Because according to Mullen, his Bulldog defense is about to face one of the SEC's most explosive play-makers in Wildcat Randall Cobb. "To simulate a player like Cobb is hard," Mullen said. "If we could simulate a guy like him, he probably wouldn't be simulating on the scout team! He'd be playing for us!"
Yet here is Lewis filling in for one truly wild Kat. Cobb is currently #3 in all-purpose gains in the SEC, but counting just league games he is second-best. He's scored nine touchdowns in eight games, and more tellingly four two-point conversions. No need to guess who is the go-to guy on this squad.
Nor any need to wonder who gets Cobb's job in Bulldog practices. Lewis is two inches shorter and a dozen pounds lighter, not to mention three college years less tested in the SEC. Yet he fits Mullen's bill, just as Lewis did two weeks ago mimicking Florida's all-purpose player Trey Burton. And that worked out well for State.
"He's a guy that has quick feet, he was a high school quarterback and multi-purpose player, that has some explosiveness," Mullen said. "He'll play that position this week and hopefully give us somewhat of a simulation of what it's going to be like."
Officially listed as ‘athlete' on the roster, Lewis wowed preseason observers as a slot receiver which will be his varsity position. Probably. Because Mullen is not one to limit his athletes to a single role, especially a young pup of such potential.
"He really carried his high school team to a state title last year, he has that ability as a football player to do a lot of different things. So any time we face somebody who has that multi-purpose weapon, it's very comforting that we're not taking someone not used to taking snaps in the shotgun. That's easy for him. He can simulate throwing the ball. It's just a natural fit for him."
Of course there are other Dogs doing scout team duty simulating all sorts of systems. Still the proliferation of ‘wild' backs makes players such as Lewis all the more valuable. It is also valuable preparation for some redshirt according to Mullen. "LaDarius Perkins did a lot of that last year," he reminded, on the day the second-fall frosh earned his second SEC Freshman of the Week recognition. Perkins played a good bit of ‘wild' back in '09 and even tossed the ball some, though not as well as Lewis does now.
"So you see it as a role that we grow Jameon into and maybe let him play next year for us," Mullen said. But why not…now? Especially as State is somewhat shorthanded on deep-threat receivers at the moment? "You're tempted to play him, yeah," Mullen agreed.
"But you've also got to look at development, and just because they have the potential it doesn't mean they're ready to set foot on field and do it on Saturday in SEC games. That's the thing we always evaluate."
So far just three true 2010 freshmen have played. Carr is getting the most work as a receiver and, as seen last Saturday, running the ball now. LB Chris Hughes has been a special teams regular, and DE/LB Corvell Harrison-Gay has played two games at defensive end due to mid-season roster losses. Eight games into the year, Mullen hopes to redshirt the rest of his rookies.
"We have a very talented group of freshmen and they're all progressing how we want them to progress. So if we can get through the season, being bowl-eligible is certainly going to help the development of our young players in this program."
SHUFFLING THE DECK: Mississippi State is down two offensive threats (TE Marcus Green, WR/KR Leon Berry) for the rest of the season. And against UAB three other injured offensive regulars either did not play (TB Vick Ballard, OG Tobias Smith) or were inserted in the second half (OC J.C. Brignone). All are expected back in their usual roles this week, and Mullen is relieved.
Because eight games into the schedule the strains are showing from injuries. "It's not just the one player, it's the water-down effect," Mullen said. "It's an increased number of snaps for everybody and the chance of injuries increase. That's the toughest thing. But our guys have battled through, and if we can get through this game we've got a chance to heal-up over the bye week."
State will also play out the season with DE Nick Bell sidelined after emergency brain surgery a month ago. The mass removed was evaluated as related to skin cancer and Bell will undergo more months of treatment with the ultimate goal of returning to the roster. Bell did come back to campus last week for the UAB game and was on the sideline all evening.
"It's good for our players to see him around," Mullen said. "But it's also great having Nick around the hotel with the team, in the Dog Walk, and being around the team as much as possible. It keeps his spirits up. He has a tougher schedule than we do."
