August 27, 2014 7:57:28 PM
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and University of Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens are hardly strangers.
Collins, who came to MSU in 2011, was in charge of recruiting central Alabama in the fall of 2012 when Mullens was a senior at Hoover High School near Birmingham. A two-star prospect, Mullens made multiple visits to MSU but a a scholarship offer never came, and the 6-foot-1, 185-pound signal caller eventually signed with Southern Miss.
"He's a great kid, smart kid," said Collins of Mullens. "I got to know him real well, got to know his family. He's a good fit for their offense down at Southern Miss. I think the world of him and it will be fun to get to compete against him."
On Saturday night, Collins and Mullens will meet again when the Bulldogs host the Golden Eagles to kick off the season at 6:30 p.m. at Davis Wade Stadium.
How that meeting goes will likely determine how well Southern Miss, 1-11 a year ago, competes with the Bulldogs, as Collins leads a defense that finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference defending the pass against Mullens and a USM offense that leans heavily on the passing game. The Golden Eagles, who have just one win in their last 24 games, improved steadily in the passing game throughout 2013, an improvement that coincides with Mullens taking the reins of the offense midway through his freshman season.
After playing sparingly over the season's first six weeks, the Spain Park High product started all six games in the second half of 2013 for USM. Getting more comfortable by the week, Mullens capped USM's disappointing season by leading the Golden Eagles to a 62-27 win over UAB in the season finale, a game where Mullens connected on 24 of his 39 pass attempts for 370 yards and five touchdowns.
That season-ending win did not escape the attention of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen.
"One, they won their last game last year," said Mullen. "I know Todd (Monken) is trying to build the program there, from when he took over and what he took over. But like anything winning that last game I'm sure has really bolstered them going into this offseason, given them momentum going into the offseason. They've got a lot of guys back, they have a quarterback with not a lot of experience but started last year, knows the system out of Hoover High School which runs similar style stuff, very accurate, can get the ball to the receivers. They have a bunch of play-making receivers on the perimeter. Their top rusher is back, the top receiver is back on the offensive side of the ball. They scored 60 points in the last game of the season so I'm sure they're coming in with some confidence. Todd as an offensive guy in his background is going to do that."
With three of his top five pass catchers, including leading receiver Markeese Triplett back, Mullens will figure prominently into a USM game plan designed to score points against a physical, experienced MSU defense. The Bulldogs, who bring back eight defensive starters, also recorded 14 interceptions in 2013, good for fourth in the SEC.
"I think we are playing a good team," said MSU cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who finished second on the team with three interceptions as a sophomore. "We are definitely not going out there thinking we are just going to roll past them, they've got good athletes. Their receivers are good and their quarterback makes quick, accurate throws."
Mullens' improvement from year one to year two will be for a USM team that struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago. The Eagles finished 123rd nationally - out of 125 Division-I teams - in rushing with just 875 yards and five touchdowns in Monken's first year. By contrast, the Eagles' passing game finished 55th in the country.
Staying true to the pass in favor of the run could be a sound strategy for USM against MSU's defensive front seven, as the Bulldogs return six of seven starters along the defensive line and linebacker spot, a fact not lost on Monken.
"They present lots of problems," said Monken of MSU's defensive front, "They're big. They're physical. They're athletic. They have only gotten better. Coach (David) Turner does a great job with the front. They do a great job on defense. They are not complicated. They don't do a lot of things, but what they do, they do well. If you look at last year, the teams that scored on them scored because of unbelievable individual athletic ability. Look at (Texas) A&M, Johnny Manziel, they had a hard time corralling him like everybody did."
MSU's defense will lean heavily upon junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who has led the Bulldogs in tackles in each of his two years, and defensive tackle Chris Jones, a sophomore from Houston named to SI.com's preseason All-America list.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat