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Mullen, Fitzgerald look ahead to Texas A&M

MSU improved to 5-2 on Saturday.

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 8:44 AM

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – In what will be its fourth game against ranked opponent this season, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald previewed the Bulldogs’ road tilt at No. 24 Texas A&M at their weekly news conference on Monday.

Kickoff for the Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 SEC) and Aggies (5-2, 3-1) is 6:15 p.m. CT Saturday live on ESPN from Kyle Field.

MSU’s road slate has been among the most difficult in the nation. All three league road games have come against ranked opponents at night. All three of those opponents are still ranked in the current polls. MSU will join Maryland this weekend as the only squads in the nation to play three road games against ranked opponents to date this season. 

In addition, the league office announced that the Bulldogs’ non-conference home game against UMass on Nov. 4 will kick off at 11 a.m. CT on SEC Network. 

Below are quotes from Mullen and Fitzgerald:

Head Coach Dan Mullen

Opening statement…

“It’s a big challenge for us. This will be our third-straight road game where we’re playing a Top-25 team. There’s only one other team in the country that’s faced three Top-25 teams. It’s the third-straight night road game against a Top-25 team, which is always a challenge playing an excellent football team. In all phases, they’ve got tremendous athletes. On offense, Christian Kirk is one of the top playmakers in the country, in all of college football. Offensively, they’ve got running backs – not just one, but multiple running backs – who come in and get physical, tough yards inside. They can make you miss and be productive that way. They’re both also home-run hitters in the open field. They get big plays. They also have other talent inside at wideout and a quarterback now who’s not such a freshman anymore. With the exception of about 17 minutes of this season, they’d probably be a Top-10 team, if not a Top-5 team right now, that we’re getting ready to play. During those 17 minutes, they had a true freshman in the game. He was a lot more of a true freshman than he is today. The guy’s explosive and obviously a tremendous athlete when he can run the ball. You can see the experience is starting to grow. Defensively, they’re probably the most athletic team we’ve played so far on the defensive side of the ball. They lead the league in sacks and tackles for losses with great athletes that can run all over the field. With John Chavis as the defensive coordinator, they play a very aggressive style. It’ll be a huge challenge for us and our guys, going on the road and playing another great quality opponent.”

On how the Texas A&M defense is successful…

“They’ve got great athletes; they attack. They attack you well, and they transition well from run to pass. They can fit the run and get into a pass-rush mode. Within their scheme and their style, what they do is they get you behind the chains. They get in the pass-rush mindset and mentality. They come after you.”

On the effectiveness of a designed quarterback run on third down…  

“It’s accounting for 11 players. If you play just an I-formation when it’s going to be handed off, you’re not accounting for the quarterback and it’s 10-on-11. If you account for the quarterback in there, it’s 11-on-11. If you’re going to keep a safety in the middle of the field to protect giving up the home-run play, the offense now has the numbers advantage.”

On Texas A&M’s freshman quarterback Kellen Mond…

“He’s a true freshman that has really developed to not be that anymore. He’s started a bunch of games. He’s played a bunch. What you’ve seen is a guy that’s a tremendous athlete through his feet. Early on, that’s how he was used. I think now, being the starter for a bunch of weeks, you’re seeing a guy that’s more comfortable within the offense of throwing the football and managing the whole offense instead of relying more on being an athlete and getting himself adjusted to the game."

On the signatures of Head Coach Kevin Sumlin’s teams…

“One thing is he always has great athletes out there on the field, big play-making guys. When you’re playing them, you’ve got to be ready to play for four quarters. They can always score, and they can always score in a hurry. They tend to have tremendous athletes on the defensive side of the ball. When it gets into a track meet, they have some really athletic guys they put out there on the field on both sides.”On playing in Kyle Field …

On playing in Kyle Field …

“It’s a great environment. They can make you seasick rocking back and forth between the third and fourth quarters. That’s unique to them. There’s a lot of history and a lot of great tradition in college football. There’s over 100,000 people there on a Saturday night. It’s a very hostile environment that you play in. It’s another great venue that the conference has that makes the SEC so special.”

On using a variety of offensive schemes…

“It’s always scheme, and for us, it’s what gives us an advantage. If we see things that the defense is going to give us, we try to utilize it. We also try to utilize our players to get the right guys at the right spots to go make plays. We’re constantly trying to create mismatches out there on the field with different personnel groupings. You use different personnel groupings to try to create mismatches, whether you’re using multiple receivers playing different positions or multiple tight ends with two or three tight end sets. Having guys that can play multiple positions can help, too. We’ll have different personnel groupings that put guys at different positions, and the defense doesn’t know exactly which position they’re playing until they line up.”

On maintaining consistent practices after big wins…

“We’re not going to change our routine. We just have to change our mentality and our mindset about how we attack the week in practice with a little bit of an edge to us and really working on improving. We talked this morning with the team that we’ve got to be better in every aspect of the game. Sometimes those are big steps; big steps are easy to see to improve on. A lot of times, smaller steps aren’t as easy to improve on and take a great attention to detail. We’ve got to make sure we’re paying attention to both of those things. Our scout team’s got to be better this week. We’ve got to be better at the front, with the O-line and D-line. We’ve got to be better at the skill positions. Our intensity in individuals has got to be cleaner and fix things. Within the kicking game, we’ve got to fix things. It’s just the little attention to detail, where being two feet off didn’t cost us last week but here as you see the video, this is why it could have cost us. That mindset and attention to detail is critical.”

On using the tight ends…

“We play all three tight ends a bunch. That’s one of the few positions we’ve been healthy at this year. For us, that helps to be able to move those guys around to different spots and put them in a position to be effective.”

On senior tight end Jordan Thomas…

“I think for him, he’s starting to learn the game. When he played last year in his first year, he probably should have redshirted. Depth and injuries put him on the field. You’d love for him long-term to have another year under his belt because he is a guy that is a tough mismatch. He’s got size, he’s pretty athletic and he’s really learning the game a little bit better from week to week which makes him more effective. He can play attached; he can play flexed-out. The more knowledgeable you are, the more you can do; and the more you can do, the harder you are to defend. It’s a shame he had to play last year, but I think he’s taking steps and learning the game more and more every weekend.”

On the team’s injuries…

“We’re hoping during the week to get a bunch of guys back. We’ll see as the week goes on how that plays out. We expect to have Keith Mixon back, Cory [Thomas] back and Martinas [Rankin] back. I don’t know that many guys will practice today, but maybe later in the week we’ll have those guys and get them all back.”

On co-offensive coordinator/offensive line Coach John Hevesy…

“I’ve known him for about 16 years, and I don’t know that his approach changes all that much. Nobody else coaches the offensive line. He does. I see for him, if they’re doing poorly, people jump all over him. If they’re doing well, he deserves all the credit and should be getting rewards for that. Just as a coach, he’s always coached our guys hard. He coaches hard, and he’s very demanding. It’s one of the toughest positions, coaching-wise. Very rarely when you do well does anybody really talk much about it, but they really talk about you when you don’t do well. It’s somewhat thankless of a job. He has our guys playing well, and hopefully getting Martinas back will help us even more.”

On how the safeties have developed over the first half of the season…

“Johnathan [Abram] is new. J.T. [Gray] is kind of new but he’s played all over the place before. With John, this is a similar style defense that he ran before he went to junior college. There’s familiarity, and the opportunity for him to graduate early and get in here has really helped. You look at Mark [McLaurin] and Brandon Bryant that are juniors this year, which is a big year for those guys. They’ve played. This is a big development year. They have the experience of being on the field, even though there’s some new things defensively for them. The understand offenses and what they see. Hopefully the position will stay healthy, even in the future. Next year we’ll have a really solid, deep group there.”

On how MSU’s freshmen compare to Texas A&M’s freshman Kellen Mond…

“He’s starting a bunch of games. I think that is different at this point. This will be his sixth game as a starter. He’s started a lot more games than a lot of other quarterbacks out there. When you’re a starter and you’re taking every snap at the quarterback position, you’re starting to get those reps that make you different than our guys have been able to get. Keytaon [Thompson] did a nice job last week; he scored two touchdowns. But he only played nine plays the whole game. It’s not like he played 70 or 75 plays at the quarterback position, week-in and week-out. He’s growing and learning, but you’re forced to accelerate when you’re the starter.”

Jr. QB Nick Fitzgerald

On last year’s game against Texas A&M…

“Obviously the first play was big. We had a great start to the game. From there, we just controlled the line of scrimmage and successfully moved the ball up and down the field. We would have had more points if I’d protected the ball in the red zone. I’m going to have to do that this year. It’s going to be a hostile environment with a lot of people who are really loud. It’s going to be crazy.”

On what has to change to get off to a good start on the road…

“Really just consistency of play. We’ve been able, more or less, to consistently move the ball up and down the field. We’ve been playing right. Everybody’s been doing their job, their 1/11th. Road games, we’ve kind of gotten out of character, gotten a lot of penalties and false starts. We’ve not been handling the environment very well. I think a lot’s changed since those two games and now. Offensive line, and the whole offense in general, is trying to click and move the ball.”

On what can be learned from the week of practice following the LSU game…

“I think you can learn from everything. We didn’t have the best week of practice. We were a little bit slow on Monday, just kind of trying to pick it back up, and we didn’t start the week too well. We probably got a little ahead of ourselves, the way we were as a team, after that win. We’ve regrouped; we’ve gotten together and talked about it all. We’re just focused on one game at a time.”

On senior offensive lineman Martinas Rankin’s impending return from injury…

“First, as a senior and a leader of the team, it’ll be good to have somebody like that back. Greg Eiland’s played incredible when Martinas wasn’t in, so we’ll see what happens. I’m glad he’s back off injury. It’ll be great to have him back. He’s obviously a great starter.” 

On junior offensive lineman Deion Calhoun’s development…

“He’s kind of played almost every position on the line I think, just not center. He knows a lot and knows the offense and the positions well. He’s able to help the young guy next to him with calls and that type of thing, which is huge. He got Offensive Lineman of the Week; that’s huge. I think he played a great game last week, and hopefully he continues that.” 

On the wide receivers…

“We have a lot of guys who make up a very strong receiving core. They move in and out. If one guy goes down, there’s someone right there behind him ready to step up and make some plays. It’s been great to see younger guys stepping in and making some plays. Hopefully getting those guys healthy and getting them back will be great.” 

On freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson’s performance against Kentucky…

“He was great. I love to see young guys succeed. I want him to be better than I was here. He’s starting off great. He’s very smart and came in way farther ahead of where I was when I got here. He’s just kind of built on that; he’s worked hard. He’s earned some respect on the team, and it’s good to see that correlate to the field.” 

On what film has shown him about Texas A&M’s defense…

“There’s a lot of man-to-man coverage. One-on-ones are going to be really important. It’s going to be hostile; it’s going to be loud. We’re going to have to do a good job communicating.”

On what makes Texas A&M so good at creating havoc…

“They’re fast. They’re really fast. They make good plays on the ball. I think that stadium’s loud and creates a bit of confusion with anyone. It’s going to be a big thing for us to have to deal with.”

On making adjustments to his game…

“You never want to be thinking about your throwing motion when you’re trying to go out there and make plays. You’re always going to be doing what you naturally do. It comes down more to practice, getting extra reps and trying to tweak that throwing motion and getting the fine details down.

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