With Bell out and DE Johnathan McKenzie leaving the team, line coach Chris Wilson has shuffled his deck as available. "Sean Ferguson has really had to pick up," Mullen said. "He's playing a lot more reps. He and Pernell McPhee both played more than we want them to (against UAB)." Fortunately Trevor Stigers has taken this unexpected opportunity to improve his play, and the short-lived move of Sean Ferguson to offense is reversed and giving him chances to play d-end. Well, it has turned out.
Mullen said State was fortunate Ballard could miss the UAB game and not risk a tender ankle with no damage to the record. Even better, sitting the team's leading rusher and scorer was not actually that much of a loss; because Perkins rose to the occasion with 131 yards and a touchdown rush on 18 carries. He scored the other Bulldog touchdown, too, on a option-sweep where QB Chris Relf flipped the ball forward for an official ‘pass' play.
Perkins has scored four touchdowns in the last four games as a result, and if that's well shot of Ballard's dozen TDs it still affirms why Mullen has such faith in his tailback trio of Ballard/Perkins/Robert Elliott. Fans openly wondered why State was not using Ballard exclusively; last weeks showed the wisdom of Mullen's rotation.
"When we're preparing we roll them all through practice," the coach said. "And here late in the season it's helped that we've had that rotation. Vick kind of really emerged from that group, but it wasn't that the other guys didn't play well. It's just that Vick kind of emerged a little bit ahead."
Ballard is supposed to resume his leading spot this week, yet this is no reflection on his cohorts. "LaDarius and Rob know we hadn't lost confidence in those guys. And it shows the belief in the program, that when your number is called you're ready to go in and perform at a very high level. LaDarius' number was called Saturday night and he performed at that high level."
Besides, Mullen said, "It was good we didn't have to play Vick. He told me he was 85%; OK, I like 100% of Vick Ballard! So we'll get 100% Vick Ballard this week and we'll go with 100% LaDarius Perkins last Saturday."
RUNNING WIDE AND WILD: Yet even with a reliable trio of tailbacks, since opening night Mullen has openly showed willingness to ‘rush' the ball with his receivers. This can be out of ‘wild' sets of course but against UAB the wideouts were going wide-out on handoffs, reverses, end-arounds, and the like. When UAB stacked their entire defense between the tackles, State happily ran for the edges and turned the game around in the third quarter.
Yet this is not entirely dependent on defenses to Mullen. "We have some talented playmakers and some young guys. We have to make sure we get them the ball in a lot of different ways."
The newest pup in this pack was true freshman Carr, with two rushes for 23 yards. "It was great trying to get Michael Carr involved," Mullen said. "He's getting more and more confidence and you see that, not just touching the ball. He caused the game-winning fumble on the kickoff coverage, that comes with player development. As young players grow up they make those plays."
Old players, too. The aforementioned lack of receiver depth has given senior CB/KR Maurice Langston yet another task, as a wideout trying to stretch defenses with his downfield speed.
"Maurice is still helping us all over the field," said Mullen. "He plays a bunch of special teams, he's familiar enough with the offense to help out there, and he was our third cornerback. He's helping us kind of plug injury gaps all over the field."
HEADS UP: The hot topic in pro football of late is helmet-to-helmet tackling. Tuesday, Mississippi State's Chris Hughes was called out by the SEC Office for what the league called a "flagrant, unsportsmanlike act" late in the second quarter. Playing linebacker, Hughes broke Rule 9-1-4 in the NCAA Football Rule Book about not leading or initiating contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with helmet, forearm, elbow, or shoulder.
Hughes will not be allowed to play in this week's game with Kentucky, per the SEC.
Hughes will not be allowed to speak to media this week but MSU provided a statement from the true freshman. "It was a silly mistake and one that I should not have made. Now I have to pay the price for my actions."
"We coach our players on these situations," Mullen said in the same official release. "How to lead with your shoulder, make sure you wrap up and see the front of the jersey - not only to avoid pointless penalties, but to make sure everyone is safe on the field. This is a teachable moment for Chris and our entire team. He'll face the consequences for his actions and learn from it."
Mississippi State's Tuesday practice was to conclude after 6:00. A follow-up report will be filed.