Mississippi State Head Coach Greg Knox, players Martinas Rankin & Dez Harris spoke with the media a day prior to the 2017 Gator Bowl match-up vs. the Louisville Cardinals.
GREG KNOX: We’d like to thank the TaxSlayer Bowl and the committee and the city of Jacksonville. It’s been a tremendous week. We have had a wonderful time here. It’s been a great experience.
We took a visit to the naval base. When you see that operation, you have a better understanding of how they operate. This is one big-time operation. You have great respect for our Navy and the things that they do. We learned so much on that trip. That was a great experience for me and our players and our staff. We really appreciate that opportunity.
Also we had a little golf, a little fun outing for our guys. Again, we don’t get a chance to experience things like that much. That was a great deal. Our players learned a lot, learned how to swing a golf club, did a little lesson deal with a couple of them. That worked out well. But that was fun. Even though the weather was kind of damp and wet, we had a great time out at top golf.
It’s been a great week, a great week of preparation. We’re excited about this opportunity, excited about the bowl game, excited about our opponent. We’re playing one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Again, with him, not many times in your career do you have an opportunity where you play a Heisman Trophy winner. That guy is special. We’re excited about the opportunity that lies ahead of us. We’re looking forward to that.
Today we have two of our top seniors with us. These two guys have been staples in our program. Martinas has been here for three years. Dez has been here for four.
DEZ HARRIS: Five.
GREG KNOX: Almost said six.
They have been through a lot. They are the cornerstones of our program. I am very pleased to have been associated with these young men and the things they have done for this program. They have really been the pillars to help get this program to where it’s at today. I personally thank them very much.
Had a chance to know them and their families throughout this process. Again, these are two fine young men. I’m excited about their careers, the direction they’re headed. Both of them have their degrees. Again, I know they’re going to be successful in life.
At this time, we’ll go ahead and take questions.
Q. Greg, could you address this. You have an interim staff. Not only are the seniors going to be departing after this game, but most of the coaching staff that remains. How difficult was it, perhaps it wasn’t, to maintain your enthusiasm and the other coaches, getting this team ready for this game, knowing that the future was kind of murky as far as contact with them after this?
GREG KNOX: It wasn’t difficult at all. Here is the reason why. The program has a foundation. When you have a foundation, through tough times you stand on that foundation. That’s what I told the players day one when I addressed them as the interim coach, is that it doesn’t matter if I stand in front of you, Dan Mullen stands in front of you, John Cohen stands in front of you, it doesn’t matter. What matters is your foundation is set. Your foundation is built.
You stand on that foundation through adversity, through trials, tribulations. You stand on your foundation. That’s what we’ve done as a team, all right? The kids understand the situation they’re in. But the foundation has helped them get through the adversity of this situation.
Q. For the players, what does it mean saying good-bye to your coaches staff after this game, how tough will that be?
MARTINAS RANKIN: It will be pretty tough, you know. That’s the things you miss the most, being around the guys in the locker room, the bus rides, all that type of stuff. At the end of the day, life has new challenges.
DEZ HARRIS: Like Coach Knox said, whenever a family experiences hard times, it can either break you down or bring you closer. I feel like throughout this whole process, we just got closer as a team.
Q. Dez, your career actually started here back in 2013, playing in this bowl game. You’re one of the last few of the senior class. Talk about what it’s like to see your career come full circle, finishing it up here?
DEZ HARRIS: We were in the Liberty Bowl.
Q. But talk about finishing up your career.
DEZ HARRIS: It’s been a long ride. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had opportunity to be around a lot of great guys, a lot of great coaches. I’m just extremely grateful for the opportunity given to me by coaches like Coach Knox, people that recruited me. Even though all the coaches that recruited me may not be there any more, I still appreciate the opportunity, just to be able to be around guys like Rankin, the rest of my teammates.
Q. Coach, I’m sure you’ve had all week to ponder this question. How do you slow down or stop Lamar Jackson?
GREG KNOX: A lot of teams have had that opportunity (smiling).
I don’t know if you slow him down. You just hope to contain him. He’s going to get his yards. It’s like playing Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan was going to get his points every night. You hope to contain him, not let him get out of control, eliminate big plays. He’s a special player.
I was talking about this in a press conference a while back. Mississippi State has had the opportunity to face I think three Heisman Trophy winners: Ricky Williams, Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel. Those guys are special. Lamar is very special.
We just hope to contain him and eliminate big plays, create opportunities for ourselves.
