Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The unofficial kickoff to the Dan Mullen era at Mississippi State opens March 24 when the Bulldogs start spring practice.
Mullen gave his pre-spring State of the Cowbells address on Thursday, and here are a few highlights:
Wade Bonner, one of the more versatile athletes on the team, has moved from running back to safety and will try his hand there this spring. Mullen said it's been a productive offseason for his safeties, including Zach Smith and Charles Mitchell. Mullen said moving Bonner was a case of having a lot of depth at running back and the need to get Bonner on the field somewhere. "He's just a great athlete for us," Mullen said. "Whether we use him offensively or defensively, we need to find a place for him to make sure he's out there on the field."
Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning estimated last month that senior running back Anthony Dixon was down around 225 pounds. Mullen said Dixon is actually closer to 235 pounds, but has lost 20 pounds. Dixon reported in January weighing 255. "I want him to be as big and strong as he can be, being as fast as he can be ... whatever weight that is," Mullen said. "If he can handle 235, that's great. If he can bulk up and handle 245, that's great. If he can't, we'll have him drop down. There's not an exact weight I want him at."
Despite some of the stereotypes associated with a spread offense, Mullen said Dixon can expect to touch the ball often in 2009. The Bulldogs want to run the ball, especially with them being so top-heavy at tight end and fullback. "We're going to be a big running team," Mullen said. "I think the misconception sometimes of the spread is that you throw every down. Our version of the spread offense is that we're going to be balanced. Really, all the spread offense is about is trying to spread the entire field and trying to find matchups, whether it be in the run game, the pass game, whether it be with three tight ends and one receiver or four receivers and no tight ends."
Mullen joked that the biggest adjustment for him this spring would be keeping his cool. "I have high standards and expectations of what I want to see and how I expect things to be," Mullen said. "I think there's going to be a learning curve for the players, but I'll try to keep myself calm for the spring so I don't go too nuts." The Bulldogs' practices this spring will be open to the public.
Cornerback Anthony Johnson, receiver Arceto Clark and defensive back Maurice Langston, a junior college newcomer, will remain suspended from the team "until further investigation," Mullen said.
Among the players that will be out or limited this spring while recovering from injuries are receiver Brandon McRae, running back Robert Elliott and tight end Marcus Green. Receiver O'Neal Wilder, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will return to the practice field. "He'll be full go for what he can do," Mullen said.
Mullen has been particularly impressed with the way the players have bought into strength coach Matt Balis' conditioning program. "He's the best strength coach in the country," Mullen said of Balis. "When the kids see him at first, they think he's a little nuts. But they do buy in because they see progress. I think that's what happened, the kids started seeing the development and seeing their bodies change, seeing them physically improve, that it became a lot easier for them to buy in." Mullen said it's not uncommon for Balis to be in the office at 2 a.m. getting ready for an early-morning workout.
Similar to the Champions program at Florida, Mullen has implemented his own Champions Club at Mississippi State. The idea is to reward players who are "champions" on and off the field, in the weight room, in the classroom and in the community. Right now, (16 players) have made the cut. Among them: Jamar Chaney, Tyson Lee, Derek Sherrod, Marcus Washington, Mitchell and Bonner. "Those (16) have bought into what we are preaching," Mullen said. "What we need to do in this second quarter through spring ball is try to double that."
The biggest void Mullen sees heading into the spring is a lack of playmakers at the receiver position, although the Bulldogs signed several receivers in this class that they're hopeful can be immediate contributors in the fall. Freshmen Chad Bumphis, Dennis Thames, Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens will all get a chance to show what they've got when they arrive this summer. Junior college signee Leon Berry is already on campus and will go through spring ball. "Hopefully, we'll find some guys in the spring that are playmakers," Mullen said.