Tuesday Bulldog Football Notebook

Brandon Heavens figured he'd be catching passes on Scott Field someday. Only, doing so in an Auburn uniform. The Bessemer, Ala., native originally intended to become a Tiger. "I committed to Auburn on my birthday, actually," Heavens recalls.

Funny how things work out, eh? Because Thursday night Heavens will line-up in maroon and white trying to find open space against his home-state school's secondary. Based on how the first game of his sophomore season went, Mississippi State quarterbacks will be keeping as close an eye on Heavens as the defense. Heavens made an emphatic opening-night statement when he hauled in five passes for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Compare that to his 2009 freshman year when Heavens ended up with seven catches and 36 yards with a longest grab of 14. Why, he doubled that on a single snare of a Tyler Russell toss in the third quarter against Memphis for 28 yards. But the more meaningful plays for Heavens were those 20- and 27-yard scoring plays, also coming via 2009 signee classmate Russell's hand.

Heavens' contributions were just the most notable numbers in a big opening night for State's passing attack. "It looked much better, much better than I thought it would be," Heavens said. "Tyler and Chris (Relf) did a great job of finding us receivers open, streaking down the field, and they threw the ball well all night."

Very well. But this week brings an entirely different team of Tigers to Scott Field. As much as the Bulldogs pitchers and catchers enjoyed shredding Memphis they know the degree of difficulty is about to jump a whole lot of notches with Auburn's defense on the other side of the line.

"I think we're going to have to work a little bit harder to get open this week," Heavens said. "It's the start of SEC play." Though, he added, the wideouts have seen that these passing plays can work in a real game, and that is encouraging.

Now, about this reunion with what at one time was going to be his team…as a promising prospect at Jess Lanier HS, Heavens saw a niche for him in the Tiger offense back in 2008. "I just liked everything about Auburn at the time, I wasn't looking at a lot of schools also. I think I was committed to them for nine months, then I came on my visit here to Mississippi State."

Call it another example of timing. Because this was a different State staff recruiting him from the one he'd turned down in early 2008. "Coach (Dan) Mullen just changed my mind, everything about the visit just changed my mind," Heavens said. "It was mostly the offense. He was talking about he needed some players for the offense.

"And I got real cool with a lot of the guys who played on the team, like Chad Bumphis, Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd. So I liked it as soon as I stepped on campus." Which is why now Heavens will attempt to defend his campus from the first SEC visitors of 2010.

TAKING TURNS: It opened a few eyes when Heavens got the starting call for game-one of his second season, since after all he shares the H-receiver position with fellow soph and leading 2009 target Bumphis. Of course Mullen and other offensive staff had hinted this might be the case as Heavens was usually the first H mentioned in position evaluations, based on an impressive preseason.

In most cases though Mullen finds questions about starter-selections rather beside the point. Yes, he said, "We make it a big deal and honor to start." Thus players are constantly competing to have their name first on game-week depth chart…not to mention put on the pre-game video for family, friends, and all the MSU world to see in super-size.

But Mullen has something else to say about starting: the honor ends after that first snap, when it becomes time to take care of business.

"That doesn't mean that guy that starts plays the most plays in the course of the game. Brandon Heavens started for us, he played 27 plays; Chad Bumphis played 31. So we kind of make it an honor to start the game but it doesn't mean you're going to get the most plays."

The way things played out the statistics were almost as even as the snaps. Heavens had the above-noted numbers; Bumphis caught four balls for 100 yards and matched his classmate with two touchdowns. Oh, and he accounted for the game's longest play with a 57-yard touchdown off a long downfield reception from Russell. Heavens had a good view of the proceedings, too.

"I thought Chad was going to be double-covered every play but some plays he was streaking down the field with nobody around."

As Mullen notes, Bumphis had his number of chances to streak the field, Heavens the others, and ditto at other Dog skill positions. Including of course quarterback, though as the game got under sure control State opted to give Russell all but one second-half series to accelerate his experience. Then again, Mullen said the redshirt got an awful lot of serious early experience. "His first two possessions start out at the nine-yard line and the two-yard line," Mullen said. "That's not ideal, you'd like for his first series to start at the 45!" Russell's first series did produce a seven-play touchdown drive, though the second was aborted when the rookie QB fumbled the snap with OG Tobias Smith recovering.

H-receiver wasn't the only position seeing a pre-game starting change. Redshirt Johnathan McKenzie got to make his college debut taking first snap at defensive end, ahead of veterans Sean Ferguson and Nick Bell; while redshirt Gabe Jackson got to open at left guard, while 24-game starter Quentin Saulsberry shifted to right guard allowing Smith to come off the bench.

Again, Mullen warns against counting on the same lineup taking the first snap on either side of the line just based on who did in week-one. Or, that the one who does earn ‘starter' status is top Dog.

"A lot of our stuff, who starts the game for us, is determined by a lot of factors. It can be determined academic performance, it can be by practice performance, off-season work. There are a lot of different factors to who starts. Now I guess a lot of people make a big deal as to who started a game. Our tailbacks, they all repped 20 plays. Our defensive line, I think the average defensive lineman played 19 plays in the game. That's rotating."

So while there are Dogs that will be counted on as regulars, such as senior center J.C. Brignone, or upperclassman linebackers K.J. Wright and Chris White and junior safety Charles Mitchell, wherever practical these coaches has a shuttle-service set up in many areas. Especially up-front.

"With no-huddle tempo we want to get a lot of plays in, we want to go fast. And it's great if you can give a lineman a breather every once in a while between series. We did with our d-line; our top d-lineman played 23 plays. That's what we want, we want to roll those players through."

KICK IT UP, OR ELSE: The only real letdown for Mullen in the opener was what the self-assigned kicking coach least expected. Bulldog kickoffs were just plain bad. Sean Brauchle averaged 63.5 yards on six attempts, including the first two of the night; and Derek DePasquale 57.0 yards on his two tries, both in the first quarter.

Worse, the Tigers were able to take short kickoffs back much farther than MSU wants to average. It was not coverage fault; in fact Mullen said the coverage saved State to an extent. "It's all on the kickers to me. Our coverage team was pretty solid. Our kickers didn't give them much of a chance. We're at the 40-yard line and the ball is already being returned."

The goal is to have coverage at the 25-, even 20-yard line about the time the ball starts coming back upfield…if it does at all. As most fans know, State was the only SEC team that did not boot a touchback all 2009. Nobody got close in the '10 opener, either.

"We're not getting the hang time or distance we need," said Mullen. So State practiced this on Sunday, then again on Monday with what Mullen reported were better results. "They were kicking right where they were supposed to," he said. "In the end zone."

Brauchle also missed a 38-yard field goal in the second quarter, not the best way to start a season; and after hitting one PAT, it was DePasquale booting the other six. P Heath Hutchins by contrast had a sound opener with a 39.5 yard average and two put inside the Memphis 20-yard line. That might not seem a great SEC average but the senior satisfied Mullen with consistency. And, the coach noted, "We were punting form our own five-yard line and Heath saved his best punt of the night for that; 49 yards with great hang time. We get full coverage and they end up on their side of the field."

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