STARKVILLE — Joe Moorhead clutched the reins nervously.
Perched atop Trip — a 5-year-old, black Tennessee walking horse that bears a single white dot between its eyes — Moorhead bobbed up and down as 2020 Mississippi State commit Janari Dean guided his future head coach through his family stable just outside his Batesville home.
Dean has long been a rider. From the age of 1, his uncle, Jerry Harris, helped him learn the trade, and he appeared in his first show at age 5. Moorhead, not so much.
“I had ridden one at a beach somewhere when we were on vacation,” he said of his past horse riding experience. “But it was like one of those little Neshoba County Fair little ponies.”
Comfort zone aside, Moorhead’s mounting of Trip wasn’t about personal pride or whether he’d look goofy doing it. Rather, the second-year head coach was fulfilling a pledge he made to Dean — a three-star athlete and the No. 14-ranked player in the state of Mississippi out of South Panola High School — that he would ride a horse when he came to visit the family farm.
“He’s always been a cool dude every time I’m around him,” Dean told The Dispatch. “It looked like he really enjoyed himself today, getting away from the coaching part of it and just enjoying the kids. I think he really likes that.”
Oft lauded for his personality and innate ability to connect with people, Moorhead’s ride through Dean’s stable was just a glimpse at the recruiting prowess he has honed in his short time at MSU — prowess that, according to the numbers, has outranked former head coach Dan Mullen.
Entering Wednesday’s early signing period — a 72-hour window in which athletes can sign their national letters of intent ahead of National Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2020 — MSU boasts 22 commits for the Class of 2020, a class that sits No. 23 nationally per 247Sports.com’s team rankings. Of those 22 players, all 12 high school prospects hailing from Mississippi rank amongst the Magnolia State’s top 30 prospects.
By contrast, Mullen closed his third recruiting cycle as head coach with the No. 41 overall class — good for 11th in the SEC — while only 11 of his 15 Mississippi high school signees were ranked in the state’s top 30.
“I think in the past two years we have really demonstrated how committed we are to recruiting in the state of Mississippi and the surrounding states and our footprint with having the willingness and the ability to go nationally for a player that has a reason to come to Mississippi State,” Moorhead said in October. “The players we talked to either on the phone or through texts, the coaches, and the people you see at school love the direction we are headed. They are excited about Mississippi State football.”
Beyond the cumulative rankings, Moorhead’s third class in Starkville stacks up far better than Mullen’s group from an individual talent perspective as well.
The 2020 recruiting class currently boasts five four-star prospects — compared to Mullen’s one — and its average star rating of 3.227 is almost half a star better than the 2011 average of 2.818. Moorhead’s bunch also boasts an average 247Sports player rating of 87.54 on a 100-point scale, while Mullen’s group was a meager 83.33 without including players who were too low to receive a rating at all.
Further, all 14 of MSU’s high school commits rank in the top 900 nationally, while 10 are in the top 650. Conversely, Mullen’s third signing class had just nine players ranked in the top 1,000 nationally and seven in the top 650.
This same talent gap can be seen between the two classes’ junior-college recruits.
After Moorhead inked four JUCO players a year ago, seven more are set to join the Bulldogs’ ranks next season — including a pair of Copiah-Lincoln Community College teammates, defensive end Jordan Davis (No. 4 overall in 247sports.com’s junior college rankings) and wide receiver Malik Heath (No. 11 overall).
In addition to the Copiah-Lincoln contingent — which also includes linebacker Tyrus Wheat — the other four junior-college prospects all rank in the top 85 nationally.
Comparatively, the 2011 class boasted just one junior college player — Darius Slay of Itawamba Community College.
This isn’t to say Mullen’s group was completely devoid of talent. Among the unheralded recruits he brought to Starkville in 2011 were quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney, defensive lineman Preston Smith and Slay — a group that holds five NFL Pro Bowl appearances among them.
That said, while the 2020 class still stands to change between now and fall camp, Moorhead — statistically, at least — is bringing in talent at a level never seen under Mullen’s administration, one horseback ride at a time.
“It’s been a blast. It’s awesome. We’ve dominated it,” Moorhead said as he shifted his 6-foot-6 frame back onto his heels while tapping the podium with excitement. “You know, working hard to keep our third consecutive top-25 class intact. Been to all four corners of the state and a bunch of others. Highways, dirt roads, Delta, Coast. It’s been awesome.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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