HOOVER, Ala. -- In between debating the worst dressers on the team and picking out potential lunch options for later that afternoon, Dan Mullen turned to his quarterback to ask how he was feeling. “Are you nervous?” he said to Dak Prescott as the two flew from Starkville, Mississippi, to Hoover for SEC media days. He was about to face hundreds of reporters, so the pressure would be on. But Prescott told his coach, “I think I should be, but I’m not.”
Mullen had to smile. That kind of poise was a good sign for his Mississippi State Bulldogs. It was exactly what he wanted to hear from a guy who has gone from an unknown second-stringer to the most recognizable name and face of a program in less than a year. His leader seemed ready to handle his first major responsibility of 2014.
And handle it he did.
Prescott didn’t act like a quarterback who a year earlier wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Instead he showed the confidence of a veteran handling the media: chin up, strong eye contact, ever sincere. He welcomed expectations and was even glad to critique his own play.
“I was kind of wanting to run sometimes,” he said. “I would step back and throw and my feet wouldn’t be where they need to be. But I believe when I have my feet underneath me I can make all the throws.”
Prescott got a taste of the spotlight late last season when he led State to wins over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and against Rice in the Liberty Bowl, accounting for six touchdowns and no turnovers in the process. Now he’s being hailed as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate -- which would be an accurate term only if you ignore the notion that one must be unknown to be a dark horse.
You’d have to ignore the horde of reporters trying to speak with him at media days, too.
“I know who I am deep down,” Prescott said. “It hasn’t changed no matter what I’m doing, if it’s media days or back at the facilities. Nothing has really changed.”
Mullen credits that confidence to the way last season unfolded. Because he got to dip his toe in the water as a backup-turned-starter, Prescott is more comfortable handling the role of incumbent.
“Because of injuries last year, he got to step into the top role without any of the pressure,” Mullen said of his redshirt junior. “He just went out there and started playing. I think the fact that he got that part done first before the buildup made everything a lot easier for him.
“He’s played on the road in tough environments. He’s had to come in and win critical games. He’s had good games and bad games already. Now as he comes in with the pressure of, ‘Hey, you’re the starting quarterback this season,’ he’s been in a lot of pressure situations already.”
Seeing their quarterback handle so much by this point has been a good sign for teammates, too.
“He inspires me to be a better leader,” veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. “We compete every day. Sometimes I feel down and don’t feel like going, and I see Dak leading the offense, inspiring me to push the defense harder.
“He’s a very, very humble guy. He doesn’t really go for the hype. He’s going to keep fighting and not worry about what people say.”
But what people were saying of Prescott on Tuesday was all positive. If he wanted to show he could handle the pressure, he did. Delivering quotes like the SEC West is “second only to the NFC and AFC” earned him credit with everyone in the room.
He should have been anxious, but Prescott didn’t look it. He should have been worried about living up to the hype, but he seemed totally at ease.
Where some might see being the voice of a team as a burden, he got his feet underneath him and delivered.
“It makes it easier when the voice of the team is the quarterback, the guy who has to take all the snaps and has the ball in his hands every play," Prescott said. "So I’m embracing that role and accepting it.”