Dak Prescott returned to Mississippi State to prove the Bulldogs' success last year was no fluke. But can he actually pull that off?
HOOVER, Ala. — Before venturing to SEC Media Days on Tuesday, Dak Prescott spent last weekend at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. It was Prescott’s second season attending the camp, at which the Manning family hosts the nation’s top college quarterbacks just outside of New Orleans. But this year seemed different for the Mississippi State senior. Frankly, Prescott felt more like a celebrity.
In his free time at the academy, Prescott walked around nearby New Orleans with fellow campers Cody Kessler of USC and Christian Hackenberg of Penn State. As Prescott strolled down the street, a number of eager patrons asked him for pictures. The people only seemed interested in Prescott; they didn’t care to schmooze with Kessler or Hackenberg, leaving Prescott’s pals feeling snubbed.
“One of them mentioned how [the fans] loved me down there,” said Prescott, a Louisiana native. “I said, ‘Football is life down here, I guess they might not be too familiar with you California or Pennsylvania guys.’”
Mississippi State’s quarterback didn’t experience that kind of fame prior to last season. Sure, Prescott was a known commodity in Starkville, having started seven games as a sophomore in 2013. But that was before he became a Heisman Trophy candidate and led the Bulldogs to their most successful season in history. The resulting attention has made him feel more like an SEC quarterback. “It’s definitely turned up from last year,” Prescott said. “Life’s changed completely.”
It has changed for Mississippi State, too. Suddenly the program is no longer a doormat in the SEC West. Last season Prescott and the Bulldogs won games against LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas en route to a 9-0 start and a No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff’s list. At the time Mississippi State looked every bit like a national championship contender.
But those hopes were dashed when the Bulldogs lost three of their final four games. The slide began with a 25-20 loss at Alabama on Nov. 15. After Prescott and company whipped Vanderbilt 51-0 the next week, they closed the regular season with a 31-17 defeat in the Egg Bowl and followed that up on New Year’s Eve with a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Many chalked up Mississippi State’s brief stint in the limelight as nothing more than a mirage. At SEC Media Days on Tuesday, Prescott and his teammates didn’t subscribe to that theory. The sour taste in the Bulldogs’ collective mouth serves as motivation. “We talk about it every day,” defensive back Tavenze Calhoun said.
Prescott, in particular, wants Mississippi State to prove it is an elite program in 2015. But an inexperienced roster and a deeper SEC West could make that a tall task. The senior can’t carry the entire load, but he might be asked to this season with only three other returning starters on offense. That’s why Prescott might face more pressure than any other quarterback in the SEC.
Mississippi State returns the fewest starters (seven) of any team in the conference after a number of notable departures this off-season. Gone are 1,000-yard rusher Josh Robinson, All-America linebacker Benardrick McKinney and a host of other key names. Yet on Tuesday, coach Dan Mullen refuted the narrative that his roster lacks experience. The coach said 14 players on his team have started at least one game. Moreover, according to Mullen, 52 players boast significant in-game experience.
Prescott will enter the year as one of the most seasoned veterans in the SEC, not just on Mississippi State. He has played in 36 games for the Bulldogs, starting 20 and compiling a 14-6 record as a starter. The former three-star recruit had a chance to leave Starkville for the NFL last year, but he opted for one more college season. In a statement last winter, Prescott said one reason for his return was “making sure this [is] a program that is not a one-hit wonder.” On Tuesday Mullen said the senior’s leadership will be key to accomplishing that.
“It certainly helps having a fifth-year senior quarterback leading the way,” Mullen said. “A guy in the summer months who can help the team grow, help the team develop.”
Despite his success last year, Prescott hopes he won’t be the same quarterback in 2015. Yes, he compiled 4,435 yards of offense, completed 62% of his passes and set 12 individual single-season records last season. He just wants to be even better this year.
That’s why the quarterback spent the off-season fine-tuning his game, from improving his leadership in the huddle to getting rid of the football more quickly in scrimmages. At the Manning Academy, Prescott picked the brains of Missouri’s Maty Mauk, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly.
An extra year of college could pay dividends for an NFL career, too. Mullen said Prescott could surpass 1,000 game reps in his college career this fall. That won’t hurt the senior in the eyes of NFL teams.
The reality is Prescott, who finished eighth in the Heisman voting in 2014, flew under the radar for the early part of last season. That won’t happen again. Mississippi State’s star is the de-facto face of a program that still must fight for respect in the SEC. In many early predictions, the Bulldogs fall somewhere near the bottom of the SEC West. That might say more about the division than Mississippi State; all seven teams went bowling last year, and the last-place program, Arkansas, returns 15 starters from a seven-win squad. There’s nothing Prescott can do about the quality of his competition.
The quarterback didn’t seem fazed by the lack of national respect Tuesday. “I think y’all had us finishing seventh last year,” he said, “and you see what we did there.”
But after last year, the bar has been raised for what’s possible for Mississippi State football, and Prescott represents the new era. It’s too early to tell whether that era can continue without a proven supporting cast alongside him, but the quarterback isn’t concerned about the added pressure—mostly because he doesn’t appear to feel it.
“We lost, what, 21 seniors?” Prescott said. “But we have 14 guys who have started and plenty more who have played in big-time games. There’s not any pressure. We just take last year and use it as motivation from becoming the No. 1 team in the country and seeing how we got that done all the way to seeing how we lost the last three of four. We just use all of that as motivation.”