July 16, 2014 10:42:33 AM
Brandon Walker - firstname.lastname@example.org
HOOVER, Ala. -- For the first time, Dak Prescott owns the starting quarterback job entering a season at Mississippi State.
On Tuesday morning, he owned the room at the Southeastern Conference Media Days.
Prescott, a redshirt junior who started seven games in relief of senior Tyler Russell in 2013, carried himself with poise and composure while speaking to the media on the second floor of the Wynfrey Hotel, exuding a quiet confidence that has his teammates -- and MSU fans -- following his lead.
"I accept every bit of that responsibility, 100 percent," said Prescott when asked about his ability to be a team leader. "I may not be the guy who's yelling and hollering, but I can be the guy that just leads by example, and I can be the right guy on and off the field, doing the right things."
For a quarterback who put together a number of solid outings a season ago on the way to a 25-touchdown season in limited duty, Prescott's first performance of the 2014 season -- speaking to hundreds of media members -- was nearly flawless.
The Haughton, Louisiana, native, passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore and rushed for 829 yards and 13 more scores. He memorably put MSU in position to beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl by returning from injury in the fourth quarter and scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime, a memory Prescott says "was a great experience to come in with that atmosphere and to have my team rally around me, but we won't dwell on it. It's a new season."
To a man, the other three members of MSU's contingent at SEC Media Days -- coach Dan Mullen, senior safety Jay Hughes, and junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney -- were glowing in their praise for Prescott's leadership skills.
"He is a tremendous worker," Mullen said. "He shows up every day, wants to outwork everybody, whether it's in the weight room, conditioning, watching film, out at practice. He wants to be the first one out on that field, last to leave. He has that unbelievable work ethic."
McKinney, also a redshirt junior, echoed Mullen's sentiments.
"Dak Prescott is a great leader," McKinney said. "He makes everyone around him better."
So where can Prescott's command of his team be traced? When did he become MSU's emotional leader?
McKinney believes it can be traced to last year, when Prescott had one of the most difficult times in his life. A day after MSU lost to South Carolina in October in Columbia, South Carolina, Prescott's mother, Peggy, passed away. It was in that storm McKinney saw incredible calm.
"He is a soldier," McKinney said. "When he lost his mom, if you didn't know Dak, you wouldn't have known anything had happened. When he came to practice, he came to work. He was the same Dak Prescott as before it happened.
"That's such a tough thing, losing a family member, especially your mother. I don't know how he did it."
"It was the toughest time of my life, in my young 20 years," Prescott said. "My mother prepared me for that. She raised me pretty much by herself in a way but she prepared me to be the person I am today.
"When she passed, I was sad. It was a hard time losing the strongest woman in my life, but I just had to remember everything she taught me. I had to stick to that and be everything she wanted me to be."
The week following his mother's death, Prescott delivered his most complete game by posting 303 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-41 loss at Texas A&M. He added the 115-yard performance in less than a quarter while nursing a shoulder injury against Ole Miss, and finished the season with a 361-yard, five-touchdown masterpiece against Rice in the Liberty Bowl, cementing his place as MSU's quarterback.
Prescott has attracted plenty of preseason attention, and is on the watch list for the Maxwell Trophy, which is given to college football's best player.
For Prescott, awards will have to wait. Improvement comes first.
"I just worked on my feet a lot, making sure I always have my feet under me before I throw," Prescott said. "I have high expectations for myself. I'm going to continue to do what I do, work hard, get better, and try to be the best quarterback I can."
For Mullen, that improvement is obvious.
"Dak is going to be a different player this year than he was last year," Mullen said. "I think he's a much better passer coming into the year than he was last year, working on the skill of throwing the ball and being comfortable in the pocket."
Prescott's comfort at SEC Media Days wasn't in question. With the season opener against Southern Mississippi looming at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 30 in Starkville, Prescott was asked what it would take to become a great quarterback.
"I control my destiny," Prescott said. "What's to come in the future, I know that's in my hands. Everybody wants his name in the history books, but that's not something I look forward to. I just want to be the winningest quarterback in Mississippi State history. Then my name will show up on the right lists."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat.