have been huge. But also how he’s attacked that. I think he has come back with the sense that he wants to be the team leader. Not worried about how maybe coming back one year can up your draft status. He’s come back with the desire that he wants to leave an impact on Mississippi State football as a team as he walks out the door.
He’s done a fabulous job of becoming our team leader both vocally and by example in everything that he does.
Q. In your first three years at State, is the gap between your school and the other four teams getting closer? What do you see the difference is right now and how much would beat, say, an Auburn mean for your program to get over that hump?
COACH MULLEN: Like I said, the first game is so critical if you want to compete. You’re talking about the two game swing. If you’re going to want to compete for a league championship, I think it’s critical for you to win that first game.
I mean, we’ve had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, last plays of the game. The big difference for us is we have to make those game winning plays. We have to have guys step up and make those game winning plays. I think three of those teams have won the national championship.
When you look, the great thing I guess in our program, the SEC West, we’re not far off from there, which means we’re not far off from the national title. As you’re developing, as you’re building the program, the confidence that comes in our guys, I think they see that. They see that, Hey, we’re not far off from these teams, and these teams have won the national title, are ranked in the top five in the country. We can be right there. I think that builds and gets into the program.
As we continue down the road, as we continue to develop, grow the program, you start to see that confidence, not just in our team and our coaches, but our administration, student body, fan base, the expectations they have. When you have that confidence, you start winning a lot of those games. You make that big play, that one play difference.
I look back, last year, LSU, No.1 team in the country, wins the SEC championship, it was 14 9 in the fourth quarter. We took some shots down the field, 0 3 for those shots. We catch one of those, make a touchdown, that becomes 16 14 at home. On a Thursday night with our defense going out on the field that have played pretty well, you’re in the opportunity now to win that game. It’s those one big plays that can make difference in the games.
Q. When you have a lot of experience at the wide receiver position, talk about how important that is for your program. Also the changes in recruiting you’re going to have to make to replace that much experience at the wideout position.
COACH MULLEN: That’s tough. That’s the one position when I got hired a couple years ago, we recruited a bunch of guys that had to come in and play right away. The good thing about it, these guys are now seniors. They’re been playing for four years. There’s a great deal of experience. There’s confidence on the field. The guys know what to do. They know the system. They know the environments they’re going to play in. They know the talent level that’s in this league. So there’s no shock at that position.
It’s always tough. That’s our one position we’re still working on balancing. You always want to be in a position in recruiting where you have some balance in your classes, where you’re not top heavy. The one year we did a great job have been in teams where you lose six offensive linemen in one year, that’s hard to recover from. You want to try to balance that out.
We’re going to try to do that in recruiting, to continually balance out that receiver position in the future.
Q. Are you pleased with the four team playoff? Do you have any reservations about the system?
COACH MULLEN: I mean, you’re always going to have some reservations because you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you get through it. Anytime there’s change, there’s some discomfort for everybody involved in it because you don’t know what it is.
It’s hard for me to have a real, real strong opinion because I want to see how it works out for everybody. I’ve coached on an undefeated team that didn’t get a chance to play for a national championship. That would have been a neat opportunity to get to go to a playoff game.
I want to see how it’s going to affect all of college football, whether it’s in a positive way or negative way. After it happens for a couple years, I’ll be better equipped to answer that question.
The one thing I don’t want to see us lose is the tradition that is college football. The great thing about the bowl system, we like talking different ways. We want to talk education. These guys are student athletes’. This is not a professional sport. They’re there to get an education.
But on the top end, there can only be one champion, we have to have this big extended playoff. Where at the bowl system, we had a bunch of seniors leave winning a championship in their last football game last year. What a great educational tool that is for them winning the Music City Bowl. That’s their lasting memory of football. The majority of them that will be the last game they play. I hope a lot of them get the opportunity to play professional football.
The tradition that goes along with it, the excitement with the fan base, when you pull up to Nashville at the Music City Bowl, there’s 30,000 fans outside the stadium to meet the bus, what a neat experience that is for your players and fans.
I hope we don’t lose any of the traditions and things that make college football special, you know, just because we want to form a playoff that right now there’s four teams. I’m sure there’s going to be discussions that whoever finished fifth is not going to be happy.
Q. You mentioned Johnthan Banks coming back. I was asking him earlier if he thought he was better than the Honey Badger at LSU. He played it nice, but said he’s a confident, guy, feels like he’s the best cornerback in the SEC. Do you think by season end he’ll start getting more recognition?
COACH MULLEN: He may. I think they’re different style players. We use them very differently within our system. It’s hard to compare them exactly.
But I think Mathieu over at LSU is one heck of a football player. He makes plays, does an amazing job in utilizing his ability. He’s always around the ball making big plays.
John has done that for us in a lot of ways, made big interceptions at key moments of the game, eliminates receivers during the game. He’s done that.
He may be able to, in a different manner, be just as good of a player.
