Today – Tuesday, for those of you reading this from the future – Mississippi State opened fall football camp with its first practice of the preseason. In conjunction with this momentous occasion, MSU hosted its on-campus media day with Dan Mullen, some of his staff and many of his players. I’ll have some more in-depth stories from all the interviews later, and we’ll be posting updates and highlights from fall camp as practices go along.
However, in the meantime, we learned a great deal from today’s media session, the main points of which we’ll share here. Of note, there are new rules in place this year that A) allow NCAA football teams to begin fall camp earlier than before and B) prevent NCAA football teams from having two-a-day practices. The number of practices between now and game one remains the same as ever, holding steady at 29, but the time in which teams can have these practices is now bigger. Which brings us to item No. 1…
Mullen Focused on Health in Preseason
With more flexibility on how to run the schedule for the preseason, Mullen took a unique approach to setting the itinerary. Before talking to anyone else, State’s coach got his head trainer and his strength and conditioning coach together to talk about one specific thing: health. He asked them, given the number of available days and total number of practices, what the healthiest possible schedule would be. After receiving an answer, he added input from his coaching staff on how they want to do installations, checked the summer and fall class schedules, and came up with dates that made MSU the first SEC team to kick off preseason practices. Using this week as an example, the Bulldogs will practice in just helmets the first two days, then have a day off, then practice three days in shoulder pads, then have another day off.
Offensive Line Taking Shape
As with any John Hevesy-coached offensive line, veteran players are expected to be able to play most if not all positions if need be. Because of that, older guys moved around a lot in bowl practices and spring practices. Now, it appears MSU is set with having two of its best and most experienced players at the two most important positions on the line. Senior Martinas Rankin appears locked in for left tackle, while junior Elgton Jenkins has seemingly solidified his role as the center. This is, of course, subject to change with all of fall camp to go, but Mullen and Hevesy both seem to like the starting point.
Mullen: “You feel pretty confident about those guys … [Jenkins] is a veteran guy and a pretty smart football player. He’s a guy that can get all the right calls and get everybody in position.”
Hevesy: “You have two good guys that have good knowledge of the game and are leaders for me … The first thing I look for in a center is, can they communicate?
[Jenkins] has got a great knowledge of the game. He’s a communicator. Likes to talk.”
Elsewhere on the line, Hevesy has tentatively switched junior Deion Calhoun to right guard so that he can have a veteran presence next to whichever young player steps up and takes over the right tackle position.
Grantham Outlines Defensive Approach
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the second interview of the day, and as has been the case since his arrival, he was quite candid and clear in his answers to questions. A few things stood out, but we’ll start here with his general approach to running MSU’s defense. First, he outlined a general style of play summed up in three words: fast, physical and aggressive. Those are certainly words you’d here almost no matter who the coordinator is, but they appear to be particularly true in this case, when it hasn’t always been the case. The directive is coming from the top.
Mullen: “I want to have an intimidating defense. I want 11 guys flying to the ball with a chip on their shoulder. Nasty disposition.”
The second thing Grantham highlighted sounded more like something from a Ted Talk by a successful CEO rather than a football coach. Grantham recognizes that all his players are unique individuals, and he wants to get to know them as such. He wants to figure out how each individual person learns and then try to teach them in a manner they are able to respond to. By doing so, Grantham believes he can help them more fully reach their potential first as people and second as athletes by giving them confidence.
Grantham: “Belief is a powerful tool and guys can push through barriers they’ve never passed before.”
Grantham also shared how he runs fall camp, breaking it down into three parts. First is installation of the defense as a whole, then in the middle of the camp they start working on preparing for each individual offense they will face over the course of the season so that the Monday of each game week won’t be the first time they see or hear anything about that team. The final portion of camp is dedicated almost exclusively to preparing for the game one opponent so they can get the season off to a good start.
Defensive Leaders, Starters Emerging
Now, for more specifics on the defense as far as personnel. Plenty is known about MSU’s safeties and linebackers where depth and experience remain bountiful. Defensive line and cornerback, however, are more interesting positions with lots of battles for starting spots and some voids left by departed seniors, particularly along the line. Mullen made note of some leaders there, first mentioning Jeffery Simmons and Cory Thomas on the defensive line, then Tolando Cleveland at cornerback, who is back on a medical redshirt for one final season in maroon and white.
When Grantham was asked a question about structuring defenses to highlight the strengths of his players, a follow-up was asked about who some of those specific players are that he wants to highlight. In answering the question, he gave a good look into some players who may be in the lead for starting gigs as camp and further competition for those spots begins. On the line, he mentioned Simmons and Thomas followed by Fletcher Adams and Chauncey Rivers. At linebacker, he brought up Gerri Green, Leo Lewis and Dez Harris specifically. Then, at safety, he listed off four players, saying the names of Mark McLaurin, Brandon Bryant, Jonathan Abrams and JT Gray.
You’ll notice he didn’t list any corners, but being there in person, it felt like he lost that position somewhere along the way as he worked his way through the defense, rather than thinking he purposely didn’t mention them.
And no matter what Grantham said today, it’s all subject to change based on camp and in-game performance, beside the fact that he said he’s going to rotate heavily. Lots of guys are going to play no matter who the “starters” are.”
Mullen Has Big Plans for Tight Ends
And finally, we got one rather interesting tidbit on Mullen’s plans for more extensive use of his tight ends. Injuries there have prevented much depth from accumulating in the past, but now MSU has as many as five guys they feel good about at that position, offering new coach D.J. Looney a lot of tools to work with. Asked if he studied anyone else in college or professional football for ideas, Mullen actually threw it back to what the New England Patriots did several years ago with a lot of their two tight-end sets.
Mullen’s spread offense is all about mismatches, advantageous matchups and versatility. Having a deep set of tight ends makes all of that a whole lot easier. The example Mullen used when talking about the Patriots was their ability to go from a 10 set (four wide receivers) to a 12 (two wide receivers and two tight ends inside) without having to change personnel. If Mullen has the players to do it, he’s certainly got the playbook to take advantage.