Newman taking leadership role for MSU basketball

Mississippi State basketball’s 2015-16 season is kind of all about Malik Newman. I mean, it’s about the team, to be certain. It’s about the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But what the team, what Mississippi State, wants to do is centered around Newman, the marquee signee of new head coach Ben Howland’s first class in Starkville this spring.

It’s a natural thing when a star of his caliber arrives to a new team. Those who were already there had and still have their own futures and pasts, but their dreams and visions came alive with the new possibilities now open to them.

Craig Sword guarding Malik Newman in MSU's first official practice Monday

Craig Sword guarding Malik Newman in MSU’s first official practice Monday

If there was any doubt about Newman’s talent, the point guard has erased them since getting on campus and perhaps even exceeded expectations. Howland has readily stated at every given opportunity that he expects Newman to be in the NBA this time next year, and he’s someone who would know having coached a lengthy list of professional stars in his career.

Even something as small as the team’s schedule poster for the year expresses the belief and confidence around the program in Newman. It features six players: the five seniors, plus Newman – all the people in their last year at State.

“He is a one-and-done player,” Howland said. “You never know for certain, but I feel pretty certain that this going to work for Malik, that he’ll be in and out of here in one year.”

The NBA, Newman says, is far from his mind right now though, and of all the expectations thrust upon him, it’s the one he’s least concerned about at the moment. He wants to deliver at MSU. He wants to win games. MSU’s seniors, as Howland has said, have had a rough three years and they’re depending on Newman to help them go out on a high note. MSU’s fans have been through ups and downs the last several years and they, too, are hoping Newman can help Howland lead the program to back to its old highs and even further.

“He’s got a bright future and we want him to have a great year this year for our team and help get this program back on the right track,” Howland said.

Of course, the pressure won’t just come from within. Every game Newman plays, those on the opposing team will be gunning for him. They want a piece of the star, of the highly-touted freshman and of the future NBA point guard. They want to prove they’re just as good or prove he’s just as bad, whichever they can do.

As Howland put it, Newman will have a bullseye on his chest as the best players on every team they face will try to use Newman’s name to make a name for themselves.

“He’s got to be at the top of his game every night we step on the floor, knowing that’s the challenge every time for him to lead our team as our point guard and to also withstand that kind of challenge every night,” Howland said.

It’s the kind of pressure that comes with being one of the country’s best players, and may seem like a lot to handle for a college freshman. But as Howland and MSU’s players will quickly point out, Newman isn’t the typical college freshman. All the expectations and all the attention have done nothing to deter him. If anything, they’ve spurred Newman to work even harder, play even better.

“I don’t look at it as pressure,” Newman said. “I just look at it as something that’s making me better and preparing me for the next level. Everyone coming after me each and every game, it can only make me better and make me play harder.”

NQOLOVGJJEEZYCZ.20151005210149It’s a work ethic his teammates have seen and is much of why they’ve embraced him. It would be easy for them to be selfish and keep the freshman star at a distance, but as Howland said himself, they want to win and they know Newman can help them do that.

Certainly, he earned respect in his approach when he got to campus, showing a desire to learn from the veterans on the team. Many of those veterans had known him for years, anyway, as he had been recruited by MSU since ninth grade, long before Howland got to town.

Over the course of the summer, the players regularly got to together on their own to shoot and play ball, affording them all good bonding time with Newman and the rest of the incoming class.

Then, of course, is the talent he brings to the table. Senior guard Craig Sword has been the primary and often only scoring threat in his three years at MSU, constantly battling the attention of entire defenses. When MSU had its first practice of the preseason Monday, Sword was thrilled to see every defensive eye not on him, but on Newman. For the first time in his career, even in practice, he was wide open.

Senior forward Gavin Ware had a similar reaction, seeing how much space he is going to have in the post. Shooters, drivers, passers – everyone’s game will improve and open up purely by Newman being on the court, and that’s not even mentioning the amounts of all three Newman will be contributing himself.

Through that talent, backed up by his work ethic and accompanied by a strong but agreeable personality, Newman has become one of the leaders on the team, despite the fact he’s never played in a game.

“I don’t think it’s something hard,” Newman said of being a leader as a freshman. “I think when you’re doing right, everyone follows you. For me to be doing what I’m doing and the guys follow, it’s just kind of given me that role automatically.”

Already, despite official practices only having just begun, Newman and Sword say they feel like they’ve been playing together for years. The duo expects to provide a formidable backcourt for the Bulldogs as, with all the praise Newman has received, Howland said Sword is MSU’s best at attacking the rim, “no question.”

BDYDAVIEFKSKTKA.20151005210149That’s part of the whole deal. It’s all about Newman, but it’s not just about him. It’s about the talent around him, like Sword and Ware, the talent who’s taken him in, like junior point guard I.J. Ready, and the talent that got to campus with him, like fellow freshman Quindarry Weatherspoon. In just a matter of months, Howland has built something seemingly formidable and ready to attack to the Southeastern Conference.

Newman is the linchpin, and no one is shy about saying it. In fact, the team embraces it.

“They all welcome him with open arms,” Howland said. “They want to win. Our seniors want to have a great senior year. They’ve had a tough three years, so far, and they want to finish their careers here on a high note. Malik’s definitely going to be a key to helping them do that.”

Maybe it’s a lot to expect out of him, but Howland knows as well as any coach in the country what players of Newman’s caliber are capable of. He’s seen under-recruited and highly-recruited alike make it to the NBA, and he’s seen plenty of both who never quite panned out.

With Final Fours, conference titles, first-round draft picks and one-and-dones all to his name, it’s hard not to take Howland at his word when he brags on his latest star.

“The thing that makes Malik so good is his skill level and his intelligence,” Howland said. “He’s really, really bright. Very, very smart player. Very smart kid. Really is beyond his years in terms of his feel for the game and intelligence. Then he’s a very good shooter. Can really stroke the ball and can put it in in a number of ways. He’s unselfish. He’s got great leadership qualities. It’s really, really a pleasure to be coaching him, because he’s special.”

If Newman truly is that special, Howland’s first season at MSU likely will be, too.

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Live thread: Dan Mullen press conference, Troy week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with the media for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State lost at Texas A&M last weekend and hosts Troy this Saturday.

Updates to follow.


CAWAEAVNJCGHTNO.20151004011335Mullen is here and his first thought: “It’s great coming back home.”

Three of the first five games were on the road, now MSU finishes with five of last seven at home.

Mullen is looking back at the A&M game now and says even after watching film, his thoughts are the same from Saturday. A&M played well, MSU didn’t.

“Look at all the things we did to win at Auburn, A&M did those things and beat us.”

Looking ahead to Troy, Mullen said both teams are familiar with each other from recent contests. Added that, in today’s world of college football, every team has to “play at a high level” no matter the opponent or could get beat.

Even with a new coaching staff, Mullen says “the philosophy is similar” and that while there will certainly be differences, MSU feels like it has a good idea of what to expect.

On the injury front, Mullen says senior safety Kendrick Market is out for the year with a torn ACL, saying, “that’s a huge loss for us.”

Wide receivers Joe Morrow and Gabe Myles, cornerback Will Redmond and left tackle Rufus Warren, are all “questionable” going forward but Mullen says the trainers feel good about their prospects. Also said they made the decision to hold tight end Gus Walley out last week, but they feel good about his health going forward. Possibly could have played against A&M, but they played it safe with him.

As for Myles, Mullen said they originally thought it would be much worse but the diagnosis was very positive. They don’t expect him to be out for an extended period of time.

Going forward, several young guys will have to play more, and several already have, as a rough week for injuries means depth players will have to get in the game more.

“It’s our job as coaches to put them in a position to be ready to go and do those things.”

Mullen says MSU still has “a ways to go” in getting the rushing game going. Said statistics are improving, but wants to keep improving. Mullen wants to be balanced when possible, though he says situations and personnel often dictate how balanced a team can be.

Talking now about true freshman receiver Malik Dear, who enrolled in college early back in January. Mullen said he got to campus a little overweight and was never really in shape during the spring, but he made huge improvements in physical conditioning over the summer and got to fall camp with much more confidence and looking almost like a veteran.

On that note, it sounds like MSU has plans to keep playing young guys. Just overall, Mullen says, they want to rotate and play more people than they have to this point. Said the coaching staff will put an emphasis on doing that going forward.

Mullen also thinks more rotation will keep players fresher which can help lead to big plays, such as turnovers on defense, on both sides of the ball.

Talking more about the defense, Mullen says he’s pleased overall, especially with not giving up too many plays. If looking for places to improve, though, he says getting more three-and-outs would be helpful. “But overall, I think we’re playing really good defense.”

On that side of the ball, junior end AJ Jefferson has played well lately, a spark Mullen saw begin last year. Importantly, Mullen said Jefferson has done a great job of maturing over the last 18 months or so. He’s comfortable now, and mature in knowing that he isn’t always the one making the plays and is sometimes depended on to help open things up for other people.

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Diaz, MSU defense counting on redzone and big-play defense vs. A&M

Everything that makes Texas A&M’s offense work is exactly what Mississippi State thrives on stopping. Everything the Bulldogs want to keep opposing offenses from doing happens to be the same as what the Aggies want to do against other teams’ defenses.

FXQEGAVCBEBBEJK.20150913074336How MSU’s offense does against A&M’s defense will certainly be important, too, but the true test for each team, and what will likely decide the outcome when the two meet on Saturday, will be the finesse and speed of Kevin Sumlin’s offense against the strength and intelligence of Manny Diaz’s defense.

The Aggie head coach has an offense built around the big play, while the Bulldog defensive coordinator has built his unit around stopping the big play. Saturday will be the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object.

Through four games each – two SEC tilts for MSU and one for A&M – the stats look like each coach would want. A&M is No. 2 in the conference in pass plays of 20+ yards, while MSU’s defense is No. 2 in the conference against those big plays, only allowing six passes of 20+ yards. The Aggies have the SEC’s No. 3 scoring offense (41.5 points per game) while State has the No. 3 scoring defense, only allowing 14.8 points per game while also leading the conference in touchdowns allowed with a mere five in four games.

The stats almost universally mirror each other, giving MSU a pretty good idea of how to approach the game.

“The surest way to get beat by a team like this is to give up big plays,” Diaz said. “We have a formula that if you can create negative plays – we’re always hunting negative plays – and if we can limit big plays, then we can kill drives … We’re pretty decent on third down. We’re pretty decent in the redzone. So it comes back to what? It comes back to the explosive play.”

