SEC Freshman of the Year Jake Magnum shares passion, excitement with MSU teammates

“I’m the opposite of moderate,

Immaculately polished with,

The spirit of a hustler,

And the swagger of a college kid.”

– Clifford “T.I.” Harris


Forget about the awards for a minute. Forget about The Ferriss Trophy, the first-team All-SEC, the freshman All-SEC and the overall conference Freshman of the Year award. Ignore, until a bit later at least, that he leads the SEC in batting average, that he’s one of the country’s deadliest runners on the basepath and that he could even take the mound for an inning or three if he really wanted.

unnamedInstead, just for now, let’s take a moment to appreciate the personality of Jake Mangum, outfielder, Mississippi State. The one who jumps in the air in celebration just for hitting a single. The one who drops to his knee and fires an imaginary arrow with an imaginary bow into his dugout after hitting triples. And on Saturday, the one who unveiled some kind of leaping, fist-pumping, whooping pirouette of a celebration after making the diving catch to end the seventh inning and the Arkansas threat, effectively sewing up the regular season SEC Championship for his Bulldogs.

“I don’t even know what I did,” Mangum admitted when asked after the game about the celebratory outburst. “Probably something stupid.”

There is a history to these exuberant displays, too, it turns out. Once, in high school, Mangum and his Jackson Prep teammates were playing against Starkville Academy. It was, Mangum recalled, maybe the third inning, at the latest, and he was on base. The game was tied 3-3. Until Mangum crossed the plate.

Those who have seen Mangum play at MSU – or anywhere, surely – know how fast he runs. That day, like all others, he moved as fast as his body would let him. Like a bullet fired from the chamber when the ball was hit, Mangum didn’t sprint to home plate. He sprinted through home plate. And he didn’t stop there. Altering his trajectory slightly, Mangum kept going at top speed and full-on tackled his teammate who was waiting in the on-deck circle. Now an opponent of Mangum’s playing for Ole Miss, Rob Huffman was dropped to the ground in Mangum’s celebration of a game that wasn’t even halfway over.

“There are so many stories I could go through,” Mangum said as his mind’s eye wandered to visions of other such exhibitions of joy. “You can ask anybody who played high school baseball with me. Some of my celebrations over the years may have been over the top, but a lot of emotion goes into baseball.”

MSU recruiting coordinator and outfielders coach Nick Mingione remembers a similar occasion he witnessed when he was recruiting Mangum. The speedster rounded third base in a flash while the ball was off in play somewhere in the outfield behind him, and by the time his teammates had even figured out their guy was about to score, Mangum had reached home and already made it almost all the way to the dugout. From there, he continued sprinting along the outside of the dugout fence, giving high fives to each teammate as he passed them by and ran almost all the way to the outfield.

“He got to the dugout before everyone could even get out of the dugout he was so excited,” Mingione said with a laugh. “We want competitive kids, and there’s no doubt, he’s extremely competitive. Some kids are quiet competitors … Jake’s more of that animated competitor.

“Earlier in the year,” Mingione continued, “he gets on first base and he’s jumping in the air. Most people were like, ‘The dude was safe on a single and he’s jumping up in the air?’ But that’s who he is. He’s being Jake Mangum.”

DVRJPQNOLTJKICT.20160522033824Being Jake Mangum involves personality. It involves flair. It requires being competitive, expressive and unabashedly proud of the name on the front of the jersey as well as the one on the back. And, in addition to all that, it comes with a thick cloak of humility and a genuine team-first attitude.

Ask Mangum about his spectacular diving catches, and he’ll you tell that he considers his teammate Jacob Robson to be the best outfielder in the country. Try to talk to Mangum about his hitting prowess, and he’ll respond by letting you know just how great his teammates have been all year, bragging on spots 2-9 in the lineup. He’ll start telling you about the guys on the bench, too, if you don’t stop him. He’ll thank Mingione. He’ll thank his head coach, John Cohen. He even thanked a couple pitching coaches when reporters tried to talk to him about the success he’s had in 2016.

“I know how much he cares about Mississippi State in general, and he really cares about our team,” Mingione said. “I know where his heart is. There’s no doubt the guy cares about Mississippi State first.

“I talked to him every week in the recruiting process,” Mingione added, “and every time, he would talk about winning a National Championship. That’s all he wanted to talk about, was how great Mississippi State was going to be and how we were going to do it.”

There, again, is the trademark Mangum confidence and competitiveness. He’s been that way his whole life, he confesses. He gets it from his dad. It was fostered by his friends. Baseball, video games, hockey, even, it doesn’t matter; Mangum wants to win. He expects to win. And when he does win, he celebrates like a man who was never supposed to win a thing in his life.

“Games I’m not playing,” junior All-SEC pitcher Dakota Hudson shared, “I’m just sitting there watching him. Games I am playing, I turn around and he’s making a diving catch and fist-pumping … Being able to feed off that has been huge for our team.”

It’s an approach and attitude Mangum has had his whole life, but one that was enhanced in this, his first season at MSU, when senior catcher Josh Lovelady gave a speech to the team shortly before the season began. Lovelady – who Mangum calls the best teammate he’s ever had – preached to his teammates about never taking any game, play or moment for granted. Nothing is guaranteed, he told them, clichéd as it may sound. Take every opportunity, because you never know which game or play could be your last.


Mangum being congratulated by Mingione at third base

That was days before the 2016 campaign began. Four games into his senior season, Lovelady blew out his knee. His year was over before it had hardly begun. For him, for his teammates, and specifically for Mangum, the message he had shared so recently resonated that much more. If it wasn’t real before, it was after that.

So, now, Mangum takes every chance he gets. He sees not just every game, but every practice, every workout and even every film session as an opportunity, a gift that could be revoked at any time.

That approach to life is one he takes to the plate, as well, which numbers would indicate has been successful. Any ball he thinks he can hit – and he’s got enough confidence to believe he can get most – Mangum is going to take a swing at.

“My approach at the plate is, just get something you can hit, and hit it,” he explained. “There are so many great pitchers in this league … You can step in the box 0-0 and get a curveball that’s just absolutely filthy, then the next pitch you get a 96 mph fastball on your hands, and then the next pitch you get a change-up low and away. If you get anything to hit, you need to hit it.”

As for the results, they can be spoken for in awards, certainly, or explained in pure numbers. His .427 batting average leads the team, of course, but perhaps just as impressive is the fact that in 171 at-bats, he’s only struck out 12 times, the lowest total of any Bulldog with 150-plus plate appearances. He’s one of only two such players with fewer than 20 strikeouts.

Mangum’s 73 hits and team-high .472 on-base percentage are impressive, as well, and they are part of why Cohen has compared his freshman star to one of the best hitters MSU baseball has ever seen in Adam Frazier. They both, constantly, put themselves in position to get on base.

QQZIXTTCYXYXYOY.20160520031755It’s to the point now that any time Mangum doesn’t get a hit, the crowd at Dudy Noble Field seems genuinely surprised. Even the way he takes the plate, thanks to his chosen walk-up song, feels dramatic. The ‘80s hit ‘Your Love’ by English rock band The Outfield, just like Mangum, wastes exactly zero time. There’s almost no build-up, no intro, no time to prepare. Within a second of the well-known riff starting, the band is yelling across the stadium. “Josie’s on a vacation far away…” The Outfield bursting over the outfield.

