Moorhead's off-field proof of concept may have already come, with results coming soon

Team captain Darryl Williams speaks at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

Team captain Darryl Williams speaks at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — In all the years Joe Moorhead spent refining his offense and using it to climb the coaching ladder, he found a different secret to success.

It came to him from Jeff Janssen, head of the Jeff Janssen Leadership Center, whom Moorhead hosted as a guest speaker for one of his Fordham teams. Janssen had what he calls a Commitment Continuum, measuring members of an organization based on their level of loyalty by labelling them, from worst to best: resistant, reluctant, existent, compliant, committed and compelled.

Thinking back on his career, while in Hoover for SEC Media Days last month, Moorhead realized his successful teams are the ones that had more players in those final three stages. To put it simply, Moorhead called it, “receptiveness to leadership.”

There’s a case to be made that it can make or break his second season in Starkville.

Mississippi State starts preseason practice Friday, beginning with it a new era of locker-room leadership. Last year’s team had the benefit of being loaded with veteran leadership at most positions; but, as proven veterans do, many of them are now in the NFL.

As preseason practice beings, MSU’s list of tried-and-true leaders likely begins and ends with its list of SEC Media Days representatives: linebacker Erroll Thompson, center Darryl Williams and tight end Farrod Green. That being the case, a team of players loyally following the provided example is far more valuable than a team of players attempting to lead themselves.

“We have newer guys who are going to play bigger roles on the team, as opposed to last year where we had a senior-heavy defense and offense,” Thompson said. “A lot of times, some freshmen want to come in and do their own thing, but they have to learn how the program goes. They have to follow the leaders.

“Leadership is not just a solo or individual thing, you need everyone. Once the younger guys get it, it’s contagious.”

The search for receptiveness to leadership is two-fold. Looking around the projected depth chart, there are players including safety Marcus Murphy and wide receivers Stephen Guidry, Devonta “Whop” Jason, Cameron Gardner and JaVonta Payton, all of whom ultimately agreed to play for MSU in Moorhead’s vision, even if doing so at the end.

Impactful performances from them would suggest progress in Moorhead’s culture.

“I think the leadership, the accountability and most important, the chemistry are headed the right direction in year two,” Moorhead said. “I think it’s not as much about the leadership aspect of it as the receptiveness to leadership, where is a guy is getting on someone for not touching a line or being on time or effort, it’s not, ‘Worry about you, I got this.’ It’s guys understanding this, and accepting the leadership is as important as ability to lead.”

Yet, Moorhead also knows there’s little he can do to impact it. He and his staff set the culture, but he knows receptiveness to leadership is established by players above all.

“Part of the challenge of taking over a program that achieved a certain level of success, there are guys who had been engrained in a certain style of uniformity or what was expected. It’s not that the way you’re doing it is better, it’s just different,” Moorhead said. “Year two, year three and year four, it becomes less about what the coaches say and how they want it done, what their expectation level is, and it’s more about (players) knowing this is what we do in the program and policing it themselves.”

When Moorhead would get reports from his captains through summer workouts, he was encouraged with what he heard. It is no accident that, when asked what qualifies as receptiveness to leadership, those leaders identified characteristics they’ve already seen.

“They show you in the classroom, they show you how the work in the offseason,” Thompson said.

Williams added, “Paying attention to the small details. The little things matter in this league. We have to make sure we do the little things right and the bigger things will come, and the bigger things will get us over the hump to beat the teams we need to beat to get us to the SEC Championship.”

The weeks to come will put the spotlight on on-field activities: progress from wide receivers, the fate of the passing game as a whole, finding answers at safety and on the defensive line. Their impact on the 2019 win total is obvious, but Moorhead and co. hope another crucial element has already been established.

“As a team,” Green said, “I think this is the closest in my five years that a team has been. I’m loving it.”