Dak Prescott sets standard for Mississippi State


STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen isn't doing the Gator chomp. His Florida days are long over.

Mullen, the Mississippi State coach, is demonstrating what senior quarterback Dak Prescott means to the 2015 Bulldogs. Prescott delivered a historic performance during a historic season for Mississippi State, passing for 3,449 yards and rushing for 986 while being named a finalist for both the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien Awards and finishing eighth in Heisman Trophy voting.

He's also one of only 10 total starters returning (four on offense) for a team many expect to flounder in the piranha tank known as the SEC West.

"Wherever Dak sets the bar, that's the absolute highest we can go," Mullen said. "Everyone we expect to perform at a level below that. He has to pull everybody up to his bar."

Mullen then begins the arm-waving.

"If you take the most invested and least invested guy on the team, the fastest way to get everybody on the same page is to do that," he said, moving his bottom hand up and his top hand down to meet in the middle (picture the Gator chomp).

"The easiest thing is to do that," he said, moving his top hand down to his bottom hand.

"The hardest thing, Mullen said, lifting his bottom hand up to his top hand, "is to do that."

Prescott is tasked with bringing others to his level in a season that will further shape his legacy at Mississippi State.

He can provide boosts in different ways: mentoring younger quarterbacks such as Damian Williams, whom he brought to a recent interview and introduced as "the next big thing;" helping Jamaal Clayborn ease into the starting center spot, which co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy considers the unit's most important position; releasing the ball quicker and taking more checkdowns to help a line returning just two starters; improving his accuracy from 61.6 percent to north of 65.

"The most growth will come in the dropback pass," quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said. "That's one of the ultimate measures of a quarterback, when everybody in the stadium knows you have to throw it. Can you make those plays to win the game?"

According to Johnson, Prescott is completing about 70 percent of his passes this spring, although he's also not being hit.

"He has the experience to understand when he needs to make a 'wow' play and when he needs to just manage the offense," Mullen said. "As a young player, especially if you have the ability to make a 'wow' play, you can say, 'I'm going to do it,' when you don’t need to. And then a 'wow' play can turn into a disastrous play.

"So it's understanding when you need to and when you don’t."

Prescott won't play in third gear this season. No successful quarterback can. But he'll make informed decisions on when to take shots -- Which receiver is downfield? What protection is being used? -- and when to take the given yards, heeding Johnson's advice. ("You can't go broke taking a profit.")

Prescott believes Mississippi State, while younger, could be more talented this season. His job is building confidence and streamlining communication.

"It's making sure the young quarterbacks, the young receivers, the young O-linemen, the defense -- everybody comes up to a higher level and takes the next step in their ability and their mind-set," Prescott said. "We don't discuss past fame or past success. We know how good of a team we had and we know how hard we have to work to get back to that and be better than we were.

"If they're watching me, I'm pretty sure I haven't changed in any standpoint."

After leading the Bulldogs to the No. 1 ranking for more than a month last season, Prescott became, in the words of athletic director Scott Stricklin, "the most popular person in this state." But his coaches see the same grinder approach with quicker decisions, better footwork and more comfort in the dropback game, which supplements his mobility.

"Here is a kid who’s a Heisman Trophy candidate, got all these accolades and still works his tail off in the weight room, still a great kid," Hevesy said. "He’s got all this stuff and he’s not a pain in the ass. He’s not obnoxious, he’s not selfish, he’s the most unselfish kid.

"Even the incident he had, I would hate to say [he was] naïve, but ... trouble found him."

A cut lingers next to Prescott's right eye stemming from the assault on him and two teammates during a spring break trip to Florida. Prescott has yet to file charges in the incident, despite video showing a group of men attacking him and his teammates.

"I don’t feel comfortable around large crowds any more," he said. "I’m so recognizable and noticeable that I have to take that into consideration. It affects me other places where I don’t know my surroundings, but it doesn't affect me at all in Starkville."

This is home for Prescott, already one of Mississippi State's most decorated players. He can further mold his legacy by keeping the Bulldogs on an upward trajectory, even as some forecast a backslide.

Johnson, who was the quarterback at Utah when the Utes went 13-0 as a senior in 2008, often talks to Prescott about going out on top.

"You work so hard for your senior season," Johnson said. "I'll never forget it. It was unbelievable. Memories that will last a lifetime."

If Prescott lifts teammates to his standard, a special senior season could be in store. And in a league with razor-thin margins and few proven quarterbacks, he could be the difference for the Bulldogs yet again.

"You see him constantly raising his game," Mullen said. "The whole team looks at that as, 'He's a guy with the ability to carry us.'"