It seems like you hear the song so many times in any game, and especially over the course of a weekend. You can’t look down without Mangum coming back up to the plate sometimes. The song really is perfect for Mangum, who Mingione observes to have an old school quality about him, somehow combining the swagger of youth with the confidence of an old soul, a wily veteran. The song, too – other than being appropriately sung by a band with Mangum’s actual position in the name – pays homage to his roots and the teammate who originally picked ‘Your Love’ as his walk-up song years ago.

One of Mangum’s best friends is the rightfielder from his high school team, Trace Lovertich, now a freshman at MSU who will be Mangum’s roommate next year. However, while Mangum’s baseball career is continuing, Lovertich’s ended at Jackson Prep last spring and, it seemed at the moment, so did the regular renditions of ‘Your Love.’ So, when Mangum was trying to come up with a song before this season started, Lovertich suggested he carry on the tradition he had started in high school.

“I’ll do it,” Mangum told him. “That’ll be my walk-up song all four years I’m here.”

Mangum says now, “It’s a tribute to him and it’s a tribute to Jackson Prep. Jackson Prep really did change my life. Just a special, special place that will always have a special place in my heart.”

To make the choice even better: the name of The Outfield’s greatest hits album on which the song appears is ‘Big Innings.’ Those two words form the exact goal Mingione has for the team every game. Get at least one big offensive inning per game by scoring three or more runs in a single frame.

The Bulldogs have had those Big Innings frequently this year, and more times than not, Mangum has been in the middle of the action. Whether he’s driving in his teammates for those runs or watching and running as they send him to home plate, he’s thrilled, in his usual emotive fashion, to see it happen – just like his coach.

“You’ll see Coach Mingione over at third base going absolutely crazy,” Mangum said, “because he loves big innings. That’s his thing.“

Inning or otherwise, it seems that just plain Big is Mangum’s thing. Big catches, Big hits, Big steals and the Biggest celebrations. However, as is typical with Mangum, he’s not thinking about his Big Self. His big personality is 100 percent invested in the even bigger dreams of his team.

“It really has been a special year so far,” he said. “And we don’t want it to end.”

Lucky him. The regular season concluded Saturday, but the postseason is just beginning.

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Bulldogs left speechless as Mississippi State crowned 2016 SEC Champion

With nearly 10,000 watching in person, and thousands more following online and through televisions across the country, the final pitch crossed the plate. The strike was called, the dugout erupted and the crowd, as they had been waiting to do all weekend, went wild.

unnamedAt that moment, it became official: Mississippi State won the 2016 SEC Baseball Championship. In the deepest conference in the country, in a league who’s top three teams also happen to be ranked 1-3 in all of America, in a season of competition against a half dozen foes likely to be hosting an NCAA Regional, MSU came out the victor, Dawgs on top of the pile.

“That was freakin’ awesome,” junior third baseman Gavin Collins appropriately summarized as he approached reporters after victory pictures, victory celebrations and a victory lap.

“It was perfect,” team captain Jacob Robson echoed a few minutes later.

It was everything this club of Bulldogs had worked for. The cogs of the machine that this team has become had been falling into place slowly but surely in the last few years. Even once they all found their way to campus, it took some time to get things running properly. Or perfectly, as Robson said.

But once the switch flipped, it never turned back the other direction. MSU won nine out of 10 series in the gauntlet that was their SEC slate. Midway through, when some on the outside wondered if the Bulldogs had peaked too early, the eventual SEC Champs proved it was just the opposite. They got better as the year went along, concluding the regular season with three-straight sweeps to claim the conference title.

All of this from a team that finished at the exact bottom of the SEC just one year ago

“Last to first, baby!” Collins exclaimed. “The amount of work and the amount of time and effort we’ve put in – the amount of sweat and tears in the fall and the spring, it’s all worth it. It’s all worth it, man. We grinded for so long, and it’s starting to show up. It’s awesome.”

unnamed-2To say it’s “starting” to show up is something of an understatement. MSU finished the regular season with 40 wins, owning a 40-14-1 record, including a 21-9 SEC mark. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s leading hitter in Jake Mangum, and he’s just a freshman. They have three of the five finalists for the Ferriss Trophy given to the best collegiate player in Mississippi. To boot, one of those finalists is among the best power hitters in the SEC, and he was batting seventh as MSU won the title Saturday night. That’s how strong the lineup is. All of that without mentioning Dakota Hudson, a possible Top-10 pick in this summer’s MLB Draft.

MSU beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road, beat their rival both at home and at a neutral site; generally speaking, MSU bowled over nearly everyone who got in their way. Woe unto thee who must face this team, the hottest in the country, when the postseason begins.

And because of all that, Saturday’s win over Arkansas – the score was 9-4, by the by – was almost inconsequential for what the Bulldogs will do in the postseason. They had a national seed wrapped up. Whatever the result Saturday, State knew it would be hosting a Regional in two weeks, anyway.

In a way, that made the SEC Championship even more special for those in the dugout. They didn’t need the title, necessarily. They just wanted it. Boy, did they want it. They wanted it for themselves, for each other, for the name on the front of their jersey and for the thousands of fans behind them. When they took the field Saturday night, it was with that passion flaming inside their chests, broiling beneath their jerseys.

“Everything that we’ve done from the end of last year to right now has built to this moment,” Robson explained.

And when that moment came, when the final strike was called and Mississippi State was rightfully declared the Champions of the Southeastern Conference, those stewing emotions exploded in yells of triumph, in hugs and jumps and cheers and handshakes.

They knew it was possible, knew it was what they wanted, and after so much time of working toward it, the dream – one of a few dreams, that is – became reality.

“This – I can’t describe it. That was unreal. I don’t even know what to say right now,” Mangum stammered to reporters as he stared at a spot on the ground with big eyes and a bigger smile. “Goosebumps. I was freakin’ out. This place, I’ve never seen Dudy Noble like that and I’ve been coming here for years. That was unreal.”

unnamed-1If the moment was weird to Mangum, it was surreal for John Cohen. He’s the head coach for the 2016 SEC Champs today. He was a player for the 1989 SEC Champs 27 years ago, the last time MSU won the regular season league title.

The experiences, he explained, couldn’t be more different.

“As a player,” he recalled, “you don’t think about things. You don’t think about how often you’re gonna get to do it. As a player, you just think it’s gonna happen every single year. And it doesn’t, of course. As a coach, you realize, this is a really competitive situation and these moments don’t come along every day. I’m just really proud to be a Mississippi State graduate and to be in this environment and to be able to share this with the Mississippi State family.”

However, Cohen is hoping the SEC Champs he’s coaching are better than the ones he played for. At least as postseason success goes, anyway. As much as he learned as a player, what sticks with him the most from that year is the fact that his Bulldogs lost in the Regional in Starkville as the No. 1 seed. All euphoria from winning the SEC was erased with a loss to North Carolina.

That, he said, is what he’ll be sharing with the team about his experiences, not the fact he won the conference.

“The real lesson is, if you don’t end up in Omaha, it’s not the year you wanted it to be,” he said. “Our kids have bigger goals than winning the Southeastern Conference. It’s just a nice by-product of staying on the journey.”

