Q&A With John Cohen On His First Year As Athletic Director

As he closes in on 12 months as Mississippi State’s athletic director, John Cohen sat down with the HailStateBEAT for a question-and-answer session reviewing his first year on the job, as well as looking ahead to the future. Topics covered include new facilities, women’s basketball’s run to the National Championship Game, lessons learned and future plans, among much else. The conversation took place in the Humphrey Coliseum overlooking practice for MSU’s men’s basketball team, and the following is a transcript of the interview between Cohen and HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon.


Bob Carskadon: Let’s start with the big picture of your first year. What is something you’ve learned in these first 12 months and what has been the biggest takeaway?

John Cohen: When you’re a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, you can elicit change quickly at times through practice, games and recruiting. As an athletic director, it’s more difficult to create rapid change. Initiating change and creating change is a longer process because of the scope and magnitude of the department.

It is comforting for me to know we have great coaches at Mississippi State. I believe our student-athletes are being led by outstanding coaches. I’m not sure I would trade our collective group of coaches we have for any group of coaches in the country.

BC: Certainly, there has been a lot going on in terms of competition and facilities the last year, but one thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve also taken an initiative to honor MSU’s athletic history. Joe Fortunato is being inducted into the Ring of Honor at Davis Wade Stadium, and you’ve mentioned before that the department has plans for plaques to honor Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell, the first African-American football players to enroll at Mississippi State. With plans in other sports, too, it seems that honoring the past and the former Bulldog greats is important to you.

JC: It is important for us to honor the rich heritage of Mississippi State. I want our student-athletes, both current and former, to realize the pioneering contributions of Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell. They’re not just Mississippi State heroes. They’re heroes. It’s important to honor their legacy. I wish Frank was still with us, but Robert will be with us when we install a permanent recognition at Davis Wade Stadium.

And of course, honoring Joe Fortunato is really important. Just a little research reminds you how impressive Joe Fortunato’s career was, someone who was a five-time Pro Bowler, who was an All-American at Mississippi State, and is arguably one of the greatest players in Mississippi State history and one of the Chicago Bears’ all-time greats.

BC: Already, there have been a great deal of exciting games and moments, but certainly, the run by Vic Schaefer and the women’s basketball team last season is the highlight of the year. What was that experience like for you as the athletic director?

JC: The best thing about our women’s basketball Final Four run isn’t what happened last spring. It was obvious to me four years ago that something like this was going to happen. Watching our women’s basketball program evolve, seeing the relentless spirit of their practices, and seeing a coach who demands excellence and formulates a disruptive style of defense, you could tell something was bubbling up.

I’ve always enjoyed practice. Preparation is everything. The performance in games is all about the players, but the preparation is about the coaches. Watching Vic Schaefer’s teams prepare over the last five years, you just felt that something special was going to happen.

BC: As a former long-time baseball coach, I’ve been curious how your past experience impacts your ability to work and develop relationships with all the head coaches under your guidance. Having been through it all yourself for so many years, I imagine you have a particularly strong understanding of coaches’ needs and personalities.

JC: I know this is cliché, but the best coaches are ultra-competitive. It is important to understand that they’re not just competitive on the court or the field. They’re competitive in everything they do. So if you’re just having a conversation with a high level coach, you’re not just having a normal conversation. Competitive coaches need to feel like they are productive all the time. I’m that way now. I was that way as a coach. We all kind of speak that similar language.

I’ve had the privilege of working for great administrators who clearly understand that high-level coaches are trying not just to win games, win in teachable moments with players and win in recruiting – they’re trying to win every little moment of every day. That’s how you know you have somebody who’s really special.

As an administrator, you have to know how to filter those situations. Scott Stricklin was as good at that as anyone I’ve been around.

BC: When you were the baseball coach here, I know you regularly had a hand in administrative decisions and worked often with Stricklin on ideas and processes to better the department. Now that you’re the guy in charge, who are some of the people you rely on as sounding boards for similar conversations?

JC: I think our administrative staff is exceptional. [Deputy A.D./CFO] Jared Benko is a young, innovative administrator who has already been at four different SEC institutions. He’s a guy who has been a great resource for me. [Deputy A.D./Development] Bo Hemphill is a bright, creative leader who really understands fundraising and Mississippi State, which are so important to us. [Executive Senior Associate A.D./SWA] Ann Carr as an SWA has been a tremendous help to me as well. I also believe [Senior Associate A.D./External Affairs] Leah Beasley is a rising star, and [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Bulldog Club] Mike Richey’s work in the Bulldog Club is exceptional. Our Compliance staff led by [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Compliance] Bracky Brett does an outstanding job.

BC: Perhaps the biggest chunk of the budget, facilities continue to be a priority at MSU, whether it’s new stadiums like Dudy Noble currently under construction or updates to already-existing facilities. Do you have a particular approach or big-picture philosophy there?

JC: [Senior Associate A.D./Event & Facilities Management] Jay Logan and [Associate A.D./Facility Planning & Construction] Bobby Tomlinson have been so helpful. They’re extremely knowledgeable. In 2017, building facilities and maintaining the facilities you have is very important. We’re going to continue on the path that started with Larry Templeton and continued with Greg Byrne and Scott Stricklin. We’re going to build outstanding facilities. We have to in order to be competitive.

At Mississippi State, we’re not going to have the biggest football stadium. We’re not going to have the biggest basketball arena. We want quality instead of quantity; that’s our goal.

BC: As we finish up, I’ll ask a big picture question. Imagine retiring years from now at the end of your career – what do you want your legacy as the Mississippi State Athletic Director to be?

JC: I want our legacy to be that we competed for championships. That we built and maintained timeless facilities. I want our student-athletes to say, “I had a great experience at Mississippi State and I want to come back and be a part of the Mississippi State family the rest of my life.” If those things happen, I’ll be very, very happy.

