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April 14, 2011Dan Mullen just put the finishing touches on his third spring this week.
Now the Mississippi State head coach will turn the program over to strength coach Matt Balis for the next four months before the Bulldogs return for fall camp in August.
"I'm one and (Balis is) two," Mullen said. "That's the hierarchy of this program with how decisions are made and who people report to and how the program is run. You have to have somebody in that position that you trust. I'd trust Matt Balis with anything that I possess or own. I'd have no issue with him oversee it. I guess it makes it a little easier in the summer knowing that he is in charge of this team."
MSU concluded spring practice on Tuesday afternoon and have already started their offseason conditioning program.
"It's all on them now," Mullen said. "We can't be around them until August and that's when some of your maturity and leadership needs to step up. It's how hard they are able to push themselves and push each other between now and August will really determine our season. If we take some great strides between now and then I think we'll have a great year. If guys kind of go through the motions in the summer and not pushing themselves to the next level on their own it will be a long season for us."
The Bulldogs held their annual Maroon-White Spring Game this past Saturday with the Maroon team edging out their White counterparts 23-20 with a late fourth quarter comeback.
"The spring game is different from a lot of the other practices," Mullen said. "What I try to get out of it is very different. It's a reward for some older players where they can go out in front of family and friends and huge crowd playing in a game situation. It's a test to younger players because it's their first time."
During the spring Mullen mixed and matched his roster together in order to get some of his younger players some experience in key situations. He hopes that experience will pay off in the case injuries plague his squad.
"One of the things you see is how young of a team we really are once I take guys off the field," Mullen said. "If we put our first team offense and first team defense on the field it's an experienced unit that's played a lot of football that we feel really good about. As I start pulling guys off the field you realize how quickly you get young and inexperienced. That's something that we need to monitor and continue to develop through training camp to get those young players ready to play next season."
The main area Mullen experimented with this spring was along the offensive line. With starters Tobias Smith and Gabe Jackson out most of the time he was able to insert several young players who had little to no game experience.
"I guess the thing that concerns you is the offensive line," Mullen said. "It's not so much the ones. As soon as you take one guy out there's not an experienced guy coming in. It's going to be a rookie coming on the field. That's the biggest concern because we have to stay healthy."
One position on the offensive line that will not have any SEC experience going into next year will be at left tackle. With the departure of All-SEC performer Derek Sherrod State will turn to converted defensive tackle James Carmon and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell to fill that void.
"I think the great thing between the two is there is competition," Mullen said. "As soon as there is competition that's where you see better improvement. I want to continue to see that. Hopefully guys are still stepping forward. We'll make that decision the Wednesday night before we play Memphis. Maybe we'll play both of them to see who performs at a better level."
Another position that is still in a battle is at quarterback. Even with senior starter Chris Relf returning he is getting a strong push by sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dylan Favre.
"The position I think you see the most (competition) is the quarterback position," Mullen said. "All the guys expect to start next season that are competing. What you are seeing is a significant rise from top to bottom with the level of the quarterbacks. If you do want to compete to be the starter next season the level and the standard is going to be very high on the field to get your playing time."
Favre had a solid showing in the spring game leading the Maroon team from behind for the win. He finished the day 17-of-26 passing for 199 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Favre also led his team in rushing with 41 yards on 10 carries.
"I love the confidence and the confidence is something that is great," Mullen said. "He can make a lot of throws. I think it's a maturity level which is good. I'd rather have a quarterback with a lot of confidence that I've got to pull the reigns back rather than try to get him going. That's what Dylan has and throughout his development that's what we are going to continue to watch."
Despite all the improvements across the board the one area that Mullen was most pleased with is at linebacker. Replacing three seniors - two of which likely have a future in the NFL - will not be easy but Mullen was pleased with what his underclassmen showed this spring before the arrival of Clemson transfer Brandon Maye.
"The linebackers (exceeded expectations) just because there was inexperience," Mullen said. "There is still a lot of unanswered questions there. I didn't doubt the talent level that we had there but just questioned the experience level that you have there.
"I do think some guys stepped forward and I do think we've got a bunch of SEC players at linebacker here. We've just got to make sure they are SEC ready this September and not that they are just SEC caliber players."
Mullen credits the roster improvement to how he and his staff have been able to develop the talent in his two-plus years at the helm of the program.
"To me our program is all about player development," Mullen said. "I'm a lot less concerned about how players show up as I am with how they walk out the door. Our job here is to whether you show up with a one-star or a five-star or were a returning starter or never played before, that's irrelevant to me. Since the day that I've been here and these young guys have been in our program, how have they improved and how will they be noticed when they walk out the door compared to when they came in."
But the players are not the only ones improving. Mullen has also developed as well during his time in Starkville. In his first head coaching job, Mullen has learned to let go of his responsibilities to some of his assistant coaches.
"I think you are always learning and developing," Mullen said. "I'm probably much more relaxed now than when I came in. I maybe delegate some responsibilities a little bit better. I'm still kind of a control freak. I like things done and I like them done the right way. But I'm much more relaxed and letting our coaches coach and I want to evaluate the effort that players give. I think now that our coaching staff has been together for a little while and that staff continuity that we've formed, I think everybody is much more comfortable adapting to the individual talents of our players."
Mullen also updated some of the spring injury situations. He stated that sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley is back healthy and expected Smith to be back full speed by the start of fall camp. Redshirt freshman running back Nick Griffin hopes to return Oct. 1 from an ACL tear while sophomore center Sam Watts status is still uncertain.