Moments before he shared those last words in his meeting with reporters after the game, his players had offered the same sentiment. Winning the SEC is great, yeah. Feels wonderful. But that’s not their goal. That’s not the end game.

“I came here to win championships and win a National Championship,” Collins said.

Said Robson, “we’re not done yet. We haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal: win the whole thing.”

If they keep playing like this, the Bulldogs will have their shot.

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MSU men’s tennis riding hot streak into NCAA Round of 16

There’s getting hot at the right time, and then there’s absolutely dominating at the right time. For Mississippi State’s men’s tennis team, it’s a whole lot of the latter as they’ve shot up the rankings and advanced all the way to the prestigious Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

CCDWWLJBGEWUBLC.20160416034529Ranked No. 21 in the country, the Bulldogs blanked No. 16 Illinois 4-0 on their home court over the weekend to secure the trip to Tulsa for the Round of 16. With that dominating win, MSU is now 5-2 in its last five matches, one of those losses coming in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament two weeks ago.

State’s success may seem surprising to many on the outside who saw head coach Matt Roberts have to replace seven of nine players from last season’s team, but those within the locker room had every expectation that this is where they would be, even if it was considered unlikely at best by most in the college tennis world.

“We put in the work,” freshman Trevor Foshey said. “Hard practices throughout the year. We were ready and we knew we could do it. We feel like we deserved this and we knew we could do it. It’s not a huge surprise. We feel like we should be here. We’re happy about it, but we’re still not done.”

Said Roberts after Sunday’s win, “I am so proud of these guys and what they’ve accomplished this season with their backs against the wall. It is unheard of for a team this young to be this successful, but these guys defy the odds. Before Friday, we had only two players with any postseason experience, and our younger guys handled it like veterans.”

Much of the reason for those odds being defied – aside from talent, of course – is the chemistry of the team. It sounds like a coachspeak cliché, but it’s something Roberts and his players genuinely believe to be true. When they arrived in Champaign for the regional last week, they practiced twice per day, but they also went to an iMax movie, played soccer-tennis (a mix of the two sports played on a tennis court) constantly and generally goofed around and stayed relaxed as they prepared for their matches.

Part of that, too, is the feeling that they have nothing to lose. No one outside the team thought they’d be here anyway, so there’s no pressure. They can be who they are, play how they want and take the success as it comes.

“We just had fun,” Roberts said. “We stressed to the guys, just enjoy the moment and don’t think too much about the match. That just led to us playing at a really high level and being sharp. The guys did great. No nerves. The guys just executed well.”

YUIGDXECWHGNMTR.20160410223033On the horizon looms the greatest challenge yet as MSU plays No. 3 North Carolina in the Round of 16 on Friday in Tulsa. The matchup is actually a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament second round when it was the Tar Heels who put an end to the Bulldogs’ season. Revenge isn’t necessarily on MSU’s mind, as only two players on this year’s roster were around for last year’s loss, but the familiarity at least provides another reason for calmed nerves and lessened tension.

Roberts said his team is able to draw confidence from playing UNC closely last season, particularly as the Tar Heels return, for the most part, the same lineup, while State has bolstered its roster significantly in the 12 months since their last meeting – not to mention the upgrade in attitudes and approach MSU has seen.

“We’re not scared of anybody,” Roberts said. “We respect them.”

If MSU wins Friday, they’ll move on to the next opponent. If they lose, they’ll move on to the next season, as well as individual NCAA competition. Whatever the result, they’re a team that’s incredibly proud of how far they’ve come, and even more proud of where they’re going.

In a rebuild done so quickly that many hardly knew a rebuild had even occurred, Roberts and his Bulldogs have made a clear statement that theirs is a program to beware of in college tennis.

“I’m just happy for the guys,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to see how fast they’ve grown and matured and constantly risen to the occasion and come through.”

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Cam Lawrence on finishing his MSU degree and his wild life in Dallas

Since his last snap in a Mississippi State uniform back in the 2012 Gator Bowl, Cam Lawrence has had quite the eclectic journey, despite living in the same city the whole way through.


Lawrence, second from the left, with Dan Mullen and former Bulldogs at an MSU Alumni event in Dallas two weeks ago

The spring following his last season at MSU, he signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys, though he found himself on injured reserve after two promising seasons and was forced to sit out the final year of his deal in 2015.

The long-haired Lawrence, got engaged, got married and went on his honeymoon, all in less than 12 months. He became the co-host of a hunting and outdoors show, took a spot as resident heartthrob with the Cowboys, and even now, he’s working on his real estate license while finishing rehab from his third and final surgery as he prepares for the next NFL season with a new team.

But perhaps his most important accomplishment – after his marriage, anyway – came in the last week: three years removed from the day he left Starkville, Cameron Lawrence graduated from Mississippi State University. With a 3.3 GPA in business administration, Lawrence now adds “college graduate” to his long and ever-growing résumé`.

Lawrence got the email over the weekend telling him that the final class he took – a distance directed study he completed this semester from Dallas where he currently lives – was finished. The report: he got an A.

“I was fired up about it,” he said. “When I came out in 2013, my dad said, ‘I’ll roll over in my grave if I die knowing you didn’t finish your degree.’ I at least owed him that.

“I just was thinking back to when I came in, 17 years old, as a freshman. It was a lot of work that went into that, playing football and trying to keep my grades up. I finished with a 3.3. I know it’s not the best, but anything above a 3.0 is not too shabby. It was just a huge accomplishment for me.”

A 3.3 will certainly do just fine, and it’s unique to hear a professional football player talk about small numbers and decimals in terms of grades, rather than 40-yard-dash times. Of course, those football measurements will be coming up soon enough.

unnamedWorking out five or six days per week at a nearby training center, Lawrence is nearing the day he gets clearance from his doctor to play again. Once that happens, and now that his contract with the Cowboys has been completed, the free agent will make his rounds (his agent says at least half a dozen teams are interested and waiting for his clearance) and find his new team.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy his time with the Cowboys, of course. Lawrence loved the three years he had with them, and his passion for playing football for Dallas was perhaps only matched by the joy he got from becoming part of the community, taking every opportunity he could to work with charities, attend events and be one of the faces of the Cowboys whenever players were asked to participate in non-football activities.

“There are always opportunities to give back to the city,” he said. “With the Cowboys being America’s Team, the fanbase is just awesome. Any time I got a chance to go do an appearance, sign some autographs, take some pictures, I always took advantage of it. I think that might have paid off for me when I was out there on the field. If you’ve got a fanbase that knows your name, knows your face, knows you personally, being able to make a connection helps a lot.”

However, the year away from football was frustrating, Lawrence admitted, his injury forcing him to watch from afar as his teammates practiced, played and traveled. It was the first fall he hadn’t been on the field in over a decade, a difficult five months for the former Bulldog. However, as much as he wanted to be playing rather than watching, the downtime gave Lawrence the opportunity to do some things he wouldn’t have otherwise had time for.