I also think it’s very important that we do it the right way. That’s another cliché. The “right way,” to me, is paying attention to detail, not only following the NCAA and SEC rules, but following the rules of integrity and decency. I believe our coaches do an excellent job of taking our student-athletes on a path of making great decisions both on and off the field.

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Fitzgerald, Williams The Latest Prolific Backfield For Mullen

For the fifth time on Saturday, Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams both rushed for over 100 yards in the same game. And considering the juniors just became starters last season, with Williams only becoming the “starting” running back near the end of the 2016 season, the quarterback-running back tandem is even more impressive. With the two talented runners, MSU has one of the most effective backfields in the country. However, it’s not just that they’re both good. It’s that they’re different.

In Dan Mullen’s time as a college football coach, his offenses have featured some of the greatest rushing duos college football has seen the last decade. Just at MSU, he had the combination of Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson in 2014, preceded a few years earlier by the seemingly unstoppable duo of Chris Relf and Vick Ballard. Back in his days at Florida, opposing defenses were rendered borderline useless by the combined talents of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.

Mullen’s spread offense, for all its great quarterbacks, has always been at its most effective when the rushing game is strong, and the rushing game has been at its strongest when the running back and the quarterback pose a threat in the run attack. Fitzgerald and Williams have yet to reach the levels of some of those who came before, but at the rate they’re going – with a year and a half left together if both return for their senior seasons – they may very well go down as one of the most prolific pairs the SEC has seen.

What’s working so well for them is what’s worked well for Mullen before: they bring different skillsets to the same objective.

“I think it’s a good balance between the two,” Mullen said after his team beat BYU 35-10 on Saturday afternoon. “Fitz gives you a little bit of – for a big guy he still gives you that threat outside. He makes you nervous because he has some home run ability. And then Aeris is going to be physical between the tackles, so I think that’s a good combination to have.”

Against what had previously been a stingy Cougar defense only giving up 3.7 yards per carry and 167 rushing yards per game, the Bulldogs racked up over 300 yards on the ground, averaging 6.5 yards every time someone ran the ball. Fitzgerald went off for 103 yards and two touchdowns on only 15 rushes, while Williams managed to top his quarterback colleague by rushing for 114 yards and a score on 23 carries.

That MSU won by so much on a day when its rushers ran for so much is no coincidence. The Bulldogs are averaging right around 300 rushing yards per game in their four wins in 2017, while they’re down below 200 in their two losses. Fitzgerald knows as well as anyone on his team that when he and Williams are effective, MSU is tough to beat.

“When we’re running the ball, when we’re playing how we’re supposed to play, when our guys on the line are opening up holes, it’s really hard to stop us, I think,” Fitzgerald said.

The Junior quarterback shared the same sentiment as his head coach, saying that their individual talents and abilities complement each other well. Certainly, Fitzgerald is a big-bodied quarterback who is capable and regularly successful in runs up the middle, and Williams has shown an aptitude for moving in space and catching passes on the perimeter. But the knowledge that Williams is almost always good for five or six yards up the middle, paired with the fact that Fitzgerald has more rushing touchdowns of over 40 yards than most quarterbacks have running scores of any variety, makes it hard for defenses to put all of their resources in one place.

“That’s kind of our job,” Fitzgerald said. “We can’t make it easy on them. They have to respect the outside and the perimeter, and they have to respect the middle. I think, as an offense, we’re pretty balanced. We can attack anywhere we want to.”

Williams confirmed that he, too, has seen the effects of defenses that can’t decide who to pursue. He knows that every time MSU snaps the ball, somewhere in the mind of every defender is the worry that Fitzgerald will take off running, whether it’s by design, by play-action or just because he saw an opening he didn’t expect.

Fitzgerald has already set a record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback at MSU, garnering his 10th such outing on Saturday and breaking Prescott’s record of nine. And since being inserted into the starting lineup, Williams has been one of the SEC’s most effective running backs. So long as both are on campus, things won’t get any easier for those who have the misfortune of trying to defend the Bulldogs.

“[Williams] is a very powerful,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a strong back. He’s gonna pound it up inside. He’s gonna get you yards. He’s gonna fall forward. If you pack it too tight, we can take it on the perimeter, or if you had bad eyes, I can pull and get around edge. It just depends on us being consistent and running the ball and moving people out of the way to make it work.”

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Christmann Kicks Up Confidence Level For Bulldog Offense

It started with an extra point, but no one seemed to notice it then. The second time out there, recognition started to seep in as a 30-yard field goal went straight through the middle of the uprights.

Oh, seemed to be the pleasantly surprised response of the crowd after that first field goal in the second quarter on Saturday.

In the third quarter when a 45-yard field goal sailed high, straight and right down the middle to give Mississippi State a 27-7 lead over LSU, the reaction was an all-caps, OH.

By the time the same guy hit his third field goal in as many attempts and fourth extra point in four tries, the same question was being asked by 60,000 people throughout the stadium: Who is this guy?

Jace Christmann – freshman, field goal kicker, knight in dri-fit armor.

After struggles in recent years to find a consistent field goal kicker, Christmann’s appearance on Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium felt to State fans more like Sir Galahad riding in on his mighty steed than the reality of a 195-pound redshirt freshman jogging onto the field.

In a game as complicated and detailed as football, with coaches putting their multi-million dollar contracts on the line every week, surely the development of a kicker like Christmann and the decision to send him out for his first-ever collegiate field goal attempt must have been a long, detailed and arduous process.

“Percentage–wise, he put the most through the uprights in practice last week,” head coach Dan Mullen said before laughing at the simplicity of the move. “At the end of the week, you use simple math … We went with him and he did a good job in the game.”

“I guess I had a good week,” Christmann confidently added.

Maybe things aren’t always as hard as they seem. In fact, things getting easier is the crux of this story. Starting with Christmann himself, that was the biggest improvement he made in the offseason. After struggling all of last year and even this spring, Christmann made some adjustments this fall.

