Mullen, Bulldogs Return To Practice After Open Week, Begin BYU Prep

Vernon Bailey, Publisher
Bulldog Blitz
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Associated Press

STARKVILLE, Miss. – It’s been nearly a month since Mississippi State football has taken the field in Davis Wade Stadium. Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs returned to practice Monday following an open week to begin preparations for BYU, and the ninth-year head coach previewed the matchup with the Cougars at his weekly press conference.

State (3-2) will play four of its next five games at home beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Bulldogs are one of only two Southeastern Conference Western Division squads to play three road games to date. BYU (1-5) is making its first trek to Starkville since 2001, a game that was rescheduled for Dec. 1 following the events on 9/11.

In addition, the league office announced that MSU’s Oct. 21 Homecoming contest against Kentucky will kick off at 3 p.m. CT live on SEC Network.

Below are quotes from Mullen and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald:

Head Coach Dan Mullen

Opening Statement…

“It’s great to be back at home. We haven’t been at home in about 28 days, which is kind of unusual. That’s how the schedule panned out for us this year. Last time we were at home, it was an electric atmosphere; our fans gave us a great home-field advantage. That’s so critical in this league. Hopefully we have a great turnout for the game and an electric atmosphere and a great home-field advantage to work to our benefit. It’s going to be a tough game, playing a team we played last year in what was a double-overtime battle, so we know how physical they are. This team has had their back against the wall. They’ve been in some tight games, close games. They’ve struggled a little bit, but they’ve played great defense. They’ve got some veteran guys over there, big and physical guys on defense. They do a great job stopping the run and forcing you to execute up and down the field. Offensively, they’ve got their quarterback back, which is a huge benefit for them with a very veteran offensive line. It’s going to be a huge challenge for our guys this week, so we need to have a great week of practice coming off the bye. Hopefully the guys are mentally and a little physically fresher and get ready to go. Hopefully we’ve got a huge turnout with our fan base and a great home-field advantage for us.”


On senior defensive back J.T. Gray…

“He’s doing a little bit more than he’s done in the past for us on the field. I think he’s getting more comfortable growing into that. He’s a very physical player. He has the ability to make plays in the open field, and he plays the game physically with great speed and physicality. We expect him to be a playmaker on the field, and it’s good to see him improve.”

On how receivers Jamal Couch and Reggie Todd approached practice during the bye week…

“I thought they both had a really good approach to practice, of working hard and doing what we hope they do and what we expect them to do. As young players, they can’t be, ‘Hey, I did good for a couple days, so I’m okay now.’ It is a long, hard journey – the path to success. To see them be successful, we need to see them continue to grind and continue to improve and continue to grow up and move up that ladder. It’ll be good to see them continue on that path. Hopefully you’re going to see more and more of them and more production out of both of them.”

On “trophies” given for creating turnovers…


“No. It’s cool. I think we created the Juice Boys thing where everybody cheers for the kickoff and guys are getting juiced on the sidelines a couple years ago. I’ve seen a lot of people do that, too. Good ideas. Some people take ideas from other people. We have nothing with that yet.”


On BYU’s quarterback/running back tandem from last season…

“It’s tough because their quarterback’s been hurt. He’s a guy that was their quarterback before and played a bunch for them, so he’s got veteran experience. He’s got an offensive line that’s pretty solid in front of him. To get him back, they’re going to be more comfortable in what they do and be able to stay a little bit more balanced with the passing game and the threat of the passing game with him back in the game.”


On junior receiver Malik Dear’s injury status and update on other team injuries …

“Chances are, we’ll redshirt him at this point, but I’ll meet with him today. We expect Gabe [Myles] back and Traver Jung back, so that’s a couple starters. Martinas [Rankin], I’m not sure yet. Cory Thomas, we’re not sure yet. I’ll check and see. We haven’t practiced since Wednesday, so I’m waiting to see until we get on the field today and tomorrow and see what Dan [Jacobi]’s report is.”


On filling the hole in the offensive line created by senior Martinas Rankin’s injury…

“We have some flexibility, obviously not the flexibility we want, but we could potentially move guys around. We have different guys who can play different spots on the line. You have Greg [Eiland] there; Elgton [Jenkins] has played out there before him. You have rotation at the center you can do. There’s a bunch of different combinations we could use. Right now, you only have one senior, so you want to take your time and develop your depth there. Injuries are not allowing us to do that.”


On the consistency of receivers Jamal Couch and Reggie Todd …

“You’ve got to do it 10,000 times to know what you’re doing. They’re both guys that were a little bit raw coming out of high school, and so they’re both developmental guys that have a lot of talent and ability. It just takes a lot of work – of them, understanding how to be a wide receiver. They have the potential.”


