HOOVER, Alabama — Dan Mullen said Tuesday linebacker Leo Lewis has been one of the leaders in Mississippi State’s offseason program, quelling speculation _ at least for now _ that his eligibility is in doubt in wake of a lawsuit filed against him earlier this summer.
Asked at Southeastern Conference Media Days if Lewis and Jones would be available, assuming they’re healthy, for the entirety of the 2017 season, Mullen said, “Absolutely.”
Lewis and Jones are at the center of several allegations in the NCAA’s investigation of Ole Miss’ football program. The two former Ole Miss recruits interviewed with the NCAA after being granted limited immunity by the Committee on Infractions.
Both players are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by Rebel Rags owner Terry Warren. In the suit, Lewis and Jones are accused of fabricating information regarding free gifts from Rebel Rags during the recruiting process.
Mullen, as he has repeatedly done, declined comment about the Ole Miss case. He also told reporters Mississippi State is not being investigated by the NCAA.
Mullen not satisfied
Mullen has won more games at Mississippi State over eight seasons than any coach in the program’s history. However, he said he’s not remotely satisfied.
“My life has no finish line,” Mullen said. “I tell the players that. There's no finish line. So we're always striving to get better in everything that we do, every single day, trying to improve and reach our potential to be the best that we can be.
“There's obviously a lot more ahead of us. We have not won the West yet. We have not won an SEC Championship. We have not won a National Championship yet. So there's an awful lot ahead on the table of goals that we want to achieve as a program, but I am proud through all of the work of our players. One of the things I take a lot of pride in looking at our guys throughout the year to come back and work with us, come back, and they are around the program.
“I know they take a lot of pride in what they've been able to build. And the expectations around the program have certainly changed. And the expectation is not just from the fan base and the media, but really the expectations of the players which is the most important, the players within the program, and our former players that played for me of what their standards and expectations are that they want to see, that they've helped build a foundation. And they want the guys that are there now to continue to build and continue to grow on that and continue to take us to a higher level.”
Mason: Commodores ‘on the rise’
Vanderbilt finished strong last season, beating Ole Miss and Tennessee to earn a berth in the Independence Bowl.
The Commodores lost to North Carolina State in Shreveport, La., but Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said the November run injected tangible momentum into his program.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said. “As I look at our program and where we're at and what we've done, I thought in 2016, we took several steps forward to be a better program. You looked at how we finished the season, 4-2, got us to a bowl game for the first time in my tenure. And that was an exciting time for us.
“I’m definitely not satisfied. This group is definitely moving forward, and I talk to our guys about it all of the time. It's about the work. It's a daily process to make sure that we can work hard to achieve, push ourselves in the right direction to become Vanderbilt men.
“As I look at where we are too, we're starting to close the talent gap. When you talk about recruiting and what it looks like for us, Vanderbilt's definitely on the rise. We look to yield the top 25 recruiting class better than any of the classes we've built since I've been here, and that's growth. That's part of where we are. That's part of where we need to be. So we're moving the envelope. We're pushing the needle.”
Webb thrives on underrated status
Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb enters his senior season with 3,342 rushing yards, but he’s still rarely mentioned as one of the elite running backs in the SEC.
“Ralph Webb to me, is probably the most underrated back in this conference,” Mason said. “He’s the back that nobody talks about, but all he does is perform. You put him on a stage, and he's going to be big. So, for him, he's never worried about the accolades. And from year one to year four, his game has progressed every year.
“The first year, could he run between the tackles? He did that. Second year, could he catch the football out of the backfield? Did that. Third year, could he pass throw? Did that. Any time you can make yourself a three-dimensional back in this conference, I think that says something. But what's most impressive about Ralph Webb is really who he is every day. He wants to be the best. He came back this year to give himself a chance to do something. He's back and Vanderbilt history's done. He's chasing SEC history. He wants to be a top five running back in this conference. And for him, he's got his own set of goals. And if I know Ralph Webb like I think I do, he's probably going to wind up accomplishing them.”
Those goals, Webb said, are to compete and win in the SEC East.
“I have been underrated my whole life, throughout high school,” Webb said. “I’m just giving everything in our power to go out and get it done. We caught some fire late in the year last year and we are going to use that to start out hot this year. We are going to make sure we carry that out through the entire season.
“I am just setting myself up for a better situation, and setting my team up to put us in a better position to win more games. I think at the end of the day it is going to be a win-win for me, and increasing my draft chances for next year’s draft. Also, coming back and getting some more wins for this team, and continuing my legacy here at Vanderbilt while I can.”
Smart takes not so veiled shot at Richt
Georgia coach Kirby Smart took a shot of sorts at his predecessor Tuesday when he was asked about having 21 players who started at least one game a year ago returning for the 2017 season. Smart almost certainly referred to former Georgia coach Mark Richt, who left Athens under pressure and took over at Miami.
“Twenty-one starters returning?” Smart said. “Wow. That is a new one for me. I can't figure out. I think we had three senior offensive lineman. So that math don't work there. But last year, we had a coach tell us that we had the best talent. And he had six players taken in the first four rounds after he said we had better talent than he did and we had one player drafted. Sometimes I don't know where those messages come from.
“I'm excited about the players we got returning. We have a lot of competition and a lot of positions, and that fires me up. And I think competition is what makes your team better and being able to kind of integrate these freshman into things right now is making our total team better, and we'll continue to do that. But we don't have 21 starters that I know of because we are going to have a lot of competition in those positions.”
Shaw focused on player safety
SEC director of football officiating Steve Shaw said Tuesday he believes the league has made tremendous strides in taking dangerous hits out of the game. He credited reviews and focus on targeting penalties for that success.
“In season, we had some clarification,” Shaw said. “You know, what is crown of helmet? A lot of people have thought the button, you know, the button on your cap or the helmet was crown of helmet, crown of the helmet hit, but we really got clarification to say, where the facemask bolts into the helmet, there is a halo, if you will, all of the way around the helmet and that becomes the crown. And so as we know, if you used the crown of helmet to deliver a blow, then that's a foul. So we got some clarification there. But if you look at the stats from last year in the SEC, we had 26 targeting fouls for the season, five of which were initiated in the replay booth. And remember, the Rules Committee gave replay more authority to look at all aspects of a targeting hit, but also the ability to stop the game if the foul was not called on the field. And we did that five times. We had five overturns from last year. So it's not something, the way we talk about it, you would think there's hundreds and hundreds of these. They're very few, but they are hits we really need to get out of the game. And I really think we're making progress.
“(Arkansas) Coach (Bret) Bielema talked about if you watch film, those head hits are coming out. I think that's really good. We're going the right direction on targeting.”
McElwain says weird shark picture got ‘personal’
Jim McElwain was asked about the picture of a naked man lying on top of a shark yet again on Tuesday, even though it’s been months since the man in the photo was identified as a former New York police officer.
At first, McElwain laughed at the question but by the end of his answer, it was clear he was done with the topic.
“You know, I love the humor in it, all right, and yet, you know what, what it did, that actually not only attacked the university but attacked my family, when you know it's not you -- you know, I bust chops with the best of them now, and yet when it got personal…”
McElwain’s answer trailed off and he stood silently at the podium for a few seconds before the moderator moved on to the next question.