- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen doesn't need to see computerized golden stars piling up in his recruiting classes to feel satisfied.
Recruiting rankings are fun, but Mullen isn't afraid to chase those who appear to be less desirable to the bigger schools. It has been a recipe for success during his five years in Starkville, Miss., and he's hoping that continues with his 2014 class.
"When you find a guy that has talent and work ethic, and maybe hasn't reached his potential, those are guys who are going to explode at the next level," Mullen told ESPN.com. "We don't go out looking for the finished products -- which a lot of schools do -- getting five-star, fancy products that are done right away. We look for guys who have raw talents, raw abilities. Maybe they played at a small school, didn't get the exposure of other people, but they have tremendous work ethic, great drive. Our job here is to develop them, and we've had a lot of success with those guys."
Mullen has been in both positions. As offensive coordinator at Florida, he had the laid-back liberty of enjoying tape of highly recruited prospects such as Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.
At Mississippi State, Mullen hasn't had that luxury, but it hasn't been a deterrent.
Remember Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks? He was barely recruited out of East Webster High School in Maben, Miss., in 2008. And 2,000-yard rusher Vick Ballard was a true unknown when he arrived at Mississippi State in 2010 from the junior college ranks.
With a group of overlooked high school prospects, Mullen has gone 36-28 (.563) and has a school-record four consecutive postseason appearances (3-1). He'd love to recruit a couple five-stars here and there, but developing unheralded players works just fine.
"There are some guys in this class who I think are going to be some real sleepers," Mullen said. "Guys who when we go watch their film, we go, 'Wow, this guy is special,' and then you go to the recruiting rankings and he's not ranked very high. There are some of those guys in this class."
Of Mississippi State's 23 signees in its 2014 recruiting class, only two -- athlete Jamoral Graham and wide receiver Jesse Jackson -- were ESPN 300 prospects. Four were four-star prospects and 17 were three-stars, according to the rankings.
A potential sleeper in this class, Mullen said, is athlete Brandon Bryant, who attended Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, Miss., the same high school as linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who has overachieved during his three years with the Bulldogs. Like McKinney, Bryant played all over the field in high school and could line up on either side for Mississippi State.
Three-star cornerback Chris Rayford (Byhalia, Miss.) and three-star offensive guard Deion Calhoun (Fairfield, Ala./Restoration Academy) should be monitored, Mullen said, as should unranked offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins.
Jenkins was always a prospect that Mississippi State's staff liked, but his athleticism was often overshadowed by his lack of size. That was, until he arrived at a late Mississippi State camp an inch taller and more than 20 pounds heavier.
"He put on 25 pounds of, I guess, maturity," Mullen said with a laugh. "You looked at him in camp and you said, 'This is a good-looking kid,' but he was 6-3, 260. He came in and we combined him -- squashing him flat-footed, no shoes, on the ground, empty pockets -- [and he was] 6-4, 285 [pounds], and it's kind of like, 'Wow, this guy has it.'"
That's what Mullen is looking for. In this class, he wanted to address depth, especially up front on both sides, and got it by signing nine linemen. Mullen knows not all will qualify, but a handful will and immediately shadow the 10 senior offensive and defensive linemen returning.
With no free agency in college football, Mullen has wanted to make sure he's as balanced as possible at every position, without overloading at one spot. He said he likes to keep about 16 scholarship offensive linemen. After watching injuries cost his team a combined 120 games in 2013, Mullen said he aimed at getting his numbers more even this year instead of making star splashes.
And that will go a long way as Mullen approaches a season in which Mississippi State could be a dark horse in the SEC West. While Mullen isn't expecting to "get one vote to win the SEC West this season," his team is confident that it's closing the gap on the top SEC West teams.
"There's a lot of confidence in the guys on the team," Mullen said. "I don't know if many people are picking us to do much next year, which I like that, too. I like to be a little bit more of an underdog.
"The margin of error in this league is so small," Mullen said. "... From top to bottom, I don't know if there's massive separation among these teams."
4hSam Khan Jr.
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