STARKVILLE — Simultaneous, yet contradictory, excitement and anxiety overtake coaches’ meetings rooms on National Signing Day.
The future of the program can be bolstered in a few hours … if all of the National Letters of Intent arrive as planned.
The Mississippi State football team was blissfully immune to most of the anxiety.
“This was a different type of experience, I think, for State fans in recent memory and the time Dan Mullen has been head coach because they went out and hit those junior college home runs,” said Matt Wyatt, former MSU quarterback who now works with Richard Cross as co-hosts of Head to Head Radio, which airs weekdays on SuperTalk Mississippi. “That’s the perception, anyway; a lot of recruiting is perception.”
MSU’s 2017 class
includes nine junior college players, the most of any Mullen MSU class by three and the most in any MSU class since 2001. While Mullen has taken pride in his coaching staff’s ability to develop players, which has been supported by the number of Bulldogs who have moved on to the NFL, the 2017 class is seen as a group assembled to help MSU win in the fall.
“If you go to junior college (to recruit), you’re going for immediate help,” said Craig Haubert, ESPN’s national recruiting coordinator.
Mullen said the influx of junior college players was unintentional.
“It just played out that way,” he said on National Signing Day, which was Feb. 1. “I think a lot of people will question was it a plan to have this. We don’t ever have a set number of junior college players or high school players. It just kind of played out that way.”
Seven of the nine junior college signees are defensive players. Last season, MSU’s defense ranked near or at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in several statistical categories, which adds to the perception MSU was going for an immediate fix.
“You’re trying to infuse players into your program that can play immediately,” Haubert said.
Wyatt, who works with Jim Ellis on the broadcasts of MSU football games, said fans’ perception might feed into that narrative, even if it isn’t what the coaches intended.
“Coaches are managing their rosters two and three years out at times, but as fans, we’re looking at, ‘Hey, we were bad at defense last year, so we need help on defense,'” Wyatt said. “You get (Johnathan) Abram, (Brian) Cole, the JUCO defensive ends from Scooba (Chauncey Rivers) and Copiah-Lincoln (Montez Sweat), then you line up Willie Gay, who (Mullen) says is going to come in and contribute right away.”
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham might have inadvertently contributed to fans’ perception when he said at his introductory press conference, “It’s a new day for everybody, defensively.”
Despite all of the buzz about the junior college players, Haubert said teams face risks signing a lot of JUCO players because many are there for a reason, whether it be academic, off-field behavior, or something else.
“There are two things to look at,” Haubert said. “The first is, from the 30,000 feet view, junior college is very interesting. When you go to junior college in those numbers, it can be dicey.”
That being the case, MSU’s timing seems to be impeccable because a number of talented players were available.
“Now, when you zoom in a little,” Haubert said, “these are really good players.”
Haubert said Cole had some of the best game film ESPN saw in this recruiting class. In ESPN’s junior college recruiting rankings, Cole ranked sixth nationally among JUCO prospects, Sweat 16th, Rivers 21st, and Abram 22nd. Defensive tackle Lee Autry, of Itawamba Community College, another MSU signee, ranked 25th.
Haubert said MSU did well to recruit the state’s junior colleges, especially since four — defensive tackle Deion Pope, offensive lineman Tommy Champion, defensive end Montez Sweat, and safety Jaquarius Landrews — came from Copiah-Lincoln C.C. Defensive end Chauncey Rivers and offensive lineman Tyre Phillips played last season at East Mississippi C.C.
Most of the additions are considered fits because they address a specific need. The class is viewed even more positively because the players are believed to fit with the aggressive style Grantham promises to bring to MSU.
“It’s all well and good for fans to go, ‘Well, we need to pressure on defense.’ What if you don’t have the personnel to handle it?” Wyatt said. “The perception is that now, with these guys in, if it all jells in time, they might fit that aggressive style a little better.”
MSU’s success with junior college signees doesn’t mean it ignored high school players. The Bulldogs’ biggest Signing Day splash came within the city limits when Starkville High School linebacker Willie Gay, ranked by ESPN as the No. 12 outside linebacker in the nation in the Class of 2017, signed with MSU. Even though ESPN’s No. 2 player in the state of Mississippi, D.D. Bowie — subject of MSU’s #WeWantDD campaign in the final days before Signing Day — stuck with Ole Miss, the signing of Gay cast a favorable shadow on the class.
“I think if you were to ask 100 random State fans their opinion, even if you had gone back to Feb. 1, they would have told you the No. 1 priority is Willie Gay and the No. 2 priority is (defensive lineman/linebacker Aaron) Odom, and it would be great as a cherry on top if you were able to get D.D. Bowie to come,” Wyatt said. “I think most of the 100 fans you polled would tell you the same thing.”
Wyatt’s reasoning is Bowie projected to be a wide receiver for MSU, where the fan base was more concerned with defensive additions.
MSU didn’t target much offense in the 2017 class, but when it did, Haubert saw merit in what it did. Haubert feels the five offensive line signees, especially Champion, could contribute quickly given the graduation losses.
Other notable offensive signees, both of them early enrollees, were Louisiana’s player of the year, quarterback Keytaon Thompson, and Ocean Spring wide receiver Austin Williams.
With those so-called cherries on top, Wyatt said, “This was a really satisfying recruiting cycle for State fans.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson