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The Rundown: 2021 SEC Media Days

“I think 12 teams is a huge step in the right direction. I personally would like to see 64, and you could map it out pretty easily.”

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

After a year without them, the Southeastern Conference Media Days kicked off in Hoover, Alabama, on July 19, 2021. The event concluded on July 22, 2021. Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach took the stage at 1:30 p.m. CT on July 21, 2021. Linebacker Aaron Brule and wide receiver Austin Williams followed. Here is the rundown of their Q&A session.

Mike Leach:

Leach’s opening statement was straight to the point.

“Alright, I’m not a big opening statement guy, and plus, you guys are going to ask whatever you want to know anyway, so let’s just go ahead and get started. Is there any questions?”

Q: I wanted to ask you about — you had some of the most productive quarterbacks in college football history in your time as a head coach. What are some of the things you look for when you’re recruiting a young man to fit in your offense?

A: “The most important thing and the hardest thing to really gauge is the guy that elevates the play of the other 11 players, or the other 10 players. So, you want a guy that elevates the play of the team because that’s the ultimate role of a quarterback. That’s the most important thing he does.”

“I can’t get to square one unless they’re accurate, and then do they make good decisions...If they don’t do that, I don’t think they can play quarterback.”

“From there, the others, which you got quick feet, which I like quick feet because it helps you in the pocket. Are they fast? And I think there’s a difference between quick feet and fast. Then strong arm and big.”

“Really good quarterbacks have a presence to them as far as their ability to elevate the players around them.”

Q: You started off the first year of the program kind of in a tumultuous year, to say the least. How important is it going to be for the program to get back to normal and have fans back in full force at Davis Wade?

A: “I think it’s critical. I think it’s critical, not just to us and because we want it that way, I think it’s important to our fans and everybody else to get in the normal routine where you kind of elevate and everybody feels enriched by having the opportunity to watch and participate in football in a normal fashion.”

“Certainly, as coaches and players, that’s incredibly important to us. Because football, really good football, is a by-product of routine, and when you break up the routine, I think it’s difficult.”

“I think that it’s very important we get back to normal.”

Q: Two questions: First, what’s Tennessee getting in transfer JaVonta Payton from your school? And then two, Commissioner Sankey had mentioned there’s 1,600 players in the transfer portal and 1,100 are still there. What opinions do you have about the transfer portal right now?

A: “Well, as far as the transfer portal goes, I don’t — I think that too many — well, there’s way too many people on there...I think too often there’s a temptation to cut and run. I don’t think that’s always the best course because you learn a lot by persevering and sitting in there and pushing through adversity.”

“I think that — just like you mentioned or alluded to, I don’t think that all those guys are going to find a place to go. I think in the end they would have been better off where they started rather than not play, but in some cases, another opportunity, a better opportunity, I think that has to be carefully evaluated. I think that sometimes it is necessary to make a move.”

“I think also, though, it’s too easy to transfer right now. I think that the people used to consider their situation more carefully when they had to sit a year if they transferred laterally.”

Q: You’ve been running your air raid offense for decades, successful and multiple conferences. What’s been the key to the longevity of that scheme? And was there a smoking gun last year to y’all’s struggles, or was there not enough practice time or personnel didn’t fit it maybe as well as you’d have liked?

A: “Well, we just had such a short window, and we’re a very young team. I think that we just have to continue to improve and evolve as a team. I think there’s a reason that the NFL’s adopting so many air raid concepts and that the last however many, probably 10 Super Bowls there’s been a super number of Air Raid concepts in all of them.”

“Because in my mind, it’s an efficient way to move the football because you utilize personnel and utilize the space that you’re provided. So, I think it’s a good way to do things.”

“As far as a smoking gun, I think you’re always trying to improve. One way to improve, at least in our case, get older. Rather than be one of the youngest teams in the BCS, I think the youngest, get older. But I was very proud of the way they competed and improved as the season went on.”

