Mullen: ’Dogs not finished yet
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.