“I think my biggest issue all of last year and in the spring is that I was going into the ball way too fast,” he said, “so I slowed down and really figured out I should trust my leg. That was the biggest thing for me.”

Don’t think so much, basically. And it’s helped a great deal. That was the aim – other than the uprights – on Saturday, as well. Holder and punter Logan Cooke talked to Christmann before each quick, reminding him to stay calm and affirming that he’s got it in the bag. He just has to do what he always does.

“Just know that this is what I do all day, every day,” Christmann said. “I don’t want to say it got easier, but I definitely felt more comfortable. I got into a rhythm and it just got easier from there.”

The other thing that gets easier, in a somewhat odd but not altogether surprising twist, is running an offense. Certainly, the primary objective of every possession is to get the football into the endzone while someone on your team is holding on to it. Touchdowns are the big prize, but like Galahad’s search for the Holy Grail proved, good things aren’t always the prettiest things. For MSU’s offense, the realization that A) three points as opposed to seven is possible, is followed by decreased levels of stress because B) three points is good, too.

In an odd way, having a reliable field goal kicker opens up the offense, because the pressure associated with the previous option of either seven points or none is now gone. Mullen, Nick Fitzgerald and the rest of the offense don’t have to force anything when they know they have a reliable field goal kicker, meaning they can run the offense and call the plays they’re most comfortable with.

“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable about, hey, if we don’t put it in the endzone, we’ll still at least get three points,” Fitzgerald, MSU’s junior quarterback, explained. “We have plenty of great field goal kickers. Jace played lights out, kicked great, couldn’t ask more from him. He’s a good guy. He works his butt off. I’m happy for him. He definitely gives us a little confidence that if we’re not putting into the endzone, then get it close, get three points and we’ll worry about it next drive.”

All this, just from a little practice.

“I mean, all I can do is kind of go off practice,” Mullen reiterated Saturday night, “and he was the best in practice this week, so we went with him. And you know what? He took advantage of his opportunity and did a good job.”

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No Upset In Starkvegas – Bulldogs Expected To Beat LSU

Call it déjà vu. Call it a blowout. Call it anything you want. But whatever you say about then-unranked Mississippi State dominating then-No. 11 LSU in Starkville on Saturday night, don’t call it an upset. At least not to the Bulldogs’ faces.

“Honestly, anyone inside that football facility this entire week, they would have never told you it would be called an upset,” star junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said after the 37-7 win in Davis Wade Stadium. “We knew that we were going to be able to come out there and play with them. We knew we would win if we played our game. We had no doubt in our mind that we were going to win this game.”

And sure, some might call it coachspeak or even hubris to make such a statement once a team has already secured the win, but Fitzgerald was just telling the truth. He knew it, his teammates knew it and his coaches really knew it: there was no reason for the Bulldogs not to think they’d still be undefeated by the end of the night Saturday.

“We knew we were going to win,” junior running back Aeris Williams confirmed. “All we had to do was execute to the best of our ability, and that’s what we did.”

Fitzgerald and Williams, together totaling over 400 yards and four touchdowns as they passed and ran their way through LSU’s defense all night, are where the proof backing up their claim begins. State’s offense was evidence not just of the talent Dan Mullen’s team has, but of the superb coaching job he did ahead of time. MSU was ready for the Tigers all night, always at least one step ahead, if not several. Like a grandmaster chess player, Mullen had his pieces in position from start to finish, attacking and devastating the opposition with every move.

For example: as MSU moved up and down the field, they also moved side-to-side, and as they did so, they knew where they could exploit LSU’s defense. As Fitzgerald explained after the game, they knew that whatever hashmark they were closest to, the open field side was where the Tigers were weak. Constantly, MSU rolled that direction on designed runs, quarterback rollouts and run-pass options all night.

“We knew they were going to be weak to the field,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew we could attack that part of the field for them. We always had two people in front of me blocking. Had great blocks. Make sure people on the perimeter are blocking, too. Really, all I do is run.”

Those constant runs – to the field side, to the boundary, up the middle – helped set up what was probably the biggest play of the game, and certainly the best example of just how prepared and how well-coached the Bulldogs were. It’s a play MSU has used before, and like any good checkmate, it requires a lengthy setup. But, when done right like it was Saturday to bust open the game and turn a 13-point scoring margin into a 27-7 lead, it can be the kill shot.

After all those runs, all those handoffs to Williams and all those scurries down the field by Fitzgerald, LSU clearly expected more of the same as the third quarter of the game was winding down. It was third-and-one, after all – a clear running situation. On the LSU 45-yard line, with the quarterback under center, surely the Bulldogs were going to trust their big, bruising rushers to get the single yard required to keep the drive alive.

So when Fitzgerald turned around after the snap and held the ball out for Williams to take, the defense collapsed on the area. They had stacked the box before the play even started, so when they saw what they expected, they bit on the bait. But Fitzgerald had tucked the ball to his side. Williams never actually took it, fooling even the cameraman zoomed in on the action.

And while the Tiger defenders were so intent on getting past all the blockers, 5’9” slot receiver Keith Mixon had darted past the scrum and was streaking down the field, wide open. As Fitzgerald turned back around and was about to be hit, he tossed a perfect pass to Mixon, who ran all 45 yards to the endzone without a single obstacle in his path. Touchdown, Bulldogs.

So, a reporter asked Fitzgerald after the game, was that a setup?

“Yes, sir,” the quarterback responded. “No doubt.”

And a credit to his coach, Fitzgerald was actually uncertain about the play call before the snap, but trusting his coach turned out to be exactly the right move.

“Honestly, I thought they weren’t going to give us the right defense for it,” he admitted. “Happily, they did, and they just walked up everybody up on the line in the box to try and stop it, and [Mixon] just slipped right by them.”