While it’s the big plays in terms of yardage Diaz doesn’t want to give up, it will also be the big plays in terms of stalling drives that could be biggest, the third down and redzone defense Diaz mentioned. His unit is No. 2 in the SEC in both categories, only allowing opponents to convert on third down 22.64% of the time and having only allowed four touchdowns in 14 redzone appearances by opposing offenses.

That redzone defense was highlighted against Auburn last week when Diaz’s defense didn’t allow a single touchdown, despite the Tigers getting inside the 10-yard line four times.

“They can get yards,” Diaz said, “but in this day and age with the way offenses are, it’s points that still win the games. It’s what we play for.”

And so far, MSU has done a good job in that regard.

Oddly enough, Diaz takes very little credit for MSU’s performance on big downs, especially in the redzone. Head coach Dan Mullen doesn’t take the credit either.

ISKDVYIADFDELBD.20150927022248State’s defense is getting stops now, they say, because of what the players were doing in June and July when they spent the summer with strength coach Rick Court.

Part of what helps the defense tighten up, to be sure, is the obvious fact that there is less ground to defend when you get into the redzone. A natural barrier in the form of the endzone shortens the ground opposing offenses have to work with. But it’s the mental and physical toughness Court teaches the players, Diaz says, that truly makes the difference.

“Our redzone defense, no matter who sits in my chair, comes down to our strength program, the way that our kids are trained in the offseason with Coach Court and his guys,” Diaz said. “Everything you have to have to be dominant in the redzone, they instill in those guys. All I have to do is just call the defense when they get down there. The attitude, the mentality – that is the core value of our program.”

An example came against Auburn at the end of the first half when the Tigers had advanced the ball to MSU’s two-yard line. On first and goal, Auburn running back Peyton Barber rushed for one yard. On second down, Barber rushed again, stuffed for no gain on the one.

On what looked like it was going to be the next play, Auburn threw out a wildcard, inserting formerly-benched dual-threat quarterback Jeremy Johnson for the freshman pro-style QB Sean White who had been playing the entire game. Mullen called a timeout for MSU right before the snap and breathed a sigh of relief as, when the defense stood back after hearing the whistle blow, Johnson trotted into the endzone.

Diaz and the staff had never seen that particular play call or formation in their film study. They were taken aback by it, but during the short timeout they made a quick adjustment. The defense returned to the field with a contingency plan for anything. If Johnson returned, they had a defense for it. If White came back out, they had a defense set for him, too.

GTSEFWBBYZFDBTD.20150913031107White, it turned out, took the field as the quarterback for the crucial third down play, and as the defensive line crashed onto the offensive line as soon as the snap came, the ball was fumbled, bounced back eight yards and was fallen on by Barber at the nine yard line. On the ensuing fourth-down, the Tigers missed a field goal and finished the half with zero points.

Said middle linebacker Richie Brown, who was responsible for the tackles on first and second downs, “I think it’s just kind of the Mississippi State mindset since we’ve been here. We might bend, we might get knocked back sometimes, because that’s gonna happen in football, but we’re not gonna break. That’s just the mindset. From the strength staff to the coaches, it’s just kind of been how we practice. Bad things happen; get back on our feet, stop the next drive, put the ball down.”

That mindset is something MSU quarterback Dak Prescott recognizes as he watches his defense from the sideline. It’s something he’s experienced himself. As he’s said before, big-time players make big-time plays. Prescott has been the catalyst for comebacks, two-minute drills, redzone scores and third and fourth-down conversions.

The goal for his teammates on defense is the exact opposite of his on offense, but the approach is the same on the mental side.

“They just draw a line in the sand,” Prescott said of MSU’s defense. “Bend but don’t break. I think they’ve showed exactly that this year so far. They’ve given up some yardage and put themselves in bad positions in the redzone, but they come out with fourth down stops or no points on the board. They just flip the switch and they just go lock in and make plays. It’s great to see.”

Against A&M Saturday, Diaz and his defense will have plenty of opportunities to make those plays. What they do with those chances may decide the game.

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MSU basketball implementing Sparta Software as part of new performance center

In two years off the sidelines and away from being a coach, Ben Howland, while itching to get back, spent much of his newfound time studying and researching for when the day came he would once again have a team of his own.

When he was hired by Mississippi State to be their new head coach, one of the first things he implemented was a discovery he made of the Sparta Science Force Plate technology.


Mississippi State basketball players being scanned on the Sparta force plates

The science behind them is complex, but through the simplicity of their software, the result of their use is pretty straightforward: better conditioned, healthier athletes. The force plate software alerts coaches and trainers of any potential susceptibility to injury, identifies weaknesses and measures the level of fatigue in the body of the athletes.

By having players do six vertical jumps on the force plate, the Sparta technology is able to quickly assess neuromuscular efficiency within the body, everything an athlete needs to play their game and everything strength coaches and trainers need to take care of them. Each jump is tracked for the records of the individual and also anonymously added to the database of over 1.3 million jumps, or “scans,” Sparta uses to assess the athletes.

Under the encouragement of Howland and MSU women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer, MSU’s Director of Basketball Performance David Deets added the Sparta force plates to his revamped performance center this summer.

