Mississippi State began spring practice a day early Wednesday afternoon after expected inclement weather is expected for Thursday's original start date.
There was no media availability following the first practice but Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen did sit down with the media prior to practice to give his thoughts entering spring.
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"I know we're excited to get back out on the field. Our guys are excited to get back out on the field. This is what we do it for. A good off-season, a lot of training, and they've worked hard at getting their bodies ready; getting bigger, getting faster, getting stronger. Now the get to go out and reap the rewards and go play some football, of what they've done. So it should be exciting."
"One of the things we do, especially early on, is try to spread it out when we're doing a lot of installation, a lot of teaching. So we're going to have the opportunity to practice today; we'll watch this with the guys tomorrow; we'll meet on Friday to go through the Saturday installation and review today and practice Saturday. Then you have a couple of days until Tuesday to review everything before you go out there and practice."
"That's kind of what I like doing. You really look at what the best way to teach is. Spring is about teaching for our guys. It's a lot of teaching. At the end of spring we're 0-0; we're not preparing for a game right now, we're developing and teaching and becoming better football players. You look for what the best way to teach is and that's what especially spreading out spring allows you. You'll see, we'll have some more back-to-back practices as spring goes on, as installation gets less."
"But we've done that for years. I love doing it that way. The problem is you get to fall camp, you have a lot more practices in a much shorter amount of time. You don't have that time to really sit and get everything taught at a much slower pace, it happens a lot faster. This time of year you can really slow the pace down with the guys and make sure they're getting the quality teaching."
Do you look for certain guys to make the step forward?
"Everybody. We have eleven seniors, they're probably going to make the least physical change in the off-season. They've been in the program for three or four years, they've had the chance to develop their body."
"But the fact we have such a young team, there's an awful lot of change going on. Not just physically but mentally. We're a whole new team. There's great opportunities out there, there's a lot of opportunities to go play. We showed the team there's a lot of tackles, a lot of pass break-ups, a bunch of sacks, a ton of interceptions; I think over 180 receptions and over 2,200 yards; 22 touchdowns, all missing off of last year's team. So there's tremendous opportunity to become a starter, to become even a role player. You know, there's a tremendous opportunity to become a star player. There's a tremendous opportunity for new leadership out there, that all of these opportunities are out there, that guys are trying to step up and develop. Not just in the off-season, but as it goes more. Those opportunities are out there, they've been training; now they get the opportunity to go out there and earn some of those opportunities out on the field."
Talk about Preston Smith.
"He had a really good off-season. I think he's our leading sack returner statistically from last year. And this is it for him. He came in and played a little bit as a freshman, which was good to get him experience. But this is it, this is a big year for him. I think coming out of the off-season he'll be breaking the huddle with the ones…as accurate as that (depth chart) is! But he's going to be out there."
"One of the things you'll see, as always we'll rotate some different guys with the ones, to give them the opportunities to be the starters. At each position it's always going to be a little bit different because you're preparing different guys."
"We want to have three starters, we're going to mix and match some offensive line combinations at times just so we're prepared for injuries. Even though there's four-and-a-half returning starters with Justin Malone back on the O-line. So that's a good, solid group. But we can throw somebody in there to see how they respond with that group and really develop. And you'd like to develop where you have eight to nine starting offensive linemen, really, in your rotation."
Will there be any position changes seen on the depth chart?
"The different changes, Turtle is going to be playing tight end, you probably would know more as Christian Holmes. We did that in the bowl deal. And having a little bit more depth at tight end, a little less depth at receiver, you're going to see a little bit more of the tight ends being used out there on the field. I think that's really the only big change you're going to see."
"There will be some injuries with guys out this spring. Right now the guys we don't expect to go this spring are Nick Griffin, John Long at running back; Michael Hodges at receiver, Taveze Calhoun at corner. And Dak Prescott won't do any team stuff. But you guys come to practice you'll be scratching your heads sometimes like today, he'll be sitting on a box with his foot still in a cast, he'll be on a box with his foot up in a chair throwing. He won't be very mobile in that position! But that's why he won't be doing any team stuff. A day like today, we're getting accustomed to it, he'll be doing more routes and one-on-one stuff, but there is the opportunity for us to do that in seven-on-seven as spring moves forward."
"Nickoe Whitley is full-go. Everybody else is full-go today, those are kind of the guys that are out for the spring type of deal, you're not going to see any contact during the spring."
What about Tobias Smith
"Tobias as of now won't practice in spring, not that a decision has been made. But he's going to be more in a coaching capacity right now in the spring with the O-linemen than the playing capacity. Again the final decision on him won't be made until the summer. I don't anticipate him practicing, unless he just is out on the field and says Coach I've got to play, I want to get out there and do something. But the plan has been to make a decision on him later as we get closer to summer time."
