Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is back in Starkville this spring, five years after he helped the Bulldogs to a No. 15 final ranking in the Associated Press poll.

Dan Mullen remains the coach, but after spending the last four years at Texas and Louisiana Tech, Diaz recognizes a program that’s in a very different place.

“Certainly, you can tell a difference in terms of expectation. The offseason I was here prior to 2010, you were still selling it. You were selling that if we work like this and prepare like this, we could win, and then we had success that year. Now, you step out and back in four years later, that formula took them to No. 1 in the country,” Diaz said in a Q&A with coachingsearch.com.

“The kids get it now. You’re not convincing them. The coolest part of being back is the heartbeat of the program is exactly the same, in terms of what it will take for us to sustain as a contender. We’re going to pride ourselves on player development, we’re going to pride ourselves on getting players to reach their potential.”

The ’10 team on which Diaz coached finished 9-4 with a Gator Bowl win against Michigan, not so different from last season’s 10-3 team. But the ’14 squad at one point ranked No. 1 in the country for four weeks.

In the Q&A, Diaz touched on a variety of topics, from his disappointing tenure with the Longhorns to how last season at Louisiana Tech was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.

But one of the most interesting points for Bulldogs fans is how impressed Diaz is with the team’s strength and conditioning program. He went out of his way to speak about it in glowing terms even when coachingsearch.com didn’t ask him about it directly:

It’s fun to write articles about coaches, but it’s players first, staff second. Let me take that further. It’s the strength staff. Our strength staff here and the job they do, if anybody works harder, I’d almost be afraid to see it. All the things it takes to coach great defense, they instill in the weight room. Being a part of that strength program we have here is what excites me to coach defense every day. We just have to get them lined up and play football. Toughness, persistence, all those things, the kids come to the meeting room with that instilled by the strength staff.

We’ve had our offseason program and so you have a chance to see the guys work, to see our level of our strain, to see our leadership, things like that. That’s where you see the sixth and seventh year of a program. They attack workouts in a manner we weren’t aware of in 2010. That’s good to see. Now I’m looking forward to seeing them on the grass and playing tackle football.

Diaz faces some big challenges this season, but it has to be encouraging for Mississippi State’s program that he seems so energetic and passionate about coaching. We’ll see if he’s just as excited this fall when the team is entering the season with just three returning defensive starters.