He got married, of course, to his girlfriend Shelby (“She was a Chi Omega at MSU, so, Hail State,” he said) and even had time for a honeymoon in Hawaii. He was able to fly back to Starkville once to watch his Bulldogs play LSU. He had time to finish his degree.

unnamed-1And most interestingly, the Coldwater, Mississippi native found himself as the co-host of DFW Outdoorsman, an outdoors show created by former Cowboy Marcus Spears on the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate. It is Spears who Lawrence has to thank for the gig, actually. Back when Lawrence was still playing for the Cowboys and when Spears was still hosting the show, Spears called Lawrence and asked if he’d come on as a guest for a dove hunt they were taping soon. Spears hardly had time to finish the question before the Mississippi-grown Lawrence was saying yes.

Later, when the producers of the show discovered they needed a new co-host, Lawrence got another call.

“We heard you’re from Mississippi,” Lawrence remembered them saying, “heard you like to hunt, so would you like to come along and kind of co-host this show?”

Again, the answer was easy. So far this season they’ve taped four episodes, the most recent of which airs soon and features a hog hunt. It isn’t necessarily a long-term plan for Lawrence as he hopes to get back on the field this fall, but the multi-talented Lawrence said he certainly isn’t closing the door on such a career, either.

“It’s been a fun ride,” he said. “I’ve tried to take advantage of the down time I’ve had.”

That’s sort of how Lawrence has always been, though – trying his hand at as much as he possibly can. He played both quarterback and linebacker for his high school team at Magnolia Heights, while also lettering in track and baseball. In 2011 and 2012, Lawrence became the first MSU player in two decades to register back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, all while maintaining that 3.3 GPA, as well as his long head of hair.

That hair, too, even came as something new, as the rules in high school stated that boys must not let their hair grow longer than their eyebrows, their ear lobes or the collar of their shirt. Like his brother (former MSU offensive lineman Addison Lawrence) had done a couple years before him, the younger Lawrence child jumped on the new opportunity when he went off to school.

“I kinda followed my brother,” he said. “The rebellious nature came out in the Lawrence boys once we got to college.”

And to be sure, no degree, job or wife has tamed that rebellious nature. Not completely, anyway.

“I’m still rockin the locks. The flow is still part of me,” he said. “I don’t know if I can take credit for bringing the fad back, but I like to think I was kind of ahead of things. I see a lot more college guys now rockin’ it.”

Long hair, hog hunts and outdoor nuptials aside, Lawrence remains fiercely proud of his latest great accomplishment, finishing school after three years [so far] in the NFL. With his degree in hand, Lawrence is planning to have his real estate license by the end of the summer, with Dallas again in mind. His project for his final class was a market research paper on the Dallas-Fort Worth area (“It’s had explosive numbers in growth.”), and as with anything else, Lawrence couldn’t help getting curious and wanting to be involved.

Football player, real estate mogul, TV host or to-be-determined, whatever Lawrence does next, he will do so as a college graduate, and he’s pretty dang proud of that.

“Getting my degree was pretty important to me,” he said. “I’m not naïve enough to think football is gonna last forever. My dad always said knowledge is power. Finishing up was a pretty big deal.”

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Behind Reid Humphreys multi-faceted success for MSU baseball

This weekend, he batted in the first run, then scored the second, ensuring his Bulldogs a 2-1 victory and clinching the series against Alabama.

Last weekend, he took the mound and earned a save, beating LSU in their own stadium on Friday night to help Mississippi State win that series, too.

UTJJLUXYULLDDMU.20160419225624Playing in 42 of MSU’s 45 games so far in 2016, Reid Humphreys has made his presence felt in any space with room for a presence to be had. Pitcher, outfielder, slugger. He’s third on the team in batting average (with a team-high 39 RBI) and tied for third in strikeouts per inning, all while maintaining a fielding percentage of .983 and slugging a team-high .557. The only question left – and some say they know the answer already – is what can’t the junior star do?

“He is the most talented person I know,” said MSU outfielder and national freshman of the year candidate Jake Mangum. “He could go pick up a soccer ball and go play for somebody. Anything, you name it. He can go do water polo somewhere. It’s amazing. I’ve seen him just throw up golf balls and hit it in the air and it goes really far over a lake. He really is a talented guy.”

In fact, Humphreys was once a quarterback for his high school team, too, with dreams of adding that position to the many he already claims in Starkville. Had he had not had Tommy John surgery before his senior year of high school, it might have become a reality.

That injury, though, only makes what he’s doing now for MSU that much more impressive. Humphreys was barely able to pitch at all his senior of high school, and while it was always in the plans to be both a pitcher and a positional player at State, he hadn’t yet taken the mound for the Bulldogs when this season began less than three months ago.

“That’s the thing that’s really incredible,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “He really went through some tough times. That’s why I think this progression he’s had has been so neat.”

Said Humphreys, “If you had told me that I’d be pitching in Alex Box Stadium on Friday night a year and a half ago, I probably would have laughed. It was a dream come true.”

OBLKATWNKXMWXQQ.20160403221723About that night in Baton Rouge, though. Perhaps it was some kind of bayou magic, or more likely, it was a result of that knack Humphreys has for being able to do just about anything he wants to with his body. Whatever it was, the junior pitcher/outfielder/hitter did something his coaches had very literally never seen before. Not from him, anyway. Only three people in the stadium full of 10,000 fans, two teams and a horde of media even knew Humphreys had considered trying this: the pitcher who taught it to him, the outfielder who saw him try it out, and the catcher who was on the receiving end of it when the new skill debuted.

But let’s go back a day. During a bullpen session, Humphreys was watching Friday night starter and fellow junior Dakota Hudson throw. Considered an elite prospect for this year’s MLB Draft, Hudson has an arsenal of pitches to choose from. One of them caught Humphreys eye: the cutter.

Casually, with no grand schemes or plans in mind, Humphreys asked Hudson to show him how he gripped the ball for that pitch, requesting a quick explanation on just how he throws it. Considering himself more of a visual learner (Humphreys picked up baseball by watching his older brother and MLB player Tyler Moore play as a kid), the willing student studied Hudson as he threw the pitch, then gave it a shot himself. To no one’s surprise, at least in retrospect, it worked for him.

Then Friday night came. In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU was up 9-8, but had just given up a grand slam to the home team Tigers. Humphreys was called in from the bullpen, taking the mound with two outs and the bases loaded.

With four outs left to protect a one-run lead, Humphreys probably ought to have stuck with what he was used to throwing – what his coaches were used to seeing him throw. But in the back of his mind was that cutter Hudson had just taught him. Maybe he could pull it off.

Mangum and the rest of his teammates watched from the dugout, none of them knowing the decision Humphreys had just made.

“He came in the game and threw a pitch,” Mangum remembered. “I looked over at [outfielder] Mike [Smith] and I was like, ‘What was that? He doesn’t throw that.’”

IQSEZWEUHPGFEFO.20160403221723If Mangum and his teammates were surprised, it would seem LSU’s batters were, too. Humphreys retired four-straight Tigers in only 17 pitches, first ending the eighth-inning threat and second, ending the game entirely with the Dawgs on top.

“I just think it’s really neat that Reid has really come into his own,” Cohen said. “You want players to be inventive. You want them to create things on their own, because they take ownership in that. He’s really proud of himself. He’s really excited about that pitch.

“What it is,” Cohen continued, “is just a shorter, tighter, harder slider that looks more like a fastball. Just watching on film today, it’s a pretty impressive pitch for him. I just love the fact that he wants the baseball. I just love it when he walks by me in the dugout and says, ‘Hey, if you need to get three or six guys out at the end of this game, I feel really good.’”