What is the status of Michael Carr??
"He's back, practicing on the team, so he'll be back at receiver. We'll see how that does. Michael has earned his way back onto the team. Not in my mind that he was ever dismissed, there were some outstanding circumstances with him leaving the team. And in his mind I think he's coming back saying hey, this is what I want to do, I'm good to go, I'm all-in with the team. And he's really done a good job so far in the off-season of doing all of those things."
Is it tough to mix teaching effort and execution for young kids?
"It is really hard. That's what I want to see, though. If we have to coach effort out of somebody, they're going to have a hard time getting on the field. Not that we won't demand it. I'll be honest with you, a lot of times guys think they're going hard. Especially young players, they think they're going hard and you go watch them and the reality on film is they're not. So you're still coaching that effort aspect of it to show them you can go a lot harder than you're going even though you think you're going as hard as you can. That's just the young player mentality."
"So you still have to coach that. But to me, if I have to beg you to run to the ball on defense you're not going to play. If I'm 'hey, run to the ball you're jogging'? That's not happening. The fact that they're 'Coach, man, I thought I was running to the ball as fast as I can'. We'll go watch the film with them and ask a simple question, is that as fast as you can run? Most of the time they'll look and say no, but I thought I was going as fast as I can. So that effort-based part of it, I expect to see that."
"I have no problem with mistakes, we have a long time until we play a game. If the effort is not there though their reps are going to get cut-down and they're never going to have the opportunity to get that fixed."
How will you handle the quarterback situation?
"Tyler (Russell) will go with the ones right now, and the other two guys will rotate with the twos and threes. That's why I said we'll rotate some players. There may be some times you see Tyler in there with the ones. I'll say this, this might be the biggest spring not going to see anybody near Tyler Russell now! Even coaches say I'm not going to get near him! Job security, stay the heck away from Tyler Russell!"
"But that is how we're going to start. And for the other two quarterbacks-is it Josh Hand and Sam Cowart?-it's an unbelievable opportunity. They're going to have more opportunity, probably, than any other two walk-ons in the SEC this year."
How do you feel about your offensive line depth?
"You feel better about it, as you look even coming into this spring without Tobias. With a Ben Beckwith in there, and Archie Muniz who has been around for a while, it makes you feel you have the three to four guards. You know you have three tackles right now with Damien Robinson, it's getting that fourth tackle."
"You're always going to be frustrated in spring ball because what happens is ones and twos get the same reps, threes are getting still some reps. What happens now is you say well I know what Gabe Jackson can do so we're not going to let Gabe do as much today. Well, the trickle-down effect means the two became a one, a three became a two, and now you're saying our two-offensive line is not looking fantastic right now. But that's not your actual game depth. Sometimes in spring you're subbing the twos, now that's five new guys on. In a game chances are more it's one guy coming in instead of five new guys. That's where the depth, I know as a coach on the field you get frustrated. Especially when you're looking at the lines and boy; because you're wholesale changing whereas in a game you might rotate eight."
Do you have more proven bodies to work with on the defensive line?
"We've got a bunch of bodies, and guys that need experience that are going to get a lot of opportunities to roll through. Again, that is going to be very, very effort based to me. On the defensive line we have a certain standard of effort we need those guys to play with, and I know there's that experience. I'm OK with making a mistake; I'm not OK with making a mistake and not doing it at full-speed and straining to the football, and that's what I'm going to stress with the d-line this year."
Last spring Josh Robinson had a breakout spring, and a good season. Are you looking for certain guys to do that?
"A lot of guys. I do think you expect some guys on the d-line to have a good spring and you want to see it translate into more playing time in the fall. At the receiver position obviously there's a lot of new faces out there. Look at Joe Morrow, he had a good spring last year. It didn't translate as much onto the field but I think it was a lot due to opportunity as well with all the guys we had returning and the experience we had."
"That's a great example of last spring was to prep them for this spring to go be the guy. Same with Robert Johnson, where we might not have let all the receivers get all the reps last spring those guys got more reps and it's really prepped them for this opportunity now where they are the guy. I mean you go in that receivers room; its no longer Joe Morrow, Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson they're developing and they're going to be good for the future. They're it, they're the starters now. So they have to perform and produce."
"But you always look for that with a lot of guys, whether it be a Cedric Jiles, Zachary Jackson, some of the young d-linemen; Justin Cox and Will Redmond at the corner position. Some of these guys are not going to have the opportunity to just have a good spring and then build into a solid role; they're going to have to have a good spring and build into a starting or playing-a-lot role right now."