On improving the discipline of the defense during the bye week…

“We had the opportunity to get back to some basics and take your time on some of the basics of stuff. Some of the big plays that we’re giving up are missed assignments. Defensively, if a guy goes the wrong way, there’s a gap there. Sometimes it might not get exposed on a play; you might get away with one. The offense just called a play to not take advantage of it. Other times, they do. If they find that gap and there’s nobody standing in the middle of the field when they’re supposed to be, it’s a pretty easy throw and catch for a touchdown. We just spent time on the guys’ basics, communication, talking and comfort level of making plays.”


On creating big plays during kick returns…

“It’s a lot of different things. It’s really the guys blocking. You’ve got to have a returner that trusts what’s going on, but you’ve got to be really disciplined in blocking and what you’re doing. It depends a lot on who you’re playing. Opportunities you get sometimes are good. In my years of coaching, we’ve only led the nation in kick returns once, 2003 at Utah. Unfortunately, I think we had one game where we had a bunch of kickoff returns and we hit three of them. You really don’t want a bunch of kickoff returns in a game. But we did end up getting a lot of yards and that put us up statistically-speaking. It’s guys executing it up front and the returner trusting it, and then depending on the situations of the game, how many opportunities you get.”


On junior defensive lineman Grant Harris…

“I think he’s just grown and matured right now, as a junior. When we recruited him, I expected a bunch out of him, and it maybe took a little bit longer to show what he could do. This year, fortunately for him, he’s continued to stick with it and continued to work. You’re starting to see him be productive and make some plays.”


On BYU’s five-game losing streak…

“The turnovers have hurt them. Once of the things you’ve got to look at is they’ve had some self-inflicted errors. Take away those self-inflicted errors, and they don’t struggle. What if they show up here and they don’t have any self-inflicted errors? I’ve coached long enough to know that when you’re watching film, you can say, ‘Okay, are they struggling, or are they making some correctable mistakes? What happens if they show up at your place and correct all those mistakes, or you go play them and they correct all those mistakes?’ It’s a very different team that way. That’s kind of hurt them. They’ve still played really good defense, and getting their starting quarterback back could be a big benefit for them. I think we’ll see a different outfit than what you’ve seen the last couple of weeks.”


On working on fundamentals during the bye week…

“A bye week allows you time to do things you might not have time to do when you’re worried about the game plan, the checks or how we’re doing this. Their defense is very different than what we see in practice against ourselves. Offensively, when you’re doing that, a lot of the reps now are, ‘How are we going to block?’ or, ‘These are the routes we’re going to run.’ You’re game planning. The bye week allows you to take time and say, ‘Okay, we’re not worried about how we’re blocking this, this and this against that team.’ We can really just worry about ourselves and our fundamentals.”


On how to minimize false start penalties…

“Stay on-sides. Hopefully being at home helps. I hope they have seven false starts our crowd inflicts on them. It’s true that the crowd and the atmosphere at Auburn created that. We have the opportunity to create that at home for us.”


On senior linebacker Dez Harris’ success after returns from injuries…

“Not as a player, because I always thought that he had that potential to become a great player for us. He had a great personality. The question was, does he have the mental fortitude to go through the adversity of coming back from multiple injuries to get here. I thought there were times where I thought he might hang it up and say, ‘This might not be for me.’ If there was with him, he was able to fight through it and push himself through it, and I’m sure that right now he’s very happy that he has.”

Jr. QB Nick Fitzgerald

On the similarities from last season’s game against BYU and what he sees ahead…

“They kind of run some base defense with a few crazy blitzes here and there. It’s going to be a lot similar to what it was last year.”

On how the offensive line has reacted to the absence of senior Martinas Rankin…


“They’re young, but they understand that it’s go-time now. It’s real; it’s time to play. They’ve got to step up. Last week was a bye week, so I got a ton of reps and they got to work on their chemistry. I think we’ll be just fine.”

On the development of receivers Reggie Todd and Jamal Couch…


“They’re doing well, really well. They’re big guys. They’re just a problem for defenses. We need them to step up and start making plays, and they’ll be a big part of the offense.”

On needing to regroup during the bye week…

“I think it was good for us. We got to work on our own thing. We don’t have a team that we’re playing against. We don’t have to stress to be game planning, just more of going out there to practice and work on yourself. Just kind of get your head right. We got to take a few days off and come back rested and ready.”

On watching film during the bye week…

“I looked over a little bit here and there, but really I just recharged my batteries and relaxed, refreshed to get back ready today.”

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