November 13, 2014 9:59:45 AM
STARKVILLE -- Dan Mullen was true to his word.
Five years ago, Mullen visited Nick Griffin, a standout senior running back at Perry Central in tiny New Augusta and laid out a vision.
"He told me if I came to State, we'd play for championships," said Griffin, a fifth-year senior tailback at MSU. "He was right."
It was a scene Mullen repeated in living rooms across the state in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, when he put together his first full recruiting class after taking over at MSU job in December 2008. Piece by piece, Mullen assembled a group he hoped would turn into the foundation for a championship program.
Today, that signing class is the backbone of a team that is 9-0 for the first time in program history and sits atop the college football world.
"It's incredible," said senior linebacker Christian Holmes, who signed as a lightly recruited two-star prospect out of Puckett High School. "This is why we all came here. I would have come here anyway, but when coach Mullen recruited me, he convinced me this was possible."
When Mullen signed his first class, few believed what was in store. Five years later, 15 players remain from the 2010 haul, and seven of those start for the No. 1 team in the nation. Not bad for a class that was ranked an average of 42nd in the country by the nation's top three recruiting services.
Those 15 players, who have helped MSU win 12-straight games, are crucial to a team that will play No. 4 Alabama at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (WCBI) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in one of the biggest games in school history.
"We know what's at stake. It's a huge game," said MSU defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls, MSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2010. "Games like this are the reason we play football."
So how did Mullen find the building blocks that would be the foundation for the success of 2014? He and his assistant coaches targeted players who wanted to achieve greatness, no matter the recruiting ranking.
"It's not necessarily about stars when we recruit a guy," Mullen said. "Does he want to be great? Does he want to put in the work. That's the kind of player we look for because that's the guy who's going to be successful."
On paper, Mullen's first class was ranked 38th in the nation by Rivals.com and 45th by Scout.com. The haul included players who were deemed too small, too slow, or not special enough by other Southeastern Conference programs. It included players like Jameon Lewis, the 5-foot-9 quarterback at Tylertown High, who blossomed into one of the SEC's best receivers last season, when he caught 63 passes for nearly 1,000 yards. Although he has been hampered by a leg injury that has cost him the better part of four games this season, Lewis swells with pride when he looks back at what the Bulldogs have built in his time in Starkville.
"We do take it as a point of pride that we've achieved so much during our time here," Lewis said earlier this season. "To be here and watch this program grow from the ground up, it has been great. We just want to leave our mark."
Nine members of the Class of 2010 start for the Bulldogs, while 13 of the 15 play significant roles. The group includes starting offensive linemen Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day, defensive lineman Eulls and Curtis Virges (West Point), linebackers Holmes and Matthew Wells, tight ends Brandon Hill (West Lowndes) and Malcolm Johnson, receivers Lewis and Robert Johnson and the defensive back tandem of Jay Hughes at safety and cornerback Jamerson Love (Aberdeen).
"We have put in a lot of hard work. That's what this program is about," Virges said. "It was all about Mississippi State. Once I got my offer, this is where I wanted to be. For us to build this, it has been special."
Brothers for life
Virges is a good spokesman for the unheralded Bulldogs who make up the bulk of the roster. A Class 5A state champion at West Point High, Virges wasn't heavily recruited. MSU represented his only SEC scholarship offer. But Virges works hard and is an outstanding student. He graduated in the spring of 2014 and is pursuing a master's degree in chemistry. The studious, dedicated Virges epitomizes what Mullen looks for on the recruiting trail.
"We have a bunch of guys who work hard," Mullen said. "A lot of the guys we recruit, they are overlooked. Maybe it's because they're at a small school, maybe it's because they're overshadowed. But we look for the kid who wants to get better. We have a lot of them."
Virges has nine tackles this season as a key backup on defense. Wells might be MSU's most underrated player, a speedster at linebacker who excels in pass coverage. Then there's Eulls, the no-nonsense lineman who won SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his five-tackle, two-sack effort at Kentucky.
"Kaleb Eulls is what college football is all about," Mullen said. "The kind of player he is, the work ethic he has, the kind of young man he is ... To get to where he is from where he came from, it's everything that's good about college football."
The bond shared by MSU's fifth-year seniors has everything to do with football. At the same time, it has nothing to do with football, as the group shares a bond Virges calls "a brotherhood." The 15 players remaining from Mullen's first full class have worked together, lived together, grown together. In a few months, they will leave the program together. Those players will leave it in a better place than where they found it, coming off a 5-7 campaign in Mullen's first season.
"They will always be my guys," said Hill, a fifth-year senior. "Everything we've been through, we will be brothers for life."
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