Hattiesburg road trip: Where to eat before (and after) the MSU at USM season opener

It’s far better to be the guy everyone calls The Mayor than to actually be the mayor. And really, The Mayor doesn’t quite do justice to the reach and influence of Robert St. John, a name known and respected well outside the city limits of his native Hattiesburg – or the state line of Mississippi or even the border of the United States. (“I’ve got a guy in Paris I’ll get you in touch with,” he told me at one point.)

RSJ (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

RSJ (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

A writer, traveler, chef and restaurateur, St. John – or Robert, or RSJ, or whatever you’d like to call him; he’ll happily answer – owns a growing handful of restaurants in Hattiesburg and eats at another several handfuls on a regular basis. He and many like him consider the city to be one of the best municipalities around for eating good food, with a wide range of influences combining for a surprisingly eclectic and delightful culinary scene.

And that’s why we called him. When I and Brian Hadad, my co-host on The B&B Show and the General Manager of Bulldog Sports Radio, asked for a few recommendations on where to eat on our preseason scouting trip to Hattiesburg, he took it a step further. Or maybe eight steps further.

St. John knows the eatin’ is good, but with Mississippi State making its first visit to play a football game at Southern Miss in 26 years, he wanted to make sure those coming to his town for the first time in a long time – or even ever – got in on the secret. Especially with a nine o’clock kickoff on Saturday. There’s time for six meals in Hattiesburg if you arrive by lunch on Friday, so that’s [at least] how many he decided he was going to personally make sure we had, all in about an 18-hour span.

“I’m telling you, don’t eat breakfast,” St. John warned us the day before we were to drive down from Starkville. “As soon you get here, we’re tying on the feed bags.”

Our assignment upon arrival was simple: eat. Maybe take a few notes or pictures, but don’t let that get in the way of eating. If you need to stand up and unfurl your stomach to clear some room, feel free. Just keep your eyes on the ribs. And the crab dip. And the lasagna. And the drunken noodles. And have you tried the cinnamon croissant yet? Cannelle, magnifique!

The plan was to dine on his food for lunch[es], then hit a few of the area’s favorites for our very many suppers. I remember as a kid reading a book called Six Dinner Sid about a local cat who had six different homes, all of whom fed him every day. Sid had nothing on us.

First up was Crescent City, perhaps the most popular of St. John’s collection of establishments. Upon being seated, we were given menus. I looked at mine, but I might as well have not even bothered. 1. Because St. John was doing the honors of picking the highlights and 2. I’m not sure I could have picked anyway, it all looked so good. The creole menu was filled with words like fried, fresh and flavorful, a nod to New Orleans with St. John’s touch sprinkled throughout.

One of the 85 things we ate (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

One of the 85 things we ate (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

Four appetizers came out first, as I best recall. Crab nachos (housemade chips, jalapenos and fresh salsa on the side), crab and artichoke dip (each month has a special menu. August was crab, September is now shrimp), chargrilled oysters (save the bread for the end so you can dip it in the remaining juices. Boy howdy) and crab wontons filled with hot crab and cheese and paired with a fantastic sweet chili sauce.

We could’ve eaten just what was on the table and been fine, but it was only the first course. Entrees were up next with the eggplant Orleans (everything that makes New Orleans New Orleans, piled on top of eggplant), shrimp and grits (emphasis on shrimp. And grits.), grilled flounder (there are more fish in the sea, but not better ones), corn and crab cake bisque (this might have been an appetizer? I don’t know. My mind goes blank and all I remember is how that bisque tasted coming off the spoon) and then something called Crabzilla (imagine you had a bowl of crab meat, but the bowl itself was made of fried eggplant and filled with cheese, rice and spice. Yum).

Then, of course, was dessert: St. John’s whipped white chocolate and raspberry bread pudding (how does one explain what love is?) and a delightful lemon icebox pie.

“Alright, you guys ready for some Italian?” he asked us.

The answer is yes, Robert. “Death by linguine” would sound nice in the obituary.

The 100-yard walk to Tabella was enough to work off the 10-dish first lunch and prepare for the second lunch at the restaurant clearly in competition for the closest to St. John’s heart. He’s good at food no matter the cuisine, but RSJ literally wrote the book on Italian food. Or, he at least wrote a book after spending weeks and weeks traveling Italy, big cities and tiny villages, searching for the best pasta, the best recipes and the best inspiration possible.

Second lunch at Tabella

Second lunch at Tabella

As he described the ways in which the Italians invented and perfected so much of what we were about to eat, dishes quickly started to fill the table. Fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari; spicy pepperoni pizza, fettuccini alfredo, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and a delightful invention of St. John’s aptly named Pasta Roberto that I couldn’t more highly recommend.

Carbs are good, y’all.

Although, at that point, it became necessary to skip dessert. And to take a quick break. Only three hours until dinners!

The gastrointestinal respite included a tour of the USM campus, a drive around town and the surrounding areas (much larger than I realized) and a few minutes spent dozing on the couch while petting Donut, the St. John family dog. Because what else would St. John name his sweet pup?

Well that break was certainly long enough to digest a 5,000-calorie lunch. Let’s get dinner.

Stop No. 1 was Leatha’s, an odd combination of a place which is at the same time a well-kept secret and a famous BBQ joint. Whether or not you’re hungry when you pull up, the smell when you get out is enough to stir the appetite into action. The highlight is the smoked ribs.

Most BQQ enthusiasts will tell you that when ribs fall off the bone, it’s actually a bad thing, a sign that they were boiled rather than cooked the old fashioned way. Somehow, Leatha’s has perfected their method so well that their wood-smoked ribs are so tender they really do almost come clean off the bone. This time, it’s a good thing.

Juicy and tender, with sweet sauce on top and baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw on the side, piled on plates set on top of wooden tables, our first dinner might have been my favorite.

Dinner No. 2 was great, too, though. We left the staple of the southeast for the realm of the Far East, meeting the rest of the St. John family across town at Jutamas Thai Restaurant. I will confess that, despite being a Mississippian, my preferred method of heat comes not from BBQ sauce but from the spices of Thailand.

For that reason, I ordered my phad kra prow at the second-highest heat level possible, one measurement below what they call “Native Thai Spicy.” Knowing how much was already filling me and how much more was to come, I wisely selected the Goldilocks of the heat index; it was just right.

Hadad’s drunken noodles were among his favorite bites of the entire journey, while the plate of volcano shrimp St. John’s youngest offspring ordered looked fit for display on a magazine cover.

“Now, time for steak and ribs,” St. John announced as he rose from the table, using the same voice parents would use to tell their kids they’re going out for ice cream.

Third dinner at Donanelle's

Third dinner at Donanelle’s

On the ride down Highway 49 toward nearby Camp Shelby, RSJ prepared us for what we were about to eat. One man who travels the country eating BBQ, he told us, considers the ribs at Donanelle’s to be the best in existence. Not the best in Hattiesburg, best in Mississippi or even best in the south – just the best, period.

