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April 21, 2011

Developing a program

Naturally, it takes a coach a few years to really turn a football program into his own. In Urban Meyer's first year at Utah, he went 10-2. In his second year with the Utes, he led the team to an undefeated season and a BCS bowl.

Next, he and Dan Mullen shipped off to Florida, going 9-3 in 2005, their first year. By the time Mullen took the reins at Mississippi State in 2009, the Gators had won two BCS National Championship under Meyer and Mullen's tutelage.

Now Mullen, once the understudy, is in the process of making the MSU football program his own. It is no surprise it takes longer in Starkville, however. The SEC West is much harder than the Mountain West, and he did not exactly take over a roster packed with blue chip athletes like he did in Florida.

Nevertheless, Mullen had his Bulldogs show signs of life by competing in every game during his first season, which ended in a 5-7 finish. Then the huge step came in 2010 when Mullen led the Dawgs to an 8-4 regular season record, expanding that to nine wins after a Gator Bowl thrashing of Michigan.

It would be a tough task to find two coaches who are more polar opposites than Mullen and the coach he replaced - Sylvester Croom. As such, Mullen seems to believe the program is where it is now because of what he has done, not because of pieces left to him by Croom.

While many of Mullen's primary players the last two seasons - such as Anthony Dixon, Jamar Chaney and Charles Mitchell - were recruited to MSU by Croom, Mullen said the majority of the contributors now are players he brought in.

"I mean, we had four guys get a shot to get drafted this year, and we recruited two of them," Mullen said. "Two of the four were our recruits with Chris White and Pernell McPhee."

The other two, of course, are Derek Sherrod and K.J. Wright, who were signed by Croom.

Looking at the 2011 roster, Mullen sees only a few Croom recruits. The majority of the ones who are on that list, Mullen said, redshirted as freshmen and were developed by Mullen and his staff.

"Very few guys in the program now were playing when I showed up," Mullen said. "Every linebacker on the roster right now we recruited, except for Jamie Jones. On the d-line, (Fletcher) Cox, (Josh) Boyd, so many of those guys that had to play since we've been here. I guess that's how I look at it. Most of the guys are either guys that we took over as freshmen or guys that we recruited."

Specifically, Mullen mentioned two offensive linemen who have made great strides since arriving at Mississippi State. Mullen often likes to point out that Sherrod is likely to be a first round draft pick next week, and he said he is particularly proud of the progress senior Quentin Saulsberry has made.

"He's a guy that I think was just playing on raw talent as a younger player," Mullen said. "He really has had to invest to learn the game. Those are big steps forward that guys learn to take throughout their career. I look at all of the guys we had. Derek Sherrod last year, who started here I think almost all 4 years of his career. You go back and watch him and how he developed as a player. I know now he'll continue to get developed because of the work ethic that he's instilled in himself to become a great player."

Mullen is known most for his work with quarterbacks and their ability excel under his guidance and teaching. However, that came when he was an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Now, Mullen is the head coach, and he said the idea of development has spread from the quarterbacks to the entire roster.

"To me, our program is all about player development," Mullen said. "I'm a lot less concerned in how players show up as how they walk out the door. Our job here is whether you show up as a one-star or five-star, or a returning starter before we got here or you never played before I got here is completely irrelevant to me. It is, since the day I got here, these young guys have been in our program, how have they improved. How are they going to be noticed when they walk out the door compared to when they walk in."

The change in rising senior quarterback Chris Relf is perhaps the best example of the development of players under Mullen, having been yelled at as a freshman under Croom, and now Relf is one of the more well-known players in the SEC.

Even Anthony Dixon was noticeably improved in just one year under Mullen, having already played well for three years under Croom.

After the players, Mullen said the coaching staff has finally taken shape and has become something he is comfortable with. Entering his third season, Mullen is now on his third defensive coordinator, after Carl Torbush and Manny Diaz left for Big 12 jobs.

Mullen said he is more relaxed now than when he first arrived, and he said he is doing a better job of delegating responsibility. He admits he is a control freak, but the comfort with his coaching staff has allowed him to feel more secure in letting go.

"I'm also much more relaxed in letting our coaches go coach, and I want to evaluate the effort that our players give," Mullen said. "I think now that our coaching staff has been around each other for awhile, that continuity that we've formed, I think everybody is much more comfortable adapting to the individual talents of our players. I think when you come in, everybody has an idea of, 'this is how I do things, this is what I know best, these are the plays we gotta call on offense, these are the blitzes we're going to run on defense.' I think everybody's much more comfortable in working together and how we jell as a staff, that it's much easier to put players in a position to be successful because the communication is much better throughout."

Mullen said that familiarity stretches throughout the program, and he thinks it helps the team's development now that the players know the basics and understand what Mullen wants out of them.

"We're just used to working with each other," Mullen said. "It's easier to teach a lot more with our players, because I'm not teaching, 'you have to run from drill to drill,' or, 'you have to run when you hit the maroon line.' There's a certain toughness there in practice, the physicality that we have in our program out there on the field. A lot of the guys understand those things, so you can coach. You're coaching technique and fundamentals a lot more than coaching effort. Now that that's established in our program a little bit, you get more done that way."

Now that he is finally getting the program where he wants it, Mullen said there is one goal left - win championships. For MSU, he said, it starts with the SEC West.


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