It was that coaching, that playcalling and that execution that led MSU to its biggest victory over a ranked opponent since World War II. MSU’s rushing attack paved the way for the offensive fireworks, and key passing decisions on big plays kept both the drives and the momentum going for the Bulldogs.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic for Fitzgerald wasn’t his rushing yards or his completion percentage, but his success passing on third downs. The junior was 5-of-8 on third down passes, earning a first down on all five completions. In fact, every single one of MSU’s four touchdown drives included a third-down pass completion to keep the chains moving, including the 45-yard touchdown pass.

“His management on third down I thought was huge for us tonight. A couple big ones,” Mullen said. “It was that management of putting us in the right situations I thought was huge.”

Fitzgerald explained his coach’s guidance: “He said, third downs, take what they give you. You don’t have to throw it past the sticks to get a first down. You can throw it underneath and run for it. That’s what happened tonight.”

And all of that without mentioning a defense that held LSU to a single touchdown, its only points of the game. A defense that held one of the country’s best running backs to only 76 yards, that held a starting quarterback to under 50% on his completion rate, that held an entire offense to 270 yards and that held the Tigers to an abysmal 3-of-13 third down conversion rate.

“We had a really good game plan coming in. We knew where to attack them. We knew where they were weak. We knew what we had to do,” Fitzgerald said. “From the first snap, we just knew if we played how we were supposed to play, we’d be fine.”

And to be clear, MSU’s players say, this wasn’t a one-time thing.

“I know that we can handle anybody,” Williams said.

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Simmons, Green Highlight Dominant Defensive Performance In Ruston

Down 9-3 on the road in the first quarter, Mississippi State’s defense was in a precarious position to still be in the game’s opening period. State’s offense had been struggling after three possessions had resulted in a punt, an interception and a field goal, and it was up to the defense to do something to get the team not just back in the game, but in the game at all.

Following MSU’s field goal to close the Louisiana Tech lead to 9-3, State forced a quick three-and-out and Tech sent out their punting team, pinned deep in their own territory. On the opposite sideline, sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was calling to the coaches and begging them to let him stay in. His team needed a big play, and he was ready to make it.

“I was like, ‘Coach, leave us on the field. I’m going to go block it,’” Simmons said.

MSU’s coaches obliged, leaving most of the starting defensive front in the game, but they still called a “safe punt” where the majority of the team dropped back to help block for Gabe Myles, the punt returner. Myles, of course, never touched the ball. The closest he ever got was when the ball flew directly into and bounced straight off of the outstretched hand of a leaping Simmons a split second after the snap.

“I was on the other side [of the formation from Simmons],” junior linebacker Gerri Green told reporters after the game, describing what he witnessed and experienced. “He blocked it, and then it was actually me – the ball was in front of me, it was a slow roller and everybody was behind me, so I just thought, ‘fall on it.’”

And then, not for the last time in Ruston on Saturday night, Simmons scooped up a piece of Green’s glory for himself.

“When I fell on it, it popped up,” Green recalled, “and he came and fell on it. I was like, ‘Man, you just took my touchdown! You just took my touchdown!’ But I was happy for him, I was just messing with him.”

After the ensuing extra point by kicker Tucker Day, MSU not only held the lead, but dominated the rest of the game on both sides of the ball, not allowing Tech’s offense any more than a field goal until garbage time late in the fourth quarter. And the fact that State went on to win 57-21 continued to be due in large part to the combined efforts of Simmons and Green.

Green, all by himself, racked up an incredible stat line of seven tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The only things he missed are the two would-be touchdowns. Those, of course, went to Simmons.

Five tackles, two touchdowns, a blocked punt, a blocked extra point and the longest touchdown of the day – Simmons was an absolute star, just as the coaches who built MSU’s defense were counting on him to be.

Five minutes into the third quarter, with MSU then up 43-13, Green and Simmons teamed up again when Green delivered a strong blow to Tech’s quarterback, knocking the ball loose for Simmons to scoop up once again.

“It’s all because of Gerri,” Simmons made sure to explain afterward.

But when Simmons picked up the ball, it was Green and the rest of his teammates who were racing along behind him as the 300-pound lineman sprinted – as much as someone built for running no more than several steps at a time can – for the entire 90 yards between the point of the recovery and the opposite endzone.

“We knew he had it,” Green said. “We had him. We had a barricade behind him so no one would catch him. We just had to make sure he didn’t run out of gas.”

“I didn’t even know,” Simmons said, confessing that he thought would-be tacklers were on his tail the whole time. “I thought they were close. I just saw gold. I was just running. Running hard.”

“He was outstanding, man,” Green said in summation of his younger teammate. “Two touchdowns by a guy his size, that’s crazy. We’re proud of him. He had a little speed on the second one. It’s an incredible night for him.”

It was great night for Green too, of course, who very well could’ve been the star of the game himself had those been his scoops instead of Simmons’. But neither player cares who gets the glory or the points, nor do any of their teammates. “We work together as a team,” Simmons explained, while Green’s smiles describing the game and the play of the defense said everything about how he truly felt.

“We’re just a closer unit,” Green shared. “When we were down 9-0, we told each other to just stay together. It’s our first adversity this season. We just had to jell together and be together in that time.”

For Green, Simmons and all others who have been a part of such special defensive performances in back-to-back games to open the season, it’s a joy to be a part of. Under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, MSU’s players are finding their roles, discovering their abilities and putting into action a direct and successful plan.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Green said. “When you’ve got plays like we made tonight – guys running 90 yards for a touchdown – it’s just awesome. Just to play in this defense is exciting.”

And certainly, it helps when Green and Simmons have nights like they did, no matter who gets the glory.

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How Kylin Hill, Willie Gay, Jr., Earned Roles As True Freshmen

Six months before they made their debuts on the field for Mississippi State’s football team, Kylin Hill and Willie Gay, Jr., were seniors in high school running sprints, doing exercises and lifting weights at Starkville High’s athletic complex where Gay was on track to soon graduate. He and Hill, who was finishing his last year at nearby Columbus High School, had hired a trainer to work with them all spring before they enrolled in classes at MSU and started summer workouts with the team. They wanted to be ready when they arrived.

In fact, the two State signees wanted to be ready so badly that when the Bulldogs started spring practice in March, Hill and Gay would go straight from their workouts at SHS over to MSU’s practices at the Seal Complex. They couldn’t participate in practice, of course, but as signees, they were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Two of the top-ranked players in the state, Gay and Hill weren’t content to rely on talent alone. They went to every practice, watching and listening so they could learn and get familiar with how things ran. After practice, they’d hang out in the locker room with their future teammates. After that, they’d go talk to their coaches about what they saw at practice and how it applies to them.

Many days, the pair would be at MSU’s team facility from one in the afternoon until nine at night, just trying to soak in as much as they could.

“We thought we should just come up here more and look at how everything worked, how the game speed looked, so that when we come here we could adjust to it and be ready to go,” Hill said.

“I loved coming up here to watch and see what the life of a college athlete really is,” Gay added.

Certainly, each of the players was going to have a good chance to play as a true freshman in 2017 given the combination they both have of size, speed and strength. Hill, a running back, is one the highest-rated rushers to sign with MSU in years, and Gay is one of the most promising linebacker prospects the state of Mississippi has produced lately. However, both of them expressed a desire to not only get on the field, but to be active contributors and big pieces for their respective sides of the ball.

They were able to do that and more in their first game, as both of them were starters on special teams, lining up next to each other on kickoffs in addition to their roles on standard offensive and defensive downs. Hill was given nine carries in MSU’s season opener against Charleston Southern and he rushed for 62 yards on those, including a 19-yard scamper on his first rush, as he led the team with a whopping 6.9 yards per carry.

“I ain’t gonna lie, I was kind of nervous when I was running,” Hill confessed. “I was thinking too much. I know I should’ve scored. But it was exciting.”

Gay, meanwhile, played extensively himself and notched two tackles, including one particularly nice tackle for loss.

“Willie did a good job,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He went in and understood the calls, could communicate coming off the sidelines or coming over to the sidelines after a series. He can run. His ability to run and accelerate showed up.”

Beyond their performance and their natural talent, Hill and Gay have also gained an unusual amount of respect from older players on the team, due largely in part to their willingness to work.

Senior linebacker and team captain Dez Harris, who said he expects Gay to be freshman All-SEC this year and an All-American by the end of his career, was first impressed not by the young man’s talent, but by his eagerness and work ethic when he showed up every day in the spring.

“It definitely helped just for the guys on the team to get to see his face and know who he is and know that he’s willing to work,” Harris said. “He’s been here and he didn’t have to be here. He’s been here trying to learn the defense, learn what he’s going to have to do, learn what his role is going to be. Knowing that he was willing to make that sacrifice when he wasn’t even on campus, that’s a big deal.”

The same held true for Hill as evidenced after Saturday’s game when junior and starting running back Aeris Williams was borderline gleeful as he talked about the performance of his backup. Rather than feeling threatened by another running back having success, Williams was thrilled to see hard work pay off for the true freshman.

“I know what he can do. When he gets out there on the field, I tell him to just calm down and make his plays because he’s a great athlete,” Williams said. “He’s powerful. That man is just strong. He came in strong.”

For Hill and Gay to continue the accelerated path of success they’re on, the two will have to maintain their work ethic, at the very least, and the hardest work is likely still to come. However, their early results have shown what can come through dedication and determination.

It’s a cliché of coaching to say that hard works beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. But at Mississippi State, Gay and Hill are trying to show their coaches what can happen when you mix talent and hard work.

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49-0 Opening Shutout Offers Glimpse Of Bulldog Defense Under Grantham

Two weeks before the season began, Mississippi State junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was asked what the defense looked like under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The starting QB is off-limits to contact, so this type of collision isn’t allowed in practice, but his visible reaction was as if he had just been hit by a truck. A truck wearing shoulder pads, cleats and a maroon practice jersey, anyway.

Fitzgerald was very blunt with reporters when asked what it’s like to face that defense in practice every day.

“It sucks,” he deadpanned. “I hate it.”

He was laughing when he said it because, of course, it’s his teammates doing the work, and he wants them to do well. But he went on to describe how many different blitzes they have, how well they disguise their looks, how frustrating it is for a quarterback to try and read.

Fitzgerald also said how excited he was for someone else to have to face MSU’s defense, instead of him. On Saturday in the season opener against Charleston Southern, he didn’t just get his wish, but his praise and respect were proven to be true.

Not only did MSU defeat an FCS playoff team 49-0, not only did the Bulldogs get the shutout and not only did they force three fumbles and rack up nine tackles for loss, but they held a triple option offense built to gain yardage to a total of 33 yards. For the entire game.

“I mean, that just kind of backs up what I was saying the whole time,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s game. “Very, very talented. Very hard to read. They play their assignments well. They know what they’re doing. It’s good to see them torturing someone else.”

Each member of MSU’s defense was given a wristband before the season. The rubber attachment has three words inscribed on it: fast, physical, aggressive. That’s the mantra of Grantham’s defense. That’s how he wants his team to play.

Of course, those aren’t words that fans of teams across the country won’t hear from their defensive coaches and players, too. Every defense wants to be those things. Every defense says those words. It’s an entirely different thing to, when the time comes for helmet to meet helmet and flesh to meet flesh, actually play that way.

MSU hadn’t registered a safety on defense since 2011. Almost six years since the last one, it only took Grantham one game to not only match that total, but double it. In fact, not only did his defense record two safeties, they did it before the first half was even over, dragging CSU’s total yardage into negative numbers for almost the entirety of the first half and most of the full game.

“That’s the kind of defense our people here have grown accustomed to seeing,” head coach Dan Mullen said after the game.

Now in his ninth year, it’s been the defenses that have helped propel his teams to so much success, despite his background and reputation as an offensive coach and quarterback guru. Even in 2014, when Dak Prescott was college football’s big new star and the Bulldogs rose to No. 1 in the country, they were doing it largely on the back of a defense that featured future NFL players like Preston Smith, Chris Jones, Benardrick McKinney, Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun.

Back in 2010 when MSU won nine games and returned to a New Year’s Day bowl, a full eight members of that defense went on to play in the NFL. In Mullen’s best seasons, he’s had great defenses. And that’s part of why 2016 was one of the hardest seasons for Mullen, a year in which a young and inexperienced defense struggled like it never had in Mullen’s tenure.

Entering 2017, Mullen and MSU wanted to prove that down season to be an anomaly. With the first 60 minutes under their belt, it appears to be a message received by State’s defense.

“For me, that’s the type of defense I expect,” Mullen said. “Todd did a fantastic job with the scheme. Coaches did a good job getting guys in position … I’m most pleased about watching how our guys ran to the football. 11 guys going as hard as they can every play.”

Said Grantham, “I was really proud of our guys from the standpoint that they played to our identity. We always talk about playing fast, physical and aggressive. We attacked guys. We understood what we needed to do from a game plan standpoint.”

Certainly, there is a long season ahead with at least 11 games remaining, eight of them against SEC opponents. But 49-0 with two safeties, nine tackles for loss and three forced fumbles (four before the refs overturned one) seems like a good start.

The last time MSU played an FCS opponent, it gave up 41 points. This time, the opposing offense never even crossed the 50 yard line. The closest they got was the 48.

“I know it made Coach Grantham happy,” star sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said. “He was excited. Shutout. Two safeties. Creating turnovers. That’s something we talked about all week. Fast, physical, aggressive. Get to the ball. They want 11 guys, whoever is on the field, just flying to the ball.”

If Saturday is any indication, then yes, MSU’s defense has taken flight once again.

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Dan Mullen Reflects On Nine-Year Career At Mississippi State

It’s an off day for Mississippi State’s football team in the middle of preseason training camp, and sitting on Dan Mullen’s desk are the piles of papers, notes and reports one would expect to find strewn around the office of an SEC head coach. Taking the most prominent position, stacked neatly and placed just to the left of the open area in the center of his desk, a thick pack of pages has the most detailed stats of any, and it’s those that Mullen is concerned with at present. Drive distance, stroke averages, club speed – the report is a statistical summary of Mullen’s favorite golfer, his son Canon.

When Mullen and his wife Megan, who is waiting outside the office – “The first time we’ve been able to go to lunch together in five years,” she jokes – arrived in Starkville nine years ago, there were no golf lessons for their son, no ballet recitals for their daughter, no evenings spent watching the Disney Channel. There were no kids at all. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything. There wasn’t yet a staff of assistant coaches and supporting staffers. The facility they’re standing in hadn’t yet had the first line of a blueprint drawn.

Surrounding Mullen in his office are mementos from a career that has seen the birth of his son and daughter, the coming and going of friends and coworkers, the construction of new facilities and nearly a decade’s worth of players he’s had the chance to coach. The expansive, well-lit room is a history of the program he’s spent all this time building.

Mullen doesn’t have trophies in the office. Those – including the Egg Bowl trophy – are lined up in the entryway of MSU’s football facility for the public to see. What Mullen chooses to keep close by are reminders of the meaningful moments in his life and the things accomplished by people under his care. He has a picture of himself and Fletcher Cox in New York on the night the defensive lineman was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. He has a football commemorating the moment Vick Ballard got the call that he’d been selected by the Indianapolis Colts. More framed pictures, signed footballs and similar memorabilia cover the shelves and walls of the office.

The beginning of it all is marked by a picture standing on a shelf at the closest point to Mullen’s desk. On December 10, 2008, a much younger Dan and Megan stand at center-court in Humphrey Coliseum at halftime of an MSU basketball game, the first time he was ever introduced to the Bulldog fans he would grow to know much better in the years to come. Waving and smiling, both the excitement and fear of the unknown future they were about to start working toward was evident on his face.

About four months after that picture was taken, Mullen had his first practice at MSU, his first ever as a head coach of his very own team. In the time between, he had hired a staff, he had brought in a full and well-regarded signing class, and most importantly, he had developed a vision for what he wanted his program to be. Mullen was ready to put into action a plan that would eventually take his team to No. 1 in the country, that would see a return to New Year’s Day bowls for the Bulldogs and that would bring previously unreached levels of success and renown to a program that had been on the losing side of football history for most of its existence.

All the dreaming, plotting and planning was about to take form in real, actual football as spring practice began in March of 2009.

“I remember just grabbing my visor, grabbing my whistle and you’re kinda like, ‘Whew, here we go, first practice as the head coach.’ It’s a little scary,” Mullen recalls. “It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. It’s everything, because you’ve never done it before and you don’t know what to expect.”


Not knowing what to expect is quite different from having no expectations at all, however. Mullen knew, of course, that the program was not in great shape when he took over. That’s why he had been hired, after all. There would be no need for a new coach if things had been going swimmingly. So, certainly, he didn’t expect to see a championship-caliber team day one. But on that day, the fires of the dreams in his head were doused with a cold, wet bucket full o’ reality.

“Whoo, boy,” he says with a laugh now. “I remember our first practice, I went out and we’re throwing routes on air. It’s just quarterbacks and receivers – no defense, nothing – and I think we completed about 20 percent of the passes.”