Q. In studying Louisville this year, there’s definitely a switch in the last three games of the season, offense has exploded. What have you noticed that they’ve done differently to get their offense going over the last three games?
GREG KNOX: They’re getting their play-makers the ball. They got play-makers at receiver, quarterback is a play-maker. They’re putting the ball in the play-makers’ hands. They’ve been able to create some big plays here lately going down the stretch.
Again, they’ve been successful doing it. They have kind of schemed up some situations to get the ball in guys’ hands that can make plays.
Q. Martinas, Keytaon was thrown into the fire a little bit against Ole Miss, really no time to adjust, think, just had to go in there. You almost won that game with the fourth quarter they had. Wondering what you think he’s going to do tomorrow now that he’s had 15 bowl practices, all the meetings, the film room sessions, the chats with Nick? What kind of quarterback do you think we’re going to see tomorrow?
MARTINAS RANKIN: I expect him to do well. Even in the Egg Bowl, when he got thrown into the fire, I expected him to come in and play as good as he could. He’s a great kid, great player, great competitor. Even when times get hard, he has great composure. I expect him to do well tomorrow. Depends on us up front. We got to have his back, and I’m sure he’ll have ours.
Q. Coach Knox, you’ve addressed this a few times throughout the week, but has there been anybody other than Nick and Donald that have been ruled out for tomorrow’s game?
GREG KNOX: Nick and Donald? No, those are the only two. Keith Mixon will probably be out. I don’t think he’s ready. Keith Mixon will probably be the only other guy that’s out.
Q. Dez, Lamar Jackson, what kind of challenge is he for you guys defensively? Are you looking forward to that?
DEZ HARRIS: Like Coach Knox said, he’s a great competitor. Any time you have a guy that wins the Heisman, he’s going to come out, show out, do whatever he feels like he can do in order to lead his team to win. We just got to try to contain him, not let him do whatever he wants in the game.
I believe in our guys. I believe we can come out and do that.
Q. Coach Knox, how have you handled and what have you thought about the head coaching responsibilities as you’ve taken over here in the interim during this bowl season?
GREG KNOX: It’s been different. As a special teams coordinator, I’ve been in positions where I’ve spoke to the entire team, both offense and defense. I’ve been in that situation.
The biggest difference, change, was being a runningback coach, I had the horse blinders on. I managed my guys. Now when I took over as the interim coach, I have the entire team. I took over during a period where we’re going into finals, all right, we’re taking exams. I’m managing tutoring. Now not just for my little runningback group, but for the entire team, all right?
I had to take the horse blinders off, manage the entire team that way. That was the most challenging part at the beginning, making sure everyone got to their tutoring appointments, to their study hall, to their finals, making sure we finished the semester out right academically.
Other than that, again, everything else has been a piece of cake. We got a great group of kids, a great group of guys. They understand our program. They understand the foundation that we’re on. When we come to work, we come to work. That’s what we do. We don’t change, doesn’t matter if I’m standing in front of them or anyone else. They know when they step in that building, it’s time to work.
Q. Greg, we saw this last night at the TCU-Stanford game. Why do you think most of the bowl games are high scoring on both sides?
GREG KNOX: A lot of times, preparation. Like you say, you saw it in the TCU game. A lot of trick plays early in the game. Guy laying down in the end zone. Never seen that one before. That was a first, though. A lot of time, a lot of preparation time, gives you a lot of time to prepare and scheme up some things.
I think you’re seeing that in a lot of the bowl games. Offenses are scheming up certain things to create big plays. They’re having success with it.
Q. That benefits the offense?
GREG KNOX: It benefits the offense, preparation time does.
Q. Coach, you’ve had a month to see your quarterback progress, bowl prep, practice. What do you expect to see out of him on Saturday?
GREG KNOX: When we first took this over, we first started, I brought him in. I gave him the game plan sheet. He went through it. I said, Highlight what you feel comfortable with. He went through and he highlighted about 50 to 60 plays that he felt good about, all right? Everything that he didn’t highlight, we took out, we threw away. The things he did highlight, we continued to rep those up until now.
I think he even feels better about those plays right now. He feels confident about what he’s doing. I think he’s relaxed. Will he be nervous? Yeah, I think he’ll be nervous a little bit. But I think after the first series, things will calm down, he’ll be himself.
Being himself, he’s a competitor, he’s a player. He’s going to go out, he’s going to perform well. I have no doubt in my mind that kid is going to play. He’s going to play like he’s capable of.
RICK CATLETT: Coach, good luck. Thank you for coming, we look forward to tomorrow.
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