Setting the right tone in Starkville

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

One of the first calls Dan Mullen made before interviewing for the Mississippi State head coaching job back in December was to Matt Balis.

Why Balis?

Well, when you're in the business of rebuilding a college football program, the foundation of that program begins and ends with the strength coach.

So Mullen went out and snatched who he felt was the best strength coach in the country -- Balis.

Their relationship goes back to their days on the Utah staff under Urban Meyer, and they both followed Meyer to Florida. Balis had been the head strength coach at Virginia the last two years before reuniting with Mullen at Mississippi State.

Thanks to a grueling offseason program, the Bulldogs are already well-versed in the "Balis Way."

To this point, Balis has been around the players as much as anybody on the first-year Mississippi State staff, and in many ways, has been the eyes and ears for Mullen.

"There's a certain tempo we're trying to establish here at Mississippi State, and that's a high-intensity, disciplined atmosphere with a mental toughness about us," Balis said. "We believe in relentless effort and reaching your potential every day."

Balis likes what he's seen along those lines so far, and he's also impressed with the way the leadership has emerged.

"If you want to have a chance, your best players have to be your hardest working players," Balis said. "Our top guys also have to be the top guys in the weight room and the top guys in our conditioning program. I think we got that point across."

Senior middle linebacker Jamar Chaney doesn't need any translation. Balis said Chaney's leadership and his work in the strength and conditioning program these last five months have been invaluable.

Returning from a fractured leg suffered in the season opener a year ago, the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Chaney looks as good as he ever has. And more importantly, his work ethic has been infectious.

"Jamar Chaney understands the intensity that you have to play with at this level, and the kids really like and respect him," Balis said. "He's one of those guys who leads by example in everything he does."

He's also one of those "freakish" guys in the weight room who's put up eye-popping numbers.

Chaney squats 600 pounds, bench-presses 365 pounds, and weighing in at 245 pounds, was recently clocked at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash, according to Balis.

"He's quick as a cat and so explosive," Balis said. "In terms of freakiness, he's right up there."

Probably the strongest player on the team is junior center J.C. Brignone, who squats 600 pounds and bench-presses 400 pounds. The guy who did the most repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench-press was senior defensive tackle Kyle Love with 27.

Balis said one of the players who's made the most strides since he got him back in January is junior college newcomer Pernell McPhee. The 6-4, 275-pound junior is penciled in as the starter at right defensive tackle coming out of the spring and showed flashes of dominance.

"He came in and hadn't had much experience at this level, but his upside his ridiculous. He can be really special," Balis said of the 275-pound McPhee, who ran a sub-4.9 40-yard dash.

Senior running back Anthony Dixon, who shed 20 pounds to get down to 235, turned in a sub-4.6 40-yard dash and also squatted close to 500 pounds.

"It's a tribute to what he did this offseason," Balis said. "He dropped a ton of body fat. He'll have more energy and be able to run harder not carrying as much body fat. He's trained hard and worked hard at becoming more disciplined with his eating habits."

Balis said senior cornerback Marcus Washington turned in one of the fastest 40 times on the team with a 4.4. But Washington, who's now in the 195-pound range, also made significant strength gains and is now squatting close to 500 pounds.

The Bulldogs should be able to run with most teams in the SEC next season, Balis said. But that doesn't mean they're where they need to be.

"I think we could hold our own," Balis said. "We've got some speed, but you always need more. We're in the fastest league in America."