The steak is so good, St. John informs us, that Donanelle’s is his go-to spot for a birthday dinner. Proof shows up in the form of the thousands of signed dollar bills adorning the walls, a solid couple dozen of which are signed by members of the St. John family.

“We’d like a slab of ribs for our appetizer,” St. John informs the server after taking our drink order, “and three ribeyes for our meal.”

We each ordered ours medium-rare. I took onion rings with mine, a choice I was very happy with by the end of the meal.

As we had been told, the ribs at Donanelle’s were completely different from those at Leatha’s. They were both smoked over wood, but that’s where the similarities stopped. Trying to compare the two isn’t even apples-to-oranges; more like apples-to-androids. Where Leatha’s were sweet and tender, Donanelle’s were spicy, strong, charred and quite delicious. If one were to describe a plate of pork as manly, those ribs would be the choice. They were the old west cowboys of the smoked meat family.

The steak, by the by, was equally enjoyable. Seasoned just right, cooked perfectly, flavor filling every bite. Dinner No. 3 was more than worth the short drive to the outskirts of town.

“You guys look like you could go for some dessert.”

I’d have figured “nap” was the appropriate end to that sentence, but we hadn’t made it this far to give up now. I looked at Hadad and he just smiled, glancing at his completely empty plate. He’s a machine.

A light dessert followed at Branch, one of four establishments in the St. John complex of restaurants where we’d begun the day. House-made donut holes (like little light balls of beignets) and vanilla ice cream put us right to sleep.

18 hours and some 50,000 calories after our heart-stopping marathon began, our final meal stands as the one I enjoyed the most – breakfast at C’est la Vie, a French bakery St. John swears is better than anything he had in his extensive travels through France.

Bacon croissants, my goodness (photo courtesy C'est la Vie Bakery)

Bacon croissants, my goodness (photo courtesy C’est la Vie Bakery)

I’ve never been, but I have a tough time doubting him, especially after the owner, Januz, sat at our table and explained everything we were eating, his French accent still strong even after six years having passed since he moved to the States from France and opened C’est la Vie Bakery.

Januz bakes everything in traditional French fashion; light, airy and never overly-sweetened. The cinnamon pastries are pastries with a hint of cinnamon, rather than the globs of icing, butter and cinnamon with some pastry mixed in our friends at Pillsbury have made us so familiar with.

The warm croissants are layered, buttered and fluffy, baked a touch longer than we’re used to in America, a style I rather enjoyed. The croissant stuffed with bacon and topped with a slice of cheese and Italian seasoning – I’m sure it had a name but I must not have been able to hear over the sound of my chewing and satiated groaning – served as breakfast in Hattiesburg and then lunch again in Starkville when I ate the second one upon returning home.

It was good to get back, by which I mean fall asleep on the couch and not eat anything heavier than a shred of lettuce for two days, but it was hard not to be a little sad knowing I’d left so much good food behind and hadn’t even yet experienced all Hattiesburg had to offer.

Good thing Mississippi State goes back this weekend. See you at Crescent City Grill for lunch No. 1.

If you like eating, too, consider joining in the fight against child hunger in the state of Mississippi. Visit www.msfoodfight.com to help.

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Rewind: Re-living the last MSU at USM tilt, a thriller in 1989

On Saturday, Mississippi State will do something it hasn’t done in 26 years: play a game in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss. And one man will have been on the sideline for both.

Feller carrying the ball as MSU's quarterback

Felker carrying the ball as MSU’s quarterback

Rockey Felker, who was also one of the top quarterbacks in school history, was MSU’s head coach in 1989 when his Bulldogs took on Brett Favre and the Golden Eagles on their home field, and now he’s back on the staff under Dan Mullen as the director of player personnel, ready to bridge a 26-year gap in the rivalry.

“We’ve got to be at our best on Saturday,” Felker says now. “I’m probably more familiar with the State-Southern rivalry than most people here, so I know what it was like then. We better be at our best. There’s no doubt Southern will be ready.”

For coaches like Mullen and most of his staff who are new to MSU, relatively speaking, or fans who weren’t following in the ‘80s, and especially the players who, for the most part, weren’t even born when the rivalry was last active, MSU-USM isn’t something they understand as well as those who were a part of it back then.

The two schools had signed a 10-game deal, and by the time Felker and his Bulldogs took the field in Hattiesburg for the last time in 1989, they were on their ninth game of the series and had lost the last three contests under Felker.

“Even though it was a non-conference game, it had become like a big rivalry because they had had a lot of success against us,” Felker said. “It was kind of a sore subject with our fans. There was a lot of talk leading up to it.”

Going into the game itself, Southern was supposed to win. They had a good team and were expected to do big things behind a quarterback named Brett Favre who not quite yet the big deal he would one day become.

In fact, as those who remember it will tell, USM was the only big school in the state who wanted him, and even they thought he’d be better off as a safety. But he ended up at quarterback, and his team was supposed to beat Felker’s that day in Hattiesburg.

And really, they probably should have. USM had more rushing yards, more than twice as many passing yards, double the first downs, half the fumbles, two fewer penalties and 10 minutes more possession time than MSU.

“If you look at the stats, you would think that we got beat by three or four touchdowns,” Felker said. “But our players never quit. They gave it everything they had.”

Midway through the first quarter, MSU led USM 7-3 in front of what Felker remembers to be one of the most intense crowds he’d ever been around. But Favre led his team on a nearly six-minute drive, engineering an 81-yard march ending in a touchdown and giving USM the lead. With just over one minute left in the half for a slow, methodical MSU offense, the Eagles celebrated, expecting to go into halftime with the 10-7 lead.

But that plodding State offense never even got a chance to run out the clock. When Southern kicked the ball off toward the far endzone, it was a man in Maroon and White who caught it and returned it 96 yards for the score and the lead.

The strong contingent of MSU supporters went wild, quickly drowning out the cheers of the home crowd, which had been so loud just moments before.

“What I remember a lot about the game was our fans,” Felker said. “There are so many fans in south Mississippi. They came out and they were loud and they were supportive. I’m sure that’s going to be the case this time. They’re going to be visible.”

Felker's current MSU staff photo

Felker’s current MSU staff photo

When the second half came around, the intensity only grew. A defensive second quarter grew into a similar battle through much of the third. The two teams exchanged field goals, giving MSU a 17-13 lead. At the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, each team scored a touchdown of its own. MSU 23, USM 20.

And then, 2:55 left in the game, USM finally tied it. At 23-each, it looked as if the in-state battle was going to end in a stalemate. The two teams would have to wait until the last year of the 10-game contract for the final bragging rights.

So it looked to those in the stands, anyway. But Felker was determined. He’d lost to this team too many times, heard too many comments and taken too many shots to his pride.

“We were trying to build our program,” Felker remembers. “All the hard work and all the offseason program of building character and intangibles that you know you’re gonna need when you get into a dogfight, all kinda came to the forefront.”

In that moment, despite the fact USM had played the better game, Felker’s Bulldogs gave everything they had to move the ball. Ultimately, it came down to one play. With eight seconds left on the clock, the foot of kicker Joel Logan was the difference between emerging victorious or falling just short.