Q: What kind of season did you think Will Rogers had? How did spring go? I know you brought some other quarterbacks in. What’s the quarterback pool look like, and what’s that competition going to be like in fall camp?

A: “I thought Will did a really good job. True freshmen don’t start very often, and part of the reason is they’re true freshmen. But in Will’s case, we needed a guy that could go out there and play. I thought he did a very good job, especially as far as being composed and play with a level of, at times, looked more experienced, certainly, than he was.”

“I think he steadily improves. He’s a tireless worker, works a great deal on his own. Also is one of those guys that does elevate the players around him.”

“So, we’re looking forward to what unfolds this year. And it will be competitive, it will be very competitive, and the biggest challenge is going to be sorting out how to deal the reps because you don’t have enough reps to consistently rep four quarterbacks. So, we’re going to have to sort out who’s toward the top and narrow it down to two and go from there.”

Q: I know you’ve been an advocate of the four-team playoff; they’re possibly expanding to 12 teams. Is 12 enough?

A: “It’s never enough. I’ll tell you, Dr. Keenum, our president, is on that committee, so I know they’re in good hands. I think that part’s outstanding. I think 12 teams is a huge step in the right direction. I personally would like to see 64, and you could format it out pretty easily, but I think it’s a huge step the right direction, and I look forward to it.”

Q: You came into the league in an unprecedented year with a ten-game conference schedule. What did you think about the week-to-week preparation and talent level that you saw in the league in your first year?

A: “It’s obviously a very talented league, no question...just every team’s good and that sort of thing.”

“You know, unique from preparation because there was a certain amount of wondering who was available to play from one week to the next. That definitely had an impact on the preparations.”

“Not just an impressive league, impressive places. Didn’t necessarily get the full effect of the stadium.”

Q: Could you talk a little bit about Jack Abraham and how he stacks up with those quarterback attributes that you mentioned. Also, have you played two quarterbacks in your past? Is that something that could evolve from this quarterback room?

A: “I doubt we’ll play two quarterbacks because that’s not just an adjustment to the quarterbacks, it’s an adjustment to the team and the players around them.”

“Jack is accurate, makes good decisions, has quick feet is how I would categorize him. The other thin he brings to us is the highest level of experience at the position that we have on our team.”

Q: Speaking of cardboard people, do you think you and your offense maybe got a false sense of where you were after that LSU game, and what did teams do to adjust to it so quickly after that?

A: “I don’t think we got a false sense as we were an evolving team and so was LSU. I think we played several quality teams extremely close. Then I think that in some cases our experience caught up with us, in some cases, although everybody had it, but you never knew where it would hit, who was available to play from one week to the next. But we got better as the year went on.”

Q: On the defensive side of the ball, you guys got a couple quarterbacks there in the secondary that are getting some preseason honors. With that many covering the back half of the defense, do you feel like you guys can get a little more up front and get some pressure on the quarterback?

A: “Well, we were pretty good at pressure last year and will continue to be. I think we have some good guys in front, and then I thought that both of Martin and Emmanuel both got better as the season went on. Then, of course, they’re both great workers. You know one thing both of them have is they just love to play. Those guys that love to play, that always want one more snap, tend to get better because they find an excuse to be on the field rather than an excuse to be off of it.”

Q: Nick Saban said yesterday that his quarterback has earned almost a million dollars so far in NIL deals. Just what effect does that have on recruiting when players have that sort of earning power at other schools?

A: “I don’t know. I think that that’s still evolving. I think that we’ll all know a lot more in the future because it’s happened quite suddenly. I guess we’ll find out.”

“I think Mississippi State is a great place to establish your brand.”

“People talk a lot about the parallels with the NFL. Other things that exist with that sort of thing is guys getting, traded, guys getting drafted and guys get cut. So, does that become a piece down the road? I don’t know.”

“The other thing I’d like to see, I think you’ve got to still encourage guys to graduate because I think that, in general, things are better, families, the individual, the schools, the more people that graduate.”

“Also, it’s got to be less tempting to enter the transfer portal if things don’t go your way.”

