Saturday Practice On-Theme, If Off-Key

Well, Dan Mullen did say he wants his team to enjoy this whole post-season process. He did not expect what he saw after Saturday's practice, as a half-dozen Dogs grouped before a camera, some in Santa hats, some with tinsel garlands, holding lyric sheets as a…choir? "Oh my goodness gracious," Mullen muttered. "Yeah, that's what we need, with those guys…K.J. will keep it clean!"

K.J. as in Wright, that is, part of the impromptu chorus assembled by a Jackson TV crew for a short sing-along. Wright, Chris White, Chad Bumphis, Brandon Heavens, Dennis Thames, and (holding the microphone) Maurice Langston put on the provided gear and when cued began a rousing rendition of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' At least they did until during a gang of defensive linemen who were leaving practice late crashed the choir.

All Mullen could do was shake his head, especially when dared by one Dog to join in. "I don't want to steal your spotlight, Bump!" the coach called, before returning to the much-less-interesting media members. "This is Christmas for them." And if Mullen had nothing to do with organizing this lyrical conclusion to the weekend workout, it really did fit into part of his plans for Mississippi State bowl preparations.

"Well, we've got to keep it fun. It's a celebration of a season and a reward for having a great year. So our guys get to come out and play football for another couple of weeks."

But before the Bulldogs can play in the Gator Bowl on January 1, there is a fair amount of work to be done. Saturday was the second practice of bowl camp, lasting a little longer than Friday's debut session at over two hours. After planning to work indoors with the threat of wet weather, Mullen took advantage of warmer than usual—and dry—afternoon conditions to stay outside. State added shoulder pads for day-two.

And in a sense the first real day, per the coach.

"Yesterday was just kind of getting back out. Today we did a little installation but it was base offense, base defense, kind of like day-one of training camp and spring ball. We've got a lot of the young players rotating in there and they're starting to learn it. It's their opportunity to finally finish up their freshman year with a great foundation, where they're not learning going into spring ball. They're reviewing, and that's really important."

Freshmen, whether they played or not this past regular season, are a bigger part of these early practice plans and on all areas of the squad. On offense, which has been almost entirely oriented to throwing-and-catching, pup pass catchers like Jameon Lewis, Brandon Hill, Malcolm Johnson, and Robert Johnson are getting the sort of work they couldn't during regular season. R.Johnson was limited Saturday after hurting a leg in Friday's work.

For that matter even some kids who did play this year, such as Michael Carr, took many more practice turns than usual. And did so under Mullen's watchful eye. With receivers coach Mark Hudspeth leaving to become head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, the head coach and graduate assistant Angelo Mirando are in charge here. Mirando has taken over unit meeting and instruction work also, Mullen said.

There is plenty to be coached here too, since essentially the entire wideout corps consists of true sophomores, redshirt or true freshmen. No wonder Mullen finds this his main area of attention at this camp-point. It is also a competitive camp, he said. "There's a lot of young guys getting reps with the ones and twos that haven't before, so you'd better focus and review everything tonight before tomorrow's practice."

Though starting H-receiver Chad Bumphis sidelined for the bowl by his collarbone break, it is most unlikely State would activate a current redshirt like either Johnson or the impressive Lewis. In fact there could also be temptation, given lack of tight end depth, for Hill to get in the depth chart; especially after adding a bunch of obvious pounds since August. Instead Mullen prefers to get these kids ready to really compete in spring training.

"This is huge for them, because they get to go against our one defense every day. So they've improved their skills, but now they have to take that improvement in their skills and apply it to our offense. That's what this is great for, to see them step up and make some plays. There's no choice to, we're just so young as a team right now at that position. Those guys have no choice but to develop."

As for fellows on the other end of the throw-and-catch equation, Mullen has kept all four quarterbacks busy airing it out, including reserve walk-on Brantley Adams. But of course sideline attention zooms in on redshirting Dylan Favre, who got the most snaps behind starter Chris Relf in seven-on-seven sessions. Relf did his share of Saturday work but nothing like a regular game-week schedule, using the relaxed pace to rest a cranky hamstring Mullen said goes as far back as the Alabama game. The strained muscle did obviously affect Relf's running in the Egg Bowl but not his arm with 13-of-20 passing in the victory.

State extensively practiced seven- and 11-man passing, including a lot of hurry-up offense starting both mid-field and inside the ten-yard line. The only running by quarterbacks was evading defensive pressure. "With the quarterbacks we're going to basics and installing stuff," Mullen said. "Chris is going to get some reps early but we're going to protect him, he's pretty beat-up still from the season. We're going to get him healthy during the week and let the other two go out and get a lot of reps. At the end of the week we'll start getting him some more reps."

The defensive team wasn't taking it easy on Relf though, with a pair of his throws picked off. CB Marvin Bure ran back one for a touchdown; and when SLB Cameron Lawrence—wearing a heavy brace on his still-healing right knee—intercepted he was allowed to jog into the end zone unchallenged. Favre was picked by freshman defensive back Jay Hughes with a return as well; and CB Damein Anderson intercepted Tyler Russell on a sideline throw.

The most dramatic passing play was actually the least-productive as it barely gained a yard. But watching Favre gallop for the left sideline ahead of pressure and shot-put a ‘pass' back against his momentum was impressive; so was Hill's diving catch.

Friday showed a few camp-practice shuffles of the defensive secondary, with CB Johnthan Banks returning to his 2009 starting spot at safety. This allowed, for one, redshirting frosh Matthew Wells to practice at second-team cornerback, as did Hughes. Corey Broomfield and either Anderson or Langston were the first corners; Nickoe Whitley and Wade Bonner were #1 safeties ahead of Banks and Thames.

Other freshmen moved up to primary roles, first or second squad, were DE Kaleb Eulls and Corvell Harrison-Gay (who did play in a couple of games this fall); or second-teammers at middle linebacker Ferlando Bohanna and backup outside LB Christian Holmes. On offense G Dillon Day and T Eric Lawson are the regular second-teammers these first two days, with Damien Robinson on the third unit.

Mullen is allowing a number of older hands—Wright, White, OT Derek Sherrod, OC J.C. Brignone, S Charles Mitchell—to spend all but a few drills watching for a few more days. This is also a good time to make some pre-spring moves, such as testing DT James Carmon at offensive tackle; or mixing the corners and safeties. There might be some more moves, or experiments, Mullen said, but it is not his main goal in December.

"We talked about it today. Some of it is just worrying about depth. It's hard to move some guys because they haven't learned their position yet! This is an opportunity for them to try to learn their position first."

The learning, and practicing, continues with a 6:00 Sunday practice. Mullen said it will be similar to day-two. "It will be a little bit later practice, make sure everybody has time to go to church and come in a little later. And just kind of go back and install day-two, really just keep it simple for the young guys and the older guys get back to fundamentals."

Oh, and for everybody to keep having what the coach says is the best form of fun for a Bulldog. That after all is the real theme of early bowl-game prep.

"It's fun. Our guys love to play football and this is a great time for them to come out and play some football. And it's a little bit more relaxed for them, they're not in game-plan week and they can come out and play and have fun."

Even if the fun can get a bit off-key at times, as the carefully-planned song-fest collapsed under the literal weight of a horde of defensive linemen crashing into the choir while the core group bravely completed the ode to Rudolf.

"That going to be on the news?" called out Thames as he left. "I'm going to tell my grandmother to watch that!"

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