Bougard leaving legacy as all-time great at MSU

Erica Bougard has been at Mississippi State for four years. She’s won a National Title, set school and conference records and beat the best times at venues across the country. She’s everything a proud track parent could want.

Bougard receiving her first-place medal in the heptathlon Friday

Bougard receiving her first-place medal in the heptathlon Friday

This weekend, those parents and around a dozen members of Bougard’s family got to see her compete for the first time since she left Byhalia for Starkville, a two-hour drive along old Mississippi roads. Her response to the first competition in front of family since high school: Bougard won the SEC Championship in the heptathlon, setting four SEC Championship records in only seven events and scoring a personal best 6,250 points.

Not only was her score an SEC record, it’s tops in the country for 2015 and qualifies as the fifth-best heptathlon performance in NCAA history.

“I was happy to have my family here,” Bougard said afterward. “It made me push a little bit harder. They want to see me perform at my best and I want to do my best, so that just gave me a little extra boost.”

With her score, Bougard not only automatically qualified for Nationals, but met the standards for Worlds. In fact, she said, improving her score just by about 150 points would give her Top 10 status on planet Earth.

And she thinks she can do that. Her high jump, for instance, she believes can be improved due to her less-than-perfect form. Despite still finishing in the Top 10, her javelin throw was significantly less than what she’s come to expect from herself.

She’s already one of the most accomplished Bulldogs in history – All-American, SEC Champion and National Champion, to name a few highlights – and she’s got a full postseason ahead of her as she’s at the best she’s ever been.

Track and field may not draw the crowds of football, have the recruiting flair of basketball or be considered America’s pastime like baseball, but quietly in her corner of campus, Bougard may have carved out a career as great as any at Mississippi State.

Regardless of sport, could Bougard be considered one of the best athletes – or THE best – to come through MSU?

“No doubt about it,” head coach Steve Dudley said. “When you say ‘athlete,’ athlete means a lot of different skill sets.

“Who do you think can jump as well as she can?”

Bougard tied a personal-record in the long jump this weekend by leaping 20 feet and 11.75 inches.

“Who do you think can sprint as well as she can?”

She won the 800-meter sprint on Saturday by running two laps in 2:11, despite the fact she had already all but locked up the heptathlon title going into the event.

“Who can hurdle,”

…100-meter hurdles in a record 13.04 seconds…

“horizontal jump,”

…previously established long-jump record…

“vertical jump,”

…she cleared a school-record 6’,0.75”…

“and throw like her?” Dudley asked.

“There are a lot of components to being a great athlete. You’ve got a lot of people that are really good in their sport, but they’ve got one athletic skill set or two athletic skill sets they’re good at and then they’re not very good at the rest. That’s why she’s a multi-event athlete.

“So yeah,” Dudley concluded, “I don’t think you want to stack anybody up against her athletically and talent-wise.”

LCYZKVUKZIPUNHP.20150515021203It’s hard to argue with the man, or any of his several good points. Many have been taller, longer or stronger. But in terms of pure athleticism, of maximizing every muscle and reaching a world-class level in so many skill sets, few if any have ever met the standard Bougard continues to set.

Over at Davis Wade Stadium where gridiron heroes receive praise and support from tens of thousands every fall Saturday, the football field is named for Don Scott, not because he was a great quarterback or defensive lineman, but because he was a track star, the school’s very first Olympian.

In 2015, 101 years after Scott Field opened, Bougard is continuing his legacy.

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MSU decathlete Zach Taylor qualifies for NCAA Championships, competes for father

Zach Taylor was still fidgeting with his silver medal when he walked into the air-conditioned weight-room-turned-interview-room. A sophomore sprinter for Mississippi State, Taylor had just done something almost no one expected him to do – at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Starkville, he beat out competitors from all across the conference and placed second in the decathlon, one of the most difficult events in the game, qualifying himself for the NCAA Championships in Oregon next month.

unnamed-2Those running with – and mostly behind – Taylor, hadn’t calculated him in their plans. MSU’s coaches and players, while confident and proud of him, didn’t think he’d do anything like that. Even Taylor himself, he admitted, had projected he would finish around fifth or sixth in the highly-competitive SEC.

No one expected him to do what he did. No one except for his dad, that is, and it was that man, James “J.T.” Taylor, who Zach first thought of when he was presented with his silver medal and when he stepped onto the podium as a winner on Friday afternoon.

Nearly six months ago, last November, Zach received a call. His father had been in an accident and it was serious. Within the hour, Zach was on a plane to Charlotte to get to the hospital where his dad had been taken and where his mother was waiting. He was scared for the worst, and shortly after arrival, his fears were confirmed. Try as doctors might, the injuries were too severe. J.T. Taylor passed away.

From that moment, Zach’s life went into a tailspin. After losing his father, his grades slipped, his focus waned and over the course of a few months he gained 20 pounds, a huge jump for a college athlete.

Finally, roughly two months ago, Zach emerged from the emotional turmoil and started to turn things back around. His coaches moved him around within the track program, helped him in get shape and taught him to channel his emotions, exhausting them through the healthy means of training and competition. Steve Dudley, MSU’s head coach who Zach considers a second father, has been at the center of it.

Throughout it all, since November, Dudley has called Zach nearly every night to check on him and talk to him. Dudley has called Zach’s mother to do the same. Thursday and Friday, as Zach worked his way through the 10 events it took to finish the decathlon, Dudley watched from the side as the young man who had been through so much fought his way to the top of the leaderboard.

“I’m blessed to have a coach like him,” Zach said. “He’s really like my second dad right now. He’s stepped up and taken a big part in my life, been there for me through everything.”

KHGBLMVGZSXXRYX.20141202191310Coming into the SEC Championships this weekend, Zach had dropped the extra weight, he’d picked his grades up and he had trained daily for months. But despite all the work, he still didn’t quite expect this.

Not only did Zach beat the competitors, he beat himself. Zach set a personal record in eight out of the 10 events in the decathlon, an incredible rarity in such a competition. He was initially surprised by the result, but as he shared in emotional moments after the meet, he probably should’ve seen it coming.

“Before every meet this year,” Zach said, “I went and talked to my dad. This time, he told me some good things. I’ll keep that between me and him, but he told me some good things.”

Zach’s father, watching from above, knew the young man his son had grown into and knew the successes which would come. Those big moments came for nearly all of Zach’s teammates, too, as Bulldogs placed in or won event after event in the first two days of the meet. Zach was competing for his dad, but not him alone. Zach and his teammates were also running for Daundre Barnaby.

A former Olympian, Barnaby was a sprinter for Mississippi State from 2009-13, and while training with the Canadian National Team this March, Barnaby tragically drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, passing away on March 27 while preparing for what he loved the most. At the SEC Championships this weekend, MSU’s players and coaches all wore hats with the letters ‘F.L.B.’ stitched across the front – Finish Like Barnaby.

As Zach ran, jumped and threw his way to the conclusion of the decathlon, it was Barnaby and his father who spurred him on in the toughest moments.