The season as a whole has shown what Humphreys is capable of, driving runs in when he’s at the plate and keeping runs from being scored when he’s on the mound or in the outfield. Talents like his aren’t unheard of in college baseball, but they’re certainly far from common, being especially rare to be so effective in all areas.

But that cutter, that literal overnight success of a pitch, that’s the example of what makes Humphreys so special.

“You’ve gotta know Reid,” Mangum said, drawing on years of experience playing against him in little league and high school. “He’s the guy that goes out there and closes a game in the SEC with a brand new pitch without even warming up in the bullpen.

“He’s been that way all his life,” Mangum finally finished. “He really has.”

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Dustin James helping MSU on the track, impacting others outside of competition

He could feel the phone constantly vibrating in his pocket, calls coming in wondering where he was and if he was going to come. He couldn’t take the phone out in the middle of the program, but he didn’t need to, anyway. He knew who was on the other end, and his mind was racing, counting down the moments until he could run out of the room to join her.

At a luncheon honoring outstanding student-athletes (emphasis on student, in this case) at Mississippi State, the track and field star was attempting to keep two promises and be both places he had assured people he would be present. Finally, in a room full of honored athletes, distinguished administrators and over-busy coaches, it was his turn to speak and be recognized.

“They got to me and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Dustin James, yada yada yada, I have to go tutor Debra Ann, do you mind if I go?’”

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Debra Ann, 21 years old, has in very short time become an important part of Dustin’s life, as the pair gets together at least twice each week. Dustin, while competing for MSU’s track and field team, is working on his degree in special education. Debra Ann, whose favorite food is chicken and favorite books are written by Dr. Seuss, has Down syndrome.

Dustin and Debra Ann began working together this semester after he was approached last fall about taking over for her then-tutor who would be busy student teaching this semester. It was one of those tutoring sessions Dustin was determined not to miss when he made his quick exit from lunch, grabbing a Gatorade and a bag of chips on his way to the door.

“The last thing they saw was me running out.”

Their schedule remains flexible, often having to work around Dustin’s track training and competition, but the two generally get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, working on reading, learning about coins and going on adventures around town, often to the supermarket.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey Debra Ann, where’s the chicken?’ She’ll walk me over there and point at the chicken.”

The bigger point of what Dustin and Debra Ann are doing on those excursions is to help her learn how to handle various social situations, though she’s already quite personable, Dustin says, calling her “super fun and energetic and outgoing.

Working with Debra Ann was something Dustin was initially nervous about, having never worked 1-on-1 with a special needs student before, but the experience is also something he’s deeply passionate about. While many college students are still wondering what to do with their lives, Dustin has known his dream since middle school and has been hard at work ever since to accomplish his goals. He has the notion that perhaps he’d like to be a principal one day, but specifics such as those can be figured out later. What he truly cares about, and what he hopes his career focuses on, is helping people.

“My goal,” he said, “is to, one, graduate, and two, just help students. Help somebody. I don’t have a set goal, as long as I’m in the classroom and I’m able to help somebody.”

His supportive and philanthropic nature, his track coach Steve Dudley says, comes from his parents, and similarly, it’s a family connection that first led Dustin down this path. Growing up, Dustin had a cousin in California who rarely talked, only speaking when prompted. When Dustin’s cousin would come stay with his family on visits in the summer, the two would spend hours every day hanging out together, Dustin naturally gravitating toward him, and the cousin to him.

Dustin’s mother still remembers watching her son before a track meet one summer around the time he was a freshman in high school. A little boy walked up to Dustin before his competition began and just started chatting away. Dustin happily conversed with his new friend, while the little boy’s mother also watched, smiling the whole time. After the conversation ended, Dustin’s mom asked if he knew that the boy had special needs, Dustin replying that he had no clue.

“I didn’t know. I just thought it was a cool little kid coming to hang out. It was fun.”

In high school, Dustin started helping out in special education classrooms as part of his school’s inclusion center. By the time he got to college, he was well on his way to making the needs of others his life’s priority.

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays Dustin James II Photo by Robert Sutton

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays
Dustin James II
Photo by Robert Sutton

Oh, and he was a pretty talented athlete, too. Now a junior at MSU, Dustin is in the middle of the best season of his track career, competing in the 400-meter run and the 400-meter hurdles, setting personal bests along the way. His coaches say the same determination he shows in helping others away from competition is evident when he steps onto the track to run.

“He works very, very hard,” Dudley said. “He has a real vision of what he wants to do in life, and he’s gonna do whatever he’s got to do to accomplish what he wants in life. So many people, kids and adults, talk about what they want to do, but they’re not really invested in the process to be able to get there. Dustin James is not one of those people. He understands there’s gonna be a process and he’s invested in it.”

Dustin takes his training and running for MSU very seriously, just as he does his sessions with Debra Ann, but he keeps the two worlds separate in his mind. He sees the correlations in the hard work required for special education students to grow and learn, and the dedication needed for track athletes to compete and win, but big picture, he knows that one battle is far more important than the other, and that’s how he lives his life.

“Track is a thing where you’re working toward a goal, whereas, in special education, the goal is life. There is no end game,” he said. “The life of the student is so precious, and it doesn’t end. Track will end for me one day. It’s gonna happen. Track ends for everybody. But that goal of life, it just keeps going.”

For now, that goal is focused on Debra Ann who, Dustin is proud to say, has made great strides in her reading ability lately, learning to recognize periods at the end sentences, when to turn the pages and how to pronounce so many of Seuss’s fantastical words. There are many people with similar circumstances to Debra Ann, though Dustin would be quick to say there is no one just like her, but he hopes to impact as many as he can with whatever time he has on Earth.

Said Dudley, “It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring points or not. He’s a person that you want in your program so the other kids can take note of that example.”

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Mullen, Howland, Schaefer share message of support and family on Road Dawgs Tour

Throughout each of their preseasons, regular seasons and postseasons, Mississippi State’s coaches live in their own bubble within Bulldog athletics. Preparation, execution and review are their priorities, time spent working on their own team with few free moments to worry about anyone else’s.

unnamed-2That’s part of what makes Road Dawgs – MSU’s annual road trip tour of coaches in their short offseasons – such a unique thing. Seeing football coach Dan Mullen, men’s basketball coach Ben Howland and women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer in the same room, on the same stage and wearing the same polo is sort of an odd thing. Worlds colliding, perhaps, within their small solar system.

Each of these men is imagined as a separate entity, though Howland and Schaefer share their basketball facilities. When they’re together once per year, however, it’s a surprising reminder that, despite all of their individual successes and the attention they receive in their own worlds, they’re just coworkers. Schaefer, Mullen and Howland are just three [very rich and successful] dudes who work together in MSU’s athletic department. Steve from the business office and Leah from marketing may as well have been on the stage, too.

Watching the three coaches in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Tuesday, though, was interesting. Each of them is carving their path in the same way. As Mullen said in his speech as he discussed his running of the Boston Marathon, they don’t know where in the race they are, but they all know they’re in it.

unnamed-3There’s Schaefer, who in back-to-back years has set and then broken his own record for wins in a season.