“I think the science behind it and the research that’s been done about them is what really drew me in,” Deets said. “Knowing that that’s where training is going and trying to be on the forefront of that, trying to always stay ahead.”

Being on the cutting edge has been a consistent theme since Deets and Howland’s arrival in Starkville, as the performance center has undergone thorough renovation and the strength and training program has taken on a new and at-times-futuristic life.

Part of that has been an emphasis on health, especially given the recent history of injuries for the men’s basketball program at MSU – a battle Deets is still fighting, though now with a new weapon. It’s those struggles that helped draw him so much to the Sparta Software in the first place, having a way to find out ahead of time that a player may be close to injury.

The need for tracking such things, Deets said, is especially important in basketball where players have so many games and so many practices, making so many cuts and having so many jumps and corresponding landings. The wear and tear on the legs of basketball players is seemingly unending and it can be easy for a particular area to become fatigued, unbeknownst to the player going through it all.

By using the force plates, Deets is able to receive immediate analysis on his players on a week-to-week basis, receiving measurements in three specific categories – load, explode and drive – while finding any issues with balance, fatigue or a specific area of the body.

“It gives us that signature and also gives us warnings if something is going on that we might need to look at closer to help with the prevention of injuries and some of the over-use stuff that goes on,” Deets said. “From that we’re able to tweak their workout for what they’re weakest at. We’re able to really fine-tune their workout to work on their deficiencies.”

QFGUEJFTBOJCCZA.20101020194702Michael Hoffmann, the Director of Business Development for Sparta Science, said the idea of gathering data has grown in popularity, especially in the international market, but that it’s rare for athletic departments to take the data and act on it. It’s part of why he’s been so impressed with the vision of MSU’s basketball programs for taking the knowledge and applying it, one of only two schools in the Southeastern Conference (Arkansas being the other) to use the Sparta Software.

As Hoffmann described it, since coaches can scan so frequently (at least every couple weeks), the software allows them to run that anonymous data next to their injury history to create an accurate model for predicting specific injuries. With so many scans already part of the database, and with more coming every day, they’re even able to run research with the force plate variables next to key performance indicators from the court, things as specific as minutes played or offensive rebounds.

The idea is for Sparta to provide a diagnosis of the body, while the individual coaches prescribe a treatment plan.

“If Coach Howland knows a guy is fatigued,” Hoffman gave as an example, “he has the ability to back off the volume in practice. Or if a guy is not loading very well, Coach Deets will prescribe movements he believes in to increase load during his workout in the weight room.”

MSU just recently began using the force plates and Deets has already made adjustments in training as a result. He has the men’s and women’s team scan every couple weeks currently as they continue through the preseason, but he expects to have each player be measured twice per week when the seasons begin. All of it in the name of having athletes perform at the highest level possible.

The rewards, Howland believes, are coming.

“I’ve just seen the incredible benefits from having those,” Howland said. “There are so many uses for this technology.”

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Richie Brown does it all, on the field and off

“What book is it?”

“I can’t remember the name,” Brown responded. “It’s by a guy who was friends with C.S. Lewis.”

“J.R.R. Tolkien?”

“No. They were friends, too, but there was a third guy.”

ZZBTVRMGNWBRIID.20150927022248The writer in question is likely Charles Williams, one of a small group of men (including Tolkien and Lewis) at Oxford University in England in the 1930s called The Inklings who bonded and met over similar literary interests.

It was a little unexpected to hear the conversation take place at Mississippi State’s football facility, but that’s what you get with junior linebacker Richie Brown walking around the place.

Brown and I met when he was a senior in high school and I was writing about him being named to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen list, an honor bestowed upon the top 12 high school football players in Mississippi (Brown eventually committed to MSU using an actual human child, rather than a hat, in the form of his baby nephew decked out in maroon), but it was a little over one year later in Jacksonville, Florida that we got to know each other.

Following the 2012 season, MSU was picked for the Gator Bowl. In the hotel one night during the week of practice leading up to the game, we crossed paths in the lobby where he was wearing one of the hotel-provided robes and on his way to the game room MSU had set up for the team. He asked if I wanted to join, so we walked downstairs and played pool, ping pong, basketball and a little Deer Hunter as we talked about his appreciation for the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, his enjoyment in playing some of the less mainstream sports like Frisbee and, as he talked about this week, his hobby of tightrope walking.

Brown also plays the piano. He’s got a twitter account run by an unknown fan devoted to his beard, the hairs of which have been featured on TV by ESPN and regularly compared to those of former U.S. President and General Ulysses S. Grant. He’s an industrial technology major, named to the SEC academic honor roll during the semesters of both seasons he’s played so far. He’s married, he plays the guitar and he’s devoted to his Christian faith.

He’s also, as most know him, a football player. A really good one, too. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week this week after totaling 13 tackles against Auburn Saturday, and when he plays Texas A&M this weekend it will be the anniversary of the last time he won the award, receiving the honor after recording three interceptions off the Aggies last year.

ZMKIRDTZLQUNYUN.20150913033557A middle linebacker leading his team in tackles, a husband leading his wife in marriage and a student leading himself in learning, Richie Brown is Mississippi State’s Renaissance Man.

The dedication to learning is the part that’s made him so good on the field for his Bulldogs. He’s been one of State’s most intelligent players since he got to campus almost four years ago and his mind has been a sponge for knowledge in the film room, meeting room and locker room.

The first three years of his career, Brown trained under MSU’s then-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Geoff Collins, taking in everything he could. Starting this spring, Brown began another educational relationship when Manny Diaz took over as his coordinator and position coach. Diaz and Collins have plenty of similarities, and plenty more differences. Each has proved valuable in the continuing development of Brown.

“It’s helped me out tremendously,” Brown said. “They’re both great defensive coaches and they both have a lot to offer and I’ve taken from both of them. I think that’s helped me a lot.”

Of course, Brown’s considerable talent is one of the bigger factors. He’s been a tackling machine since his days at Long Beach High School. He’s big, even if not usually the biggest. Fast, but often not the fastest. Strong, though not necessarily the strongest.

But whatever the match-up is, he has a propensity for being in the right spot, and especially for making the play once he’s there. That why he has, fittingly given his jersey number, a team-high 39 tackles through four games, including three sacks and an interception.

Brown isn’t just getting lucky.

“No,” Diaz said, “because he’s making really good plays … I would say middle linebackers should make a lot of tackles. He’s making the plays he should make, then he’s also making some plays that are pretty spectacular out in the open field and in space.”

Those are the keys, too. Open-field tackles, often 1-on-1. Of the 39 tackles he has, 21 of them are solo, eight more than the next closest linebacker or defensive lineman. In Diaz’s gap-control system, players are counted on to make those stops. In theory, no part of the field is open to opposing offenses. But putting that theory into practice requires those like Brown to make the plays when the time comes, and for him, it’s more often than most.

“Making open-field tackles is a big deal with Coach Diaz,” Brown said. “He’s helped a lot. He’s brought a whole new angle to how I play. A lot of different fundamentals.”

unnamedJust as a new defensive coordinator has changed the ever-developing Brown, so has the addition of a wife to his life, the former Erin Nesbit, formerly of the Mississippi State softball team and now working for the university.

While most of his teammates go home to roommates, video games, frozen pizzas or late nights hanging out, Richie goes home to be a husband. He helps Erin out around the house, though he makes sure to point out that she helps him much more than he helps her. They go to the store together when he finishes homework. They make time to read the bible together.

“We try to keep everything important in our lives in check, make sure we do all those things together,” Richie said. “Football takes up a lot of my time, so I have to make sure I’m a good husband first.”

Husband or linebacker, either way, he seems to be doing a good job.

Unfortunately for Richie, they don’t give out awards for Husband of the Week, so it appears his Defensive Player of the Week Award will have to suffice. To hear his coaches talk, he earned it.

“I’ve been saying it all four weeks: he’s been playing at a high level,” Diaz bragged, “and to be anything on defense you have to have a strong middle linebacker.”

Just another skill for Renaissance Richie.

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Live thread: Dan Mullen press conference, Texas A&M week

At 1 p.m. today, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen will meet with the media for his weekly press conference. The Bulldogs beat Auburn last weekend and travel to play at Texas A&M on Saturday. Shortly after, we’ll talking with senior quarterback Dak Prescott.

Live updates to follow.


unnamedMullen is here and opens up by praising MLB Richie Brown for his SEC Defensive Player of the Week honor this week after “a heck of a game” when he racked up 13 tackles.

Sticking on Auburn, Mullen says MSU came out very healthy and a lot of positive moments to build on. Feels good about where the team is now.

Looking ahead, Mullen expects “a loud crowd, a raucous environment” at Texas A&M and the biggest stadium in the SEC.

He believes A&M has one of the best QBs in the conference and “probably the best defense we’ve played so far.” Credits the speed on defense.

As for that A&M defense and coordinator John Chavis, Mullen said he expects them to be aggressive and that their athletic defensive ends and talented man-coverage corners “really plays to his strengths.” Adds, “they can get you in a hurry. The talent they have that he came into at A&M really helps with his strengths.”

Mullen on A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin: “Offensively, we have the same philosophy, even though we go about it in different ways.”

More specifically, he said both teams are about match-ups and getting the ball in the hands of explosive playmakers. Mullen thinks A&M does a good job of creating advantageous matchups.

As for his own team, Mullen got a bit into the run vs. pass, saying part of the disparity in numbers has to do with teams trying to stop the run, as well as the lack of total offensive plays MSU has had through four games. Several games with relatively low number of possessions and plays.

“I like to pass,” he adds.

As for varying types of games, Mullen says he’s comfortable in both an offensive shootout or a defensive battle.

“Our offense knows their job is to score one more point than the defensive gives up. Our defense knows their job is to hold the other team to one less point than our offense scores. It doesn’t matter to me which way it goes. I’ll take winning 42-41 or 3-2.”

Talking about defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his strong redzone defense, Mullen says much of it is “just the aggressive style of play. He does a great job of getting you out of rhythm and taking away what you want to do … If you can get into longer down and distances, it’s hard to get the ball in.”

As for the Auburn win and the SEC race going forward, Mullen said the road victory was huge for confidence within the team.

“For our guys, that was a big game. I’m sure everyone wants to win the SEC West undefeated, but that doesn’t happen very often. Once you start hitting two losses, early in the season, that’s harder to come back from … That win keeps you going in that direction.”