“I just don’t want a bidding war, and I think that, if we end up with bidding wars, that will definitely hurt football.”

“I think we’ve got to keep an eye on encouraging people to graduate and not making it so enticing to transfer.”

Q: About the baseball team winning their first National Championship, have you talked to your team at all trying to motivate them about using that success, the baseball team’s success to kind of replicate this season?

A: “Well, I think it inspired everybody. Everybody is really excited about our baseball team, and we’re in a unique situation. Our football complex is literally across the street from the baseball stadium, so our guys go to the baseball games a lot more than they probably do at most other campuses.”

“The biggest thing is our focus on the day-to-day improvement. I mean, the better you do that, the better your results in the end are going to be. But seeing guys that they know go out there and have success— because our baseball team had a certain amount of adversity throughout the year, and then of course really got hot there at the end. So, I think it inspired and impressed everybody.”

Q: Mike, was there a moment a few years ago when you were at Washington State that you thought you might be the next head coach at Tennessee?

A: “I talked to Tennessee, but that thing never — well, nothing ever got nailed down. Then pretty soon, they had a coup d’etat there. You guys can sort that among yourselves, but that’s pretty well-documented. So, yeah, I didn’t end up in the middle of the coup, so lucky for me.”

Q: This will be the first season that you return to Kyle Field in a long time. Does that hold any significance to you, and what are some of the memories that stand out from your past trips there?

A: “It’s one of the greatest places to play on earth, and I said this when I was at Tech. That’s one of the Carnegie Halls of football there.”

“That Kyle Field, first of all, it’s gigantic and holds a ton of people. The grass is impeccable, and of course, the Aggies are always highly motivated. It’s a fun place to play.”

“I’ve got some great memories of our games at Kyle Field over the years. Yeah, it was a fantastic experience. It helped that we won most of them.”

Q: How have you addressed vaccination with your team? And what are your vaccination situation right now?

A: “First of all, we let the doctors handle all that, so I don’t have anything to do with that. We let the guys that know what they’re doing handle it.”

Q: Tiger Woods rivals on the PGA TOUR have credited him with eyeballs on TV sets, salaries going up, purses going up. I’m wondering, do you guys in the SEC sort of credit Nick Saban for some of the same things going on in the SEC, as far as exposure, salaries, all of that?

A: “I’ve never really thought of that. Obviously, Nick’s a great coach and everybody respects what he’s done, but the other thing is — and with all due respect to Nick — the SEC wasn’t exactly invisible when he got here.”

“The SEC goes back a long, long time. You can go through a long list of great coaches that have been in the SEC, and I think the SEC’s commanded — well, they’ve commanded attention as far back as I can remember.”

Q: Just a follow-up question on the vaccination. Are you vaccinated? And then why or why not?

A: “If I was or I wasn’t I wouldn’t share it with you. But again, we leave that to the doctors and anybody’s doctor or care provider.”

Q: Austin Williams is a veteran receiver in your program. He’s here today. Since you’ve been at Mississippi State, how has he come along as far as a veteran presence for your offense?

A: “He does an outstanding job. The thing that Austin brings is the consistency. I think that sometimes people forget how important consistency is. It’s vitally important, and it’s also something that, if you’ve got a real consistent guy that’s a great example, other people draw from that.”

“The other thing is he’s a natural leader and a smart guy. So, I think that creates a level of stability, and the more Austin Williams and Aaron Brules you have, the better you’re going to be.”

Q: Dan Mullen threw out the idea the other day of getting rid of the annual crossover game to be able to open up the possibility of more of these matchups. Do you have any thoughts on that, to not see such a long disparity with some of these matchups and potentially not having those annual rivalry games with a cross-division rival?

A: “I’ve heard it proposed, and I think it’s a good idea that, because the SEC is so big and there’s so many teams, I mean, there’s guys you don’t see for like six years or whatever it adds up to.”

“More crossover in the conference as a whole; I think that would be a good idea.”

Q: Well-documented that you taught a class at Washington. Can we expect you to teach a class at Mississippi State, and is it harder to be a teacher or a coach?

A: “We’ve talked about it actually, talked about it. It was really fun interacting with students in that type of setting.”

“I haven’t done anything yet, and obviously last year was such a disrupted year that we didn’t make much headway on that. I wouldn’t be against it.”

“Coaching and teaching, it’s really quite similar. Yeah, I don’t know. One’s indoors. One’s outdoors, and you have more space obviously in coaching. If you get ticked off in coaching, you can pace off a variety of directions. Oh, you don’t get in trouble for swearing as much in coaching. So, coaching does definitely have its advantages.”

“But the teaching, that was exciting. Yeah, I would look forward to doing it again.”

Mike Leach broke 21 passing and receiving school records his first season as head coach at Mississippi State. He is also the first coach in program history to win a bowl game during his first season.

Aaron Brule:

Q: Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett brought that three-three stack defense in for you all last year. You all had some success with it. It’s a different defense. Was it difficult to learn how to play? Is there stuff that you all do that makes it a fun scheme to play in?

A: “It’s the mentality that I think Coach Arnett brings to our team, really basically making us know the defense. Leading up to the season last year, obviously, we had some unfortunate circumstances with Covid and things of that sort. Even during the LSU game, which was the first game of the season, we were putting in plays and timeouts and things of that sort. Eventually, you get a hold of it at the time.”

Q: Aaron, when we’re in a setting with Coach Leach, we get all kind of interesting references to different historic things and all that. I wonder, in football settings is he funny? Does he drop the same kind of historical references and things about the way things work? What one thing did he maybe talk to you guys about that stuck with you guys, that you went back to your dorm rooms or whatever and laughed about or talked about?

A: “Yes, he gives great reference points. When he’s talking about things, he’s great at giving examples and making you understand exactly what he’s talking about.”

“Something that I’ll definitely go back and tell my teammates actually that we were on the plane talking about today. He was talking about how — it was a boxing story. I can’t remember exactly the boxer he was talking about, but it was a boxing story on why he started making his O-linemen do boxing on bags and things like that. He was saying that O-linemen, usually they bench press a lot of weight, squat a lot of weight, they don’t necessarily have fast hands, but when you’re dealing with defensive ends, linebackers blitzing and stuff like that, you’ve got to have real fast hands. Just that he had a story for something like that was pretty unique.”

Q: You mentioned the mentality that Coach Arnett has and that he brings. How would you describe that mentality that he has?

A: “It’s an attack-first mentality, meaning there’s no excuses for anything. You either do what he asks you to do, or you’ll be held accountable by your teammates, by him, and anyone involved with our defense.”

Q: Areas of improvement for you guys to build upon last season’s record, where do you have to get better specifically?

A: “Not so much as get better but really chemistry with each other. We didn’t have enough time last year to implement everything we wanted to, and I think this fall, the spring we just had gives us a great boost going into the season.”

Q: With NIL now available to you guys, how do you approach like working with management or finding ways to navigate that through a season and building relationships to work through that and have good opportunities but not take too much of your time, you know?

A: “First off, you obviously want to keep the main thing the main thing, which is football. I think we’ve been in this thing 20, 21 days or something like that, and everyone is still learning the ins and outs of it. I think finding the best opportunities for you, not just any opportunity, is a big thing that you should look for when you’re doing these deals and things of that sort.”

Q: Last year was kind of an unusual year with the pandemic and new coaching staff. What does it feel like going into year two knowing the system, knowing what coaches expect, and having a more regular buildup to the season?

A: “It gives us a full running. We immediately get to work. We had a great spring, looking forward to having a great fall, and continue building chemistry with our teammates.”

Q: I had a question for you about Will at quarterback. You obviously go up against him in the spring and everything. What signs of progress did you see from him? What do you think he wanted to work on going into 2021?

