A little over two years ago, I remember Athletic Director Scott Stricklin leading a tour of Mississippi State’s newly-finished expansion and renovation of its football stadium, a $75 million dollar project he’d been working on since he took over and was thrilled to finally unveil to the public.
Just a short while later, MSU’s head coach unveiled the big project he’d been working on, one that was almost six years in the making – Dan Mullen’s breakout 2014 team that made college football’s fastest ascent to No. 1 on the backs of a veteran offensive line surrounded by playmakers at the skill positions and a defense loaded with soon-to-be NFL players.
Stadiums don’t last forever, but they certainly have a shelf life longer than most people, something easily seen at the second-oldest on-campus stadium in college football. Stadiums may be more visibly impressive, but perhaps that’s what makes the results of a great team so much more rewarding.
Concrete, rebar, bricks and mortar – these things are solid, permanent and easily managed, at least for those who know how. In football, however, the people and players and rules and strategies are always changing, always shifting – appearing, disappearing and morphing without notice or reason.
To nail those things down, if even just for a few months at a time, is tricky work. To collect and assemble and seemingly control so many variables is equal parts rare and invigorating. That much is showing now, two years later, as Davis Wade Stadium stands as strong and impressive as it did in 2014, yet the football team on the field finds itself at 2-4 and in a battle to bring back the glory it so recently had.
Mullen has shown off the finished product before, winning nine games in back-to-back seasons, taking MSU to six-straight bowl games and helping fuel the excitement that led to a need for expanding that stadium in the first place.
On Monday, however, Mullen revealed something he’s never quite shared before. The conversation probably took him as much by surprise as it did those of us who joined him in it, but after his formal press conference Monday afternoon, Mullen hung back with reporters to speak very candidly not about the finished product, but about the blueprint he uses to build it.
The conversation was informal and no reporters had their recorders on for the chat, so to share too much here might even be a violation of the trust Mullen showed in discussing his philosophies and tactics so openly and honestly. However, a summary still gives an idea of where Mullen is with his program.
A follow-up question about explosive plays on offense (12 yards or more, he says) came after Mullen walked away from the podium. That led to a discussion about sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald which led to a discussion about Dak Prescott which led to a discussion about not just developing quarterbacks but developing all players and what’s important and necessary in building a program and being able to show it off like he did just two years ago.
Mullen talked about how many “fantastic” plays Fitzgerald made in the loss to BYU Friday night; not just the leaping touchdown run, but third and fourth down passes, overtime throws and the like. Mullen also talked about the times when potentially fantastic plays were missed, be it because of a read, a drop, an overthrow or missed timing.
When Prescott walked up to the line of scrimmage at the end of his career, he did so as someone who had no hesitation in changing the play call, someone who could quickly read defenses and someone who had not just full confidence in but full command of the offense. That took time, though. Even in 2014 Prescott wasn’t all the way there yet. Mullen said it was 2015 when that finally clicked. As a junior, Prescott was still relying largely on making plays with his legs.
As a sophomore in 2013 that was certainly the case, much as it is now for Fitzgerald. It takes time. It takes reps. It takes understanding. And really, it takes some nuance. Mullen gave the example of how young players learn.
Say, for instance, that an inexperienced quarterback runs an option play in which the right read would have been to keep the ball, but instead, he passed the ball over to the running back. Mullen will, of course, discuss that with his quarterback. He will explain why he should have kept the ball.
Almost without fail, Mullen said, the next time they run option, the quarterback will keep the ball, even if there are three defenders bearing down on him. Not because he’s a bad decision-maker, but because it was in his head. It’s a natural reaction, if not an occasionally frustrating one. But over time, with enough repetitions, the lesson sinks in and the sight and understanding arrive.
The same applies for reading safeties in the deep passing game, MSU’s head coach offered. Mullen may call for the quarterback to take a shot down the field. For Prescott, it wasn’t until his senior year that he had the confidence and vision to see that sometimes his deep options weren’t good, so he would check down instead. As a young quarterback, he didn’t have that vision and the thought in his head was something along the lines of, ‘Well, Coach wants us to take a shot, so I guess I’m gonna take this shot regardless.’
The quarterback position is just an example, of course. It applies to every position, to the whole team. It all takes time, and on a team this inexperienced, they haven’t had much of it. Mullen made that point in both the formal and informal setting Monday. They’re building that as they go. They’re learning with every rep.
It certainly hasn’t helped that after losing two players to early NFL entry in his first five years, he then lost five in just two offseasons. Add in injuries to two starting senior corners, an injury to the starting senior tight end and an unexpected dismissal of a presumed starting senior receiver, and MSU found itself with a team full of players mostly at the foundational level.
With Prescott and the crew of guys like Taveze Calhoun, Ben Beckwith, Jay Hughes, Preston Smith, Malcolm Johnson and the like, the air-conditioned mansion of MSU football was fully established.
On Monday, Mullen wasn’t making excuses for the state of the house – he was just sharing the blueprint for how he’s going to build it back up, and the plans don’t look too different from the ones he had behind closed doors in 2014.
“We’ll get ‘em there,” Mullen said, his final words as he left the room and went back to work.