STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It’s been nearly three months since the Super Bowl, and Dan Mullen is still gloating.
Before the big game in early February, he told his assistant coaches at Mississippi State to pay attention to Percy Harvin. He didn’t care that Harvin was more statue than standout for Seattle during the season. He took one look at Harvin's underwhelming production due to injuries -- three games played, four receptions, no touchdowns -- and knew not to be fooled.
Mullen understood the cold hard truth about playmakers like Harvin, whom he coached as offensive coordinator at Florida: In the biggest moments, they always show up.
“They said Percy wasn’t going to play much,” Mullen recalled. “I said, ‘It’s the Super Bowl. He’s playing. And not only is he playing, if they kick it to him he will score. As soon as he touches the ball on a kickoff in the open field, he will score.’ [Defensive coordinator] Geoff Collins texted me and said, ‘C’mon man!’”
On his first touch, Harvin took an end around 30 yards. After a short reception, he carried another end around 15 yards for a first down. And then, on the opening kickoff of the second half, he ran the ball back 87 yards for a touchdown.
Now if only Mullen could make another Percy Harvin magically appear.
When Mullen arrived at State in 2008, he was greeted with the usual sort of optimism. And in terms of wins, he has delivered, taking the Bulldogs to a bowl game in each of the last four seasons. But in terms of hype, he’s fallen short of creating the kind of dynamic offense he became known for at Florida, featuring multitalented weapons like Harvin, Tim Tebow and Chris Rainey. Instead, his quarterbacks have been inconsistent, his receivers underwhelming and his running backs, while productive, have never been home-run hitters.
This year Mullen hopes to change that. He sees playmakers emerging. Dak Prescott, who is being billed as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, won’t have to do it all on his own.
“We ask, Who can score?” Mullen said. “Dak can’t score. He can score inside the 5, but that means we have to get the ball all the way down inside the 5. But in the SEC, who can score? … Who in the field can make you miss, take a 5-yard play and turn it into a 50-yard play? That’s important to us.”
Because of his height (5-foot-9) and role as receiver/return specialist, Jameon Lewis fits the Harvin mold the best of any player on State’s roster. He may not have his top-end speed, but he has a version of it. And even a poor man’s Harvin can score plenty, as Lewis did with five receiving and three rushing touchdowns last season. His 118.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked sixth in the SEC.
Consistency, though, will be key. Of Lewis’ eight touchdowns, six were against sub-.500 or non-BCS opponents.
“We have to consistently get the ball in his hands,” Mullen said, whether that's motioning him in the backfield or having him take direct snaps. “He’s certainly helped himself as a wide receiver learning to be a route-runner. Instead of saying, ‘Hey coach, put the ball in my hands and I can run around like I did in high school and make stuff happen,’ I said, ‘Hey, you have to get open. You have to run routes so we can get the ball in your hands first.’”
Helping Lewis will be De'Runnya Wilson, who present his own set of challenges at 6-5 with the ability to jump out of the gym. The part-time basketball player came into his own late during his freshman season, catching 16 passes and two touchdowns over his final five games. As Mullen said, “He might not run away from you, but one-on-one he can go over you.”
Wilson’s size and Lewis’ escapability play well off one another, making for a tough assignment on defense, Collins explained.
“De’Runnya is a big, physical receiver out on the edge,” he said. “Jameon is a mismatch for linebackers or even some nickel backs. And then you have Dak, who can throw it with the best of them and then is a threat to run, which makes it difficult for a play-caller to make sure you’re hitting all the right bases.”
“We’re better at running back this year than we were last year,” Mullen said. “Now that’s hard to say with Perkins being gone, who was a great player for us. But Josh Robinson is really now to the point where he’s developed into a legit back. He knows what he’s doing out there on the field. Ashton Shumpert is back, now with experience. Nick Griffin is as healthy as he’s been in three years. And I finally smartened up and put Brandon Holloway -- he was a high school tailback at 165 pounds that we tried to make into a slot receiver, he’s the fastest kid on the team -- back at running back.
“I hate comparing him to anyone up north,” Mullen added of Holloway, “but he’s a Dexter McCluster type player who isn’t a big guy, but plays off of contact a lot bigger than he is. … He’s electric in the perimeter and is physical enough of a player.”
Prescott, for his part, couldn’t help but smile. Running the read-option with those backs could be lethal. And as good as Lewis and Wilson could be, there’s also Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson to consider.
Prescott pointed to the come-from-behind victory over Ole Miss and the 44-point, 533-yard win against Rice as only the start of where the offense is headed.
“We have experience coming back at every position,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of talented receivers, big and small. They can do all do different things. We’ve got a great group of running backs that performed well this offseason.
“We can be as good as we want to.”