“Both of those started to come through my head,” Zach said. “Every time I started to feel like I was hurting, any time my legs got tight, that went through my head. ‘I gotta finish. I gotta finish.’”

And finish he did, the most incredible performance of his young career, thanks to his father, the man who had more confidence in him than any.

“He motivated me through the whole thing. Every time I felt down, I just had to push harder,” Zach said as tears welled up, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day. “He’s looking down smiling right now.”

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Mullen, Schaefer, Howland recruiting people, not players, on Road Dawgs Tour

The crowd in Biloxi was fully aware who each speaker was as they needlessly introduced each other.

unnamed-2Dan Mullen is the head coach of the football team – the football team that rose all the way to No. 1 last fall and will start its next campaign with a Heisman frontrunner. Vic Schaefer is the women’s basketball coach who was the surprise star of the SEC this year, getting his team into the Top 15 and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in only his third year. Ben Howland, the new men’s basketball coach, may have the best resume of them all, plus he just signed one of the top five high school players in the country barely one month into the job. And then Scott Stricklin is the athletic director who takes credit for all of it. (Kidding, Scott!)

It was, in fact, Stricklin who had a hand in hiring all three, and it was again he who pointed out that Monday on the Road Dawgs Tour was the first time those three Mississippi State coaches had been together. Taking it in turn to address the crowd at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss., each had different words but ultimately a similar message.

They are all at different points on the same path, their progression down it in reverse order of how little hair they have. (“I know I’m losing my hair,” Schaefer cracked after relating that he’d frequently been mistaken for Howland, “but my goodness, I’ve got more than Ben.”)

For Mullen, that path began in 2009, as he told it.

“We went 3-5 at home my first year,” Mullen said, “but that’s when we started selling out games.”

Since his first day on the job, Mullen has preached the same message when it comes to the program. He couldn’t build it on his own and then get fan support. They had to come first, then he could build it. Luckily for him, they did.

A few years later, as crowds continued to come and Mullen began to win more and more, Schaefer started reaping benefits from the fervor for football.

“You’ve got no idea the environment that football creates for us,” Schaefer said of bringing visitors to campus on football weekends. “It’s hard for me to screw that up when I’m recruiting with that.”

Likewise, record crowds began turning out for women’s basketball. Not just this past year, though. Many of the records Schafer’s crowds broke in 2015 were originally set in 2014, back when his Bulldogs were just in the WNIT. Within a year, they went from hosting the WNIT to just barely missing out on hosting the NCAA Tournament.

At the beginning of that path is Howland, the newest of the three who has yet to play a single game at Humphrey Coliseum.

“I didn’t see a lot of fans in The Hump,” Howland told the crowd of his days watching from a distance the last couple years. “The only way we’re going to have success in the future is to fill it up. I know we’re gonna have that in the future. I really look forward to it.”

If crowds for Mullen and Schaefer – as well as those for seemingly every other sport on campus – are any indication, Howland will get his wish. Based on the excitement from the crowd in Biloxi (over 400 people, nearly double the usual attendance) he may only have to wait until his first game for it.

In addition to sharing his enjoyment of Biloxi, Howland sang Starkville’s praises at length, and not in a disingenuous manner.

“The people,” Howland explained, “are so nice, so hospitable, so welcoming, so lovable. That’s gonna make it so easy to recruit.”

Whether Schaefer intended to do so or not, he actually gave a perfect example of what Howland meant when he told the story of securing the signature of his latest high-profile signee, a 6’7” five-star forward from Texas. One of the country’s most sought-after players, Teaira McCowan had taken visits all over America, to cities big and small.

Near the end of her first visit in Starkville, she stopped Schaefer and her family and said, “Coach, we had no idea all this was here.

That night, while eating dinner at The Veranda, Schaefer remembers McCowan rapping her fork against her water glass and telling the table she had an announcement. She stood up and told Schaefer she wanted to be a Bulldog, she wanted to move to Starkville and she wanted to play for Mississippi State.

“I’m 54 and I had my first heart attack,” Schaefer joked with the crowd Monday night. “Mississippi State is an easy sell.”

It’s a sell Howland has already made once, securing the signature of Malik Newman, the top player in the state of Mississippi and a McDonald’s All-American. It’s a sell Howland will continue to make, even immediately, he hopes, as he said plans to add another player to the roster by the time his first game starts.

Oh, and that first season – he thinks they’ll be pretty good.

“Malik would not have joined us if he didn’t believe we’d win right away,” Howland explained.

Howland speaks as someone who can’t wait to get on the court, who can’t wait to play a game, and certainly as someone who very much hopes to have a big crowd there to watch every game. He also speaks, both in direct words and perceived tone, as a man who wants to take MSU basketball back to the top of the conference and the country.

As Schaefer said before him and Mullen detailed after, the path has been laid.

“Three years ago, I told y’all we could do something special, and we did,” Schaefer said Monday night. “Mississippi State is here to stay. That’s not going to change.”

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Successful year one of SEC Network broadcasts for MSU

The first year was supposed to be about learning, easing into things and figuring out how the whole seemingly-complicated mess would work out.

SEC Network launch party on MSU's campus

SEC Network launch party on MSU’s campus

It turned out, the SEC Network was the biggest cable launch in history, and after nine months online, the digital side has more than doubled its projection with the 14 Southeastern Conference schools producing and broadcasting over 1,000 events on SEC Network+.

And the most impressive part, to some, isn’t just the sheer amount of productions, but the fact that quality has somehow kept up with the quantity.

“I don’t know how other coaches in our league feel, but it’s actually dramatically better than what I thought it was going to be,” Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen said. “When you have that much that you’re trying to cover as a network, you just assume that some of it is going to be a little sketchier. But it hasn’t been. The production has been phenomenal.”

The projections before the launch called for each school to have around 40 of its own broadcasts in year one, a strong but attainable goal. From August 2014 up to now, that number has doubled to an average of about 75 live events produced per school. MSU has produced over 100 when including games, press conferences and other live events.

Bennie Ashford, Assistant Athletic Director for Video Production at MSU, is the man tasked with the day-to-day operations of every production, lining up cameramen, directors, producers, talent and the like. It required more work for everyone involved, but Ashford said he wasn’t at all surprised the numbers went so far beyond expectations once people figured out how to do everything.

“The schools,” he said, “felt like, ‘Hey, this is a great platform. Let’s use it. Let’s just put every game we possibly can out there, and as long as you’ve got a budget to support it, do it.’”

At State, volleyball and soccer coaches saw how nice it was when Ashford’s crew began broadcasting their games online. Once the kinks were worked out of the productions, there was no reason not to show as many games as possible. Between volleyball, soccer, softball, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball – the sports with regular online broadcasts – only a handful of games were missed, an impressive juggling act by a group with only one control room.

MSU's current control room. Another one is being built this summer.

MSU’s current control room. Another one is being built this summer.

Only able to broadcast one game at a time has caused at least a little bit of stress, especially during heavy months like November and February with so many teams in action, but Ashford’s crew managed.

However, reinforcements are on the way, according to Scott Wetherbee, MSU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs. By next year, MSU will have two fully-operational control rooms located at Davis Wade Stadium in the plaza of the new north endzone. Up to now, MSU has kept its SEC Network budget under $1 million, though the needed upgrades will put the department’s tab into seven figures.

