February 2, 2012 10:14:00 AM
Dan Mullen has heard the negative recruiting pitches against his football program.
Wednesday was the Mississippi State University football coach's turn to respond.
With a consensus top-30 ranked recruiting according to national recruiting websites Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247sports.com, the Bulldogs responded on paper, and Mullen backed it up at the podium.
"A lot of people are going to get up and preach about what their program is and when they get there, the guys all of the sudden realize it is something very different," Mullen said Wednesday. "They get up and preach but yet they don't live it. These young men had the opportunity to not just hear us preach about our program, but see that we actually live it."
While the Bulldogs' fourth-year coach maintained after the Wednesday afternoon press conference that the comments weren't targeted at one institution, comparisons between Mullen's next statement about new University of Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze were immediately made.
"A lot of people go to church on Sundays and tell you one thing but walk out the door and live their life very differently," Mullen said. "We don't do that here as Mississippi State. We live our lives the way we preach within our program. These young guys got to see that, every aspect of it. You're very excited when guys look and you talk about being the best you can be, wanting to work hard and make commitments and sacrifice."
According to Scout.com, MSU had the 18th-best recruiting class in the country and eighth best in the Southeastern Conference, while Ole Miss had the 63rd-best class nationally and was rated the worst in the league.
Freeze, the former Arkansas State coach, took over at Ole Miss after Houston Nutt was fired late in the season.
Wednesday's signing class of 23, not including five players who enrolled in January, was MSU's most highly regarded class since Mullen's first four years ago, which came just months after he took the job in Starkville. Favorable rankings from college sports websites, though, didn't change Mullen's take about the value of those evaluations.
"I think everybody knows my feelings on that, and we will evaluate this recruiting class three years from now and see where we are," Mullen said. "We've been given this piece of marble, and now we have to go carve a masterpiece out of it with these young men. It is our jobs as coaches to sculpt these young men's lives on and off the field for the next four years."
The 2012 recruiting season was the first time SEC schools worked with a 25-man signing limit. Two of MSU's five early enrollees will count toward the 2012 class, bringing the total to the SEC-limit of 25. The other three will count toward the 2011 class.
In previous years, SEC teams were allowed to sign more than 25, which gave them more room for error when dealing with prospects who might be academic or physical risks.
"I think it's scary because one of the things you look at on signing day, you can't go over anymore," Mullen said. "It's made it a little more tricky balancing act."
Around noon Wednesday, MSU coaches received arguably their best news of the day when four-star linebacker Richie Brown put on a maroon hat at Long Beach High School to announce his college choice. As Brown was about to make his decision between MSU, Southern Mississippi, the University of Tennessee and Ole Miss, he yielded to his nephew, who had a MSU on underneath his sweatshirt.
"Everything about them fits me perfectly, and I fell in love with Mississippi State," Brown said in his announcement at his school. "They got a great family atmosphere and were the first ones to (make me an offer) a year ago."
Using ESPN's rankings in the state of Mississippi, the Bulldogs landed 12 of the state's top 22 prospects, including six of the top 12. Many of those student-athletes are defensive players, including eight who are listed as ends or tackles.
"It's the deepest group, and it's something that's really important to us," Mullen said. "When you have players leaving for the NFL, that's a good problem to have. I think that (defensive line) group as a whole is the strength of this class."
MSU signed four-star junior college defensive end Denico Autry and Morton High School defensive tackle Quay Evans as early enrollees last month.
The Bulldogs announced last week Autry, Evans, center Dylan Holley, offensive lineman Charles Siddoway and offensive lineman Justin Senior had enrolled in school, which allowed them to sign financial aid papers and made them eligible for spring practices that begin March 22.
Hours before Brown made his decision, Alabama outside linebacker Beniquez Brown, who is no relation, drew a cheer by putting on a MSU cap, signifying his intention to attend MSU.
"Mississippi State just felt right," Brown said at his announcement. "Talking to coach (Dan) Mullen and all the coaches down there, they're going to push me to be the best I can be. Auburn came in late and made a run for it, but there's just something about Mississippi State. The players gave me great encouragement, and not leaving my best friend, my cousin -- it's great to go play with your cousin. I just couldn't let that go."
A four-star prospect by major recruiting services, Beniquez Brown will join his cousin and Florence (Ala.) High School teammate, Kivon Coman, at MSU.
The only late-breaking disappointment was three-star defensive back Adairius Barnes, who committed to MSU in July, and signed Wednesday with Louisiana Tech without notifying the MSU staff.
"Adairius Barnes was a signing-day surprise, but (assistant coach) Kevin Curtis did a good job staying with him," Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. "He woke up this morning and decided to sign with us. It's tough to get a Mississippi kid away from Mississippi State."
Barnes lettered in football, track and field, baseball and basketball at Port Gibson High. He ran 24 times for 390 yards and four scores and threw for 428 yards and three scores. Barnes caught 22 passes for 512 yards and six touchdowns. As a defensive back, he had four tackles, 11 pass deflections, returned an interception for a touchdown, had a forced fumble and returned four punts.
MSU included a kicking specialist among its 28 signees, as it signed Devon Bell, the top-rated punter and kicker from Warren Central High in Vicksburg. MSU coaches monitored the 6-foot-3 prospect for more than two years before he signed Wednesday.
When asked if Bell would be a kicker or punter at MSU, Mullen jokingly answered, "yes."
"Probably the first guy I imagine would be on the field is going to be Devon Bell," Mullen said. "He's a guy with just phenomenal leg strength that we've been excited about getting here for over 2 1/2 years since we first had him at camp. We were excited to get him. I think he just has special leg strength. Even as a specialist, he's going to have the opportunity to play right away."
Bell was impressive in kickoffs, punts and field goals the past two years at MSU's summer camps while working with former Bulldogs kicker Brian Hazelwood.
"What makes Devon stand out as a scholarship kicker is the God-given ability of leg strength, and I talked about it with the coaches after working with him at camp," Hazelwood said. "He's booming the ball on kickoffs from the 30-yard-line into the end zone every time. Then when the pressure is on and coach Mullen is standing right over them, he improved on his field goals."
For the fourth straight year, Mullen signed a quarterback: Georgia offensive player of the year Nick Schuessler. The 6-foot-4, 190-pounder will compete for practice snaps this fall with junior Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dak Prescott as one of three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
"It's very tricky because I'm very picky in quarterbacks because what I look for in a quarterback, you can't see on film," Mullen said. "When you get to Nick, the first thing everybody at his high school described him as was the ultimate winner. Physically (he) reminds me of a guy I coached a long time ago in (current San Francisco 49ers quarterback) Alex Smith, who was a guy that didn't put up huge stats but led his team to state championships. (He) then filled out his body, and I see a lot of (those) characteristics in Nick."