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April 13, 2011Ask those who have been around him, and they will tell you Dan Mullen is a confident coach. In other news, water is wet. Anyone who has tracked Mississippi State football at all the last two years knows the coach of the "one program in this state that's one the rise" has plenty of charisma and confidence.
Above all else, though, Mullen hangs his hat on one thing - his ability to develop quarterbacks.
Nick Saban, at SEC Media Days in July of 2010, questioned the spread offense and how it prepares quarterbacks for the NFL.
The gist of Mullen's response; "how many first round quarterbacks have you had drafted, Nick?"
Mullen then went on to mention Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, two of his former quarterbacks. Smith, of course, was the No. 1 overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers out of Utah in 2005. Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos traded into the end of the first round to select Tebow almost one year ago. Not mentioned at the time, of course, was Cam Newton, who many believe will be the first pick in this year's draft. For those reasons, and a host of others, Mullen said, "I feel throughout my coaching career I've been known as a developer of quarterbacks."
While he got them to the NFL, Smith and Tebow have had their share of hard times, Smith in particular. Widely regarded as a bust, Smith has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career. As a rookie he appeared in nine games, throwing 11 interceptions and only one touchdown. Things never got better for Smith, as he was benched for both short and long periods for guys like Shaun Hill and Troy Smith. He is no longer under contract with San Francisco, though that may change when a new CBA is agreed upon.
Smith's supporters, however, point out he had six offensive coordinators in his six seasons in the NFL, and the 49ers are now on their third head coach in that time. Many wonder if stability would have prevented Smith being a bust.
Tebow was considered a reach in the first round of last year's draft, and the coach who wanted so badly to draft him - McDaniels - was fired before the 2010 season even ended.
As a rookie, Tebow passed for 654 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, in addition to six rushing touchdowns, appearing in nine games. He was 1-2 as a starter for Denver.
Former Bronco and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway is now the Executive V.P. of Football Operations for the Broncos, and he has said on more than one occasion he is not sure if Tebow is a franchise quarterback. The Broncos have also brought in many of the top quarterbacks in the 2011 draft for private workouts. It appears veteran journeyman Kyle Orton is the favorite to open the 2011 season as the starter, if he isn't traded, and the jury is still out on the Heisman-winning Tebow.
Mixed reviews on past quarterbacks aside, current MSU quarterback Tyler Russell, a Parade All-American and Gatorade Mississippi Player of the Year his senior year of high school, said Mullen's track record is exactly why he stuck with his commitment to State when Sylvester Croom left, saying he wants to play in the NFL one day, too.
"I liked everything he was talking about," Russell said. "You know, Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, those are two great quarterbacks that he coached, and that's what I really want to do, because he's a quarterbacks coach."
Mullen said his development of quarterbacks actually starts in the recruiting process. Rather than search for a high school kid who already has everything, Mullen would rather find a quarterback with great intangibles, such as Tebow, and teach them to do everything else.
"With some of the experience I've had, what we want is quarterbacks who are winners," Mullen said. "If you look at the guys that we've got, that's kind of who they are. Even down to Dak Prescott, having led his team to an unbelievable season his senior year. Dylan Favre - state champs. Tyler Russell - state champs. When we go out and recruit guys, that's what we look for. We'll take that we know they can win, so then we're gonna build on all the other things that they need and build around their talents.
"You can spend all the time you want trying to coach presence on the field. That's the hardest thing to develop. Teaching you to check the ball down, I can get that done. But getting the presence on the field, that's the one that takes a longer time."
In most of his stops, Mullen has had more than one good quarterback on a roster at the same time. He has often used a two-quarterback system, and he believes there is much to be gained from having multiple players vying for a spot.
Mullen said competition among talented quarterbacks only makes each of them better.
"All of them kind of try to feed off each other," Mullen said. "When you spend that much time together as a group, that's what's going to happen, when you get that group of quarterbacks. Fortunately, I've been around some guys in my career - Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, Alex Smith and Brian Johnson at Utah - guys who have been very successful. Tim, Cam Newton and Johnny Brantley in the meeting room for two straight years, that's who I was with all day every day [at Florida], those three guys. [A] very successful group that can learn, push and feed off each other. I think that is hopefully what we're starting to develop here, and that's why you're seeing the big jumps."
Speaking of "here," Mullen said he has been surprised and, at times, impressed with the development of MSU's senior quarterback Chris Relf, a player Mullen said he, "kind of inherited partway through his career."
Mullen certainly deserves credit for developing the 6'4", 240-pound Relf. In his redshirt freshman season under Croom, Relf barely saw the field and completed 2 of 9 pass attempts in relief duty. As a sophomore, after a few months under Mullen, Relf was 22-41 passing for 283 yards and five touchdowns, and he rushed 76 times for 500 yards and two scores as the backup to Tyson Lee. Then as a junior, after a full year and a half under Mullen's tutelage, Relf completed 129 of 220 pass attempts for 1,789 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, in addition to rushing for 713 yards and five touchdowns.
Mullen said when he came to Starkville and met the quiet quarterback, the question was not if Relf, now one of the biggest returning players in the SEC West, could improve himself, but if Mullen and the staff could make him improve.
"Did I think he could get here? Boy, I don't know, probably not," Mullen said. "But I know I've had a lot of success developing quarterbacks, and I know [offensive coordinator Les Koenning] has had a lot of success developing quarterbacks. So I never really judge whether they can or not, it's more a judge on ourselves; can we develop him? I feel throughout my coaching career I've been known as a developer of quarterbacks, and so has Les. To me, the great thing is you can develop all shapes and sizes of them. We've been able to do that with different talents and been successful."
What Mullen admits is lacking at Mississippi State, is "that guy," who is the quarterback synonymous with the university. Florida has Tebow, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel. Alabama has Joe Namath and Bart Starr. Tennessee has Peyton Manning. Here in the state of Mississippi, Alcorn State has Steve McNair, Southern Miss has Brett Favre and Ole Miss has Archie and Eli Manning.
Mississippi State has never had an iconic quarterback, but Mullen hopes he can change that by the end of his career.
"It's tough," Mullen said. "There's a lot of schools that have kind of a recognizable or household name as a quarterback. We don't seem to have that guy. Most of the schools in the SEC seem to have that one big name. You know you go up and say, 'hey, this quarterback,' and everybody knows him. We don't have that. We do have to develop that. I don't want to upset Rockey [Felker]. But hopefully we will have someone who's that household name. It'd be great for the program."