From 34 yards out, Logan swung his leg and sent the prayer tumbling through the air.

“Right through the goal posts,” Felker recalls now with a smile.

They had done it, finally.

“It was one of the most intense games I was ever a part of,” Felker says now. “It was a packed house – just the emotion and the effort and the intensity of the game.”

GEBCRRIUPLBHQCA.20140831030416Fast-forward two-and-half decades, and the rivalry was renewed, though with quite a different feel. As programs tend to do, USM and MSU had changed a good deal by the time they met in 2014. State hosted USM last season for the first time since that 10-year deal ended, beating their one-time rival 49-0. And while State was the road underdog 26 years before, MSU will go into Saturday’s game as the decided favorite.

But that’s not to say the game doesn’t still mean something. Especially not to those like Felker.

“Our fans remember what it’s like, and I think our players realize that,” Felker said. “We’re going to face a much-improved Southern team from what we saw a year ago. There’s no doubt that they’ll be ready to play. We’ll be in their backyard and it’ll be intense. It’s a game that they’ve been waiting for for a year.”

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The big, bad HailState Beat 2015 Season Preview

Finally, thankfully, gratefully and mercifully, college football is back. Mississippi State travels to Hattiesburg on Saturday to open the season against Southern Miss, which means we’ve got one last chance to look at the team before it all begins. Consider this the Official HailState Beat Preview of the 2015 Season, a position-by-position analysis of what to expect.

First up, the man everyone knows best.

Quarterback

FATGFPUBWUROCUB.20141108233651Synopsis: I mean, yeah, it’s Dak Prescott. The biggest thing to know about him is that he and the staff have worked on what they call the “graduate level” of being a quarterback. He’s still going to run, but they want to see more checkdowns and more of Prescott progressing through all his reads. At backup, Damian Williams could possibly redshirt, leaving redshirt freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley (recently returned from injury) to battle for the No. 2 spot.

Predicted starter: Rayne Dakota Prescott

Breakout candidate: Freshman Nick Fitzgerald

Coach’s take: “He has taken some good reps over the last couple of weeks and has done some really good things with that. He is a little bit behind the other guys just in total number of reps, but I do think he jumped on the opportunities we gave him during training camp. He can make things happen when he is out there on the field. He is strong-armed, big and physical.” – Dan Mullen on quarterback Elijah Staley

Offensive Line

Synopsis: MSU replaces three starters, but they replace them with one senior and two juniors who have played more than their fair share of snaps in the SEC. Building experience will be the key, but it’s a particularly talented group. Rufus Warren, the elder of the group, has stepped up as a leader, while junior guard Devon Desper actually started last season when MSU beat top-10 Texas A&M at home.

Predicted starters: LT Rufus Warren, LG Justin Malone, C Jamaal Clayborn, RG Devon Desper, RT Justin Senior

Breakout candidate: Right tackle Justin Senior (as much as a returning starter can “breakout”)

Coach’s take: “The first five are good. The second five are coming along, there’s just some things they’ve got to pick up in terms of experience and playing. Every day stuff. The hardest thing to replicate is the experience on the field in a game atmosphere. The first five have all played, have all been in positions where they’ve played. The second five is just a young group.” – John Hevesy, offensive line coach

Running Back

UHSBBHDUUIWOXJP.20141102032530Synopsis: Gone is 1,000-yard rusher Josh Robinson and his ability to break tackles, but the guy who actually led the team in rushing down the final stretch of the season returns in junior Ashton Shumpert, as well as the second-leading rusher among running backs in 2014, the speedy Brandon Holloway. Redshirt freshmen Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee will duke it out for the No. 2 spot.

Predicted starter: Ashton Shumpert

Breakout candidate: Dontavian Lee

Coach’s take: “They have done pretty well. When you have that guy stepping into a starting role for the first time that is a little different. I think Ashton Shumpert has played a bunch and Brandon Holloway has played a whole bunch, but when you step into a starting role that can be a little different so we will see how they adjust to that. I have been pretty pleased with the physicality of our running backs and how we have been running the ball. That is something to me that when we have some bigger backs, we have to play really physical.” – Dan Mullen

Wide Receiver

Synopsis: Juniors De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross are planning to be the country’s best receiving duo, a tandem they hope will be near impossible for opposing defenses to stop. The biggest battle is for every other catch after the ones they get. There are a lot of passes to go around from a fifth-year senior QB, and plenty of viable options to catch them. Prescott will have a wealth of talent to spread it around to. They’re experienced despite the fact they only have one senior in Joe Morrow.

Predicted starters: De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, Fred Brown

Breakout candidate: Fred Brown

Coach’s take: “We led the SEC last year in plus plays of 20 yards. We also led the SEC in plus plays of 10 yards, and that’s something we talk about as far as contributing points, contributing to getting first downs, playing to win and that means playing great defensive, so if we can continue to do that, we will put points up on the board. Within my specific position, we talk about making five big plays. For us, five big plays a game is to have 20 yards or more on a play and for us if we can help a running back on the perimeter, blocking to get that 20-yard play, that goes down as one of those five for us.” – Billy Gonzales, receivers coach

Tight End

Synopsis: People don’t seem to talk about it, but Malcolm Johnson at tight end might be the biggest loss on the team for MSU from the 2014 season. Coaches called him the glue of the offense, and now that glue is gone. Junior Gus Walley is someone Mullen and the staff have expressed a great deal of confidence in to replace him, and it’s Johnson who Walley says taught him everything he knows. Additionally, we’re told true freshman Justin Johnson could be even better than Malcolm Johnson one day. Maybe sooner rather than later if things go well.

Predicted starter: Gus Walley

Breakout candidate: Justin Johnson

Coach’s take: “All you have to do is just watch him perform out there. It’s a lot different. Like anything else in the program, you see the older guys around. Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play, the effort you’ve got to give, the intensity you’ve got to have.” – Scott Sallach, tight ends coach

Defensive Line

unnamedSynopsis: Like the offensive line, this group technically loses three starters. However, Junior Chris Jones (who everyone around him says is primed for the best season of his career by far) played as much as any starter, while fellow juniors A.J. Jefferson at end and Nelson Adams at tackle played extensively in big games and big moments. The big story out of camp has been the development of junior tackle Nick James, one of the most naturally talented athletes on the team, regardless of position. MSU will also be depending on JUCO ends Jonathan Calvin and Will Coleman, as well redshirt freshmen tackles Cory Thomas and Braxton Hoyett for added depth.