It will be worth it, however, and not just to broadcast a few more games. While pumping out an ESPN-quality broadcast, Ashford’s crew also has to run HD video boards for each of the games for the teams who have them. There may only be one “broadcast,” but every game is a dual-production when video boards are involved.

“Marketing people are concerned about what’s going on in the venue on the video board,” Ashford said, “and if you’re watching on the ESPN app, you want to see a ballgame with slo-mo replays and different camera angles. We’ve been able to co-exist throughout the year with one control room, but with two next year, it will be a lot cleaner.”

Part of the emphasis to be able to broadcast more and at a higher quality level has been for a both surprising and obvious reason – the people watching. ESPN, the SEC and all the schools certainly hoped their numbers would be good, but interest has, again, gone beyond even what they expected.

All 14 schools together, the average for baseball broadcasts this spring has been around 5,000 viewers per game, led by an overwhelming 20,000-plus for LSU’s baseball productions. At MSU, numbers finished around 7,000 per broadcast

Softball has been strong league-wide, as well, bringing in around 1,500 viewers per game. At MSU, those numbers have been even more impressive as the Bulldogs have averaged nearly 5,000 people tuning in to watch them on SEC Network+ each home outing.

“When you have those kinds of numbers watching softball,” Wetherbee said, “we’re doing everything we can to be on the air.”

One incidental impact the SEC Network has had is the change in scouting for SEC teams. Baseball and softball this spring, for example, have had easy access to game film from opponents.

So easy, in fact, that softball coach Vann Stuedeman says her staff has been able to send cut-up video of opponents straight to their players phones so they can prepare for the pitchers or batters they’ll face in their next game. Before, Stuedeman’s staff was typically working with weeks-old film and sometimes they’d even have to go back and pull video from previous seasons.

“Now, an opponent we’re going to play tomorrow,” she said, “we’re watching their game from the previous Sunday with better camera angles, better views.”

Of course, as Cohen pointed out, “Everybody else in the league has that availability, too,” but it’s still been a boon from nearly every point of view. League visibility has improved, scouting is easier and fans are enjoying the product.

15561830-standardOne of the more subtle benefits has been the convenience for the parents of players in all the sports. With students coming in from across the country and even across the world, it’s not as easy for mom, dad and siblings to watch games as it was in high school when the stadium was just across town.

Alexis Silkwood, for example, is a sophomore pitcher on the softball team from Illinois – not exactly an easy afternoon drive. Ashford remembers the first time he met her, when her immediate response was to say how much her parents love being able to watch all of her games. They apparently enjoyed the quality of the broadcast, which is certainly a positive, as well.

It’s been an experiment in broadcasting that’s had a wealth of positives like that one, though that’s not say everything has been rosy. If nothing else, the time devoted and the stress induced for those like Ashford and Wetherbee has been strenuous, to say the least.

Wetherbee was charged with preparing MSU’s athletic department for the SEC Network from every possible angle, and he estimated at least two-thirds of his time every day was spent in Network preparations from April-December of 2014.

“It was a chore,” Ashford conceded, saying it’s been an every day job for him since the announcement in 2013. “It lasted, really, until now.”

Since that time, ESPN and the video coordinators from all 14 schools have had hour-long teleconferences every two weeks to review what’s been done, go over what was coming and feed off each other for ideas. It’s a unique situation, really, where those in charge act the opposite of all others across the conference. While the athletic teams are rivals on the field who intensely hide their secrets and methods from the competition, Ashford and his colleagues are open about everything, constantly giving each other tips, hints and inspiration.

“Everything we’re doing is all for one common goal – to publicize the league and to promote our athletes and athletic programs,” Ashford said. “The best way to do it is to work together.”

So they talk to each other. They study each other. Ashford and Wetherbee have spent hours on end watching other schools’ broadcasts to see what camera angles they use, what type of graphics packages they have, how their talent interacts with each other and anything else they can glean.

It’s been a lot of effort, a great deal of time and a ton of moving parts to put it all together, but they feel it’s been worth it. The much-anticipated check from the first year has yet to come in, so they don’t how much they’ll see from all the work, but it will assuredly cover the costs and much more.

At the very least, the fans of Mississippi State have been served, and ultimately, that’s the goal of everything happening in MSU’s athletic department.

“It’s worth it,” Ashford said of his time spent the last two years, “because it’s great for Mississippi State. It really is. We’re playing in the big leagues as it comes to television production. We’re getting our events out there so our fans, no matter where they are, can watch the games. That’s a big deal.”

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After five years on the job, Stricklin reflects on past successes and future goals

May 7, 2010.

I double-checked the date he gave me, but I needn’t have done so. Scott Stricklin won’t ever forget the day it was announced that he got his dream job – Director of Athletics at his alma mater Mississippi State University.

That was five years ago today, and it was a week ago today I met him in the office he’s occupied the whole time to talk about what he’s been doing this whole time.

“Can’t believe it’s already been five years,” I told him.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “That does seem like a pretty long time ago.”

“Well, the good news is you don’t appear to have grown nearly as much gray hair as Presidents seem to.”

“Oh, I’ve got more than I did. There’s some there, trust me.”

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Gray hairs aside – and he doesn’t have many to be just shy of 45 years old – appearances for Stricklin are overwhelmingly positive as he begins another year in the highest seat of Mississippi State athletics.

More and more teams are winning, new facilities are opening or being built on a seemingly monthly basis, donations are through the roof and visibility is, without question, at an all-time high. Not that Stricklin took over a department in need of heavy repair, of course. MSU was moving in the right direction already, and Stricklin himself was back in town and part of the administration helping it do so. But the five years since his hiring have been one of the most successful athletic runs the school has ever seen.

Under Dan Mullen’s leadership, the football team has been to five-straight bowl games, including the climax period of the run this past fall when the Bulldogs ascended to No. 1 in the country and held the top spot for five-straight weeks.

Just over three years into Stricklin’s tenure, the baseball team hosted its first Regional in a decade and played for a National Championship in the College World Series, the deepest run any Bulldog team of any kind has ever made it into a postseason.

Men’s tennis is about to play in its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament and women’s tennis just broke through and made the postseason for the first time in a decade. Men’s golf just witnessed a tremendous four-year run while women’s golf, coming off a sixth-place finish at last year’s National Championships, begins the postseason this weekend with hopes of being the first MSU team to win a National Title.

Since Stricklin hired Vann Stuedeman as head softball coach, they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament every year. Undergoing a big rebuilding project, Vic Schaefer got the women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament (and a top-20 ranking) in only his third year this winter.

MSU track and field, be it men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor, has become one of nation’s most dominant programs, winning two individual National Titles in the last two years and breaking a full book of records along the way.

Soccer and volleyball are in years one and three, respectively, of rebuilding with nationally-respected coaches, while men’s basketball made the splash of the offseason this March when it hired Ben Howland as the newest coach of the Bulldogs.

Stricklin with Ben Howland, center, and John Cohen, right

Stricklin with Ben Howland, center, and John Cohen, right

Off the field, MSU’s APR (academic progress rate) has grown annually, including two semesters the last two years with a cumulative department-wide GPA of at least 3.0, last fall being one of them.

The Bulldog Club has seen record donations and surpassed 10,000 members last year (up to almost 12,000 now), a significant milestone for the fundraising arm of the athletic department, while record crowds have shown up to watch football, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and women’s basketball all over the last 15 months.

Efforts such as those have led to a boom in facilities, where Stricklin has been part of the expansion and renovation of Davis Wade Stadium, a $25 million football team facility, a $12 million basketball practice facility, renovations to the track complex and upgrades to weight rooms and training facilities across the board. This spring, MSU unveiled plans for a brand new baseball stadium, broke ground on a multi-million dollar golf facility at Old Waverly Golf Course, and just last week the school began construction on a new $6 million softball stadium and tennis facility.

All the while, MSU has been at the front of pack in social media presence, marketing and branding, thanks in part to the twitter-savvy and perception-aware Stricklin.

So, if he’s sprouted a few gray hairs the last five years, it’s hard to blame him. But to see him relaxed in his office for a look back at those 60 months, you wouldn’t think he’d been so busy.

While it could easily seem like he just sits behind his wooden desk tweeting all day, Stricklin makes a point to get out among the people in the department and spend time with the coaches and players keeping the programs running.

“He’s very personable,” senior baseball pitcher Trevor Fitts said. “He knows everybody by name.”

BzRP1mMIgAA3bKBFitts has gotten to know Stricklin particularly well, it turns out. Not only does he see the athletic director at practices and games, Fitts goes to the same church as Stricklin and is actually teaching Stricklin’s daughter this spring while he’s been student teaching at a local elementary school to finish his degree.

The first time the two were ever around each other, however, was Fitts’ freshman year when Stricklin spoke with the baseball team before practice one day.

“He came in and told us how he thought our baseball program could compete for a National Championship,” Fitts recalled. “He thought we had the talent and ability to do it. The next year, we played for the National Championship. I just thought that was really cool that he believed in us and saw it coming.”

Kayla Winkfield, a junior on the softball team, said Stricklin makes sure to come and talk to her no matter where they run into each other, on the field or at a restaurant around town.

What both Winkfield and Fitts say they like so much about Stricklin is not just that he’s around, but that he makes them feel important. He goes out of his way to make sure he not only knows their names, but asks what they want to do, where they want to go, who they want to be.

As sophomore softball player Caroline Seitz put it, “we’re not football players, maybe, but our athletic director knows who we are, takes notice and cares about us.

That dedication to sports beyond football has been a big reason for MSU’s overall success under Stricklin in recent years. Football was the star this past fall, to be sure, but Stricklin has made a noticeable effort to put championship-caliber teams on every field, court and track on campus.

“If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it,” Stricklin said. “We want the Maroon and White to win.”

It didn’t happen from year one, and Stricklin says the entire department still isn’t completely where he wants it to be from a competitive standpoint, but the results of that renewed commitment to all sports have been evident.

Each year, Learfield Sports and the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors present what is called the Director’s Cup, a ranking of all 300-plus NCAA programs based upon on-field success in a given athletic year.

Only fielding 16 sports, MSU doesn’t have the numbers available to ever garner a top-10 finish, but the Bulldogs have made a jump in those rankings the last few years.

Two years ago, MSU cracked the Top 50 for the first time in history, its highest-ever rank. Last year, State checked in at No. 52, the third-highest finish ever. To give perspective, MSU had been outside the Top 100 for seven-straight years before cracking into double-digits in 2011. This year, with a minimum of half of MSU’s athletic teams making the postseason (and more possible), the Bulldogs could have the chance to break their own record yet again.

The very first head coaching hire Stricklin made was Vann Stuedeman, MSU’s softball coach, back in April of 2011, less than one year into the job.

Stuedeman, a longtime SEC assistant, asked around the conference about Stricklin before her interview in Starkville that spring. The answers she received gave her an idea of what was about to happen at MSU, a revitalization of all 16 sports, big-profit or not.

“The common answer was, he knows no gender difference,” Stuedeman remembered. “Over the last 19 years there had not been a whole lot of change to softball [at MSU] as an outsider looking in. I wanted to know there was going to be dedication to our sport.”

She got her answer then, but it was re-affirmed last week when she and her players took sledgehammers to the old stadium, ceremoniously clearing the way for the $6 million facility to come.

The same stories about Stricklin come in from across the athletic department, where Stricklin has demanded competitiveness from each sport and committed his time and resources to making that happen.

Stuedeman remembers a book Stricklin gave the staff during her first year on campus. It was called In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day. The synopsis: don’t run from challenges – chase them, and don’t be afraid of finding yourself in a tough place. Stricklin will regularly give out books he finds inspirational or practical, but that one in particular, to one of his coaches, exemplified what he does for Mississippi State.

“I felt like he was in the pit for this athletic department,” she said, “just like each individual coach was in the pit with their own team and everybody was working so hard to rise up and get one step closer to national prominence.

“To me,” Stuedeman concluded, “he’s quite the genius. This is the time to be at Mississippi State. That starts with the leader and that’s him in the athletic department.”


Stricklin with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, left, and Dak Prescott, center, after Prescott won the Conerly Trophy

Stricklin with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, left, and Dak Prescott, center, after Prescott won the Conerly Trophy

Stricklin and I sat down last week for a lengthy Q&A on a variety of subjects relating to Mississippi State Athletics and his time as athletic director. The following are highlights from that chat.

Question: Am I right to assume you always wanted to be an athletic director?

Answer: You reach an age of maturity, I think, where you’re more realistic and more comfortable with whatever happens. I remember when I became AD I was thinking what a great opportunity it was and how fortunate I am. Then I’d meet people who knew me here when I was a student. They’d say, ‘I remember you saying you wanted to be athletic director here one day.’ Man, how brash and precocious must that have been. For the last 10-15 years before being named, I don’t remember thinking that in a serious or realistic way.

But it’s fair to say I always wanted to be as high up in the administration as I could be. I also remember having the thought when I was working with Greg Byrne here and Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky that I was close enough to the fire to stay warm, but I never got burned. I remember thinking that’s a pretty good job, being a senior level person but not the guy at the head of everything. You do get burned sometimes when you’re name is at the top of the org chart. But it’s been great. I feel very fortunate and blessed. I don’t know how long I’ll get to do it, but I feel blessed every day I get to.

Q: Were you prepared for the time commitment and trying to balance family life?

A: I didn’t feel unprepared for that part. I had been around enough friends and others that I kind of knew what that was and how to manage the family part.

What’s different is becoming athletic director at a place you went to school and worked previously. There’s still people around here who knew me as a student. There’s some surrealness to that. It’s great because there are relationships there. But your role changes and you’re viewed differently. You have to manage things differently. Some of those relationships, while they’re still very strong, they’ve moved to a different stage. That was probably the thing that was hardest for me – not adapting to the workload, but how others saw and acted and treated me differently. It’s a little bit lonelier sometimes. People don’t pop in your office as much as they used to when I was down the hall.

