When Justin Johnson picked up the phone July 18 and called Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, the Alabama wide receiver didn't realize he was kicking off one of the most memorable days in this Bulldogs era.
"I was ready to make my commitment official and really looked forward to that conversation," Johnson said. "It felt great to become a Bulldog, but the day definitely got better from there."
By the end of the day, Mullen and his staff took part in seven similar conversations. The team fielded eight total verbal pledges that Friday, including 2016 in-state offensive lineman Dee Nalls.
"They just kept coming," Johnson said. "All I could say is, 'Wow, this is big.' I'm glad I got to be a part of that."
The standout from reigning national public school champion Hoover High School joined a class that now features 27 commits and rates 13th nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings. He was commitment No. 1 of a spectacular one-day haul that featured three 4-star recruits, including top-rated in-state prospect Jamal Peters.
“It’s a very exciting time to be around this program," said Missouri running back Alec Murphy, who also committed July 18. "Mississippi State fans are pumped up to see the team expanding and improving. Days like that Friday are a big step toward that."
Mullen, who took over the program in 2008 after serving as an assistant under Urban Meyer for nearly a decade, has provided plenty of reasons for Bulldogs followers to feel optimistic about the program's direction.
He is the first Mississippi State coach to deliver the team to four consecutive bowl game appearances, winning three of those matchups, and appears primed to secure a top-25 recruiting class for the third time in four years.
Efforts during the 2015 cycle have resulted in five 4-star commits, already matching Mississippi State's highest total during his tenure. Still, Mullen sounds just as excited about the class' depth as he does about its headliners.
"There are some guys in this class who I think are going to be some real sleepers," he told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "Guys who when we go watch their film, we go, 'Wow, this guy is special,' and then you go to the recruiting rankings and he's not ranked very high. There are some of those guys in this class."
Murphy is one of those guys. His commitment may have been overshadowed by 4-star Alabama running back Nick Gibson on July 18, but they'll spend the coming years competing for carries.
The 6'1", 222-pound playmaker rushed for 1,973 and 22 touchdowns in 2013. He sees himself as part of a group that's capable of elevating Mississippi State's offensive attack.
“The defense is already pretty stacked, and I think the players on offense in this class can create more balance, which is so important," Murphy said. "If we can take things to another level on one side of the ball, it challenges the other side to get better. That's what you want."
Murphy and Gibson bring talent to the backfield, while Johnson is just one of multiple impact receivers. Junior college standout Donald Gray and speedster Malik Dear are 4-star weapons, while 6'4" prospect Dontea Jones presents a big downfield target.
Jones and Dear are among 14 in-state recruits committed to the Bulldogs.
247Sports reporter JC Shurburtt sees an upward trend at both Mississippi State and Ole Miss due to talent on home turf:
The Magnolia State is a top 20 NFL talent producer overall (40 first round picks since 2005) and annually is top five per capita. Combine that with Mullen and staff’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and Freeze and company being able to go national for elite players, and suddenly both programs are in position.
Of course, it also helps to find athletes beyond your backyard.
Texas quarterback Chason Virgil remains rather raw as a passer but has the makings of a promising playmaker. He turned down offers from Florida, Clemson, Arizona State and Auburn for a chance to lead the Bulldogs attack.
"With the guys we have coming in, I think things are going to come together pretty fast," Johnson said. "We're bringing both size and speed to the offense. The defense can already hold its own, and now things are going to click for the whole team. It's going to happen quickly."
Mullen also aims to help the defense improve. Top-ranked inside linebacker Leo Lewis (Brookhaven, Mississippi) is a top priority in that department.
The 4-star recruit decommitted from Alabama on, you guessed it, July 18. He made that decision while attending Big Dawg camp at Mississippi State, providing a strong indication of which program he may focus on next.
Johnson said he'll be working on 5-star defensive tackle Daron Payne, another Birmingham area prospect.
The dominant run-stuffer was on campus earlier this month. He received a sales pitch from Shades Valley High School teammate and Mississippi State commit Keith Mixon.
"We talked about it when he was down at Big Dawg," Mixon told John Talty of AL.com. "He said he really liked it and that it was one of the best camps he's been to so far this summer. That made me really feel good. I think we've probably got a chance to get him."
Payne, once thought to be headed to either Auburn or Alabama, could end up in Starkville.
“We're definitely overlooked in the SEC," Johnson said. "That’s going to change, though. We’re all on the same page and committed to making this a special team. People are going to look at the Dawgs differently."
The challenge will come as signing day approaches, when other teams attempt to poach Mississippi State commits. That should provide a pivotal test for Mullen and company, though, it's ultimately up to the players to keep things from coming unglued late.
“If we can keep this class together and continue to add talented guys, there’s a bright future ahead for all of us," Murphy said. “It’s all about maintaining communication with the coaching staff and other commits. Keeping your word is also a huge deal. My biggest thing about committing anywhere was treating it like I was signing a contract or getting married. I hope other players feel the same.”
All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R national recruiting writer Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.
Recruit information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
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