Predicted starters: Senior DE Ryan Brown, junior DT Chris Jones, junior DT Nelson Adams, junior DE A.J. Jefferson

Breakout candidate: 1. Nick James 1a. A.J. Jefferson 3. Cory Thomas

Coach’s take: “One of the neatest things about Nick as we were going through fall camp, and this will sound funny, but you looked up one day and realized you hadn’t noticed him, which was actually a good thing. It meant that he was, in a mature fashion, just doing his job.” – Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, on defensive tackle Nick James

Linebacker

Synopsis: Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells are gone – the latter of which might be the most difficult to replace – but MSU still has an embarrassment of riches at the position. Junior Beniquez Brown is and has been the leader of the group, joined by fellow junior (and Brown) Richie Brown, who once recorded three interceptions against Texas A&M. Redshirt freshman Gerri Green is the one everyone has tabbed as the next McKinney, true freshman Leo Lewis was the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country out of high school and sophomore J.T Gray was freshman All-SEC last season. All that without mentioning the speedy senior Zach Jackson (who Diaz seems to like a lot), athletic sophomore Dez Harris, who was considered to be a star in the making before an injury ended his freshman campaign, and JUCO transfer outside linebacker Traver Jung.

Predicted starters: Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown, Zach Jackson

Breakout candidate: Gerri Green (or Richie Brown, if he would count as such)

Coach’s take: “A guy that’s going to be in much more of a starring role. He’s got to make a lot more calls, he’s got to get us in the right defenses and get us lined up the right way. He’s the guy that’s got to be The One now. Last year, he kind of came in as the relief guy. Now, he’s the guy people are going to look to.” – Dan Mullen on middle linebacker Richie Brown

Cornerback

Synopsis: Only quarterback feels better about it’s returning starters than cornerback, where seniors Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun form what is easily among the best duos in the country. Who takes over the nickel position is the question, with juniors Cedric Jiles and Tolando Cleveland as the likeliest candidates, as well as sophomore Jamoral Graham who switched over from receiver.

Predicted starters: Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun

Breakout candidate: Freshman Maurice Smitherman

Coach’s take: “I look at Will Redmond as a returning starter. He might not have played the first game of every game, but he played the last plays in a lot of games with the game on the line. There’s a lot to that, in my mind.” – Dan Mullen on cornerback Will Redmond

Safety

MCZZPQPHIIYRJFD.20140831024343Synopsis: MSU loses both its starters, but still somehow returns a starter by way of senior Kendrick Market who was hurt last year, but had started extensively previously. It sounds like junior Kivon Coman has made a huge leap over the last few months, leading defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to share the quote below. Expect junior Deontay Evans to be in the rotation, as well. The players everyone will be watching are redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant (who some thought could have played last year) and true freshmen Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin. Coaches will have a tough time keeping any of those players off the field, particularly Peters who was one of the top defensive players in the country out of high school and McLaurin who was wow-ed people in practice at some moments.

Predicted starters: Kendrick Market, Kivon Coman

Breakout candidate: Kivon Coman

Coach’s take: “I like the way those guys have played. From spring into fall, the development of Kivon Coman has really changed our entire defense.” – Manny Diaz on safety Kivon Coman

Kicker

Synopsis: MSU has to replace the reliable Evan Sobiesk after a successful 2014 campaign, and it looks like the battle will be between senior Devon Bell and sophomore Westin Graves. It sounds like the competition in practice has been close, meaning the edge may go to Bell who has the more extensive experience, and also will likely have the punting duties while sophomore Logan Cooke handles kickoffs. Either way, I’d expect both players to get their chances.

Predicted starter: Devon Bell

Breakout candidate: Devon Bell

Coach’s take: “It’s the fine line between statistical analysis and gut feeling of who’s going to do it with a game situation. It’s not something I plan on making a decision on until all the way through game week.” – Dan Mullen

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Live thread: Dan Mullen press conference, USM week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will hold his weekly press conference. Mississippi State plays Southern Miss in Hattiesburg this Saturday to open the 2015 season.

We’ll share live updates here from his time at the podium.

——————————————

11831781_1077484982263983_2300907706273587827_nMullen is here and, as you can imagine, “we’re excited to get this season kicked off,” he says.

Adds, “We’re excited to see what type of team we have. You don’t really know what you have until you play someone else.”

Opening question comes in regards to Southern Miss and they’re high number of transfers.

“It’s hard to see what type of guys you’re going to be playing against,” Mullen says. He thinks that’s always the case early in the year anyway because teams are so different from year-to-year, even more so with USM now.

“Early in the year you tend to be more self-focused,” as a result of not having as much to scout on other teams.

On another note, Mullen says they haven’t voted on captains yet. They will do so later this week, though they do have an 11-man leadership council elected already.

Couple positional questions here.

First on offensive line, Mullen says MSU has the chance to have really strong depth, “if we have the opportunity to bring them along slowly.”

On running back, Mullen said the biggest thing is for Ashton Shumpert to be comfortable making the transition from backup to starter. What he likes a lot is the physicality of the running backs as a group, several hard hitters.

On the other side of the ball, Mullen says “our defense will be ready to play Saturday.” Explained that he and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz work very well together and he’s been impressed with what Diaz has done and how he’s grown.

One thing Mullen is harping on for this game is something he’s been talking about all offseason and preseason: redzone success. He’s mentioned before that MSU’s only “struggle” offensively last year was scoring touchdowns in the redzone and he very much wants to improve on that in 2015, starting Saturday in Hattiesburg.

As far as backup QB goes, “I think there’s a lot of gut feeling” to making those decisions of when to put them in, who to put in and everything about it. Said the key is to get QBs snaps early so that if you have to put them in during a late-game situation, they’ll be prepared.

Injury update: Mullen says no one is out for “any extended period of time” and expects everybody to play Saturday. “We’re actually really healthy, knock on wood.”

Mullen talking defense again, he says he lets Diaz and the crew have most of the control over the gameplan, while he tends to add more during the game. Said he mostly knows he wants an aggressive defense with “11 guys flying to the football.”

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Spending a game on the bench with MSU volleyball’s McFatrich

“Fatch,” as he’s called by most who know him, is David McFatrich. He was hired earlier this year to be the new head coach of Mississippi State volleyball, coming with an extensive resume, a long list of references and a proven plan for building a program.

BZRTKQCRSNAGSTC.20150829040743In the months since his hire, McFatrich has continually expressed his confidence that MSU volleyball will be a contender, and soon. He’s serious about winning and serious about making sure all resources are exhausted to make it happen. But, what’s he like, as a coach, once the matches actually begin? I figured the best way to get to know MSU’s new head man was to spend a game with him on the court.

Moments after noon on Saturday, McFatrich was getting ready for his first match of the day and his third of the Bulldog Invitational, his debut on the court at MSU.

“Pack it up, pack it in,” he said to no one in particular as he nodded his head and the speakers blared and the final seconds before the match began ticked off the clock. “Let me begin. I came to win, battle me, that’s a sin.”

For those not as hip as Fatch – or perhaps just a good bit younger – those are the opening lines to ‘Jump Around,’ the House of Pain hit that was playing in the Newell-Grissom building.

That’s sort of McFatrich’s style, though. Not House of Pain, necessarily, but his laid-back attitude and pension for fun. He’s serious about winning volleyball matches, and MSU went 3-1 in his first weekend of action, but the part of Fatch that’s just a big kid is hard to hide. It doesn’t hurt that he even kind of looks like Tom Hanks’ character from Big when a teenage boy is mysteriously transformed to having a grown-up body overnight.

“Bob,” he said, looking at me after he finished singing the first verse, “let me know if you see anything out there. I might hand it off to you halfway through the match.”

The approach makes sense, and really it seems pretty necessary. As many matches as a volleyball team has to play – State had four this weekend alone – you have to be mentally prepared for such a grind. If the players are dedicating their college years to weight training, cardio fitness, technical practices and competitions every weekend, and if coaches are trading 8-5 jobs for endless hours of nights and weekends in gyms, buses and film rooms, then they sure as heck better be enjoying themselves in the process. You’ve got to have a little fun. A lot of fun, preferably.

It’s an approach that translates to play on the court, too, for McFatrich and his staff. To paraphrase, they tell the team its OK for them to make mistakes, as long as they make mistakes playing as hard as they can. It’s volleyball. There’s going to be a back-and-forth. That’s the whole idea, after all. McFatrich just wants his team to be aggressive, active and comfortable. He’ll work with them on the fundamentals, and ideally those become second nature, coming out subconsciously as the effort on the court is given.

Fatch is enjoyable to be around. It’s why two of his players followed him from Central Arkansas when he was hired at MSU. It’s also why I was quickly comfortable sitting on the bench in the middle of a match, perspiring players, note-taking coaches and knee-checking trainers surrounding me.

So, the match finally began, Mississippi State vs. Jackson State. MSU was missing a few starters from the lineup, coaches opting to make sure players got rest on a weekend with so much action. The Tigers were up 6-5 after several minutes of play in the first set.

“We’ve got to get our killer instincts here,” McFatrich yelled to his players. “Now.”

The Bulldogs won three of the next four points, going into the first timeout up 8-7.

Those who had been on the court got seats on the bench. The rest of the team huddled up around them as McFatrich offered a pretty blunt review. They were winning, but he wanted more.

“This is awful. I want you guys to go out there and dominate.”

That, I understood.

“I want a reverse-flow first option in transition.”

That, I did not understand. But it apparently made sense to them and before long MSU was just a few points short of winning the first set, leading JSU 22-17.

“Bob,” Fatch called to me after the final timeout, “they’re not listening to me. You’re taking over.”

FAPPDNSPHLAVAMH.20150830034940I didn’t take over, but MSU won anyway and switched benches in preparation for the second set. By the time that set started, I was able to watch the coaching staff a little more closely, finally having become comfortable with the routine of sitting on the bench.

For instance, every player gets a high five when they come off the court. They’ll hold their hand out for all the staff lining the bench (the players themselves stand in a group at the end of the bench) and it would be quite impolite to ignore the request.

And when there’s a timeout, the seat you’re in is no longer yours. I learned that during the first timeout when I was writing something in my notebook and looked up to find a pair of eyes at the top of a 6’1” body quizzically staring at me, clearly wondering, ‘Why are you in my seat?

Oh, and don’t sit next to someone on the bench. Leave an open chair between each person. And wipe it off with a towel after timeouts. Those things get sweaty in a hurry.

So I was finally able to watch the littler things as the match continued. McFatrich himself always stands at the end of the bench closest to midcourt. Graduate assistant coach Marissa Collins sits closest to him, the former Southland Conference Player of the year under McFatrich at UCA who is constantly taking notes and serving as his sounding board as the points are played. At the far end of the court, assistant coach John Newberry stands with a clipboard and notepad, constantly taking notes of his own to consult with McFatrich as the sets move along. Between the two, student manager Kelly Costeira keeps a detailed log of statistics as the match is played.

During timeouts, there seems to be a natural flow of who leads. For some, McFatrich talks to the team as a whole. For others, the players talk to themselves, one captain or another typically taking charge. In some instances, McFatrich will pull a player or two aside for a specific message while the rest of the players hear from Newberry or Collins.

Whatever happens, there’s a mix of encouragement, direction and, of course, short rest.

By the time I finally figured it all out, MSU had cruised to victory, taking down JSU in straight sets.

“Good job, Buddy,” McFatrich said while shaking my hand in congratulations for the absolutely nothing I had done to contribute. “That was fun.”

Yes it was.

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Campbell Dale offers inspiration to those at MSU

I shouldn’t be writing about Campbell Dale. I shouldn’t even know who he is. A five year old closing in on his sixth birthday next month, Campbell should be in a kindergarten class right now, smiling, napping and learning how to add small numbers.

unnamedBut yesterday, instead of sitting at tables in tiny plastic chairs with people his own age and size, Campbell was surrounded by giants. The biggest, toughest men in the world are selected to play basketball, baseball and football in the SEC, and Campbell flew to Mississippi State to meet them.

“We’ve been looking forward to seeing you,” basketball coach Ben Howland told him as he arrived, a dozen of the tallest men Campbell had ever seen standing behind him.

In February of last year, four-year-old Campbell was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer affecting the body tissue called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Treatment began immediately and has continued over the 18 months since. What time he has now is uncertain and the reports lately have worsened, though his family prays every day for a miracle.

For now, their goal is to make the life he has the best life possible, to fill his remaining days with a full lifetime of experiences.

Campbell may not get to play football for his high school team, but on Tuesday he got to run onto the field at Davis Wade Stadium. He stood on the court with the world’s tallest men, basketball’s stars of today and tomorrow. He watched from the dugout as men with hard helmets and heavy arms swung their bats and launched baseballs hundreds of feet into the air, higher and farther than any five-year-old could dream of hitting.

Maybe his favorite moment, though, was the unplanned one. Dak Prescott, bearer of the same No. 15 jersey as the miniature version Campbell wore, walked him into Dan Mullen’s office. MSU’s football coach welcomed Campbell and his family in, chatted with brother and sister, mother and father.

Mullen has a football season starting next week and probably more things he could be doing, but something in the moment caught him. Maybe it’s because he’s a dad, too, and has kids around the same age as Campbell and his twin sister Avery, that Mullen noticed how tired Campbell was, now on his third stop of the day, and knew exactly what he needed.

unnamed-3Mullen grabbed the remote from his desk, turned his massive HD television on and popped it onto the Disney Channel. He pulled up two comfy chairs right in front of the TV, helping Campbell into one and Avery into the other.

“Sit here as long as you like,” he told them. “Dak needs to learn about Doc McStuffins.”

As much as the day meant to Campbell, the moments meant even more to those lucky enough to meet him. Big and tough as Prescott may appear, the 230-pound quarterback thought Campbell to be the strongest person he’d seen in a building full of the strongest people in town.

We’re told life isn’t fair, but some days make that truth more obvious than others.

I shouldn’t know the names Alison Parker and Adam Ward, either. Not yet, at least, not until they caught their big breaks, made it to a network job or had some career milestone bringing attention and congratulation. But today it’s their names we’ve read, heard and honored after their lives were shockingly ended while they were simply doing their job as reporters.

In a perfect world these would be isolated tragedies, but their stories are only a few of far too many like them. Things like cancer and death are evil; things impossible to consider necessary no matter how we try to rationalize them. We all should get our chance at life and it feels horribly unfair when good people have their opportunity cut short or taken away.

