Mullen: ’Dogs not fin­ished yet

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

HOOVER, Ala. — Now that the Dak Prescott era is nearly two years re­moved from Mis­sis­sippi State, SEC in­sid­ers are won­der­ing if the ship has sailed on Coach Dan Mullen’s best days in Starkville, Miss.

Mullen, up­beat and com­fort­able dur­ing his ninth ap­pear­ance at SEC me­dia days, said he’s an­tic­i­pat­ing more achieve­ments for the Bull­dogs un­der his watch.

“My life has no fin­ish line,” said Mullen, whose team was ranked No. 1 in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off stand­ings for its first three weeks dur­ing a 10-3 run in 2014 be­fore slip­ping to 9-4 in 2015 and 6-7 last year. “I tell the play­ers that. There’s no fin­ish line.

“There’s ob­vi­ously a lot more ahead of us. We have not won the West yet. We have not won an SEC Cham­pi­onship. We have not won a Na­tional Cham­pi­onship yet. So there’s an aw­ful lot ahead on the ta­ble of goals that we want to achieve as a pro­gram,

but I am proud of the work of our play­ers.”

Mullen, with a 61-42 ca­reer mark, has the high­est win­ning per­cent­age (.592) for a Mis­sis­sippi State coach since Hall of Famer Al­lyn McKeen in 1939-48. He is four vic­to­ries short of McKeen for sec­ond on the school’s all-time list and 14 away from Jackie Sher­rill’s school-record 75.

How­ever, the Bull­dogs went 5-7 in the reg­u­lar sea­son last year, the team’s first los­ing record since go­ing 5-7 in Mullen’s first year of 2009. They qual­i­fied for a bowl only due to a lack of el­i­gi­ble teams.

Mis­sis­sippi State edged Mi­ami, Ohio, 17-16 in the St. Peters­burg Bowl.

“We’re look­ing this year hope­fully to make it to our eighth con­sec­u­tive bowl game, which would be a great feat,” Mullen said.

“One of the things when I came here was to build a pro­gram that wins on a con­sis­tent ba­sis, and I think we’ve been able to build and do that, and I’m re­ally proud of that, proud of our play­ers.”

The Bull­dogs tied for fifth in the SEC West with the Univer­sity of Arkansas, Fayet­teville last sea­son and have largely the same type of re­turn­ing po­si­tion play­ers as the Ra­zor­backs, start­ing with quar­ter­back Nick Fitzger­ald. The 6-5 Fitzger­ald rushed for 1,375 yards to rank sec­ond in the SEC and com­pleted 196 of 361 passes for 2,423 yards, with 21 touch­downs and 10 in­ter­cep­tions.

“There is al­ways com­fort when you have a quar­ter­back that’s played com­ing back,” Mullen said. “Nick Fitzger­ald … had a pretty solid year last year, led the SEC in to­tal of­fense, had a great year run­ning the foot­ball.”

Fitzger­ald did not at­tend SEC me­dia days but his of­fen­sive mates vouched for him.

“He’s a great guy,” said cen­ter Marti­nas Rankin. “He’s a guy that I re­spect a lot and I’m glad to have him on team.”

Re­ceiver Don­ald Gray said he sees Fitzger­ald as be­ing much more com­fort­able af­ter a year as the starter.

“He’s able to lead,” Gray said. “It’s not a [po­si­tion] bat­tle for him. He’s able to be­come a bet­ter quar­ter­back than he showed last year. His ceil­ing is very, very high.”

Ju­nior tail­back Aeris Wil­liams got some start­ing ex­pe­ri­ence late last sea­son and fin­ished with 720 rush­ing yards and four touch­downs.

The Bull­dogs have three re­turnees on the of­fen­sive front in Rankin, Deion Cal­houn and El­gton Jenk­ins, but the com­bined starts for the unit is 30, one of the lower num­bers in the league.

Mis­sis­sippi State’s re­ceiv­ing unit, much like the Ra­zor­backs, is low on ex­pe­ri­ence. Gray is the top re­turn­ing wide­out with 41 catches for 709 yards and 5 touch­downs. Be­hind him is Ma­lik Dear (23-264, 2) and Keith Mixon (19-228, 2).

First-year de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Todd Gran­tham makes a re­turn to the SEC and in­her­its a unit with plenty of de­fen­sive backs re­turn­ing but not much else.

“It was great to get some­body of his level to come to Mis­sis­sippi State and run our de­fense,” Mullen said.

Speedy Bran­don Bryant and fel­low safety Mark McLau­rin and corner­backs Lashard Durr and J.T. Gray are the top play­ers in the sec­ondary. Line­backer Leo Lewis and tackle Cory Thomas also are re­turn­ing starters.

“It’s a whole new start for us on de­fense this year,” Mullen said. “We don’t have one se­nior on the de­fen­sive line and it’s go­ing to be a young group at the line­backer po­si­tion.”

Mullen said not many peo­ple view Mis­sis­sippi State the way they did a decade ago.

“The ex­pec­ta­tions around the pro­gram have cer­tainly changed,” he said. “And the ex­pec­ta­tion is not just from the fan base and the me­dia, but re­ally the ex­pec­ta­tions of the play­ers, which is the most im­por­tant. The play­ers within the pro­gram and our for­mer play­ers, their stan­dards

“There is al­ways com­fort when you have a quar­ter­back that’s played com­ing back.” — Mis­sis­sippi State Coach Dan Mullen on re­turn­ing quar­ter­back Nick Fitzger­ald

and ex­pec­ta­tions are what they want to see. And they want the guys that are there now to con­tinue to build and con­tinue to grow on that and con­tinue to take us to a higher level.”


Coach Dan Mullen’s Mis­sis­sippi State Bull­dogs went 6-7 in 2016 in their first sea­son with­out quar­ter­back Dak Prescott.


Mis­sis­sippi State quar­ter­back Nick Fitzger­ald, look­ing for run­ning room against Texas A&M last Novem­ber, had a “pretty solid” year in 2016, Coach Dan Mullen said. Fitzger­ald rushed for 1,375 yards and passed for 2,423 yards with 21 touch­downs and 10 in­ter­cep­tions last sea­son.

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