Q: Looking at things you’ve done, a lot pops out, but facilities upgrades really stand out. Nearly every sport has made or is making improvements. Where did that come from?

A: I had a unique perspective because I’m a Mississippi State guy and always have been, but then I spent 15 years away. I got to see this place through a different set of lenses. 10 of those years I was in the SEC, so I would come back here often with another school. Some of the things I thought were great when I was here as a student, I realized maybe weren’t as great compared to other schools. Some of the things I didn’t fully appreciate before, I started to appreciate more.

One of the areas that I think you get a very objective view of a school is facilities. Plus, this day and age in college athletics, I think every school is constantly in the facility upgrade and expansion mode just because it’s so important how you’re perceived in attracting and retaining quality staff, attracting quality student-athletes and making sure your fans understand they’re important, too. Facilities touch everybody. Every one of your constituents are touched by facilities in some way, so it has to be a priority.

We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had so much support. The Bulldog Club, at large, has supported those projects. Whether it’s been fans buying tickets or individual donors stepping up. We’re not done. We’ve got a lot of projects ahead of us still. But it’s really pretty cool to see the Seal Complex start with just being an idea and then become reality. Then not only becoming reality, but you see the impact it has on the day-to-day operations of our football program. You see the football program grow from where it was kind of on a parallel path, they’re tied together. The women’s basketball program has grown under Vic’s leadership, and I think facilities are a big part of that. What we’re doing in golf, what we’re about to do in softball, it’s fun to see the impact those things make.

Q: Speaking of those programs, there’s been a lot of growth in the Olympic sports under your guidance. Not that people didn’t care before, but it seems like there’s been a renewed commitment there.

A: Absolutely. If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it. We want the Maroon and White to win. You’ve got to be strategic. You can’t just hope that happens. You’ve got to have the right people leading those programs and you’ve got to make sure they have the resources and tools around them to do the job and make sure they have a plan that can be executed. I get as fired up about women’s golf finishing sixth in the country or women’s basketball knocking off a top-ranked team as I do about our football team winning a big SEC game. It’s competitive nature.

The other part of it is, you can’t have a department where you care about some of your sports, and you really don’t care about some others. One of the most important parts about leadership is consistency. If we talk about wanting to compete for championships in some sports, I don’t know how you don’t do it in every sport. I don’t know how you don’t make that a focus and priority on winning consistently across the board.

Fans see the football players at the stadium or they see the basketball team on the court, but the fact of the matter is that during their time here at Mississippi State, those athletes interact with one another across their various sports. We have 350 student-athletes and they’re in the same classes, they share some of the same majors, they’re in study hall together, they eat together, they run into each other in the training room. Most of them don’t really have time to be in social groups. Their social network a lot of times is the other student-athletes. That’s why when you go to softball, you see football, basketball and track athletes supporting them. That’s their friends.

I want them to be around other winners. If we have winners in our football program and they’re going to go hang out with track athletes, I want them to be around other winners. That’s another reason why it’s really important. You don’t want any group pulling down everyone else. We’ve got to be good in everything. We’re not there yet, but we’re further along.

Q: In five years, you’ve hired a half dozen new coaches, as well as helping to retain assistant coaches and even sought-after head coaches across the board. You’ve also had to make decisions to let some coaches go, you’ve helped some ease into retirement and you’ve replaced some who left for other reasons. What have you learned from those experiences?

A: Those conversations when you’re making a change are no fun. It’s one of the worst parts of the job. At the end of the day, every action and every decision we make as a department has to be about what’s best for Mississippi State. Sometimes, there are decisions made that we need a change in personnel for the betterment of Mississippi State. It’s hard to sit down and have that conversation. Since we are doing it for Mississippi State and that is the focus, you’re able to move forward.

I love our group of head coaches. I think we’ve got as strong a stable as maybe in the history of our school and maybe as strong as anybody in the SEC, top-to-bottom. They all have a similar energy, have a similar focus. They all get along, which is very important to me. I’ve worked in departments where the football coach didn’t talk to the basketball coach and there was a lot of jealousy and territorial behavior.

It’s really important to me that people get this isn’t just about one sport. It’s about a whole university and how that sport can help benefit the entire university and department. I’m proud of that when I look out at one of the practice gyms and there’s coaches from all different sports out there playing a pick-up game together.

Our coaches communicate with each other a lot on things that have nothing to do with their sport. I think that’s really healthy because they’re able to share ideas to make each other better, but they’re also able to support one another.

Q: You’ve made a point through social media, marketing and branding that people are going to know who Mississippi State is. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural reaction as social media became a bigger deal?

A: I think a lot of it is more natural. My background is in communication and I dealt with the media a lot early in my career. Relative to most A.D.s, I’m probably more comfortable in that space. The other part of it is, I really feel like at Mississippi State we have to be aggressive and we don’t ever need to be afraid of trying stuff. If there’s one thing that we kind of use as a barometer, it’s that I don’t ever want to not do something because we’re afraid to fail.

We’ve tried some things that you’d put in that category, that this may not work, this may fail, but if it works it’s going to be really good and we think there’s a chance it could work. We’ve tried some of those things and they’ve worked, and we’ve tried some of those things and they didn’t work as well as we had hoped, and that’s part of it. We’re not afraid to try and I think that’s the most important thing.

I tell our coaches, we’ve got to be innovative. We can’t just sit back. When you’re innovative, you’re going to stub your toe sometimes. But, if you quit and don’t try anything again, you’re in trouble. From a marketing standpoint, we’ve not been afraid. Whether it’s uniforms, using social media or whatever, I think more things than not have worked and have helped. I think it’s given us, as a university and certainly as an athletic department, a little bit different identity.

There’s some flashiness there that’s attention-grabbing, but at the end of the day, this is a department that’s based on blue-collar values, hard work, toughness, competitiveness and intensity. We have fun with it. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and I think that’s a key delineation there. I think we have an identity. What’s neat is I think people outside our department are starting to understand what that identity is. I think it’s something that Mississippi State people can be proud of.

Q: Do you have any favorite memories, moments or experiences so far? If you’re thinking back over the last five years, what sticks out?

A: There’s a lot. The Georgia football win in 2010, which was Dan’s second year and my first year as athletic director. I don’t think we all focus on that game very much, but that was a pretty key game. We had started the season 1-2. Lost to Auburn in a pretty close game on a Thursday night. Went down to LSU and got beat. Georgia was coming down to our place, and they don’t come here very often. We hadn’t beaten them in a long time. It was really one of the first times that the fans and everybody were willing us to a victory. It was a big victory. We ended up winning nine games that year. That was a special moment that resonates. I just remember the joy from that game. I remember thinking, this is pretty cool. This is something we can build off of.

The Gator Bowl win was pretty special. Watching growth in fan interest in sports like women’s basketball and softball, that’s been pretty cool. We’re expanding our softball stadium because we don’t have enough room for all the people that want to watch them come play. Vic has got such a great following now with women’s basketball, setting statewide attendance records. That’s been pretty neat.

Winning the last two football games in 2013, especially the Egg Bowl, was such a needed thing. I feel like that was a big part of setting up the 2014 season.

That three or four week period getting to No. 1 and then being No. 1 last year, I don’t think I’ll ever top that professionally. I hope we’re No. 1 again, but there will never be anything like the first time. Unless we finish the year No. 1, which is our goal.

To go down to Baton Rouge and dominate them, have an off week to enjoy it, and then get ready for A&M, then have our stadium packed. It was the first time since our expansion we had an SEC game at home. That was a magical day. We beat A&M handily. Come back and it’s two-versus-three in Starkville, Mississippi and it’s the biggest game of the week with GameDay. Then we win that game by a couple scores. That was as fun a run as I’ve ever had in athletics. I remember sitting there just looking up at our fans and being so happy for them and seeing the pride and joy on their faces because they knew we were going to wake up the next day and be No. 1 in the country.

Getting to spend 12 days in Omaha watching our team compete for a National Championship. It’s good when you sit there and rattle off great moments for three or four minutes and, oh by the way, that time our baseball team played for the National Championship. That meant so much to our people. We had 20,000 people show up in Omaha to watch our team. I love those moments when you can see pride on the faces of Mississippi State people and you think, our student athletes and our coaches helped make that possible.

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Walk-off goodbye to Dudy Noble for Heck, MSU seniors

The last anything is always a little sentimental by nature, and the last of a good thing is impossible to be enjoyed without a hint of sadness. Time has a habit of speeding up during the things we enjoy, so the best way to fight back is just to take more time.

BBPDWJEFHWMNLYB.20150503011441Saturday morning, around 10, the first grill in the Left Field Lounge was lit. After allowing the coals to heat up, biscuits, sausage and tins of molded eggs were thrown on to be cooked and served for breakfast, a day-long tradition to say goodbye once more to Dudy Noble Field and Mississippi State baseball at the last game of the year.

That early in the day, there’s no music on, no crowds buzzing with conversation. The only sounds are cars driving by and the tin of the rakes from the grounds crew. In that moment, there’s nothing to distract the small group from each other. They’ve got nothing to do but relax in each other’s presence.

Sometimes it’s good to just be. No tweeting, texting or critical thinking. Just hanging around with food and friends enjoying the company, conversation, sun and slow moments provided by the day.

There aren’t many relationships quite like the ones you have with the people you watch baseball games with. For a consecutive four or five months, you spend almost every weekend with the same group. Others mix in and out, as well, but the core stays intact the whole way through. In the Lounge, in the grandstands or even in the press box, you commit to spending anywhere from four to eight hours a game for almost 40 games a year with each other. You pass the time together as the earth slowly turns from the end of winter to the start of summer.

Then, with the result of one pitch, it stops. There aren’t many social communities quite like it. Churches, service clubs and even friendships at work, they continue uninterrupted until you decide to leave. Baseball gets stopped for you, and you don’t always know when it’s coming.

The same can be said for the players, who fight, fight and fight every game, every inning and every out, only to reach the final moment and realize the game they worked so hard to end is the very thing they want to go on forever.

Just as some arrived a little early in the outfield to get some extra time in on their last day at The Dude, the players happened to take the game a little longer than anticipated, going all the way to the 12th inning. They didn’t intend for it to happen that way, but it was almost as if the baseball gods were giving the fans who cheered so hard and the seniors who worked so long just a little more time to enjoy it.

Wes Rea, Trevor Fitts, Ross Mitchell and Matthew Britton have put their entire collegiate careers into MSU baseball, and their names will be remembered for what they accomplished. Lucas Laster, Seth Heck, Cody Walker and Jake Vickerson took their own paths to Dudy Noble, choosing to believe in MSU and rest their futures on the result.

When Saturday afternoon had turned into Saturday night, Seth Heck stepped up to the plate for what would turn out to be his last time in front of the Mississippi State crowd. He waited for the pitch as his parents, in town for only the second time all season, watched from the same spot in the outfield where breakfast had begun so many hours before.

Heck’s last at-bat was an RBI single in the 12th inning, a walk-off in every sense of the phrase for the senior from the state of Washington. The hit scored Jake Vickerson, who raced home only to find that his sprint to the plate ended a marathon he began in Starkville two years ago. They won; the Bulldogs won.

The home finale will always be a little bittersweet, but in a non-perfect season, the ending for many turned out as perfectly as could be wanted – much more sweet than bitter.

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Stories from a weekend on the road with MSU softball

“Where are you taking him?”

“To set him free!”

Olivia Golden, a sophomore infielder for Mississippi State’s softball team, is sitting out this year after surgery sidelined her before the season began. Still a part of the team, of course, she travels with her coaches and teammates everywhere they go. However, when the rest of the team is warming up before games and getting ready to play, she has some time to kill.

On the road, she often ends up using that time to wander, look around and let her curiosity guide her while her teammates run through batting practice or fielding drills.



Last Sunday afternoon, waiting on MSU’s game against Georgia Southern in Statesboro to begin, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and found Golden and teammate Loryn Nichols holding a tiny frog on one of their mitts.

“This is Chester,” Golden announced.

Someone more versed in amphibious biology could tell us if Chester actually is a boy frog or not, but the concern was less for his gender and more for his well-being. Upon petting his back, it was discovered that Chester was pretty dried out having spent the day baking in the hot Georgia sun. Golden, the happy humanitarian she is, decided he needed to be returned to his home.

After Chester hopped around the dugout and scared a few members of the team, Golden scooped him up and took him to a wet, grassy area in the trees behind the stadium to, perhaps, save his life and set him free.


The Southeastern Conference has an annual quirk in softball scheduling as only 13 of the 14 schools participate in the sport, Vanderbilt being the one university without a softball program. Because of this, teams will have a random weekend in the middle of conference play without an SEC foe to face. MSU could easily host an in-state non-conference school in Starkville on these weekends, but head coach Vann Stuedeman saw an opportunity in the odd scheduling situation.

unnamed-1Why sit at home for a weekend when you could go somewhere fun? Her players have the chance, for four years, to travel the country for free and see things they might never otherwise be able to. So, with only two weeks left in the regular season, Stuedeman took her team to historic (and lovely) Savannah, Georgia for the weekend, a short hour-ish drive from Statesboro where they played and won two games against GSU.

On arrival Friday, the buses of players, coaches, support staff and myself skipped straight past check-in at the hotel and went to the beach on Tybee Island. The Bulldogs had a “workout” on the same sand frequented by Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and John Mellencamp, and where Robert De Niro and Zac Efron are filming for a movie just this week. From there they went to dinner at The Crab Shack for fresh-out-of-the-ocean seafood.

Over the course of the weekend, they went on a haunted trolley tour (“I screamed!” Golden admitted), walked around the country’s first planned city lined with live oaks and Spanish moss and ate at least a few good meals each day, though Stuedeman eagerly skipped dinner for the haunted trolley tour.

“I can eat anywhere,” she said. “I can only do this here. Most haunted city in America, this is the place to do it.”