A: “He’s an extremely confident young quarterback. He was obviously a true freshman last year when he came into play, and he did some really, really wild things. For Will Rogers, I think for him he wants to improve on everything. First and foremost, he always is a great teammate, and just doing that first is his main goal for all of us.”

Q: Mike was just telling us earlier about his idea to pay players $100,000 or $150,000 for graduating. Has he ever talked about something like that with the team? What do you guys think about when he comes out with these ideas that most coaches probably wouldn’t bring up?

A: “No, he hadn’t mentioned anything like that to us just yet. I’m sure, if he really wanted to, he would mention that to us, but he’s got a lot of great things that he talks about, and just look forward to having another great season with him.”

Q: Coach Leach talked a little bit earlier today about the time it takes to build culture and tradition within a program when you’re coming in early in your coaching tenure there. What are some things you see him trying to instill, and what do you tell some of the younger players about keeping that whenever you’re done at Mississippi State?

A: “The culture they brought in for us is extremely hard working. No matter the circumstances, which is more of a no excuses policy that we have going on. Coach Leach has definitely instilled that, along with his staff, along with the strength staff, and things of that nature, instilling that sort of culture into us.”

Q: I asked you about the defensive mentality, but in terms of the scheme, what do you like about playing in this system? Then also, a second question, you guys are pretty good on defense last year, but you don’t hear so much chatter about that. There’s more talk about Mike’s air raid offense. Why do you think there hasn’t been as much discussion about your guys’ defense, and does that motivate you or no?

A: “If you look around the NFL and things of that sort, you’ll see we have many guys in the league doing great, great things. When I signed to Mississippi State out of high school, I knew what I was coming into. I knew we had to be a blue collar, hard-working mentality group of players. I always look forward when going into games, keeping that chip on our shoulder when we’re practicing. It just proves people wrong, like Mississippi State has always done.”

Q: When they talk a lot about the offense, what does it mean to the defense? Does that bother you when they focus on the seemingly high-octane offense?

A: “No, truly they deserve the attention they get being with the air raid. I’d say the most successful offense of all time. You don’t mind being a back burner to that.”

Q: Obviously, Mike Leach is known for offense. How much time does he spend with you guys on defense? Being on a plane with him, was that kind of a rare opportunity — I guess it’s not very far over here, but was that kind of a rare opportunity? Did you enjoy hanging out with him in that setting?

A: “I’ve spent good time with Coach Leach in our prospect camps and things of that sort. During the season when he gets a break, like during practice and stuff like that, he’ll talk to you and come see what the defense is up to. If he’s not trying to figure out his next strategy on the season, find a new plays to run and things of that sort. He’s talking to everybody. He’s not just a straight by himself person.”

Austin Williams:

Q: Austin, as you head into the 2021 season, just talk about what you’re looking forward to as we approach the upcoming season.

A: “I just can’t wait to finally have our fans back in the stadium, hear Davis Wade rocking and hear the cowbells. I’m just pumped for that honestly.”

Q: What did you think of how Will Rogers played last season, especially for a young guy? What do you think are his strengths? What kind of spring, and I’m sure you’ve been working out with him this summer, how’s he doing with that? What do you think about all the quarterbacks that you guys are going to be sorting it out in fall camp?

A: “First of all, for Will coming in as a true freshman, kind of a tough situation to get thrown in and I think he did a great job. I’m ready to see him continue to grow.”

“He’s a leader in the locker room...He’s a guy that’s first there, last to leave. He’s always watching film. He’s just a grinder. Everybody loves that and respects that about him.”

“As you mentioned, the quarterback room is full, but that’s good. We love a little competition, a little adversity. I think it makes guys continue to be better and push him every single day. Whoever — like Coach Leach says, everything is open. Nothing’s set in stone. It allows the guys to continue to push each other.”

Q: When you have a quarterback competition like that, what are some things you could kind of try to do, whether it be off the field, on the field, to build chemistry with a variety of guys not knowing who’s going to be the one going week 1?

