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DAN MULLEN DIDN'T REALIZE IT AT THE TIME, BUT A YEAR AGO his team was sowing the seeds of disappointment. The Bulldogs had ended 2010 ranked 15th nationally (their highest placement in 11 years) and would enter 2011 picked 20th—but in the time between seasons, complacency crept in, as evident in some players' uninspired weight-room work and the lowest team GPA of Mullen's three-year tenure. "A lot of our guys lost a little of that edge, of that desperateness," Mullen says. "You give an inch, you're gonna lose a game in the SEC." Sure enough, Mississippi State lost six of its first seven conference games and barely squeaked out a winning overall record.
Mullen is encouraged that this year's squad seems to have replaced that lax attitude with a more focused approach—in the spring the team had the fourth-highest GPA in the 112 years of the program. But other areas need a lot of work. Most notable are defensive tackle and running back, where the Bulldogs lost first-round NFL draft pick Fletcher Cox and 1,200-yard rusher Vick Ballard. The sizable void left at the three-technique by Cox, a 298-pounder, will be filled in part by junior Josh Boyd, at 295, who slides over from nosetackle. That leaves a spot for which senior Devin Jones and sophomore P.J. Jones, among others, will compete.
Ballard's vacated spot is also up for grabs, with the top options being 5' 10", 190-pound junior LaDarius Perkins, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry as Ballard's understudy last fall, and 6-foot, 225-pound sophomore Nick Griffin, who has a promising combination of speed and size and was limited by a knee injury to 16 carries last year. "We're going to roll those guys through and see who'll be the go-to guy, if there is one," Mullen says. "We've been successful running the ball, and that won't change."
How much the Bulldogs run might change though, now that they've handed the offensive reins to strong-armed junior Tyler Russell. In part-time duty last season Russell threw eight TDs and had a 135.1 passer rating. With an offensive line in transition, there's little room for error. "He can't have a bad day," Mullen says of Russell, who'll benefit from throwing to three senior receivers in the spread attack. "He's gotta be on, and he's gotta be accurate, week in and week out." After all, the coach has seen what happens when, as he would say, you give even an inch.
COACH Dan Mullen (4th year) 21--17 (9--15 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Les Koenning
CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS Geoff Collins, Chris Wilson
2011 RECORD 7--6 (2--6, 5th in SEC West)