The whole point of it all was to have fun, to let everyone enjoy themselves and give them an experience they’ll remember and may never be able to have under other circumstances. The other benefit is giving an opportunity for players’ families to see them play, as many of the current Bulldogs are from or have familial ties to the state of Georgia. In fact, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday were, at the very least, 50-50 MSU-GSU.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, though. Stuedeman makes a point to go on fun road trips every year, and sometimes more than once. Earlier this season, they played in Orlando where most of the team went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, though a small Stuedeman-led contingent visited Disney World. It was the second such trip to Orlando since she took over.

In her first year, Stuedeman took the team to Mobile during Mardi Gras, a more family-friendly version than the celebrations just west in New Orleans. Last year they went to Boca Raton, Florida and visited South Beach. On the schedule next season is a trip to California beginning in San Diego and ending in Long Beach, a trip partially planned for the California-native Nichols who will be a senior in 2016.

Even on unplanned trips, they make sure to have fun. One of my favorite travel experiences I’ve been on through MSU athletics was a swamp tour with the softball team in last year’s Lafayette Regional.

Of course, they’ve got the softball to attend to, as well. They certainly take the games themselves very seriously, and they had quite the match-up going Sunday afternoon in the shade-free and 90 degree GSU stadium.

MSU had to come from behind to even tie it, then it went all the way into the ninth inning (two longer then the seven regulation innings in softball) at a 5-5 tie.

In the top of the ninth, desperate to get the win, senior Katie Gentle walked up to the on-deck area and spoke to designated player MacKenzie Toler as she was about to step to the plate with one runner on base.

“End this right now,” Gentle told Toler, staring right in her eyes.

Next swing – Toler rocked a fastball out of the infield, past the outfield and straight over the fence for a two-run bomb, giving MSU a 7-5 lead they never lost.

When Toler crossed home plate, she pointed straight at Gentle, a huge smile on both their faces.

So MSU got the wins, plus they had a little fun as the postseason and a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament approaches. It worked out exactly as Stuedeman hoped.

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That’s What He Said: Reviewing MSU’s defense after spring football

It may seem as if it just began, but spring is now over at Mississippi State, at least for the football team. Spring practices concluded this weekend with the annual Maroon-White scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning we’ve got a long few months of waiting and speculating before fall camp begins in August (still summer, if you ask me or the sun).

TVQWSWQWRTPFDBH.20150418223746Things will certainly change between now and then, and they will surely change some more between the start of camp and the first game of the season at Southern Miss, but we learned a lot about where MSU stands over the course of the spring, so we’ll break it down by position with some general observations and thoughts from coaches.

We covered the offense yesterday, so we’ll hit the defense today.

Defensive Line

Coach David Turner has a lot to replace in this group, but he’s got a lot to work with, too. Senior Ryan Brown is, technically, the only returning starter, but juniors Chris Jones and A.J. Jefferson have had as many as reps as anyone, despite coming off the bench the last two years. Those three and fellow veteran Nelson Adams, a junior tackle, make up the starting four, but there’s talent aplenty behind them.

320-pound junior Nick James appears ready to be a consistent contributor for the first time and has earned a share of first-team reps, as well. Redshirt freshman tackle Cory Thomas was, to me, one of the most impressive players of the spring anywhere on the roster. He’s big, strong and incredibly talented; he just needs experience. On the outside, senior Torrey Dale has made big strides, according to both Turner and my eyes, while junior college transfer Jonathan Calvin looks like he’s going to push everyone for a starting position. Junior end Will Coleman and freshman tackle Braxton Hoyett deserve mention here, as well.

There’s a lot going on with the line, but Jefferson may have been the most attention-garnering member through the spring, culminating with his highlight-reel play in the spring game when he not only tackled the running back behind the line, but brought down the 6’6” tight end blocking for him, too.

That’s What He Said: David Turner on A.J. Jefferson – “He grinds and he’s kind of sneaky good. You don’t realize what he’s doing and how good he is until you stop and watch the tape. He has the ability to make a lot of plays. A.J., he loves football. He plays violent, he plays strong and he loves football. He’s a guy that should be the alpha dog of this group, kind of the bell cow of the group.


The only position on the team with a new coach in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, this unit also has to replace two out of three starters in the departed Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells. However, plenty of talent remains.

MSU knows what it has in presumptive starters Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown and Zach Jackson, a versatile and experienced trio. The story of the spring here, though, surely has to be redshirt freshman Gerri Green. He’s the next in line following McKinney and K.J. Wright of big, long and strong linebackers at MSU, and he’s ready to play after redshirting his first year on campus.

Green finished his spring by showing out in the spring game, including an interception, and will force coaches to put him on the field. Presently, he’s working behind Richie Brown in the middle, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Diaz move guys around to get Green and the two Browns on the field at the same in certain packages.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on people comparing Gerri Green to Benardrick McKinney – “He is his own player. Benardrick didn’t look like that when he was a freshman. Gerri does look like that. He has such a great work ethic. He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve been around.”


After quarterback, this is probably the most steady, safe position on MSU’s roster. Seniors Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun both return as starters and the duo ought to be one of the best in the conference.

The story here has been the return of Cedric Jiles. The talented junior has been hamstrung by injuries throughout his career, but he’s finally healthy and showing what he’s capable of. I still remember hearing former MSU corners Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks rave about him after his first week of practice a few years back, saying he was a sure-fire future NFL player. In 2015, it looks like he’ll finally get the opportunity to show off that talent.

That’s What He Said: Cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend on Cedric Jiles – “He’s just a guy that’s had reps, has played in the SEC and has that experience and the confidence that you need. Another body that can run. The physical type of corner you need in the SEC.


Where QB and cornerback have their starters in place from last year, safety is exactly the opposite, where zero percent of the starters are back from 2014 after the graduations of Justin Cox and Jay Hughes. It would seem safeties coach Tony Hughes has his work cut out for him, but he’s actually got a very talented group in place, and one which will be bolstered when the 2015 signees arrive this summer.

One of the coaches’ favorite young players on defense is redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant, a guy who easily could have played last year. One of my picks for breakout new player in 2015, Bryant is a hard-hitter who (pardon the cliché) has a nose for the ball. He’s always in on the action it seems and has a real knack for finding the pigskin.

Some combination of Bryant, junior Kivon Coman, junior Deontay Evans and senior Kendrick Market (out for the spring with injury) will likely enter fall camp as the No. 1s and 2s, but it’s not unreasonable to think they could be pushed by players on the roster now or freshmen coming in.

That’s What He Said: Tony Hughes on Kendrick Market – “He’s our leader. Not just a leader in the safety group but of the whole defense, the whole team. When he talks, everybody just shuts up and listens.

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That’s What He Said: Reviewing MSU’s offense after spring football

It may seem as if it just began, but spring is now over at Mississippi State, at least for the football team. Spring practices concluded this weekend with the annual Maroon-White scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning we’ve got a long few months of waiting and speculating before fall camp begins in August (still summer, if you ask me or the sun).