It’s a law of reason that nothing can exist without having an equal opposite. Without dark, there can be no light. The idea of strength must also allow for the idea of weakness. So too does life necessitate death and happiness have an opposite in sadness.

But that’s the silver lining to life. For as terrible a tragedy as may occur, the limits of our grief are matched by our capacity for joy. Everything taken from us is an opportunity to give. Every day, moment and breath are chances to be alive, to be happy ourselves and make others happy, too. All the hate in the world demands love to match it and any person’s life we can enrich makes our own worth living.

And that’s why sports are important. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses a game. Sure, it’s nice when your team wins, though that of course means someone else’s team lost. But sport offers a getaway, a chance for happiness and something to belong to. It’s one of many somethings in the world that can be something to us.

What meeting Prescott meant to Campbell, and what meeting Campbell meant to Prescott, has nothing to do with MSU winning the first game last year and was completely unaffected by them losing the last game. That Malik Newman will likely be in the NBA this time next August is inconsequential to Campbell, but when Newman gave him a smile and a t-shirt, it brightened a day that had every reason to be dark.

unnamed-4As impressive as Campbell found the men he met, as powerful as he imagined they must be, they knew with no doubt who was the strongest and bravest in the room.

We should all be so lucky to touch as many lives as Campbell has. His parents, Mullen and Prescott behind him and his sister in the seat beside him, Campbell quietly sat in Mullen’s big chair watching the Disney Channel and clutching the new football signed by his new friends, no clue how special he was or how much he meant to those surrounding him.

His plan was to be a Bulldog for a day, but Campbell was already a Bulldog for life.

Up next: Disney World, the happiest place on Earth.

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French goalkeeper Tanya de Souza offering promise for MSU soccer

According to the internet, it’s about 4,600 miles straight from here to Paris, France. A direct flight would last nearly half a day and take you seven hours into the future, one of those weird things where you go somewhere so far away that you’ve practically time traveled in the process of coming and going across a half dozen time zones to a place where the time of day is measured by something called CEST, which almost actually sounds French or at least like some weird combination of Central and Eastern Standard Time where you stand with one foot on either side of the line, but actually stands for a thing called Central European Summer Time, which just sounds lovely.

(photo by Russ Houston / Mississippi State University)

(photo by Russ Houston / Mississippi State University)

All that and a language barrier are what Tanya de Souza traveled to get to Starkville, Mississippi from her maison in Paris. She didn’t even get a chance to look at her new home before moving to the United States, a country she was quite unfamiliar with but extremely interested in moving to.

Tanya’s dream: to play soccer and go to school at an American university. At Mississippi State, the talented goalkeeper found a place to make those dreams come alive.

“I didn’t know anything about America,” she now says, remembering her first days in the country. “Everything is different. You can’t imagine. Everything you drink, you have half ice in the glass. Back home, I don’t even put ice in my glass. Everything is different, every single thing. Like automatic cars, air conditioner. I was cold all the time, at first. Everywhere I went I was so cold. Everything is so different.”

Even the food, she says, has been an adjustment. Despite growing up in one of the most popular culinary cities on Planet Earth, Tanya said she typically didn’t eat out, instead choosing to eat something healthy at home. Here in college, she’s eating out on an almost daily basis, though she’s still having trouble with the concept of eating a meal in a car. It’s a different world.

But she’s started to figure it out and soccer has been the biggest reason why. That was her purpose in coming here in the first place, after all. Turns out, though she might not be great at eating Taco Bell while keeping an eye on the road at the same time, she’s an incredibly accomplished soccer player. In a country where soccer is the most popular and competitive sport around, Tanya has risen to the top of the heap, being twice selected for the French national team.

It was when she made the cut for the U-16 national team that she first realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this soccer thing.

“I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Am I that good to be on the national team?’ Because I just played for pleasure and I didn’t realize that I was actually good at soccer. It was crazy. Playing against international people was a good experience for me and I studied the game. That was just a dream come true.”

By the time she was selected as the goalie for the U-19 team a couple years later, she’d gotten used to the idea of being a respected soccer player. It was around that time her desire to play soccer and study business in the U.S. started to burn.

In stepped Aaron Gordon, the man entering his second season as MSU’s head coach last summer. He hadn’t thought he needed another goalie until an injury left him with only one active goalie with the season less than a couple months away. He’d heard about Tanya before, so when faced with a surprising and pressing need, he dug deeper. He called around. He studied film. He got in touch with Tanya and talked with her over Facebook and Skype, finding out that her plans to go to some other college in the U.S. had been spoiled when they didn’t want to jump through the necessary NCAA hoops for an international player and dropped her for a different goalie.

It was a bit of a risk for both of them, but Gordon was sold and so was Tanya.

“We had a good relationship,” she said. “He made me really want to come here. I really wanted to be part of this program. He made me really comfortable.”

souzaMSU’s compliance department had experience with international players and began the acceptance and enrollment process happily and immediately, but with the timeline being so small, Tanya didn’t even make it to campus from France until the middle of the first week of classes.

She still remembers flying into the regional airport settled in the no man’s land between Starkville and Columbus.

“My first impression was weird,” Tanya said, “because whenever I took the plane from Atlanta to here, we were about to land and I was like, ‘I don’t see anything but trees here. What did I just do?’”

She was quite relieved when she got to Starkville and saw that, yes, there is much more than just trees here.

She’d completely missed the preseason at that point though, and she ended up missing the first few games, as well, while she got acclimated. Once she finally got on the field she did well, but after just a handful of games she had a season-ending injury. For as quick as it seemed everything happened for her, she found herself at the end of the season in a strange land feeling as if she hadn’t done a thing.

VQVNJVTELJUGGAU.20141018032101And that’s why she’s so excited entering 2015. She’s got Gordon excited, too. He’s finally getting to see her now that she’s healthy and comfortable with her life and the language. He likes what he sees.

“I’ve said this openly,” Gordon began, “she reminds me a lot with her athleticism and quickness of Brianna Scurry, who was the No. 1 goalkeeper for the national team. I got to work with her every day in the pro setting watching how quick and fast she is. Tanya is the same size, the same build and has those attributes. I’m excited to watch her play this season, in a full season being healthy, knowing what to expect, having such a better grasp of the language.”

Scurry, for those unfamiliar, was the starting keeper for the 1999 World Cup Champions, and she helped lead Team USA to two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004). High praise from Gordon, who said Tanya’s natural abilities have flourished as a result of growing up in a country where kicking a soccer ball is as familiar to children as throwing a baseball is to American youth.

“She just kind of has that soccer brain, soccer mentality,” Gordon said. “The things she does are very natural to her. She has really good feet. She makes really good decisions when she’s called upon. She’s just so crazy athletic and quick that she has the ability to get to spots that I think a lot of goalkeepers cannot get to in the women’s game. She’s got more coverage of the goal to be able to get to things. You’ll say, ‘That’s going in,’ and then, ‘Oh, wow, Tanya got to that.’”

