July 31, 2014 10:51:51 AM
STARKVILLE -- Football is back in session at Mississippi State.
That much was evident Wednesday in the halls of the Seal Football Complex a few hours after MSU's players reported for their first meeting of the season. Fall camp will kick off at 4:45 p.m. today when coach Dan Mullen begins his sixth season as MSU's coach.
To a man, the Bulldogs chosen to speak with the media after the initial meeting believe Mullen's sixth season in Starkville could be his best.
The Bulldogs won their final three games last season to become bowl eligible. MSU will try to build on that momentum with 18 returning starters, the most in the Southeastern Conference. Those factors have made the Bulldogs a trendy pick to make noise in the SEC's Western Division. None of the Bulldogs available Wednesday shied away from those expectations.
"It's good to be back, to have everybody from the players to the coaches down to the equipment guys in the same room," said junior Dak Prescott, who enters camp as the unquestioned starter at quarterback for the first time. "We have high expectations, and we all know what those expectations are. Everything will be turned up like the intensity, the speed ... It's going to be a veteran practice out there."
The Bulldogs will practice once each today, Friday, and Saturday in shorts and helmets before hitting the field for the first time in full pads Monday. Intra-squad scrimmages are set for Saturday, Aug. 9, and Friday, Aug. 15. Fan Day will be Sunday, Aug. 24.
While media attention and the expectations of fans have swirled around the program this summer, some players entered camp with the same mind-set.
"There's been a lot more media, and it feels like there's a lot more
people believing in us," said junior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, MSU's returning leader in interceptions from last season. "But we feel like we expect to win every year. We can be real good. We just have to go out there and work. I feel real good, but this is just the beginning of training camp. I think we can have a special year, but it's up to us to put the work in."
Calhoun is one of nine returning starters from a defense that ranked in the top five in pass defense, rush defense, and scoring defense in 2013. He also is one of several Bulldogs who has received a lot of media attention prior to camp. ESPN College Football analyst Chris Lowe named the Morton native the SEC's No. 2 cornerback.
Sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones is another player who figures into MSU's high hopes. As a freshman, Jones entered camp as a physically gifted sensation. He didn't disappoint on the field, leading the team in quarterback hurries with 10. This season, he enters as one of the league's most-touted players.
"I am more focused this year, more serious," said Jones, who signed with the Bulldogs after a meteoric rise from two-star prospect to the No. 2 recruit in the country as a senior at Houston High School. "I learned a lot from guys like PJ Jones, Kaleb Eulls. I think I'll be a better player this year."
Like his teammates, Jones wasn't bashful about embracing the expectations for MSU this season.
"I feel like we have the talent. The issue is staying healthy," Jones said. "If everyone is healthy, I feel like the sky is the limit."
Asked what he expects from the initial practices, Prescott was blunt.
"Everybody is going to push everybody," said Prescott, who had nearly 3,000 total yards and 25 touchdowns last season. "It's going to be intense. We all know the expectations around here."
Senior defensive end Preston Smith, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks in 2013, could only smile when asked about starting fall practice for the fourth time in his career. The smile was a product of the unseasonably cool temperatures that are expected to greet the Bulldogs this week.
"God's looking out for us," Smith said. "What is it, 80 degrees outside? Usually it's in the 90s or even hotter when we start. I think this is the coolest summer since I've been here, but I know when we start working the work the coaches will put us through will make us feel like it's hot."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat