New Mississippi State coach Mike Leach met with the media on Wednesday after signing four players on national signing day.
“We’ve got four signees today. K.J. Costello, a grad transfer from Stanford. He’s a good quarterback. He’s done a lot of good things. I’ve seen him play. We’ve played against him too, as a matter of fact, at Washington State. Rufus Harvey from Starkville High School. He’s a playmaker. That guy kind of jumps off the screen and is really dynamic with the ball. Jamari Stewart, an outside linebacker from St. Lucie West Centennial High School in Florida. He’s a tall, long defensive end. Those guys are always dynamic, plus they get bigger. Kyle Cass, a defensive back from [Mississippi] Delta Community College. He’s a very complete player, physically built and an explosive guy. We still have a couple scholarships remaining if a couple kids pop up, which we did deliberately because lately there’s been kids to pop up from one year to the next. We didn’t want to diminish all of our options. Really impressed by the class signed by the previous staff and our recruiting department. Dave [Emerick] and Brittany [Thackery] for bridging the gap between our staff and the transition with that. We’re really impressed with the class signed and we’re excited to have everybody on board. It’s not quite as climactic as it used to be back when it was the entire class but nevertheless, it’s a thrill a minute.”
Q: Having a chance to go sit and visit with those guys, what were your impressions of those players?
ML: “I was really impressed. First of all, I thought they were quality athletes and quality players. The thing that reinforced how important football is in the state of Mississippi, and also it reinforced what Mississippi State means to this state and the opportunities it provides for those student-athletes. I did go all over the state. I ‘cob-webbed’ it all over the state; top, bottom, sideways, crossways, the whole thing. I hit some great places, and, to be perfectly honest, seldom knew where I was as I was going there. It was exciting, and I look forward to seeing even more.”
Q: How are you going to manage the spring quarterback competition?
ML: “The sequence is pretty good now that we have one in each class. We didn’t have one in the senior class. I think it’ll be a very competitive position, and by spring, I hope they all can throw strikes. If they can, we’re going to sort out the best one from there. In the end, it’s the guy that moves the offense the best, but one way to do that is if you can throw strikes, you make six positions good. We won’t be pretending to have six positions producing out there on the field.”
Q: Talk about your relationship with KJ [Costello].
ML: “Once he got his release and went on to the portal, we contacted him. We’re very familiar with that high school; he went to Santa Margarita [Catholic] High School in Southern California. I’ve had a number of players from there. I’ve had a center from there, two receivers - and he was very good friends with Kyle Sweet, the receiver that recently graduated from our place. I had a defensive lineman from there. I’m probably leaving out one or two others, but we really had good success with players from that school. Part of it, is where he came from. Then, I was familiar with him coming out of high school. As I said, we played against him, and he was looking for a place where he got the chance to throw the ball more, so we feel fortunate to have him. The dialogue kind of happened naturally; we already knew a bunch of the same people, including his head football coach who I thought was a great coach. And so, it went. It was a good deal, and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Q: What did you see from Rufus Harvey upon your arrival here that made you want to bring him here?
ML: “He’s really good with the ball in his hands; I think that’d be the quickest way to describe it. He’s a pretty complete player as far as being productive on special teams and on offense. It’s kind of like, in some place, it’d be kind of inexplicable how it happened, but he’s very productive with the ball in his hands.”
Q: How important is it to have a guy like KJ [Costello] who’s a proven starter at a Power 5 program?
ML: “I think it’s beneficial really for everybody. The thing that in those quarterback rooms, the quarterbacks will learn something one from the other. Then they’ll pick up the strong parts that one guy has, so I think that’s beneficial, and I think it’ll be a very competitive position. “
Q: We’ve kind of had success with graduate quarterbacks, how much of that was a selling point for KJ [Costello]?
ML: “He’s pretty familiar with what we did. We played against him twice I believe, and he liked the way we threw it, and of course he knew about three people on our team when it happened. The last time we played, we had kind of a nail biter when Gardner Minshew was there. They went down and scored what they thought was the final touchdown. Then, we had a heck of a drive and kicked the field goal to win it. We were quite familiar with one another. KJ is kind of a stranger to Mississippi, but he wasn’t really a stranger to most of our offensive staff.”
Q: What is your first impression of the in-state kids in this class?
ML: “Very talented and committed. The best football players are guys that don’t just like football, but need football, and I think there’s a lot of that. Then, I’ll tell you the other thing that’s exciting about Mississippi State, a lot of these guys starting back before I got here and really probably before that, if you count their parents, have had an excitement toward Mississippi State football.”
Q: How were you able to keep your previously signed guys on board?
ML: “There were 10 on campus, but I went and saw the others that had signed. I deliberately did that because I wanted them to feel secure about their decision. The other thing is, I wanted to start getting acquainted with them and their families even though we missed the initial window; we kind of made up for lost time. It was a very busy and vigorous two and a half weeks covering as much ground as we could. Prior to that, I called them all, too. With regard to that, it’s never perfect. You always wish you knew somebody better, but we covered as much ground as we could, and I felt like an equality fashion quite quickly.”
Q: Have you seen any differences from recruiting kids in Starkville than you did in Pullman, [Washington]?
ML: “Well, yes. You go three hours from home instead of all the way to American Samoa or to South Florida. Instead of a 4,000-mile circle, we have about a four-hour one. That and the concentration of players that are here; the quality of players that are here nearby. You get more face time with them. I got a lot of face time with airplanes out there on the West Coast which is a great region and great geography and everything’s different from one place to the next. Here, it’s exciting that you can see a lot of recruits quickly. I think you’ve got the benefit of quality time as far as getting to know one another. Another thing is, when we go into spring, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of unofficial visits and people on campus will get to see our product on the field quite quickly and thoroughly in a fashion that was more difficult.”
Q: Coach, you brought in a bunch of your coaches from Washington State. How have they adjusted to life in Mississippi in the past month and how have they bonded with the team so far?
ML: “I think pretty well. I mean, they're from everywhere and most of them have Southeast connections at some point in their career or another, so it's not as foreign a space as people think, you know? I think that between the several years that I've spent in this region, you've got a bunch of them that have been down here. Of course Mason [Miller] is from Georgia, [Steve] Spurrier is from somewhere between Florida and North Carolina, and [Dave] Nichol is from Dallas and mainly coached in North Carolina, so it's not really a group that's devoid of contact through this area whether recruiting or actually being at a school here. So I think that adjustment has been good, but you always do it kind of on a scramble initially because you're always in a hurry and you've got your suitcases and a hotel and off you go.”
Q: You've got your coaching staff finalized just last week with the edition of Jason Washington. For you now, this next month or so before spring training begins, what is the most important thing for that staff to be working on and for your players to be working on in say the next few weeks?
ML: “Well, I mean obviously the off-season is the most important thing, but also they'll have the chance, they can go out there and workout and throw themselves. We just need to have, when they go out there and work, they need to be working and diligent on their own about doing the things that are going to start steering towards an understanding of what we want to do. And I think it will happen relatively quickly, but there will always be some growing pains and there will always be 'go here not there'. By the same token, I guess one of the bigger challenges for everybody is going to be as we analyze the roster, you want to put somebody in a position to do what they do best in whatever capacity they can contribute to the team, and then evaluating the roster is going to be one of the biggest, most important things this spring.”
Q: Coach, the last four or five years at Washington State you signed almost as many kids from the state of Florida as you did the state of Washington. In-state recruiting at Mississippi State is a little different. With your experience kind of having to reach across state-lines to build your classes, how do you use that same approach at Mississippi State to expand the recruiting footprint?
ML: “Get the best ones closest that you can and then extend it out as you have to, but don't ignore real quality guys who are really interested in your program. Sometimes a relative went there, sometimes a guy is just curious, sometimes someone really likes a major there, that type of thing, but no matter where they're at, if they're really interested in you, I don't think you'd ignore them. But by the same token, I don't think you can pound the bricks any further than you need to. In this state, the players from Mississippi have a real identity with Mississippi State, so I think it's important to stay closer because that’s the smartest way to do it because there's a lot of people here who would like to stay close to home.”
Q: You guys have a lot of Texas connections, how much do you anticipate being able to recruit Texas, giving your background there and others on the staff and being able to expand that footprint?
ML: “Well we're not going to ignore it, but of course we'll utilize the context to uncover quality players. If they're interested in what we have going on, we'll sift through and see who contributes to what we're looking for and then of course you don’t want to fly over the top of players to go get other players anymore than necessary.”
Q: We were talking quarterbacks earlier with five scholarship guys in that room. Could you see a scenario where there's some attrition there or do you see all those guys kind of sticking it out, competing, and just staying here and seeing how it works out?
ML: I don't have any idea. I mean it's impossible for me to say. We haven't gotten to that point and I don't know exactly where everyone's head is at. We hope they stay, but the reality is that guys want to get on the field and that's understandable, and so there's no way we're going to play five quarterbacks. There is no way to rep five quarterbacks and this isn't P.E., so we're going to have to make some choices. They'll be tough choices because these are people that want to do good things and some of them will be great quarterbacks down the road if they develop, but in the end, we're going to have to be pretty disciplined in settling on two guys.”
Q: Since we last talked, Kylin Hill decided he was going to stay for his senior year. How critical is he going to be for that running back room and maybe the wisdom he can pass on to the younger running backs you've recruited?
ML: “I'm excited that he's here. He's a dynamic player and he seems to be having a great offseason, so I'm excited about the opportunity to work with him, and I'm looking forward to getting to know him better too.”
Q: You mentioned keeping a couple of scholarships open to see what might pop-up. Are there any positions in particular where you're going to be looking at the transfer market?
ML: “I would say a really good inside linebacker would be one area that we could use a little more depth on and then I'd also say offensive line.”
Q: About a month into the off-season program, what kind of feedback have you gotten from the players since they've started all that?
ML: “They seem to like it quite a bit and I knew we were going to kind of raise the bar as far as the workload and the work level and the variety of things that we ask them to do. They've really embraced it, and I would categorize it as enthusiastic, positive feedback, occasionally tired.”
Q: In terms of history how are you trying to handle quarterbacks situations in terms of quarterback competitions. To come out of the spring with a starter or is that something you'll wait until the fall for?
ML: “I don't plan to come out of spring with a starter because I think you always compete for your position. So I do not plan to do that. I plan to figure out where everyone is at and first teach them the offense and figure out where everyone is at. As we figure out who is ahead, we are going to have to channel the reps of the guys who are ahead and go through the spring like that, but we're going to do the best we can to give them the knowledge and skills as they go for the next offseason after spring to develop those skills to compete at as high of a level as they can during again in camp. We’ll check where they're at there and pair it down until you get down to two. We want to keep it competitive throughout, but then as you compete for reps and perform better, then you're going to get more reps. It'll be a challenge this spring, and then we'll have two skills going so that will help, but if you give five guys even reps, you'll successfully make five people extremely average. I'd love to do it, but first of all there's the 20-hour rule, then I don't have five full sets of productive offensive linemen, or five full sets of receivers or five full sets of running backs, so then the product diminishes there and you're working on something, but you're not really working on execution.”