Maroon wave fills BRD headquarters

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, May 9, 2013

It appeared to be a human maroon wave. A large crowd, estimated at 200-plus, filled the Brookhaven Parks & Recreation Department’s conference room Wednesday as friends and fans gathered for the Mississippi State University Road Dawgs Tour.

The large maroon tour bus, complete with a huge rendering of MSU’s best athletes painted on both sides, parked outside the BRD headquarters before noon. Stepping off the bus were head football coach Dan Mullen and men’s basketball coach Rick Ray. Led by a large supporting cast, they were the primary stars who drew a mass of followers to the local MSU alumni chapter gathering.

After feasting on a delicious barbeque lunch catered by Broma’s Deli, the crowd savored each bite of information provided by the coaches and other associates.

Ray, in his first year at the helm of Bulldog basketball, was greeted by a warm rendition of “Happy Birthday” when former MSU National Alumni Director Gary Blair shared the news with the crowd.

“This is by far the biggest crowd we’ve had this year,” said Ray. “Every time we go on a Road Dawgs Tour, I see the great pride that Mississippi State fans have for their sports program.”

Ray’s first team was young and inexperienced. They labored through a difficult rebuilding season. Former MSU coach Rick Stansbury left the cupboard bare as players graduated, quit or departed for various reasons.

“We are a stronger ball club because of the trials and tribulations we have dealt with,” said Ray. “That big win against Ole Miss in our last home game was wonderful.”

Ray said the Bulldogs return two players, Gavin Ware and Craig Sword, who were named to the SEC All-Freshman Team. “Fred Thomas was close to making that team, too.”

Besides recruiting, a primary focus during the offseason has been increasing strength and endurance. “We want to make sure we don’t get beat by another team’s physicality. That happened to us at Tennessee.”

Ray said he is in desperate need of a strong point guard. Sword, nicknamed “Chicken,” struggled at point guard as a freshman in a turnover-filled season. He needs, “Chicken on the wing.”

Sharing a recent story, Ray said, “Craig saw me leaving the office one day when I was going to recruit some Mississippi players. “Craig told me, ‘Coach, we need a point guard.'”

Judging by the lower number of returning starters at other SEC schools, Ray believes the Bulldogs are destined for a big step up the ladder.

Ray introduced Mullen to the crowd. He praised the electric atmosphere at MSU home football games. “The biggest recruiting tool we have is when we bring a prospect to a football game on Saturday. The atmosphere is great.”

Mullen’s Bulldogs have realized 3 straight 8-win seasons and 3 straight bowl games. He said MSU fans can’t be satisfied. “We want nine, 10, 11-win seasons. We are building for long-team success. Eight wins a season has become the norm.”

Maroon and white pom-poms shook with enthusiasm. A cowbell rang out.

On the local scene, Mullen ticked off the names of several players who are contributing to the program’s success. Rising junior linebacker Matthew Wells of Monticello has made some major contributions. Incoming freshman wide receiver/defensive back Brandon Wells of Bogue Chitto, will join the upper classmen when they report June 5 for summer school and exhausting ,volunteer workouts in the broiling heat.

“Matthew does a great job for us defensively,” said Mullen. “We expect him to be a standout player for us.”

Brandon Wells also owns impressive speed, which made him a recruiting prize. He must make a major adjustment to college football where the players are bigger, faster, stronger and meaner.

Mullen said he expects to have a young team, featuring just 11 seniors. They are guided by senior quarterback Tyler Russell and running back Ladarius Perkins. A veteran offensive line should provide plenty of blocking for Perkins and protection for Russell as he pursues several school passing records this fall.

Running back Deonte Evans of McComb, offensive lineman Gabe Jackson of Liberty and wide receiver Jameon Lewis of Tylertown are other area players expected to contribute this fall.

Mullen said the Bulldogs should have depth at linebacker and experience in the secondary. “Our defensive line doesn’t have much experience. We want to play 10 at that position so we can rotate and keep them fresh.”

Ahead is a difficult challenge for Mullen’s defensive staff. They must replace star cornerbacks Jonathan Banks (Tampa Bay) and Darius Slay (Detroit) who both went in the second round of the NFL Draft.

The Bulldogs kick off their season Aug. 31, versus Oklahoma State, in Houston’s Reliant Stadium. It should be a high-octane game.

“Our corners will be inexperienced going into the Houston game, but they will be experienced on the flight home,” said Mullen with a wry smile.

His Bulldogs were 6-1 at home last year. He stressed the importance of fan support. “We sold out 23 straight home games. With the expansion of our stadium under way, it’s important that you fill those seats, too.”

Mullen noted that SEC West powers LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss are among the home games this season. The Egg Bowl arrives Nov. 28.

Contact sports editor Tom Goetz by Email: tom.goetz@dailyleader.com