If her heavily-shortened freshman campaign was considered a dress rehearsal, Tanya finally gets to make her debut on the big stage this weekend when MSU soccer opens it season hosting South Alabama Friday at 7 and Murray State on Sunday at 1.

2015 has been a season years, miles, time zones and several fast food meals in the making. Now, finally, it’s here.

“I’m really confident and I can’t wait for Friday for the first game,” Tanya said. “We’re all ready to compete right now. We’ve never been this ready before. We’re going to do really good this season.”

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Walley, Johnson hoping to fill MSU’s hole at tight end

Those on the outside haven’t mentioned him at all, while even those who cover the team on a daily basis have hardly spoken his name. All the concern with Mississippi State’s offense has been about replacing Josh Robinson or Dillon Day or Ben Beckwith or Blaine Clausell. Fair concerns, sure, but no one seems to remember Malcolm Johnson, the versatile tight end who did so much for the Bulldogs as they broke record-after-record in 2014.

“We had a great offense and Malcolm was kind of the glue that held it all together,” said tight ends coach Scott Sallach. “You didn’t have the numbers for it, but the offense is much more dangerous with a guy like that who can do all those things.”

SVCDDEQORJZKUSY.20131015153853The numbers themselves are solid, as Johnson had 28 catches for 380 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging the rough equivalent of three first downs per game. But it was what he meant to the team overall, as a leader, as a playmaker, as a unique threat from the tight end spot and as a trusted veteran for Dak Prescott to lean on that made him so vital to State’s success in 2014.

As Sallach pointed out, Johnson played some 2,000 or so snaps over the course of his career at MSU, a constant lynchpin for Dan Mullen’s offense. And now, he’s gone, off to play for the Cleveland Browns, leaving a gaping hole in MSU’s lineup that somebody has to fill. It appears junior Gus Walley is going to be that guy.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Walley said. “Malcolm, those are some big shoes to fill.”

The good news for Walley is that Johnson spent the better part of the last three years personally training him to step into those shoes when the time came. Walley’s very first day at MSU, he walked into the locker room in search of his nameplate. At the time, the room was set up with the lockers in pairs, and Walley’s was connected to Johnson’s. Johnson was the first person Walley met on his new team, and he turned out to be the most important one, too.

“Everything about the game that I know today is because of Malcolm Johnson,” Walley said. “He taught me everything I need to know. Coming out of high school, I was a receiver just like him. Just like him, it was foreign to me when I came in, but he took me under his wing.”

Walley scoring against UAB, courtesy Scout.com

Walley scoring against UAB, courtesy Scout.com

The question now: is Walley ready? He only had four catches last season, though more than anything that was due to Johnson getting nearly every possible snap. But even when he wasn’t getting passed to, Walley was still getting time on the field. He says now that those moments, despite how nervous he was, were absolutely necessary. He was thinking too much, he said, and not playing naturally. Since then, and because of those moments, the game has slowed down.

Walley says he’s finally comfortable, finally smooth and finally ready for the job. His coach agrees.

“All you have to do is just watch him perform out there,” Sallach said. “Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play, the effort you’ve got to give, the intensity you’ve got to have … You look at where he’s come from to where Gus is now, it’s not even close … You can see the difference in his attitude, his performance, his demeanor.”

However, replacing Johnson may not be a one-man job. Big-bodied senior Darrion Hutcherson will be part of the rotation, too, and it’s he who Sallach said has made the most improvement of anyone in the group of tight ends.

But it’s a true freshman who might be the next Johnson in more than one way: the 6’3”, 230-pound Hoover High School product Justin Johnson. Since the first day of fall camp, his name has been coming off the lips of his teammates and coaches as an impressive young player who has surprised people with his abilities.

Sallach said Walley is “clearly” the guy at the No. 1 spot, but that Justin’s potential might be the greatest on the team, and perhaps even moreso than Malcolm’s.

“He’s an extremely talented young man,” Sallach said. “He could be an upgraded version of Malcolm Johnson if – if, if, if, – he keeps progressing in the right direction, if he has those same intangibles that Malcolm had.

“He has God-given ability that not everyone in that room has. There are things he can do that not everybody just physically is capable of doing. They can still be successful at the same things, but he can do some things that other people can’t. You just hope the mental aspect is able to progress to doing those things on a Saturday evening.”

Malcolm Johnson is difficult to replace, and parts of what he contributed may be gone with him, but there’s reason for he, MSU and Sallach to have faith. He may be gone, but Malcolm trained his successor himself and it looks like the heir to the throne may have just arrived.

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Live thread: MSU soccer and volleyball media day

Beginning at 1 p.m. today, Mississippi State’s volleyball and soccer teams will have their preseason media day led by their coaches. We’ll have live updates throughout the afternoon right here on the blog. Soccer opens their season at home on Friday, while volleyball begins plays next week.

Updates to follow.

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HHUYWCOWEDODZGK.20150113222412Volleyball coach David McFatrich is up first, entering his first season as MSU’s head coach. Energetic guy, ought to be entertaining.

“It’s been a fast-paced seven months,” McFatrich opens. Says the staff has been everywhere from California to Europe recruiting.

“As you guys probably know, we’ve got to change a lot of things around Mississippi State volleyball.”

As part of that change, Fatch says the players had their own practice sessions throughout the summer to help improve. Very different looking roster.

“Our philosophy is embedded into the minds of our players,” he says, “and we are excited about getting started.”

We’re also talking with Evie Grace Singleton, who followed McFatrich from Central Arkansas to MSU because she wanted to continue playing for him. Said his “passion is contagious” and that he fits the aggressive style of play she prefers. Backs up the reports of Fatch being very energetic.

Also here is Emily Howard who transferred in, a player Fatch believes has pro potential. She’s got big goals for the 2015 season: “I want to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

Asked by local celebrity Bart Gregory what the team’s identity is, McFatrich gave a lengthy answer:

“Fast, aggressive and fearless. We don’t care who we play. That’s part of the mindset we’re trying to instill in them. It’s not easy changing culture sometimes. But when you let players know that if you’re going 100 miles per hour and you screw up, I’m OK with that … They need to be playing all-out every play. There’s freedom in that, knowing that if we make a mistake, we’re OK with that.”

And that’s it for volleyball.

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VQVNJVTELJUGGAU.20141018032101Head coach Aaron Gordon and the soccer program up next, joined by senior Shelby Jordan.

Gordon talking now about getting ready for the season. Soccer only gets 16 days of preseason, one of the shortest in athletics.

“My last two years here were about developing a program and changing the conversation,” about Mississippi State soccer, Gordon says.

As far as changing that conversation goes, Gordon says one of the biggest steps to getting where they want to be is becoming relevant on campus. Said much of the summer and the marketing plan is devoted to doing that. He feels like it’s happening.

“It’s a new time here,” he says. “It’s exciting. We’re still young, but we’re getting there … We’re gonna be in a lot more games, we’re gonna compete in a lot more games and that means we’re going to win a lot more games.”

Gordon obviously has a much higher level of confidence. Said it’s something he’s seen in preseason practices and looks forward to that product being on the field. The win over a good Memphis soccer program in the preseason was a good sign.

Talking to Jordan, she sees a bright future. “When I think about it, I get jealous … I think they’re going to do really well when I’m gone.” She added that she sees the young talent coming in and how quickly their developing.

She thinks they’ll be good this year, too, of course. She was speaking to the future of the program based on the question she was asked.

Getting back to the Memphis exhibition win, Gordon said MSU had seven new starters and to see them do so well was encouraging.

Big thing going forward for Gordon’s team is just to have good performances. He knows soccer is a cruel sport where you can dominate an entire game and still lose, but you put yourself into position to win with good performances. With a bad performance, you don’t have a chance. That’s what he’s going to be looking for early in the season.

Hearing Gordon talk, it sounds like he likes his defense and the growing talent across the field, defending and attacking. They’re getting more speed and power. The thing left is to get experience, which is something they’ll have to do as they go.

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David Turner talks depth and talent on defensive line

As often happens with this particular coach, I have found that David Turner is far better at explaining things and sharing information than I could hope to be. Mississippi State’s defensive line coach is regularly among the best quotes on the staff, exhibited again this week when he broke down his position group for reporters in the middle of fall camp.

11831781_1077484982263983_2300907706273587827_nThe question and answer session below is a transcript of his time at the podium, but I’ll single out a few highlights before we dive into the whole thing.

Two players earned praise from Turner, a coach who is not one to often dole out such things in the media, and both times it seemed to be the most glowing review he’s given them. It went to the pair of defensive tackles Chris Jones and Nick James. They may be the most naturally talented players on the line, so to see those two making strides bodes well for the overall success of the group.

Turner also mentioned that things are getting easier and more natural for junior defensive end Jonathan Calvin. He’s one I fully believe will have a big role in the rotation this year and seems a likely candidate to take the No. 3 spot A.J. Jefferson occupied last year.

Speaking of Jefferson, Turner also said it’s possible they could move him inside on an occasional or even regular basis. MSU had a lot of success doing similar things with Preston Smith last year, and that option speaks to Turner’s confidence in the rest of the defensive ends.

Question: How has camp been so far?

Answer: I think A.J. Jefferson and Ryan Brown have kind of been the leaders of the group. Those guys have led every day through their work ethic, the way they have attacked practice. The young guys have kind of followed. I say young guys, but it’s kind of a unique group. I’ve got one senior and seven juniors, and the rest of them are freshmen. There’s a little bit of a gap there, but the guys have been working extremely hard.

Chris Jones has worked harder than he’s worked the two previous years, which is good. I’m pleased with the way camp has gone thus far.

Q: Junior defensive end Will Coleman, who redshirted last year after coming from junior college, said the year off helped him. What changes have you seen from him?

A: I don’t think there’s any question it changed him. No. 1, I don’t think last year he’d have been ready to play mentally or physically, so things kind of have a way of working themselves out. He’s a whole lot more confident now. He’s stronger. Having been in the program a year, not played, but been in the defense, he’s a whole lot more knowledgeable. He’s not thinking now, which means he’s playing faster. I’ve really been pleased. It started about the last week, week and a half of spring ball and has continued through fall camp.

Q: After losing a lot of players from last year’s team, how do you feel about the depth in 2014?

A: We did lose a lot, but every year each team changes. We’ve got numbers, we do have that. Some of the young guys, the redshirt freshmen, have got to step up. Cory Thomas, he’s had some good and bad days. Braxton Hoyett, he’s had some good and bad days. Those guys have got to step up. Hopefully we get a chance to play them early and get their feet wet. I think, by the middle of the season, they’ll be really solid guys, really solid backups. Somebody’s going to have to step up, there’s no question about it. I don’t know if we’ll be, up front, as deep as we were last year, but we’ve still got to be able to roll two-deep at least, maybe two and a half.

Q: How are juniors Nelson Adams and Nick James handling the competition for the other starting tackle spot?

A: Nelson is coming along. He’s still probably not as physical as I want him to be, but he’s getting better. Nick James has made tremendous strides. He’s by no means a finished product, but he’s moving in the right direction, which it’s his time. If you look at it realistically now, he’s a redshirt junior, so this is his time. Usually by their redshirt junior year, those guys start to figure it out. He’s coming along, I’ve been pleased with him. Just got to keep him focused each day. Just take it one day at a time with Nick. I pick at him. I say hey, just hold it in the road today and stay focused. So far, he’s done that.

Q: You mentioned that A.J. Jefferson has been a leader. What has he done in practice to show that?

A: A.J. loves football. It’s obvious by the way he attacks it. Every day is the same: he works hard, he gets better. A.J., I laugh with him. He’s kind of sneaky good. Last year, during the start of the season, he was doing things, and I was like, wow, that’s A.J. People remember Preston, but A.J. did some really good things last year. I think it started about midway during the season, he started to figure it out. He works at it. A.J. is a hard worker, as is Ryan Brown. Those guys kind of feed off each other and they’ve been good for the group.

Q: You said Chris Jones is working very hard. What’s brought that about?

A: I’m not sure, you’d probably have to ask him. I think he’s a little more mature. I think he’s a little more focused. I think he knows what he wants. I think he was kind of embarrassed by his sophomore year last year and that what we saw last year was not the real Chris. I think all those things have played a factor in his development, his push, his desire this fall. It’s his time. He’s a true junior, everybody knows he’s talented, but he’s gotta have the work ethic, put the time off the field into the game and work on his craft when he’s out there. That’s what I see him doing now.

Q: What have your impressions been of the true freshmen?

A: Well, we’re just trying to keep them here. All of the sudden, they get here, and it ain’t recruiting anymore. You get out there at The Farm and it’s 100 degrees, all of the sudden, they say, man, I don’t know about this college football. But they’re doing well. All jokes aside, it’s a good group. Keith Joseph has been a pleasant surprise. Anfernee Mullins is a guy that’s from Aliceville, Alabama, but he’s kind of like a typical Mississippi kid, country kid. He’s got a long ways to go, but he’ll develop. Kendell Jones has done some good things. Then, obviously, Fletcher Adams. He’s got a motor. It’s a good mixture of guys and I’m really pleased with them. I think, before it’s all said and done, they’ll have really good years here.

Q: What have you seen in junior college transfer defensive end Jonathan Calvin?

A: It’s been like Will Coleman, in a sense, that I think spring, he kind of learned what to do. He was feeling his way around. Now, he’s a whole lot more comfortable. He talks a lot more. It’s tough for a junior college guy to come in in January and all the sudden they’re thrown in the middle of everything, don’t know anybody, then it’s spring ball. He’s comfortable now around all the guys. He’s laughing and joking. He’s not a guy that talks a whole lot, but he’s more comfortable and it’s allowed him to play faster, he knows, he studies. He spends a lot of time studying. He knows football is important to him. That’s allowed him to play faster. He’s got a lot of natural pop. He’s a strong kid. He’s got a lot of natural pop and I think he’s going to be a good addition to him at end.

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