On WR De’Runnya Wilson and his propensity for big performances in big games, Mullen says: “He’s a tough man-to-man matchup because he’s got size and ball-skills.”


And now it’s time for Dak Prescott.

First question comes about A&M’s athletic defensive line. He says the most important thing is for him to be on the same page as the offensive line and know what they’re thinking. Adds, “and really on the road, the cadence is important. We’ve got to make sure they’re not getting a jump on us.”

Knowing a shootout could possibly be coming, Prescott says, “As a quarterback, I go into every game wanting to put up 40 or 50 points … As long as we win, it doesn’t really matter.”

Prescott on De’Runnya Wilson: “1-on-1 coverage, I’m gonna take Bear over anyone in the SEC or in the country.”

On pass vs. run differential, Prescott says his running has slimmed because of his knowledge of the game and ability to move through his reads.

“I still need to get running a little bit, just to add it to the offense, but as long the passes are there I’m going to take it.”

More on the offensive line, Prescott says they communicated very well against Auburn and “if we can keep doing that going forward, we’ll have success.”

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Bulldogs “back in the race” after big road SEC win

Football momentum is a curious thing.

Two weeks ago, it felt like Mississippi State’s season had come crashing down before it had even really begun.

Then the Bulldogs went to the plains and took down Auburn on their own field for the first time under Dan Mullen.

“We’re back in the race,” he declared after the win.

UAWMQFWDMDVSSCP.20150927022249And he’s right. The landscape of the SEC, to paraphrase the words of one lyricist, has been flipped and turned upside down, and through four weeks, MSU finds itself right in the middle of the fight for conference supremacy.

At the beginning of the week, it was Dak Prescott who stressed the importance of the matchup with Auburn, noting that a win keeps their dreams alive, while a loss would come close to crushing them.

He also shared his belief that no team in the SEC will make it through the season undefeated. If that’s the case, then MSU really is in the race.

“We’re in the position that we wanted to be,” Prescott said, “and we’ve still got everybody in front of us.”

As wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson said of MSU’s SEC record after two games, “1-1 don’t mean nothing. We’re trying to run the table.”

And it was Wilson who gave insight into what’s sparked MSU lately. Particularly, what helped them go on the road and beat a Top 25 SEC West opponent.

In practice this week, the team went through a drill. Normal stuff, every day kind of thing. Just a drill. At the end of it, Mullen blew his whistle, made everyone stop and then run the drill over again, all because, as Wilson explained it, “we weren’t straining.”

Strain has been MSU and Mullen’s buzzword since around halftime of State’s loss to LSU. The idea is similar to the team mantra of “relentless effort,” reminding players that trying hard doesn’t necessarily mean trying hard enough. Keep working, keep pushing, keep straining.

TKWIDNNRGWPQNLC.20150927033157And since halftime of that week two game, when Mullen told the team to take a collective deep breath, get whatever was in their heads out and just play, MSU has been on a tear. In the last 10 quarters of football, the offense has scored 92 points while the defense has only allowed two touchdowns, including none to Auburn.

Maybe the rough start to the year was a bit of hangover from the historic 2014 season, or maybe it was just rust from a lengthy offseason, but whatever cobwebs they had to shake out seem to finally and officially be gone. The difference is obvious, whether watching the players on the field during the game or talking to them in the locker room and interview room afterward.

The thought within all of them is the same: they’re finally starting to look like the team they thought they were going to be – the team they knew they could be. They’re confident.

“We have a lot of confidence,” Wilson said. “We don’t want to peak, but we know what kind of team we have.”

To Wilson and the rest of the team, much of what was so encouraging in MSU’s win against Auburn was the performance of the defense. Over the last 13 months, games have generally been won by the arms and legs of offensive stars like Wilson and Prescott. But Saturday’s win was all about defense, about standing strong when it meant the most in redzone. It was Will Redmond and his momentum-turning interception. It was Richie Brown and his game-high 13 tackles. It was A.J. Jefferson chasing down the quarterback, Chris Jones blowing up the middle of the line and Beniquez Brown directing the defense.

“I feel like we’re maturing on defense,” Jones said. “I feel like every week we’re getting better.”

Said Mullen, “I thought our defense played unbelievably well … Lot of talented players on that Auburn team. Keeping them out of the endzone for the night was fantastic.”

WZXWZBXOJYKAXTQ.20150927022249It was the biggest moments when MSU’s defense played the best, too. The Bulldogs holding Auburn to zero touchdowns in four redzone appearances was impressive, to be sure, but maybe even more so was the Tigers dismal 4-of-14 rate on third down.

Richie Brown saw it coming, too, based on the week of practice his team had. His words were the same as those of his coach.

“We were straining to the ball,” he said. “That’s what won us the game.”

Offensive strain, defensive strain and even special teams strain (Mullen thought his team was great in that aspect, as well), the Bulldogs are hitting their stride. They don’t just look like the team they believe they can be, they feel like it, too.

With Texas A&M waiting on them this weekend, and the rest of the SEC going forward, they’re going to have keep it up.

“It feels good,” Mullen said. “We’re back where we want to be.”

“There’s no doubt,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz confirmed. “But it doesn’t matter, because next week there’s a big challenge … You’ve got about 24 hours to enjoy it, because you’ve gotta go back on the road.”

The clock is ticking.

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MSU preparing for a “talented” Auburn team with a new QB

Preparing to play Auburn is a bit of an interesting challenge for Mississippi State. Despite the fact the Tigers have played three games, including one common opponent, the Bulldogs aren’t really sure what to expect. Part of that mystery comes from changes in personnel, but much of it comes from the sort of oddness surrounding the early portion of Auburn’s season.

They’re 2-1, but the one loss was in blowout fashion last week to LSU and the two wins were tough to secure over non-conference opponents. In the preseason, Auburn was picked to win the SEC West and their new quarterback was considered one of the Heisman favorites. Only entering their fourth game, the quarterback has already been benched and expectations have plummeted.

YPEBWUNCQSTVCMU.20150919183434Going into Saturday’s contest, Auburn is 13th in the conference in total defense, while MSU’s offense is third in the conference and has been humming at a seemingly unstoppable pace for the last five quarters, scoring 75 points in that stretch. Auburn’s offense has struggled to find rhythm and has consistently turned the ball over, while State’s defense has had moments of greatness and has performed admirably almost overall.

All of that said, MSU’s players and coaches still expect a strong opponent, a tough game and a big atmosphere on the road at Auburn. And it’s not coachspeak.

“I’m not really judging them off the last two games,” MSU quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We know it’s going to be a close game; a tough one, anyway, on the road at Auburn. We’re expecting a big-time team and that’s what we’re going to prepare for.”

The reason for that is the amount of talent seen on film when MSU has been scouting Auburn. To this point, the production has not met the ability, as Auburn’s coaches have said this week and as evidenced by their personnel moves.

But every interview with a Bulldog coach or player this week came with a similar refrain: Auburn is still good, even if they haven’t shown it necessarily. Wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales touted the ability of Auburn’s defensive backs. Head coach Dan Mullen had high praise for the front seven, believing the Tigers have one of the best defensive tackles and two of the best linebackers in the entire conference.

It was Mullen who said Monday that the statistics for Auburn are misleading this early in the season and that, despite what others may believe, the Tigers are still capable of great things.

“Look at the different talent they have all over the field,” Mullen said. “They’re getting back to playing at home where they have a great home record. We’re really going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to play at a high level. Any time you go on the road you have to do that.”

OODWNOOYMNFTZNU.20150919220258It’s a bit odd to, at the same time, scout the team you’ve seen on film and also prepare for the different team you think they can be. The task is doubly difficult for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after Auburn’s change at quarterback. Had they stayed with Jeremy Johnson, there was film aplenty. But now, AU coach Gus Malzahn has made the switch to redshirt freshman Sean White.

Whenever White takes the field Saturday, it will be the very first play of his college career. Any possible film on White is at least two years old, coming from his high school days.

The only thing anyone outside of the Auburn coaching staff really does know about White is that he is a more a pro-style quarterback, a pocket passer with less mobility than Johnson, though he’s apparently not statuesque either.

Despite the change, Diaz says MSU’s defensive plan remains, more or less, the same.

“You still have to prepare for what they do historically on offense,” Diaz said. “You know that no matter who they put at quarterback, they’re still going to be a well-coached outfit. You know that they’re going to put a lot of stress on you.

“And you still know that, no matter who’s playing quarterback at Auburn, from Cam Newton to Nick Marshall or whoever, still job No. 1 is to stop the run because everything they do in the throwing game comes off the running game. Who’s driving the car isn’t as much of a concern as making sure we can handle all the questions their offense asks of us.”

The key Saturday for MSU, Diaz believes, is discipline. He knows Malzahn’s offense well, having seen it many times before, even last year when he was at Louisiana Tech and played against Auburn. What he’s stressed to his players is to follow the guidelines given. Stay in their gaps. Know where they’re supposed to be. Stick to the gameplan, basically, and they will hopefully come out on top.

Malzahn’s offenses, no matter who runs them (and Malzahn said this week he’s strongly considering using the wildcat formation, too), look for weaknesses in the opposing defense. They wait for the moment they see the slightest of breaths being taken and then they attack. They search for a hole in the defense and they go straight at it.

“They present so many formations, so many motions, and all it takes is someone’s eyes to wander for a moment and then they pounce on you with their tempo,” Diaz said. “There’s always a threat of an explosive pass play. As a defensive coach, you like going against an offense like that because it really puts the pressure on your guys to make sure that snap after snap, they’re paying attention and have their eyes in the right spot.”

So, maybe MSU gets the Auburn they’ve seen the last two games. Maybe MSU gets the Auburn everyone expected in the preseason. Maybe the new quarterback is an immediate star, or maybe he has the natural struggles of a freshman in his first start.

Whatever happens, MSU believes it has to play its best, motivated largely by a faith that everything they want is still attainable. It was Prescott who said the west can still be won with a single SEC loss. But two losses, this early, would create a very steep hill to climb.

“It’s going to really set the tone for the season,” Prescott said of Saturday’s game. “We still have everything in front of us. If we win this game, we’re still right in the position we need to be. If we lose it, we’ve got to get some things straight.”

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Gabe Myles finally gets his moment in the endzone

With 13 minutes and 21 seconds left in the first quarter against Northwestern State Saturday afternoon, three years into his career at Mississippi State, Gabe Myles did the one thing he’s been dreaming of since it all began: he crossed the goal line.