“It’s been four short years since the first time I stood up here,” he observed, “and probably none of y’all knew or cared who I was.”

There’s Howland, who just signed the best-ranked class in MSU history after only one year on the job.

“We’re creating a new culture in basketball at Mississippi State,” he announced to Tuesday’s crowd.

Then of course there’s Mullen, the veteran of the group who took over a seemingly-hapless program eight years ago and in the seasons since has set and re-set record after record, helping lead the team to No. 1 in the country.

“I thank you for always believing,” he offered. “We’re all in this together and we can do so many great things together.”

unnamedThat togetherness seems a natural thing for the fans, but it applies to the men who were at the podium speaking, too. They proved it as they each, in turn, ended up talking nearly as much about each other’s programs as they did their own.

Howland regaled those in the crowd with stories about the incredible atmosphere in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when a packed out Humphrey Coliseum saw Schaefer’s Bulldogs take down Michigan State and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Schaefer shared anecdotal evidence as to why he’s been able to recruit so well, not just praising the atmosphere at football games when recruits are on visits, but thanking Mullen for coming over to Schaefer in pre-game one day to introduce himself to the visitors with him and offer his opinions on why they should choose MSU. Shortly after that interaction, Mullen’s Bulldogs went on to beat Auburn, vaulting themselves to No. 1 in the nation.

Mullen related experiences not just of bringing recruits to Howland’s games, but bringing his own children during the week to watch what his coworker was building, seeing visions of himself in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs.

The praises weren’t confined to football and basketball, either.

“Our fans for the baseball team blow me away,” Howland confessed.

“It felt like 30,000 people out there,” Mullen said in reference to the 15,000-plus crowd at Super Bulldog Weekend.

Fittingly, the three were preceded by Jeff Davis, executive director of the Alumni Association, who shared that last fall’s enrollment was a record high, including the largest freshman class in the history of Mississippi State University. And they’re expecting another record this fall.

unnamed-1Records do seem to be the recurring theme, as each coach on the tour boasts at least one, if not several or dozens, of their own in MSU’s history books. Seemingly every program has reached higher heights than ever before, coaches watching other coaches over recent years in bowl games, NCAA Tournaments, primetime matchups, World Series appearances, upsets, beatdowns and rivalry victories.

To hear Howland, Mullen and Schaefer on Tuesday, those successes have come not just from their work, but from the dedication of those in the room sitting at their tables and listening to their favorite coaches speak.

“All of our programs are strong,” Howland confidently assured them, “and it’s because of the support you give.”

The key now, Mullen said: don’t stop running.

“Dreams are never handed out,” he told the crowd. “We need the support. We can’t slow down where we are now.”

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On the quiet, quick rebuild of MSU tennis as Bulldogs hit postseason play

The No. 33-ranked collegiate tennis player in the country, Mate Cutura, delivered serve after serve on Mississippi State’s tennis courts as he waited for the rest of his teammates to arrive for practice. Behind him, second-year head coach Matt Roberts stood watching quietly with arms crossed over his T-shirt, peering out underneath the safari-style hat he wore either for protection from the sun or because he thought it looked cool. Both, probably.

QNYBEMTBZADVVOB.20160410223033Roberts was calm, relaxed, not overly demonstrative, not yelling. There was no strong language, no huffing or puffing. Just small corrections, encouragement and advisement.


“Perfect. Yes, sir, just like that,” Roberts observed.


“Very good.”


“That was too flat,” he said before offering quick instructions on what to fix.


“There it is.”

When not working on serves – or playing soccer tennis before practice, flying around the world in the offseason or coaching in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments as he will in the coming weeks – Roberts invests his time in building MSU’s tennis program with the vision he’s had since taking over before the 2015 season.

Between 2015 and 2016, however, there was a not insignificant bump in the road. Two players from that first team, he knew, were not good fits with the culture Roberts wanted to create at MSU. When they transferred following the season, two more joined them, saying they wanted to go with their friends. Following those departures and after graduation took its yearly toll, Roberts was left with only two players in his entire program, junior Rishab Agarwal (No. 60 in the country currently) and the previously mentioned Cutura.

The team Roberts had taken to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as the head coach was almost completely gone. And for a coach trying to instill a new culture of accountability, competitiveness and comfort, it was the perfect opportunity, even if it was a bit unexpected.

“We saw it as a blessing,” Roberts said. “We saw it as we were lucky. We were grateful to have that. Some people might have seen it in a negative way around the athletic department. But Mate and Rishab were really positive. They said, ‘We trust in you guys. We know there’s good tennis here. We know you’re going to continue to bring good players in here. You’re going to continue to develop us.’ We just took it as a challenge and learned a lot from it.”

HGAAWLWIMZTZDZR.20160313210554Then, the global recruiting travels began. Like a tennis-centric episode of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Roberts and assistant coach Tanner Stump were everywhere. Roberts went to Brazil via Skype for Lucas Sanchez, while flying to Serbia twice for Luka Sucevic and Strahinja Rakic.

Meanwhile, Stump was in Germany showing a powerpoint presentation on his iPad to Niclas Braun (who had offers to go pro) and his family, which was shortly before flying to Portugal to meet with and secure a commitment from Nuno Borges. Lastly, Vaughn Hunter and Trevor Foshey filled out the roster, both coming on visits to MSU and eventually signing on to play for Roberts and Stump. Finally, breathlessly, they had their team.

“Our practice shirts say family,” Roberts said. “We have it now and it’s unbelievable. It’s part of the reason why we’re doing well. We’ve got good character in here. We’ve got good talent. We’ve got guys who love tennis.”

The proof is on the court, as the Bulldogs are No. 23 in the country as they begin the postseason in the SEC Tournament on Friday. On a team with seven newcomers on a nine-man roster, six of them freshmen, MSU finished fourth in the exceedingly-difficult and competitive SEC. Cutura and Agarwal have steadily moved up the rankings, Braun has been named SEC Freshman of the Week twice and the Bulldogs have grown stronger and stronger as Roberts and Stump have taught and guided their team along.

The success has been both welcomed and expected for Roberts, a highly-competitive person by nature who recalls an interaction following the depletion of his roster after the 2015 season. When walking through the administrative building of MSU’s athletic department, one staffer stopped Roberts to congratulate him on a nice season and for making the NCAA Tournament. The staffer then remarked, “But boy, you’ve got a lot of people gone. How are you going to be next year?”

“I hope to be the same.” Roberts replied. “Or better.”

Roberts’ confidence was rewarded with a surprised and disbelieving look from the man who didn’t quite seem to understand what Roberts was planning to build.

“At the end of the season,” Roberts said this week, “I’m gonna go up there like, ‘Hey, what did I say?’ I don’t like to lose. I don’t like to be bad or average at anything.”

“He’s very competitive,” Braun confirmed when asked about his head coach. “I’m always feeling like he’s competing with us. He’s not just a coach. He’s playing with us. It’s not two coaches. It feels like two players competing with us.”

DDFGSKKIZMKRFTJ.20160328202628That competitive nature is one Roberts and Stump have instilled in their team, and they’ve done so relatively easily, recruiting players who fit the mold they wanted: high character and high talent.