This happening in front of a coach whose last practice had been as the offensive coordinator at Florida where Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and John Brantley were throwing passes to Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy and Riley Cooper. Transitioning from “NFL players throwing to NFL players,” in Mullen’s words, to what he first witnessed on that practice field next to the woods along Highway 82 in Starkville was quite the shock for the new head coach of the Bulldogs.

“I looked and I’m like, boy, our first practice and we can’t complete passes without even a defense on the field,” Mullen says. “I’m thinking, we might have our work cut out for us here. But, you know what I saw, was there was a group of guys that had a tremendous work ethic. I loved that about our guys, the blue-collar attitude that they brought every single day.”

Mullen knew, too, that more help was on the way. In February, he had signed Chad Bumphis and Tyler Russell who would go on to become, respectively, the school’s all-time leading receiver and passer, and he already had the school’s eventual all-time leading rusher in the locker room with senior Anthony Dixon literally carrying the team in that first season in 2009.

The experience was new for everyone, Mullen included as a first-time head coach, but those were the beginnings of a long, successful and still-growing stretch of football in Starkville.

“I love the attitude of those guys and the approach they took,” Mullen says, “and you saw, they made huge strides even from year one to year two where we end up a top-15 team in the country playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game. They took those strides to get us there in that period of time.”

In the time since, MSU has gone to seven-straight bowl games, a $25 million team facility bas been designed, built and moved into, Davis Wade Stadium has been expanded and Mullen has climbed from zero wins on day one to now just four short of second all-time at State. The records set by Bumphis and Russell went on to be broken by the next set of receivers and passers to come through as Fred Ross and Dak Prescott eventually took the top spots in the record books as they worked their way to becoming stars in college football. Even now, one record or another is surely on its way to falling again on Mullen’s watch, another one of the 100-plus that have been shattered since he arrived.

Through all those successes, it is no secret that schools across the country have shown interest in Mullen, wanting him to leave Starkville in hopes that he can work the same magic for their program as he did for MSU’s. If the rise of Bulldog football isn’t enough to show his worth, certainly his ever-growing salary reflects Mullen’s value to the school. But it isn’t money that’s kept him in Starkville. He could make millions at any of the many places who have tried to lure him away. What keeps him in Mississippi is the foundation on which he’s built his entire program: family.

“It starts with that,” Mullen says. “Starkville is a great place to raise a family. My wife loves living here. My kids love being here. I love the community. But I also love the program. I love the kids that we’re able to recruit here. We have a great administration.

“As funny as this seems, I’ve worked for three different athletic directors, but all three of them sat in my job interview. The three people on my job interview [Greg Byrne, Scott Stricklin and John Cohen] have been the three athletic directors during my time here. Dr. Keenum, our President, hasn’t changed the entire time here. There’s been a great stability in our leadership and administration.

“I get to recruit the players I want. We have great kids here in Mississippi that come in to a program and they want to work, they want to develop. I’ve been able to build this program, not from the ground up because there was great tradition and history when we got here, but if you look at what we’ve been able to build, what we’ve been able to establish as a program since we got here, I like that. Everybody thinks the grass is greener somewhere else. In every part of life, the grass has to be greener somewhere else. Having coached around the country in a lot of different places, you realize that may not be the case.

“We have a great situation,” he finishes. “We have a great place here. We have a great administration, unbelievable facilities, we get to recruit high-character, hard-working young men, and you get to raise your kids in a great place to raise a family.”

Mullen’s family, MSU’s program and the school itself all look different now, nearly nine years after Mullen first arrived. Even the city of Starkville itself has shown remarkable development. They’ve all grown. They’ve changed. They’ve improved. Numbers are up in all facets and attendance is at an all-time high in any measurable capacity.

The picture of Dan and Megan in his office shows the first time Mullen spoke to MSU fans, December 10, 2008. It was just the two of them that day. After waving, smiling and greeting the crowd, Mullen was given a microphone. It seems that a great many of the highlights in his career have come at moments when someone gives him a microphone, including a night less than 12 months later when Mullen won his first Egg Bowl and proudly declared, “There’s only one school in this state that’s on the rise.”

If Mullen could feel it in the moment that night on the basketball court, a viewer would have trouble noticing a difference in his delivery. But it’s clear the crowd was ready to hang onto his every word, syllable and breath. It’s clear the crowd was convinced their hero had arrived, that their football team would return to glory and that this was the man who would make it happen. And now, he was going to tell them exactly how.

He didn’t speak for long, but near the end, Mullen offered one vow, one oath for the eager crowd to cling to.

“I’m not going to promise a whole lot,” he began, “but I can promise this: that this team will play with tremendous effort, tremendous passion, and we will give you a football team that you are proud of and the state is proud of, both on the field and off the field.”

Almost nine years later, seated in a clean, white chair next to the bay window looking from his office down onto a new practice field, Mullen is given a moment to reflect on that promise and wonder if he’s fulfilled it. He looks back over his shoulder at the picture of that night in 2008 as he pauses to think.

“I think we’ve been able to do that,” he says. “If you look at the fans, the growth of game attendance, of people buying into our program, you look at the passion with which people wear Mississippi State clothing, not just on Fridays, all around the world. You look at the growth of the university. The standard of academics has gone up. Enrollment has gone through the roof. You look at the growth of the town of Starkville. And I know, for six weeks, we gave the state of Mississippi the No. 1 team in the country. That’s something I want to do continue to do.

“I think we’ve been able to do that over the last nine years,” he concludes before finally going to lunch with Megan, “to give our fans, our student body, the Mississippi State family and the entire state of Mississippi, a team that they can be proud of.”

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30 Predictions For MSU Football In 2017

The best thing to do when making predictions, is to get them right. In lieu of guaranteed accuracy, however, it is often acceptable to settle for the more realistic goal of: don’t get anything horribly wrong.

