February 6, 2014 11:44:20 AM
STARKVILLE -- National Signing Day had its share of surprising moments for the Mississippi State football team.
In an announced 23-player recruiting class for the 2014 season, MSU went 1-for-2 in flipped commitments Wednesday afternoon to give sixth-year coach Dan Mullen some talking points.
"There were only two that came down to the end for us -- one was good and the other was bad," Mullen said at the Seal Family Football Complex." Everything else didn't waver from what our thoughts were."
The good news came around noon when former Tennessee verbal commitment Cory Thomas picked MSU over Clemson. The defensive end from McCalla, Ala., and the same high school legendary running back Bo Jackson attended, is expected to help a pass rush that ranked near the bottom in the Southeastern Conference in sacks last season.
Thomas, a three-star defensive end prospect according to 247Sports.com, visited MSU on Jan. 24. He picked MSU even after visiting Tennessee last weekend.
When Thomas announced his decision and MSU received his National Letter of Intent around noon, MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said he was "feeling a lot better."
"Cory Thomas is a guy we have been recruiting for a long time," Mullen said. "(Defensive line coach) David Turner and (defensive coordinator) Geoff Collins did a fabulous job of recruiting him, staying with him, and making sure he understood what a priority he was to us and what an important part of our family he is and how he is going to be taken care of here as part of this family."
The mood grew silent when the fax from defensive back Tee Shepard never arrived. Shepard, the most coveted junior college defensive back prospect in the nation from Holmes Community College, signed with Ole Miss after never officially visiting the Oxford campus. Less than three days ago, the four-star product gave a verbal commitment to MSU, which he said was the only school on his radar.
Mullen never mentioned Shepard in his local media conference, but CBS Sports.com asked him earlier in the day about Shepard. Mullen declined comment based on NCAA rules.
At his media conference, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said his staff was on the phone with Shepard until early Wednesday morning. When he heard that news, Mullen said he grew up in a house "where you didn't call anybody past about 10 p.m."
"When it gets to that crazy time at the end, you hope guys are making choices for the right decisions," Mullen said. "If he didn't feel we were going to develop him to be the absolute best he could be, that we weren't going to take care of him as part of our family, and that he wasn't ready to work as hard as he possibly can and be pushed as hard as he possibly can be to be the best player he possibly can be, then it was OK for him to go somewhere else."
MSU had 23 players sign, including two early enrollees -- quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and junior college offensive lineman Jocquell Johnson from Copiah-Lincoln C.C. -- who participated in the team's bowl practices and are eligible for spring drills. National recruiting services ranked the class, one of the smallest in the Mullen era because of a lack of graduating seniors, between 35-40 nationally and 12-13 in the SEC.
Most of the players MSU signed had given verbal commitments that allowed the coaching staff to focus on years down the road to increase the depth in what is expected to be larger classes in 2015 and 2016.
"The foundation we put on recruiting guys from the state of Mississippi allows you to have a good feel looking into the future of where guys will fit into our program," Mullen said. "Our footprint is clear, and it makes it easier to see where those guys fit in. You always stay ahead of the game that way."
Mullen said he and his staff expect at least two academic casualties in this class. Earlier in the day, Jamoral Graham, a four-star wide receiver prospect from Decatur, and Lashard Durr, a three-star prospect from Gulfport, double signed with junior colleges.
Mullen, who was sick with a 24-hour flu virus, tried to make the day about the 90 percent he was sure about since the summer, but he knew the talk would focus on the drama that occurred throughout the day.
"If there's more drama than you can handle, maybe you're looking at some of the wrong guys," Mullen said. "Maybe they don't understand the hard work, sacrifice, and commitment it takes to be a great football player. They may be focused on some of the wrong things."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
1. Getting to the point: Newman buys into Howland's plan COLLEGE SPORTS
2. MSU's Alwal signs contract with WNBA's Atlanta Dream COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Stillman pitches shutout, New Hope takes 1-0 series lead HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
4. Prep Roundup: Campbell tosses shutout, Starkville wins HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
5. Four MSU pitchers shut down No. 25 Arkansas COLLEGE SPORTS