LNYCMJOHUVCTRZT.20150418221646Things will certainly change between now and then, and they will surely change some more between the start of camp and the first game of the season at Southern Miss, but we learned a lot about where MSU stands over the course of the spring, so we’ll break it down by position with some general observations and thoughts from coaches.

We’ll start with the offense today and come back with the defensive side of the ball tomorrow.

Offensive Line

Can a group lose three starters and be better? At least in terms of depth, that seems to be the case, though we’ve got a while until we see how it pans out with the starting five.

Exiting spring, it appears to be athletic senior Rufus Warren at left tackle, senior Justin Malone at left guard, junior Jamaal Clayborn at center (moved over from guard), junior Devon Desper at right guard and junior Justin Senior at right tackle. That group performed very well, and it speaks to the talent of the two tackles that Martinas Rankin, the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country, hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on MSU’s offensive line – “They’re coming along. We’ve got a long time until they play. If you look, we’ve got a lot of good offensive linemen, we’ve just got to get them experience. They can’t get enough reps, we could have 15 more practices and be happy. There’s only two of them that have had legitimate bunches of game reps.”


I’ve got a good feeling about this Dak Prescott guy, really think he’s got a chance to be decent. Really though, everyone knows what MSU has in Prescott, but it’s the emergence of redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald that’s been the big story. 6’5” and 225 pounds with a big arm, he’s rocketed up the depth chart, looking like the first option behind Prescott while junior Damian Williams and freshman Elijah Staley have been sidelined with injuries.

Short term, Williams would be the first player in if Prescott were sidelined for a few plays. But if Prescott were sidelined long-term, and certainly after he graduates following this season, I have a feeling Fitzgerald is the next man up.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on what Dak Prescott is working on this offseason – “You want to see his ability to get to second, third and fourth progressions, make throws, make off-balance throws, throws on the run, unorthodox throws, changing arm angles to get around linemen. Things that take some experience. The biggest one right now is here’s a guy that knows what it takes on the field to go out there and win.”

Wide Receiver

Similar to the offensive line, this may be the most talent at the position in the Dan Mullen era, and truthfully it may rival any team at MSU all-time in terms of ability.

De’Runnya Wilson is the star (as written in this space Saturday) but the story from spring was true junior Fred Ross. Injuries slowed the first couple years of his career a bit, but Ross seems to be the smoothest and most consistent receiver on the team. He catches everything, runs routes perfectly and has enough speed and size to compete with anyone.

Moving Ross to the slot seemed odd to me at first, but the more I watched it through the spring – and the more I heard the rave reviews from former slot star Chad Bumphis – the better a switch it seemed. Wilson getting attention on the outside and Ross moving the chains from the slot and even out of the backfield will be a tough tandem to cover, all while 6’5” senior Joe Morrow (who doesn’t seem to have received enough credit for his consistency and improvement the last 12 months) patrols the third spot.

Throw in Gabe Myles, Fred Brown, Donald Gray, Jesse Jackson, plus pass-catching tight end Gus Walley (another spring star this year), and MSU has more weapons than ever.

That’s What He Said: Dak Prescott on what he and De’Runnya Wilson will work on in the offseason – “He should know what I’m thinking from the moment I drop back based on what the coverage is, and vice-versa.”

Running Back

With Josh Robinson off the to the NFL, rising junior Ashton Shumpert entered the spring as the presumed starter after a strong finish to the 2014 season. He exited the spring seemingly still holding on to that spot, but his grip appears much more tenuous as redshirt freshman Dontavian Lee was one of the breakout stars on the offensive side of the ball.

Lee may be the least-recruited running back of the group, but he seems to be the most well-rounded. He’s got the size to run up the middle, as well as the hands and the speed to catch passes out of the backfield or bounce runs outside. It was his running that set up the White team in the redzone for its first score of Saturday’s scrimmage and his five-yard touchdown run that tied it up later in the second quarter.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on Dontavian Lee – “He runs the ball really hard. He’s done a real good job of picking up the offense. That’s important for young guys. You recruit him to put the ball in his hand and let him go run, but there’s so much more than that.

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De’Runnya Wilson breaks out in Spring Game, poised for big 2015

For the majority of spring practice, De’Runnya Wilson was limited, half-speed and rarely heard from. Other receivers, young and old, got the attention as fifth-year senior quarterback Dak Prescott led what looks to be a high-flying offense throughout the spring.

JHGBKLCMEBQDLLN.20141116010217Then, at the exact last moment possible, Wilson reminded everyone why they were wrong to ever forget about him, or at least to not be talking about him. It was only a spring game, but on Scott Field, the rising junior receiver showed again why he’s considered one of the best in the country, why he hauled in catch-after-catch and broke tackle-after-tackle during Mississippi State’s run to the top of the college football world in 2014.

With five catches for 92 yards and a score Saturday, De’Runnya Wilson broke back out, one last show before his third season starts in September.

Bear, as teammates call him, had been limited through the spring due to minor injuries, but a talk with Prescott, combined with health, spurred him to finish strong.

“I told him to come out here running and let’s get our game speed going,” Prescott said. “I told him we wouldn’t have this chance again so we had to make sure we pick it up.”

Said Wilson, “Dak Prescott is only going to make me a better person on and off the field.”

It can be a little odd to think of Wilson as a player still trying to get better. After all, as just a true sophomore last year, he led the team by a longshot in every major receiving category, catching 47 passes for 680 yards and nine touchdowns, despite being limited for a significant portion of the season.

Most impressive were his numbers in big games against MSU’s toughest opponents. Wilson racked up a total of 548 yards combined in six games against LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, including six touchdowns.

Just last week, the Sporting News named him the fourth-best receiver in the country.

“I didn’t know that,” Wilson said when asked about it after the spring game. “But it’s a blessing, I can say that.”

However, despite all his success and recognition, he’s only entering his fourth year of even playing football, having just started in high school as a senior. It can only be assumed, he believes, that he’ll get better by significant amounts as each year goes by.

A big part of that, Wilson told reporters, is receivers coach Billy Gonzales. For a player as young as Wilson, in terms of football knowledge and training, having a longtime instructor and developer of talent like Gonzales has been invaluable.

“Coach Gonzales is going to bring the best out in you,” Wilson said. “He recruits you to come play SEC football and you’ve gotta live up to that hype.”

Surely, training with Gonzales, getting extra work in with Prescott and spending time in the weight room will help Wilson’s game going into 2015. However, the same reason those around the team stopped talking about him all spring could be the exact cause for him to have an even bigger year this fall.

The talent at receiver, anyone on the team will concede, is as strong as it’s ever been under Mullen. Listing the potential playmakers, one might as well copy-and-paste the receivers portion of the roster. Some are tall, some are fast, some are strong and some are all of the above.

The benefit for Wilson is that opposing defenses can’t just focus on him. Plus, he’s still an athlete. Teammates or not, he’s competitive and wants to be the best person on the field.

Add to that depth an experienced senior quarterback who will likely be in the Heisman race, as well as a re-tooled offensive line and new running backs, and it would appear the Bulldogs will be throwing the ball a lot in 2015.

If today’s spring game was any indication, De’Runnya Wilson will be the star of the show.

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