In the world of guesswork, educated hypothesizing is preferred, and that’s what I’ll aim to do here, trying to make some predictions about Mississippi State’s 2017 football season based on nuggets of information gleaned through interviews, interactions and observations over the course of preseason camp for the Bulldogs.

Almost assuredly, I’ll get several of these right. Equally as certain is the fact that I’ll get several of these wrong. Hopefully it just won’t be horribly so. In this space last year, I’ll give myself a score of 15 correct predictions out of 30, which I like to think is a decent prediction clip. Dan Mullen might want a higher completion percentage than that from Nick Fitzgerald, but if half his throws are touchdowns, that’d be pretty solid, right?

Anyway, after learning from some of the mistakes made last year, I’ve adjusted this column to hopefully become even more accurate. Even writers need to improve in the offseason. If nothing else, hopefully this gives some insight into the makeup of MSU’s team, the players primed for breakout years and the division of reps those of us keeping track of the roster expect to see.

A reminder that these are predictions made by me, not by MSU’s coaches or administration or President or anyone else, but they are 100 percent guaranteed to come true. Possibly. Maybe. If I’m lucky.

  1. Junior JUCO transfer linebacker/defensive end Montez Sweat leads the team in sacks,
  2. But sophomore inside linebacker Leo Lewis leads the team in tackles,
  3. While senior inside linebacker Dez Harris makes at least one postseason All-SEC team, if not several.

4-5. Senior receiver Donald Gray leads the team in all-purpose yards, just beating out junior running back Aeris Williams.

  1. And while Williams gets the lion’s share of the carries, true freshman running back Kylin Hill (see below) is one of the breakout star backups, if such a thing can exist.
  2. Oh, Hill is one of at least four true freshmen to play, including linebacker Willie Gay, kicker/punter Tucker Day and a surprise freshman to be discovered later when need arises.
  3. No defensive player has more than four interceptions,
  4. But four of them have two picks or more.
  5. MSU has a big-bodied pass-catcher break out as a go-to receiving threat,
  6. And it’s a tight end in senior Jordan Thomas.
  7. Speaking of Thomases, by season’s end, sophomore receiver Deddrick Thomas is getting as many reps as anyone in the slot.
  8. At least one 50-yard or longer field goal is made.
  9. State gets at least two special teams touchdowns,
  10. And they get more touchdowns on defense than they do special teams.
  11. Nick Fitzgerald rushes for fewer yards in 2017 than in 2016,
  12. But he and Williams both rush for over 900 yards each,
  13. And both of them have a receiving touchdown.
  14. Junior cornerback Chris Rayford plays far more than any preseason breakdowns expect.
  15. Junior safety Brandon Bryant quietly has a bounce-back year,
  16. While junior JUCO-transfer safety Jonathan Abram becomes one of the leaders in the defensive backfield,
  17. An area which ends up rotating as many as 10 different defensive backs over the course of the season.
  18. Sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons earns All-SEC honors,
  19. But redshirt sophomore end Fletcher Adams is the breakout player on the defensive line,
  20. While junior Gerri Green and sophomore Marquiss Spencer prove to be the most versatile members of MSU’s front seven.
  21. Fitzgerald’s completion percentage increases,
  22. His interceptions decrease,
  23. And his Heisman candidacy is taken very seriously by the time November rolls around,
  24. As MSU works its way to its eighth-straight bowl game under Dan Mullen,
  25. And finishes the season ranked in every major poll.
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Father-Son Moments Go Viral For MSU Track And Field Freshman

Not for the first time, a Mississippi State athlete found quick popularity across all pockets of the internet this week, starting with a tweet that at current count has over 64,000 retweets and 250,000-plus likes.

However, the quick rise to fame had nothing to do with athletic ability. In fact, most who have seen the tweet from Saturday are likely to be completely unaware that Charles Brockman is a star track athlete, now a freshman on MSU’s track and field team. The outpouring of attention and support has come mostly because Brockman has a great dad. Oh, and a good mom, too, as it was she who took both the pictures that made the tweet viral.

“From the first day of kindergarten to college move in. Thank you dad,” Brockman’s tweet reads with pictures of he and his dad walking next to each other on each day.

Seeing the two together, more than a decade part, the only difference is that dad’s hair is a little longer and son’s body has grown a lot taller. In both instances, mom was following close behind, documenting the big days while father and son had one last bonding moment before saying goodbye.

So intent was she on snapping photos, in fact, that she didn’t even realize how appropriate her pictures were during MSU’s move-in day at the residence halls over the weekend. It was Brockman who saw the picture and remembered that they had one just like it from his first day of kindergarten, leading him to put the two side-by-side for a nice tweet he hoped the few followers he had would enjoy.

The interactions rolled in slowly, at first, as notifications would pop up on Brockman’s phone for a like here or a retweet there. But eventually, the tweet started to spread and before long his phone was blowing up to the point where it would freeze up entirely if he didn’t turn the notifications off.

“I didn’t think it would get that big,” he said. “I expected a few people like my friends and family to see it and like it, but then it just got bigger and bigger and it’s still going.”

Stories on websites, in newspapers and even on television stations have racked up by the dozens and into the hundreds over the last few days as the sweet sentiment of such a loving father and son has spoken to so many. Brockman has enjoyed the response for the most part, unexpected as it may be, but now the twitter interactions and internet celebrity have had to take a backseat to the reason he came to Starkville: college. Today was the first day of classes at MSU.

“It was good,” he said before offering a light laugh. “Didn’t get lost too many times. Just maybe once.”

The focus from here will be on his studies in the classroom and his performance on the track with his coaches and teammates. The fame was likely nice for a few days, but Brockman is most proud of the message he was able to share and the support the pictures showed, the love and dedication of a caring mother and father.

“It means a lot,” he said of the two pictures with his dad. “I know some people don’t have that father figure in their life to have these big moments and spend it with them, mom or dad. He was also my track coach. We do a lot of stuff together. It meant a lot.”

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