December 13, 2009 12:33:00 AM
Danny P Smith -
STARKVILLE — Dan Mullen believes the foundation has been laid for Mississippi State football program.
The former assistant coach at the University of Florida saw many positive signs in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs, and he plans to build on them in the coming months.
Record crowds at Davis Wade Stadium, the accomplishments of senior running back Anthony Dixon, the emergence of young players, and MSU’s season-ending 41-27 victory against the University of Mississippi encouraged Mullen.
Although many questions remain entering the offseason, the strides made this season are enough to satisfy Mullen for now.
“It was the whole body of work with the fans, sold-out stadium, and record-breaking crowds,” Mullen said. “They saw the improvement in a team that finished first in the Southeastern Conference in rushing now.”
The Bulldogs led the SEC in average yards rushing per game (227.6), and much of that was due to Dixon, who set the MSU single-season rushing record with 1,391 yards. He also became the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,994 yards, and set the single-game rushing mark with 252 yards against Kentucky.
Dixon received the Cellular South Conerly Trophy for being named Mississippi’s best college player. Last week, the Associated Press and league coaches also picked him first-team All-SEC.
Although still disappointed he couldn’t lead the Bulldogs to a bowl game as a senior, Dixon said winning the Egg Bowl helped him feel better, and he was thankful for all he had accomplished in his career.
“I’ll remember all my time in Starkville,” Dixon said. “I had so much fun and it made me a better person being here. I’ll never forget this step because this has been my home for four years.”
Mullen said players like Tyson Lee, of Columbus, and Dixon deserve to be remembered as winners because of the dedication they showed to the program. He was glad to send the seniors off with a victory.
“The seniors tried to buy in to what we were trying to do and teach as a program, and that’s what we hope is the foundation for a championship program for the future,” Mullen said.
Lee said it was just a matter of doing what Mullen had preached to the team all year.
“Coach talked about all year finishing strong and that’s what we did,” Lee said. “For the seniors, it was the best way we could go out. I know it was the best way I could go out. As a team and as a program, I think it’s on the rise.”
The win against the Rebels gave the Bulldogs an emotional lift and momentum going into the offseason.
“Finishing on a high note was fantastic,” Mullen said. “It gives us a big boost going into recruiting, especially for all the in-state kids who came to see that game. I know a lot of people were saying that was a big factor in recruiting for who won that game. I think the recruits have seen the excitement and the direction our program is going in throughout the season.”
Freshman wide receiver Chad Bumphis, of Tupelo, said the Egg Bowl was just a taste of what MSU can do.
“It showed our potential and what we could be if we just work hard,” Bumphis said.
The crowds seemed to believe what Mullen was trying to do. The season home attendance total of 376,574 broke the old record of 306,545, set in 2004, by nearly 70,000. The average attendance of 53,792 also was a school best. It beat the 2007 average by more than 4,000 per game.
Mullen said the fans put forth the same type of effort in the stadium that his team did on the field.
“They never gave up and continued to battle all season long and they were rewarded with a big Egg Bowl victory in the final game,” Mullen said. “That should boost the fans in getting ready for next season and should increase the excitement going into the future.”
Lee called the support at home and on the road “unbelievable.”
“It meant so much and made football what it really is,” Lee said.
Junior linebacker K.J. Wright said beating Ole Miss was as much a reward to the fans as it was to the players.
“We were able to give them what they expected,” Wright said. “We really enjoyed it, too.
“We knew losing that game would be real bad for us, so we knew we had to get that win to show something to our recruits and give us something to work toward next year.”
Wright said the Bulldogs had “to develop a trust” for Mullen, other assistant coaches, and strength coach Matt Balis when they moved in.
Once Wright believed, the process went well and it wasn’t hard to give the effort the coaches expected.
As MSU moves forward, Wright wants to do what it takes and to build on the 5-7 finish.
“We played real hard from the first play until the last play, but now we’ve got to do more than just that,” Wright said. “We’ve got to be able to make some plays, pay attention to detail, and find a way to win games.”
Wright will be one of the returning leaders on defense who will try to get that accomplished.
He also sees players like defensive end Pernell McPhee, who was named second-team All-SEC by the AP and the coaches, and safety Charles Mitchell as players who can help set an example.
“You can expect to look up to guys that will come in here and work hard on and off the field,” Wright said. “I think they will do that.”
Mullen said McPhee and linebacker Chris White are potential leaders as seniors as well as Mitchell as a junior on defense.
Offensively, he looks for the same from seniors-to-be wide receiver Leon Berry and center J.C. Brignone.
Dixon said it’s now time for players like McPhee, Wright, White, Berry, and offensive lineman Derek Sherrod to emerge as leaders.
“Those guys will have to bring the juice and keep the team in fighting mode,” Dixon said. “I think those guys have what it takes to lead and to keep the young guys fighting.”
Two of MSU’s main questions going into the offseason will be on offense.
What will Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning do at quarterback and who will replace Dixon in the backfield?
Mullen doesn’t anticipate trying to answer those questions until spring practice.
“We’ll have to see and look at our players,” Mullen said. “We’ve got a lot of evaluating to do for next year’s team. We’ll get through spring and see how that goes.”
At quarterback, Lee and Dixon feel Chris Relf will be ready to take over as a junior.
Dixon said Relf “has the talent to be one of the great players of the league.”
Relf showed his potential by rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown and throwing for two more scores against Ole Miss.
Lee became close friends with Relf the past two seasons as they spent time together on the practice field and in the weight room. He sees the qualities developing in Relf that will help make him a good leader.
“I thought Chris progressed extremely well this year,” Lee said. “He’s received a sense of confidence in himself. At the beginning, he may have taken a step back and wasn’t sure, but throughout the season I continued to see him gain confidence. As a quarterback and a player, that’s what you’ve got to have. He did that, and I look for him to use that. I think the torch can be passed on to him, and I think he’ll do a great job.”
Lee also liked the progress freshman Tyler Russell made in a redshirt season.
“We have Sunday Night Football after practice where (freshmen) actually do a little scrimmages, and throughout the year he continued to progress and got better,” Lee said. “His maturity level has gotten better, especially coming from high school to college. He’ll be a great asset to the team.”
Mullen expects stiff competition at quarterback in the offseason. He said a decision on that position will be made “well after spring practice.”
The same will be true at running back as the Bulldogs will try to replace Dixon, Christian Ducre’, and Arnil Stallworth.
Lee sees running back as “probably the toughest position to fill right now,” but likes the work ethic of Robert Elliott.
“The one thing about Rob is he’ll give everything he has,” Lee said. “Whoever comes in to work wi