Q. In light of some of the new studies and information about head injuries and brain injuries related to football, do you worry more than you used to about player safety, the long term impact? Do you feel there’s any way that the game can be made safer without changing it fundamentally?
COACH MULLEN: You know, I don’t worry any more than I used to. Player safety is a huge concern for us, the well being of our players, the development of our players to be champions not just on the field, but off the field in life. Their well being has always been priority No.1 in our program.
With all the studies, all the things that go into it, it is going to be very interesting to see how we do it. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure all the guys have their equipment fitted properly, that they keep everything adjusted, whether it be your chin strap adjustment. In the old days, the helmet fits exactly, that it’s not loose, in the best way to prevent injuries.
Our number one goal is to be a preventive injury program. I’d rather prevent it up front than react to it later on.
But, you know, when it comes to head injuries in the game of football, as much as we always try to prevent, there’s still going to be some chance of that happening. When that happens, if we do everything we can to prevent it, when that happens, your reaction has to be as good as you can to protect that young man’s future, and really pay attention.
Our guys are competitive. You’ll see guys that are going to try to hide injuries from you because they’re competitive, they don’t want to come off the field. We have to do a great job as a coaching and medical staff, everybody, that if a guy is injured, we are protecting them as much as possible after the injury has occurred.
Q. I know Mississippi State plans to commemorate the Snow Bowl with Texas A&M with alternate uniforms. How excited are you to start up a little rivalry with them?
COACH MULLEN: I think it will be neat. A new team coming into the west, we’ll get to play with them every year. It will form somewhat of a natural rivalry when you play a team every year. It will be a neat deal.
Of the new uniforms, everybody gets on the new kick. Whatever gets our kids to play harder. If our kids are all in, I’m all for it. Whatever they think will be a really cool deal, it’s kind of the in thing to wear new, different uniforms these days, that’s cool, I love it, our guys play hard. What I care about most is our guys go to school, get their degree, practice hard, play hard. If having a new uniform helps us do that, that’s fantastic, I love doing it.
Q. A lot has been made about the last five games on your schedule. How do you prepare for such a gauntlet with no open weeks?
COACH MULLEN: You know, hopefully win a lot early. If we can win a lot up to that point, now those games become extremely meaningful on, not just conference, but probably in the national spotlight for our program.
But it’s the Southeastern Conference. You’re going to play a tough team every single week. You got to play ‘em all at some point. Whether you play them early, middle, spread out, before a bye, after a bye, you’re going to have to play them.
I know for us there is a tough five week schedule to end the season, but that’s part of being in this league. Hopefully becomes a tough six week schedule with another game later.
Q. John Banks said upstairs, with so many guys entering their fourth year in the program, he expects August’s camp to be tougher, and expects you to take it up a notch.
COACH MULLEN: Yeah, we always do. Matt Balis, our strength coach, and I are always looking at ways on how we can improve. We don’t change to change. We don’t sit there and say we’re going to make it tougher unless there’s a reason to. But we want to make sure that we are developing, not just our skill in football players, not just getting the repetitions, we need to perform at a high level in the offense, defense, kicking game, but we are creating a mental and physical toughness in our training camp, has been important to me.
Matt and I really spend a lot of time looking at that, making sure we are developing that mental and physical toughness edge.
Q. What level of success do you expect Urban Meyer to have at Ohio State?
COACH MULLEN: He’s a heck of a football coach. Ohio State is traditionally a powerhouse football program. I imagine he’ll do a tremendous job there.
Q. You really went on a barnstorming tour after you were hired to get State people to get excited about State football. Do you think they bought into that? How do you feel about your support? What intrigues you about Starkville?
COACH MULLEN: I think when we get there; you’d always hear some people maybe doubting their confidence. One of the things I want to do, if you can change the way you think about yourself, you can change a lot of things. You end up changing your performance, what you can accomplish. I think there was always some hesitation of what we could accomplish maybe not just Mississippi State, but the state of Mississippi at times of how people viewed them. What we wanted to do is go up and insert a little bit of a swagger, confidence, and belief in everybody.
Part of us winning football games is you selling out the stadium. They said, If you win, we sell the stadium. It doesn’t work that way. If you sell the stadium, we win. They started buying into that. You see them now with consecutive sell outs.
To me, I take a lot of pride. You can go into airports around the country, people wearing Mississippi State clothing, flags flying outside of the house. There’s a sense of pride in our university and a sense of pride in our state.
I think that just comes with a thought process in how you go about thinking about it. We’re very fortunate. Starkville could be the best college town in the country. You’re looking at a small town, great people, great atmosphere to live in.
If you want the college atmosphere, there’s a lot of people that say, I want to go to college in the big city. Well, you live in a big city, it’s not really college in a big city, you have the city atmosphere. You want to go to college in Starkville, the whole town is about the university, what it’s about, that atmosphere. The people that live there, I don’t know if there’s a better college town in the country than Starkville, Mississippi.
Courtesy SEC Sports