Dan Mullen saw the difference the day his second spring practice began.
“When that whistle blows they know where they’re going and how to get there fast.”
Now, the coach wants to see his second Bulldog team on a faster track when the 2010 season kicks off.
Year one under Mullen’s management was a program change-of-pace. The 5-7 finish, against a schedule of 10 bowl-bound foes, scored just one more victory than in 2008. But what caught MSU eyes was how Mullen’s offense scored more points and made more entertaining plays. More is expected the second time around on offense, complemented by an aggressive new defensive approach.
“I’m pretty happy with where we are,” Mullen said, “Because mentally as a football team we’re way ahead of where we were this time last year.”
From a talent standpoint, State will miss all-time rusher and scorer Anthony Dixon, with his 25-30 carries to be shared by at least four halfbacks. Only junior Robert Elliott has SEC experience and is No. 1 going into fall, but redshirts Montrell Conner and LaDarius Perkins ran very well in spring. Juco Vick Ballard brings the best balance of running, receiving, and blocking to Mullen’s version of the spread offense.
The best ballcarrier, though, is still quarterback Chris Relf, a 240-pound pounder who is able to get tough yards inside or break it long on option keepers. His steady ‘09 progress produced two decisive touchdown passes in the Egg Bowl and Relf goes into this junior season as the starter. He’ll still be in a rotation, though, with touted redshirt Tyler Russell, a pocket passer and pace-changer.
“I love playing two quarterbacks,” Mullen said. “Our job is to keep developing both and whoever deserves playing time is going to play.”
Both should benefit from an offensive line with four starters back, including senior center J.C. Brignone and left tackle Derek Sherrod, though blocking depth remains an annual question.
Mullen’s real offensive concern is finding enough reliable receivers for the three, four, or more slots needed per play. True sophomore Chad Bumphis is a proven slot-receiver who will now double at H-back in an expanded gameplan. State needs first- and second-year targets Brandon Heavens, Chris Smith, Ricco Sanders, and others to upgrade their games.
“And we’re going to count on some freshmen coming in to add some depth,” Mullen said. He’s confident counting on big-play tight end Marcus Green along with improved receivers Brandon Henderson and Kendrick Cook.
State was so impressed with Middle Tennessee’s defense, Manny Diaz was hired when coordinator Carl Torbush left. Diaz inherits a veteran unit with plenty of personnel, albeit not fully developed. But the new boss has also simplified things, less read-and-react and more all-time attack.
It certainly suits the talent and temperament of senior end Pernell McPhee, the pass-rush specialist and all-star candidate. “He did a great job of being a leader for our team,” Mullen said. “To me he should be a better leader this year.”
More effective, too, should be sophomores Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, who make an impressive tackle tandem. Then there’s winter transfer James Carmon, bringing 340 pounds both as a backup and as a short-yard play addition at nose tackle.
Graduating top tackler Jamar Chaney opened the middle linebacker slot for senior Chris White to move over. Diaz also has moved standout senior K.J. Wright from strong to weak side where his speed and experience are freed up for even better use. And the strong side man is now usually a converted safety such as Cameron Lawrence as Diaz wants a faster, more versatile group. It’s an easy call with run-supporting safeties like Charles Mitchell and Zach Smith, freeing rising star Jonathan Banks to play either free safety or a corner.
Deep coverage was erratic last fall but young talents matured the hard way and despite all the completions, the team interception total more than doubled from the year before. Cornerback Corey Broomfield ended up with six picks and two returns for TDs, the same as Banks.
Three senior specialists return, with productive placekickers Chris Brauchle and Derek DePasquale and punter Heath Hutchins. Return teams are expected to be a strong point with either Bumphis or Leon Berry.
And of course, everything should run smoother, work better, and just because of this being the second season together.
“We’re functioning at a much more efficient pace, we’ve put a lot more in,” Mullen said. “So I’m pleased with those things. We just need to keep taking steps.”