Talk about your staff
"That in reality was about a two-day shuffle in how it shook out. So there really wasn't much of a change on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe it was a two-day shuffle with Scott (Sallach). Billy (Gonzales) coming in with wide receivers is new, but the great thing Billy knows our expectations, knows our offense to a point. Obviously in the last four years there's been some tweaks and changes, but also knows what we expect, how we coach, how we practice, all of those things. So I think that's an easy transition."
"On the defensive side, David Turner knows what we expect out there. And a guy like Deshea Townsend, I know he's excited to get back on the field and go work with all these young guys. So I don't think it will be as big a transition as maybe the numbers would appear to make it look."
Will you be filling that administrative role?
"I'm doing some research on how we want to do that here in the future. You know, of what direction I want to go in that. It was a new position for us, it's a position I wanted to have for the last couple of years, it finally came through. It might be filled by one person, it might be filled by two, it might be filled by three as we move forward and how I split things up with the staff, of what best fits our needs. I think when it happened I had an idea what I wanted to do, we had some opportunities, we wanted to make some moves, get ourselves settled in. Now we're into spring, we're kind of settled, I'm taking our time in looking at how we want to fill that role and what direction we want to go in the future. You know, some of that might have to do some of the recruiting rules and all the new NCAA rules that have come up, that we look at how we want to fill-out or expand or tweak those support positions on the staff."
This will be Coach Townsend's first spring
"What's really neat for him in that role is these guys are coming back as first-year starters, he's coming in as a first-year coach. So they're all kind of going through it together with us. I like that. I like the fact that in his mind there's no preconceived notions of any of these guys. You look at the depth chart, there's no depth chart at that position. He could put anybody he wants on the field at any time, we've got to see who can do what. Really Jamerson Love is the only one with any experience coming back at that position, with Taveze being out this spring.
"So for Deshea sometimes if he'd come in this time last year, hey, here's these two returning starters who have done all this, he's kind of adapting to them. He gets to come in and implement how he wants to do things and he gets to really start with all these guys from scratch without any preconceived notion of who is the returning starter or not a starter. He's developing all of them and we'll get together and make the decision of who the best guys to be on the field are."
How much impact can Justin Cox have?
"We certainly hope, if you look at our track record of recruiting junior college players a lot of them come in and make immediate impact. That's why we recruit those guys and have them come in. He's one of those guys in that mode that we expect to come in and make an immediate impact for us."
"Most of the time we're recruiting junior college players to come in and start. That's why that opportunity was there at corner for him. We expect him to do a huge deal. Now do I think day-one? He'll start a little bit behind everybody else, this is his first practice with us. When we get out there on the field he hasn't been through a practice and what we expect. Where when you look at a Jamerson and Cedric and Will and those guys, even some other guys I don't have on this list, they've been through the practices. So they know going from drill to drill what it's going to be like, they know the tempo of seven-on-seven. I think Justin learning from scratch on that is going to be a process. But we expect him to come in and make an immediate impact for us."
You have three juniors on defensive line, is their time now?
"It is. You think about it, Kaleb Eulls, Curtis Virges and P.J. Jones, they got to grow up with Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd and Devin Jones. Watching those guys take the role, not always just the playing role because those (young) guys have all played. But taking the role of the leaders of the group. They got to be the followers, they got to follow that lead. Now they're the pace-setters for us on the D-line. Even Denico Autry, he got his year under his belt, he now has to go into the pace-setter role. Preston Smith is getting older, you've now become the pace-setter for all these young guys. I do think there takes some time in transition in that they're worried about becoming great football players, or worried about becoming starters. But they also now have to transition into that role of they're leading the position instead of following the older guys. Because we did have some the last couple of years. Devin Jones, great leader; Fletcher Cox, great leader; Pernell McPhee, great leader. All those guys have been great leaders on the defensive line that they've had to look up to, that now these guys have to go set that pace."
Is the 'every position is open' idea more true than ever with the redshirted guys?
"I do. I mean we started our spring meeting when they came back with that word, of opportunity. There is a lot of opportunity for guys to get on the field. There's a lot of opportunity at every position to go get touches, to go get the ball in your hand, to go make plays. There's opportunities to step into the O-line now. Of even though guys that are starters, go take somebody's job. In the secondary there's opportunities for a lot of guys that redshirted last year to go take playing time this spring, to go take those tackles that are missing. And that's what is going to be a lot of fun with this spring. That's the fun part of spring ball, of these guys getting opportunities to go see what they can do."