A: “Try to get as much work with all of them. On the off-season, running routes, seven-on-seven, kind of picking their brain, what they think, what are their calls? Just try to be around them as much as possible, just try to build that relationship and that chemistry.”

Q: One of your teammates in JaVonta Payton, wide receiver, transferred to Tennessee. What is Tennessee getting in him as a player and then a person?

A: “First off, I wish the best for JaVonta. Me and him had a great relationship. We worked together all the time. He got after it. He’s a great player. He’s explosive. I think he’s going to do a really good job. I know you’re going to get a great player, and he’s going to contribute for you all in the long term.”

Q: We hear a lot about the offense. As a wide receiver, what are some of the things that you have to do and adjust to in this offense? What’s it like to play in such a prolific offense that likes to throw the ball around the field?

A: “Having Mike Leach as your tutor, it’s awesome. He knows the ins and outs of it. He’s been doing the air raid forever. We have tons of film to watch, things to help you grow and learn. Our whole coaching staff, they’ve been around it a while.”

“As a receiver, just being around that knowledge and experience definitely helps to you grow and to learn. It’s kind of a reps-based offense. Definitely having spring has been huge for us, just getting more and more, and fall camp will be big for us too.”

Q: You guys blew up in the season opener against LSU, broke records and everything. The next week, you got kind of held down. What happened in week two, and then bouncing back from that, what did you guys do in response to the loss to Arkansas?

A: “Like I said, we started off hot. We had a great start to the season against LSU. We didn’t follow up against Arkansas. We’ve got to continue to execute the offense. We didn’t have enough consistency as we wanted. Just little details. It wasn’t major catastrophic issues. We have to execute at a highest level, and we got to do that more consistently.”

“Like how we finished at the end of the season, last two games finishing with a bowl win. I know we did a lot more consistent; we just did our job better. It wasn’t like we did anything crazy individually, just every player doing our job at a higher level.”

Q: You just alluded to finishing pretty strong. What kind of momentum — I know it’s obviously a long time between games, but what kind of momentum can you take in? That was a pretty wild finish in the bowl game. Were you involved in that at all? Just what did you think about that, how crazy that was?

A: “First off, yeah, momentum is huge. I love finishing with a win, two wins in a row, just kind of see our offense and defense rolling, playing more of a complete game, not just one side. I thought it was a big step for us. We definitely took that in stride, finished with a bowl win.”

“Speaking of the incident, obviously, that’s not reflective of who we are as a team and as a program, but I know our university has definitely handled that, and things have been handled, and that’s been discussed. It’s not reflective of us. We’re going to continue and grow and move from that.”

Q: I’m curious about what has been your favorite Mike Leach out-of-the-box reference that you got a big kick out of, or you and your teammates went back and tried to dissect. The most talked about reference you’ve gotten from him.

A: “Coach Leach, he’s extremely smart. He can make a ton of different references, whether you’re middle of film, talking, talk about George Patton or World War II or some other type of history reference. There’s a lot. There’s not one particular one that people keep going back to. He’s a character. He’s relatable. He’s funny. He can definitely keep the guys rolling.”

Q: Actually, I had two questions. One, with this offense, what’s maybe the most challenging part to learn or adjust to? And then two, I was wondering if you could describe quarterbacks Will Rogers and Jack Abraham, kind of what it’s like playing for each of them and what each brings to the table.

A: “For the offense, it’s a reps-based offense. Obviously, no excuses, but not having spring last year, definitely would have been helpful. This year having it has been a great opportunity for us. A lot of young guys, a lot of them working, a lot of reps. That’s the huge thing for us. Get used to it. Run it over and over and over, run it until you can’t mess up.”

“Speaking of the quarterback competition, Will and Jack, they’re both great players, great guys. On and off the field they’re leaders. Jack has had a ton of experience playing at Southern Miss. He definitely brings that to the table. He’s got a good arm.”

“Will, a young guy, he’s got some experience too. He’s a leader, works hard like I said earlier. I think they’re both going to compete and make each other better. Like I said, it’s good to have a little competition. It brings out the best in everybody,”