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March 2, 2010
Mullen out to solve Bulldogs' QB quandary
Quarterbacks from USC seem destined to become Heisman Trophy contenders. At Texas Tech, they're likely to lead the nation in passing. Those from Purdue, with a lineage that includes Len Dawson, Bob Griese and Drew Brees, eventually may win Super Bowls.
Then there is Mississippi State. If Purdue truly is "The Cradle of Quarterbacks," Mississippi State is the graveyard -- it's where quarterback careers have gone to die.
Consider that Mississippi State's single-season passing record is 2,422 yards. Last season, 43 FBS quarterbacks threw for more. And although 2,000 passing yards is a modest passing total by today's standards, only once in the past 14 seasons has a Mississippi State quarterback reached that mark (Kevin Fant in 2003).
Of course, a fundamental truth is that yardage can't be accumulated without completions, which has been another problem in Starkville. Back in 1951, Frank Branch completed 60 percent of his passing attempts (24-of-40). No Mississippi State quarterback has been that accurate since.
That's 59 years ago.
"I've never had a quarterback until this year throw for less than 60 percent," second-year coach Dan Mullen recently said in his plush office in the Bryant Athletic Administration Building.
Still, there is a cautious optimism in Starkville, and Mullen is the source of that optimism. In his first season, the Bulldogs were one win short of bowl eligibility. A 30-26 loss to LSU was marred by three interceptions and a failed quarterback sneak in the final seconds. (There's that QB issue, again). With any improvement at quarterback, the Bulldogs will have a realistic chance at bowl eligibility this season.
But that's not good enough -- not for a guy who has been a part of two national championship teams at Florida and an undefeated season at Utah as quarterback coach under Urban Meyer. Mullen envisions Mississippi State one day being a legitimate challenger to Alabama and LSU for supremacy in the SEC West. The first step in that quest is dramatically upgrading the play at quarterback.
"If you don't have a great quarterback, you'd better be dominant in every other area on the field," Mullen said.
Over the years, the Bulldogs often have had strong defenses and exceptional running backs, but their most recent All-SEC quarterback was Don Smith in 1986. He was moved to running back in the NFL, and that at least partially explains why Mississippi State hasn't managed a conference championship since 1940.
The SEC has a good quarterback history that includes four Heisman recipients, three Mannings (Archie, Peyton and Eli) and eight first-round NFL draft choices since 1998. Five of those were the first player taken in the draft.
Building a championship contender at Mississippi State and solving the quarterback quandary goes hand in hand. Mullen, 37, is attacking the problem armed with an open mind, a list of criteria for finding quarterbacks and an outstanding resume.
From 2004-08, Mullen mentored a Heisman recipient (Tim Tebow), two national championship game MVPs (Tebow and Chris Leak) and the first player selected in the NFL draft (Alex Smith).
Mullen was aware of Mississippi State's quarterback issues when he accepted the coaching job after the 2008 season, and he maintains that Bulldogs' passers haven't been the only ones missing targets.
"You can make an NFL Hall of Fame team of players from Mississippi and compare it to other states," he said. "The quarterback would be Brett Favre, who might be the best ever. His backup would be Steve McNair. You'd have Jerry Rice at wide receiver. Your running back would be Walter Payton. All of those guys are from Mississippi, and none of those guys played at Mississippi State.
"Somebody missed on those guys along the way. I don't want to miss on them. Look at the [quarterbacks] we didn't recruit that were Mississippi kids -- McNair, Favre, Jason Campbell."
Although Mullen plans to recruit Mississippi first -- 19 of the 26 players signed by the Bulldogs this year were in-state prospects -- he will look far and wide for quarterbacks.
"Quarterback is a position that we can go a little more national to recruit because, No. 1, people can look at my background with quarterbacks," Mullen said. "No. 2, they can say, 'That's an offense I want to play in.' "
Not every prospect will get that chance, though. Despite the program's mediocre quarterback history, Mullen will be discriminating in recruiting the position. Yet the quarterbacks he recruits may come as a surprise.
Anyone can identify the strong-armed and fleet-footed prospects. Mullen is looking for more. He's first looking for prospects who demonstrate mental toughness, leadership, sound decision-making and intelligence. This year's signing class included Favre's nephew, Dylan. While Dylan Favre is considered just a two-star prospect, Mullen feels he has the needed intangibles to develop into a good college quarterback.
That sounds fine for the future, but long-suffering Mississippi State fans don't want to keep waiting for a good quarterback. Mullen doesn't think they will have to.
When spring practice begins March 23, junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, a former four-star prospect, will begin their competition for the starting job. Neither has starting experience, but Mullen expects drastic improvement from both because they're familiar with the system and he's now familiar with them.
"There is a lot of comfort [the second year]," Mullen said. "We're teaching. In the quarterback position, you want to teach graduate-level classes, not undergraduate classes. You don't want to keep teaching the beginning classes. You want to get past that and really get deep into quarterback play.
"When you have a guy that's been in the system, they can have more success because they really know what's going on. … It takes a year to get everybody on the same page."
The competition between Relf and Russell this spring will be compelling -- and vital to Mississippi State's fortunes in 2010. Although neither has the edge going into spring practice, Relf -- who passed for 283 yards in a backup role last season -- is confident he can win the job. He feels he's made progress and has a better understanding of Mullen's system and what's expected of the quarterback.
"I think I have improved in a lot of areas," he said. "Coach Mullen is always talking about playing quarterback and what I need to do to become the best I can be. You've got to give it all, be relentless on the field and be a leader all the time. Coach Mullen stresses that."
Perhaps the year of experience in Mullen's system will prove enough for Mississippi State to become a factor in the SEC West race. If not, Mullen will try to use that to his advantage, too.
"We'll use that in recruiting," he said. "At Florida, they say you can be the next great one. But if you come here, you get to be the great quarterback."
Hey, even Purdue had to start somewhere.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.