"Go fill out those special teams. I know everybody wants to be on our punt team, that's the most important special team to be on. I mean you're talking to some guys last night, it is a brawl right now to be on it. Deontae Skinner is going to be a third-year starter on our punt team this year, if I take him off of that for his spot that will be a brawl. And I know he doesn't want to be taken off of it! So you look at all the opportunities all over the field, it should be a lot of fun for a lot of guys to do that. But as you know with me, I think we'll have a lot of questions answered through spring, but I don't think we'll have a lot of decisions finalized at the end of spring."
Is the competition intense at linebacker with just one graduation and a lot of youngsters?
"A lot of guys. There are two guys that redshirted that we have really high hopes for the future coming in; and some other young guys that have gotten on the field and started to develop last year. It should be a lot of guys."
"Ideally, in the SEC you'd like to be at least two-deep. I'd like to have 22 starters on defense, the opportunities are there that we roll through a two-deep. A two-deep plus even in some times on defense. You look at some of the top defenses in the country, they're rolling guys through in the top defenses in the SEC anyway. They're rolling guys through and we'd like to get that way, and I think linebacker position is one where we might have the opportunity to be able to do that this year."
Do you see Cox at one position?
"We're going to start him at corner. Obviously if you can play corner for us and be a dominator at corner that's where we want to go. But obviously he was a pretty dynamic player at safety. When you look at those crossover type guys… Jay Hughes is a guy that probably can play a little bit of corner, play a little bit of safety. Justin Cox the same way; I'm not sure Taveze Calhoun the same way. There are some hybrid guys that we have back there which does give you that flexibility to get the best guys on the field and put guys in the position where they can be most successful."
Is chemistry with Russell and the receivers a priority in spring?
"The great thing about that for us with a Tyler Russell is it's not just something that is going to get answered this spring. When you talk about a fifth-year senior quarterback, I mean I expect him in training camp to say I don't want to throw this route to this guy. He has the spring and all summer to get that down. The time is going to come and him say hey, I feel really comfortable making these throws to this guy."
"The great thing when you have a fifth-year senior quarterback, he is going to feel very comfortable in making his input. I think some young guys sometimes they want to give input but they don't know they know enough to give input that makes sense. Where a Tyler Russell now, he knows our system, he knows our offense, he knows what we want to accomplish, he knows what he is comfortable with. That he is going to have a lot of input because I can trust his input. He's been out there on the field, he's not just going to say man I like to throw the ball deep, let's throw a lot of go-routes. He's going to say hey, if I'm going to throw a fade to this guy I like this guy getting this matchup to the field, I like this guy to the boundary better. I like trying to lay it out for one guy or back-shoulder another guy. He is going to feel a lot more comfortable and be able to express that to us, to make sure we create the matchups as we put this offense together this year, you know what I mean? In the spring again you have a thicker playbook, through training camp as the season comes starts to thin out more and more to what fits our personnel and what our guys do best."
You have one quarterback in spring, but you're used to working with two quality guys at different stages?
"I feel great about both those guys. They complement each other well, they work very well together. That aspect, they're always going to push each other. So I think you do have great balance with those two."
"I mean, Tyler knows he's the leader. But I think Dak thinks he's the leader of the team, too. Dak takes on the 'hey, I'm one play away from being the leader so I act the same as if I'm the starting quarterback in everything that I do'. And I think the team appreciates that. because there's the friendly competition, but that is what it is. They'll compete against each other now a lot, but it's very much into they both want to be successful."
Is Eulls settled at tackle?
"He's moved around a little bit and had the ability to move around. I want to see how he handles it. It's very much moving into that role a guy that could do both. Fletcher Cox is a guy who we moved to play some end a little bit during his career as well. Kaleb, it's easy to move him back to end. We want to see. Because of his size, you're 6-4, 290 that's a big end. But it's also big enough to go play inside. Hopefully his athleticism makes us a little more athletic. With he and P.J. inside this year we're probably a little more athletic than we were last year. We're not as big as when we had Dwayne Cherrington and Josh Boyd in there. Now you throw Nick James and Curtis Virges in there and we get back to being big again! Or Quay Evans and all those guys."
"The hard thing, you look at all those freshmen; they just went through their first off-season. Even the guys that redshirted or guys that played last year, they finally got to go through an offseason. So their body is finally transforming for the first time. You know, the summer before their freshman year is a shock to their system, they're learning how to do things. Then they start to train. They've had this, this summer you're going to see huge improvements out of those guys again. And even next off-season even another huge improvement they start getting their body to where they're ready to be SEC players."