You’ll likely know the answers as we go, but let’s play a game with quotes from Mississippi State football coaches.
Round one: is the following quote,
A) Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon talking about senior defensive end A.J. Jefferson in 2016
B) Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson talking about senior quarterback Dak Prescott in 2015
“He’s done a very nice job of executing the techniques and then playing with the flexibility of making some decisions in the pass game where you let a more veteran guy have a little more flexibility in what he sees. It’s an imagination, sometimes, of giving guys parameters. ‘If you see this, this is what you can do,’ having options and letting them go out and make plays.”
Perhaps you guessed the answer easily based on the date this story is published, but you see what I’m getting at, yes? Let’s try another one.
Round two: is the following quote,
A) Dan Mullen talking about Prescott in early 2015
B) Dan Mullen talking about Jefferson in early 2016
“He’s night and day, not even close to where he was when he got here. He redshirted, played minimally as a redshirt freshman, then got onto the field as a sophomore, then played a lot as a junior … You see the development within the program. Not just his physical development, but his technical development.
“He’s grown, having gone through all that, to be a leader. To get to where you are, you don’t just show up and you’re a great player. You have to work at it. He’s worked for going into five years to become a great player.”
Following me with the parallels here?
Round three: is the following quote,
A) Athletic Director Scott Stricklin talking about Prescott in 2015
B) Sirmon talking about Jefferson in 2016
“He’s going to walk away and really be someone that’s remembered here for a long time.”
Got a little more tricky, right? Maybe I snuck in an old quote after all. OK, one more, then we’ll get to the point.
Round four: is the following quote,
A) Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald talking about Jefferson in 2016
B) Fitzgerald talking about Prescott in 2015
“He busts his butt day in and day out. That’s something that, since he’s been here, people have always talked about his work ethic at practice.”
Right, so, you’ve likely seen through my ruse the entire time, but yeah – every single one of those quotes is about Jefferson, all of them said this week in the wake of the senior captain winning the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award.
Some guys – Chris Jones, Benardrick McKinney and Fletcher Cox come to mind – blossom early. They’ve got natural gifts, display them quickly and head to the next level in a hurry. But what Mullen always preaches is development over the course of a career for guys who aren’t necessarily “one of the freakier athletes” in the SEC, and Jefferson, like Prescott, is another perfect example of what MSU does.
Mullen spoke frequently last year about Prescott getting to the graduate-level of quarterbacking. Fitting, as Prescott was in real, actual graduate school as a fifth-year senior, but it was certainly in a more metaphorical sense that he was taking the final and most advanced step of mastering his position in football.
The case is the same with Jefferson, who already has six tackles for loss (three-times as many as anyone else on the team) and three sacks (again, three-times as many as the next closest player) through just two games. He’s even got two quarterback hurries to his name, once more, twice as many as anyone else wearing maroon and white.
Even in the down moment of losing the season opener, Jefferson was a bright spot, displaying his dominance in his first game as a senior. Like Prescott, that dominance came not from being physically superior, but from being tactically advanced.
It’s incredibly boring to hear players talk about technique and film study, and even more boring to read me writing about it (shoutout to you if you made it this far), but real graduate school is kind of the same way. It’s detailed. It’s slogging through formulas and advanced statistics and deep dives into theory and approach.
Being boring takes a lot of time and effort. Five years, to be exact, for guys like Jefferson and Prescott, among many others past, present and likely future in MSU’s program. As Mullen often tells his players, you’re physical development slows down as you go. You can only get so much bigger, faster and/or stronger. It’s the mental side where things progress later in your career.
“Coach Mullen has talked about it since I was a freshman,” Jefferson confirmed. “As you get older, your development kind of slows down. You really have to become an expert in the film room, watching tape and learning what guys do.”
Jefferson watches tape at the football facility with his coaches. He watches tape at home on his iPad. He and fellow senior lineman Nelson Adams get together on their own with the young players of the unit, and can you guess what they do together? Yeah, they watch tape. They study it. They critique themselves and they break down the opponents.
“Seeing what they can’t do, what moves can you use against them, if they have wide hands,” Jefferson offered as an example.
Asked after Saturday’s win over South Carolina what has led to his fast start, Jefferson offered that simple approach as the answer: he studied the linemen he knew he would face, and when the ball was snapped, he knew how to beat them. Knowledge is power, often more than brawn and speed.
Fitzgerald, the previously-mentioned redshirt sophomore quarterback, has spent practice-after-practice since he arrived in December of 2013 being chased down by Jefferson. Last spring, Jefferson even laid a frowned-upon hit on Fitzgerald in the spring game, despite the rule prohibiting such things. Sometimes he just can’t help it. Over the last 36 months, Fitzgerald has watched as his friendly nemesis has grown stronger and stronger.
“His technique has obviously gotten better since he got here,” Fitzgerald said. “They said he started out with one move when he got here, and now he’s got an arsenal that he uses.”
I asked a lot of people, and no one would tell me that Jefferson got stronger, or that he got faster, or even bigger, though clearly he made improvements in all of those areas early in his time at State. What everyone told me was how much his technique has improved, how much he’s developed from a technical standpoint.
Yeah, it’s kind of boring, and the way I started this story was definitely a little hokey. But I’m going to end it with one of those quotes I already used up top, A) because I generally try to end articles with a quote, and B) because it shows what hard work and development at MSU can often mean.
“If he can continue on playing at the level which he’s at,” Sirmon said, “he’s going to walk away and really be someone that’s remembered here for a long time.”