The talent part is easy enough, but the character requires building. One of the cornerstones of MSU’s program is accountability, from both players and coaches. The mood before practice is light, fun and usually involves several rounds of 2-on-2 soccer tennis with a miniature soccer ball and half the court.

Once practice begins, however, the competitive streaks and the desires to be great shine through. They have to, really. If they don’t, the whole team is punished.

“If they make a bed decision in practice, a bad shot selection or stop supporting their teammates or lose their focus, we run four over and backs as a team,” Roberts explained. “It gets the guys accountable. Iron sharpens iron. It gets them on each other. And if Tanner and I don’t make them run, we’re not being accountable with them, just like they have to be accountable with each other.”

And because they’ve recruited the right guys, Roberts believes the style is bringing them together. It’s not just his word that has to be taken, though. His players believe it, too, and it’s that chemistry that they credit for the success they’ve had and the overwhelming improvement they’ve made since the season began.

“It’s fun,” Cutura said. “Obviously, it’s very hard. We work very hard every day trying to improve our game and everything off the court. But it’s really fun. As a team, we’re really competitive, as well as coaches. Everybody likes winning. When we work hard, it pays off. It shows on the court.

“It’s very important that we clicked right at the beginning of the season and everybody bought in and we all just worked really hard,” he continued. “When all the guys came here, right at the beginning, we felt like everybody wanted to work hard. Everybody wanted to improve in tennis. Even though they were freshmen, everybody seemed really mature. We never had any problems as far as communication or practicing. It was really easy to work hard and improve.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of MSU’s success this year is that any just watching the on-court results from the outside wouldn’t have even known Roberts was rebuilding, and they especially wouldn’t have known just how big of a rebuild it was. The steadiness speaks to his approach and the victories speak to the work the team has put in.

To say the future is bright would be quite true, but the present is pretty nice, too. Either way, Roberts and his Bulldogs won’t stop working any time soon.

“I’m constantly hungry, man. And that’s what you’ve got to be,” Roberts said. “You can’t really have any dips. You can’t be complacent. You can’t accept being normal. We want to be different in how we compete and how we train and let the results take care of themselves.”

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Spring review: How Mullen, MSU will find Prescott’s replacement

Dak Prescott is gone. 38 records, four seasons and literal miles of offense are out the door, only present now in record books and memories. That much we know. What we don’t know: who will be Mississippi State’s next quarterback? The quarterback of the present, future and, perhaps like Prescott, a quarterback for the record books. After all, both of the last passers to have multiple seasons’ worth of starts now find themselves among the statistical best in MSU history.

Prescott with Johnson, center, and senior wide receiver Fred Ross, right

Prescott with Johnson, center, and senior wide receiver Fred Ross, right

With the annual Maroon-White spring game Saturday, MSU’s spring practices officially came to an end, and head coach Dan Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson have to wait until August 2 before they get their four candidates back in practice. The question now isn’t who gets the job. Big picture, sure, that’s what this is all working toward, but they don’t know the answer to that right now. Junior Damian Williams, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, freshman Nick Tiano – all are legitimate options, given such an even chance that their complete number of reps in practices and scrimmages throughout the spring differs by only single digits, if at all.

The question right now, the one we can actually answer, is how someone gets the job.

“To me,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage, “it’s about the consistency of play. All of them have the ability to make plays. All of them have the ability to make things happen, extend plays, run the ball, scramble, make some great throws. But they’re learning that it’s what you do on a consistent basis. Every single snap. It’s the most important thing.”

“That’s the biggest issue, is the consistency,” Johnson confirmed. “I think what kind of naturally happens when you’ve got four guys competing, one guy will play well one day, then the next day the other guy will play well.

“That’s what we preach to them every day. Who can be the most consistent? That’s huge. Once you get to this point, all four of them are extremely talented, and they all do certain things very, very well. But consistency of being the same guy every day in your performance, your attitude and your leadership. Just being very, very consistent and leading the team will be key.”

Staley at MSU's spring game

Elijah Staley at MSU’s spring game

Mullen shared his belief Saturday that all his quarterbacks are “pretty even” coming out of the spring, while Johnson confirmed that it has been a true four-man race. They don’t have many more answers now than they did when the spring began, which they don’t believe to be a bad thing, knowing there is a long way to go before the season begins. Mullen and Johnson each said they’d like to see the field naturally pared down as time goes by, with someone hopefully emerging from the pack, and both said they think the summer is when that starts.

Yes, the summer, when coaches can’t work with the quarterbacks. Johnson and Mullen can break down practice, game and scrimmage film all they want to decide who is best, but they both know that one of the most important factors isn’t what they think, but what the rest of the team thinks. That’s what develops over the summer when players are on their own watching film, working out, running routes and preparing for the next round of practices in August.

“That’s an opportunity for them to really showcase their leadership abilities in the summer when we’re not around,” Johnson explained. “It’ll be moreso for their teammates than us as a coaching staff. What they do out on the field and in the weight room during the summer, that will dictate a ton going into fall camp through their teammates.

“Chemistry wins in college football,” he continued. “I’ve never been a part of a great team that didn’t have great leadership from within. And as you all know, quarterback is an inherent position of leadership.”

Nick Fitzgerald passing while Mullen and Johnson observe

Nick Fitzgerald passing while Mullen and Johnson observe

Certainly, that leadership and respect from teammates is part of what made Prescott so successful for so long at MSU. He’s a talented player, of course, but his teammates believed in him and they wanted to play for him. None of the current candidates will be Prescott, just as Prescott couldn’t be any of them. Each player has his own personality, his own brand of leadership. The key is having it recognized.

Beyond the intangibles, however, Mullen espoused tangible reasons for his belief that the summer is when strides will be made (or not made) in this quarterback battle.

Coaches are only allowed so much time to work with their players, watch film with them, work on the field with them. If those limited hours are the only time guys spend on becoming a better quarterback, they’ve got no shot. The reality of the situation, fair or not, is that they have to dedicate a great deal of personal time to become the quarterback Mullen and Johnson are looking for.

Basically, Mullen wants them dreaming about the playbook.

“You’ve gotta do something 10,000 times,” Mullen said. “You’ve got to be in the dorms at night taking footwork steps. There are so many things they can do, that they have to do, if they want to become great players.”

As for the candidates themselves, that’s their plan. Work as much as they can, watch as much film as they can, study both themselves and others. That’s part of Johnson’s teaching method, too. Watch your own film, yes, and see what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. But, also watch your teammates. Learn from their successes and mistakes.

Nick Tiano taking a snap in Saturday's scrimmage

Nick Tiano taking a snap in Saturday’s scrimmage

While competition can surely be frustrating, it also provides an opportunity for growth not often present when a battle stagnates and a starter is named. Iron sharpens iron, as it was written, and MSU has a large group of irons in the fire.

“You have to watch everybody else,” Fitzgerald told reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage, “because you don’t want to make the same mistake that someone else made. Make a mistake, that’s fine, but you can’t make the same mistake twice, and you definitely can’t make the same mistake someone else made that Coach already corrected them for.”

Fitzgerald played the most of any non-Prescott quarterback in 2015, and some might consider him to be the presumptive leader, but he knows it’s not that easy. Williams remains the most experienced of the group, with two years of experience, three years on campus and the benefit of being the only one to have started an actual game. Were it not for the injury requiring a redshirt, Williams would have played plenty in 2015. Same for Staley, who wasn’t truly healthy until near the end of the season. Then, of course, is Tiano, the youngest and least-experienced, but perhaps the most natural leader of the bunch.