RWZGKBNSEUQEUBK.20150920001015A redshirt sophomore now, the Starkville-native receiver saw his first action as a Bulldog last season. During that historic campaign, 11 different receivers and tight ends caught a pass, Myles included. 10 of them also scored a touchdown, Myles the only one who didn’t. For all the passes he caught in 2014 (22 of them, to be exact), not a single one of the 31 touchdowns throws MSU had went to him. Heck, even the quarterback caught a touchdown pass, Dak Prescott being on the receiving end of a throw from another member of the receiving corps. Funny, if cruel, irony.

Myles always seemed to come up just short. Until Saturday, when he caught that 49-yard strike for six points from Prescott.

“Everybody was really excited about that,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “I think he has the career record for being tackled on the one-yard line without scoring touchdowns.”

“They were making jokes about me not scoring,” Myles confirmed. “Mr. One-Yard Line.”

Recalling the moments before the touchdown, Myles broke down the approach, “I saw the defense and thought, ‘I’m going to be open. If the ball comes my way, I’ve just got to catch it and let my feet do the rest.’”

HUNNBADUZTODAAF.20150920001014“I saw him catch it,” Mullen remembered after it turned out Myles was, indeed, open, easily beating single-coverage by a safety out of the slot deep down the middle of the field. “I’m like ‘Oh, boy, don’t trip, don’t trip. He’s going to fall here on the one or something.’”

Remarked Prescott, “He did stumble and I got a little nervous he was gonna fall.”

“Last week, we talked about getting me into the endzone,” Myles shared from his conversations with Prescott. “My thing is, when you give me the ball, I’m gonna make sure I catch it and get it in there.”

Myles continued, “It just feels good to finally cross that threshold.”

“It was exciting,” Prescott agreed. “He was down there a lot last year on the two-yard line. It was good to see him get into the endzone with no one close to him.”

“And then he scores twice!” Mullen exclaimed, reminding that the player they once referred to as Gabe-y Football also ran for a six-yard touchdown later in the game. “He had a receiving AND a rushing touchdown. How about that?”

EQCEGYDIQPUTEPP.20150920001014“Any chance I get to touch the ball, I’m excited and ready to make a play,” Myles stated, sharing that he enjoyed returning punts, too.

“Everybody was so excited,” Mullen supplied, “because everybody jokes with him and kind of picks on him for not getting into the endzone.”

“It felt really good just to finally get in there and the jokes will stop,” Myles told the horde of reporters surrounding his table after the game.

“I’m just really happy,” Mullen gushed to the same group. “And you see, that’s the development of a young player. Here’s a guy that led his team to a state championship as a quarterback. Comes in as a defensive back. Moves to receiver. Learns the position. Plays a little bit last year. Gets some opportunities. He comes out and you just see his steady improvement of being a guy we can count on as a play-maker for us.”

LGRBKABKQDXOQRP.20150920001015“The hugs and the slaps on the head would not stop,” Myles noted with a smile on his face.

“Congratulations,” Prescott simply said to him when the two met on the sidelines following the touchdown.

“It feels good,” Myles summed up.

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Live thread: Dan Mullen press conference, Auburn week

At 1 p.m today, Dan Mullen will hold his weekly press conference. Mississippi State beat Northwestern State 62-13 in Starkville last weekend and travels to Auburn this weekend. The game kicks off at 6:30 central time on ESPN2.

Live updates to follow.


NADGDUUQCEFBWGV.20150913031107And he’s here.

Mullen opens by talking about MSU’s win over NSU, saying “as a team we improved.” He said MSU was much better in the week of practice leading up to NSU. He wants to see the same this week ahead of Auburn, who he expects to be a tough opponent.

“Look at all that talent they have all over the field, getting back at home where they have that great home record under Gus [Malzahn], we’ve got a challenge ahead of us,” Mullen says.

What helps with MSU having a young team and going on the road, Mullen says, is that MSU opened the season on the road at Southern Miss. He acknowledges the crowd will be twice as large and very hostile, but it helps that the team is used to the process of the bus ride down and playing a night game.

Talking about his own team, Mullen getting into the running back rotation. He says he thought freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams both looked good. If they progress and keep learning, he expects them to play more. “Unless someone really separates themselves,” Mullen expects all four to rotate going forward.

On the offense as a whole led by Dak Prescott, Mullen said his quarterback does a good job of keeping the offense rolling when they start doing well. Said Prescott has a good feel for what needs to be done and how to capitalize on momentum and make good decisions to keep MSU in rhythm.

As for the opposite team’s quarterback, Mullen says of Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson that “he has the athleticism to beat you,” but also “has the ability to be a pocket passer.” Said it presents a challenge that he can do well either way.

To Auburn’s defense, Mullen says “they have a lot of talent in that front seven.” He thinks Auburn has two of the best tackles and linebackers in the SEC. He expects MSU to see a lot of talent lined up opposite of them.

Back to his own team, Mullen was asked about freshman left tackle Elgton Jenkins, who played early and extensively against NSU. Said he’s a talented player who they need to get more experience for. Mullen said Jenkins is one of several young players they want to find ways to have play.

“We’re going to continue to try to force-feed guys on the field.”

And that’s it for Mullen. Happy Monday, friends.

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