“I want to lead by example,” Tiano said. “I want to show these guys when I play that I’m giving all that I’ve got, putting my heart on the field, and hopefully they follow. You’ve got to be patient, got to watch, got to learn, and when you get your chance, you’ve got to make the most of it.”

“With the competition being open all the way,” Fitzgerald offered, “all four of us have kind of come into our own leadership roles. We all have great chemistry. We’re still really good friends. We love each other to death. We’re always helping each other out. At the end of the day, I think all of us just want whoever is going to be the best for Mississippi State to play.”

“[Staley] is a hoss to bring down,” Fitzgerald continued when asked to break down the competition. “He has a cannon of an arm. He definitely has the best arm on the team. Damian is extremely smart. Really became a student of the game when he got to campus and has continued that. Tiano is young, but y’all saw today, he runs very physically. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and he’s also extremely smart. He’s going to be a good player.”

Damian Williams following through on a pass Saturday

Damian Williams following through on a pass Saturday

Each of them have their own strengths, and as senior running back and receiver Brandon Holloway noted, they’re very different players, though they are certainly all very large humans for the position. Holloway believes, like Mullen and Johnson, that the summer will go a long way in deciding who is ultimately named QB1 for the Bulldogs.

“This summer, coming up, that’s all we’re going to be working on is chemistry,” Holloway said.

Sitting now in mid-April, MSU’s coaches are excited to get to the other side of summer and see where their quarterback battle stands then.

“There’s a lot of time in there, especially at the quarterback position, for someone to go separate themselves between now and August 2,” Mullen said.

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Mississippi State’s Mullen preaches mental toughness in Boston Marathon preparation

Saturday morning, before most of Starkville had woken up, Dan Mullen had the day’s schedule churning through his head: load up at the Seal Complex, drive over to Davis Wade Stadium for the second of his team’s three spring scrimmages (where he hopes to find a replacement for Dak Prescott, break in an entirely new defensive staff and try to put together a team capable of competing in the brutal SEC West), drive back to Seal, meet with his staff, break down the film and get ready for more practice on the final week of spring. Then, if he’s lucky, he’ll be home before his kids are asleep, with enough time to watch Disney Channel or play in the yard.

This was all running through his mind as Mullen himself was literally running through Starkville. Mississippi State’s head football coach woke up at dawn and ran 13 miles around town last Saturday, entering the final week of his training before he attempts the Boston Marathon next Monday.

“Maybe you’ve taken a step forward when you run 13 miles then go run a scrimmage afterward,” Mullen observed. “You’ve gotten into running a little bit more.”

“He even got another little workout in after the scrimmage,” his wife Megan shared.

Mullen running on MSU's campus last week

Mullen running on MSU’s campus last week

To be “more” into running than Mullen was previously wouldn’t take much, if he’s being honest. As long as he’s been at MSU, the head coach has made attempts to jog when he can, but his regimen then was akin to eating one salad per week and hoping it would balance out the burgers, steaks and potatoes of the other 20 meals.

Mullen has always had his tradition of running around campus on Fridays before home games. And over the years, he’s been known to hit the treadmill after practice when time allows. However, as he confessed, he was lucky to be getting two or three miles in those somewhat-sporadic instances.

But then inspiration hit last summer. While visiting with Adidas representatives, one man told Mullen about his wife who had recently run the Boston Marathon. She was roughly 500 feet from the finish line two years ago when she saw the bombs go off in the near distance.

Mullen's progress in the Boston Marathon on Monday can be tracked using his bib number, #29394

Mullen’s progress in the Boston Marathon on Monday can be tracked using his bib number, #29394

Mullen, a native of the New England area, was inspired upon hearing the story and recounting the strength of the Boston people in the face of tragedy and the determination of an entire country to help them back on their feet. Though he was a novice runner, at best, completing such a race had always been a dream for Mullen, particularly one so close to home. The opportunity to do something tangible about the emotions he felt combined with the chance to realize a dream was enough to convince the SEC football coach that he was going to run a marathon.

“Growing up in New England, if you’re gonna run a marathon, it’s going to be the Boston Marathon,” he said. “I talked to the people at Adidas and they said, ‘We have a waiver to get you in.’ I said, ‘If you’re gonna do that, I better start training.’”

So, last summer, the training began. Slowly, at first, but Mullen was determined. He wanted to run the race, and he wanted to finish it. Not only do that, but he wanted to do some good for the world around him by accomplishing that goal. He wanted to support the people of Boston, and most importantly to him, he wanted to support the people of Mississippi. In lieu of a charity dinner or other such exercise, the Mullens have made the running of the Boston Marathon their primary fundraising event this year for the Mullen Family 36 Foundation, their charity supporting 36 children’s charities across the state of Mississippi.

Lucky for Mullen, his two brothers-in-law John and Wally happened to be the perfect teachers. John ran the New York City Marathon last fall, while Wally has competed in everything from marathons and ultra-marathons to the Iron Man competition. The three of them will be running together in Boston on Monday after nearly a full year of hard training for their football-coaching brother-in-law.

“Once you get into it, though,” Mullen said, “you really start having fun. I really enjoy running. I went from every once in a while trying to get 2-3 mile runs in, to now, most mornings I’m going at least six miles, and I try to get some longer runs in on the weekend.”

“It’s changed his life,” Megan observed.

The training has changed his habits, for one, as he gets up even earlier than he did before, the morning being the one place he can carve out extra time for running. The training has also changed his body, as Megan has watched her husband drop 25 pounds from his frame. And finally, the training has developed what Mullen already considered one of the most important parts of his job: mental toughness.


Mullen at the Belk Bowl in December 2015


Mullen during MSU’s season-opener in August 2014

Relentless effort is the mantra he preaches to his team, and by training for the Boston Marathon, he has visibly put action to his words, showing his players what he means.

“I don’t know that any of them would volunteer to run with me,” he joked, “but I think it’s one of the things we always talk about. It’s building a mental toughness, I think, the opportunity to go run a marathon, or go finish a marathon – we’re gonna find out. I’ve heard once you get to Heartbreak Hill around mile 21, it really tests your mental toughness and what you’re made of.”

Asked the blunt question, if her husband would be able to finish all 26.2 miles, Megan replied, “Oh, absolutely.” She’s seen him train, and seen the ease with which he ran half the distance and then went on to coach a practice in the mid-day spring sun without even getting tired.

She confessed, though, she had to push him a little, thanks to his confidence in his mental toughness.

“He likes to think that because he’s a football coach he’s got the mental edge on everyone,” she said with a laugh. “And I agree, but I told him, that’s still pretty tough.”

“I want to get the picture of me crossing the finish line,” Mullen later said. “I’ll get my bib framed. I’ll put my time on there. And I’ll put it on my checklist of goals accomplished in life.”

It’s always been a dream for Mullen, and after so many years of life, he spent the last one making it possible. He’s still got the race to run (and finish), but already, he feels like he’s accomplished a great deal.

“I’m living one of my dreams and raising money to help young people in Mississippi go out and live their dreams,” he said. “I think it’s a special opportunity.”

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