Once begun though all went off according to Sunday's schedule, from field goal kicking drills at the beginning to 11-on-11 team competition at the end. The only real difference in day-three approach was that with full pads on and, presumably, all active players back into a working rhythm after almost two weeks of break, real hitting returned too. Though there was no real scrimmaging as such, the team sessions did provide enough contact to set a tone.
And, to please the coach. "A good day," Mullen summarized. "It was more of what we've been doing, a little bit more installation and kind of day-two installation with the young guys. It's good to see these guys and what it's going to do is give them a foundation going into the off-season."
That has been the most obvious early-camp theme; not so much getting the Bulldogs ready to play a game, much less ready to take on Gator Bowl opponent Michigan, as to get a long head-start on 2011. So as reported Friday and Saturday, much of the competitive work—whether seven- or eleven-man—involved a high percentage of personnel that redshirted or were reserves in the '10 season. This was most obvious on the offensive side where a number of young receivers and linemen are taking second-team and in a few cases even first-team snaps.
Defensively it is primarily young linebackers, with a sprinkling of linemen and defensive backs, getting those practice opportunities. Focusing on the ‘backers is pretty obvious, as Mullen reminded.
"When you have three senior linebackers, we're going to show up at spring practice and they're going to be gone. So some guys have got to be ready to step up and play." So after the varsity trio took just a couple of team-practice turns, youngsters like Ferlando Bohanna and Chris Hughes jumped into prime roles. Redshirt Bohanna is alternating with veterans Brandon Wilson and Jamie Jones in the middle; while Hughes stepped in at strong-side behind Cameron Lawrence. Christian Holmes is getting his turns as well outside, competing with Mike Hunt and Deonte Skinner for the spot that K.J. Wright will vacate after the bowl game.
Up front, Kaleb Eulls is staking his claim to DE Pernell McPhee's job; while soph-to-be Corvell Harrison-Gay got most all the second-team snaps at the other d-end. Sean Ferguson and Shane McCardell are running first team ends this week.
Back on offense, mixing in so many young and/or redshirted receivers would seem to have potential for slowing things down. It hasn't. That's not just good for the future but a relief in the present since State is down two veteran receivers already for the bowl game. As for this week, passing plays have almost entirely dominated 7-on-7 and full-team drills since Mullen is comfortable about the ground game.
The two-minute segments were all passing, with Chris Smith, Brandon Heavens, and Arceto Clark the first receiver rotation; Michael Carr, Ricco Sanders, and Jameon Lewis were the second, along with Sam Williams, Malcolm Johnson and Chris Cameron getting some turns in the #2 group. Starting QB Chris Relf worked with both units, so Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre could each get their own series with the first team.
In one-on-one matches, freshman Lewis made an outstanding grab on a deep strike to the right pylon despite good coverage from S Wade Bonner. The rookie then handed Bonner the ball to rub it in a bit. Attitude, and ability, like that naturally raise questions about whether Mullen would consider activating such a talented kid for bowl game use since State is without, say, top target Chad Bumphis? It's a temptation, he agrees, and not just with Lewis.
"I wish we had a lot of them right now, there's a lot of playmakers in that group. But at this point of the year you look back and say we could use them for this one game but that wouldn't have been the right thing to do." Though the coach's tone did not seem to entirely close any doors.
None of the four quarterbacks can complain of rusty arms by now; and a couple have done as much throwing in three days as would be seen in an August week. Relf did his Sunday share of passing before letting Russell and Favre get the larger portions.
"They're learning different things and trying different things in practice," Mullen said. "The two guys getting a lot of reps, haven't gotten a lot of (game) reps. They're getting hammered with all these reps right now and they're getting better making decisions." Russell and Favre were also intercepted, by CB Damein Anderson and CB Marvin Bure respectively. As for backup Brantley Adams, he had a busy Sunday also…including in goal line running drills. Quarterbacks of course are not for contact; but this didn't stop Mullen from tripping up, reserve Brantley Adams with a tackling dummy.
"He's got to pick up his feet! It may happen in a game, somebody laying there might trip him up!"
One Dog picking ‘em up and putting them down in fine Sunday style was RB Nick Griffin, who was redshirted for the freshman season but today was running like a veteran in some aspects. His goal-line footwork was impressive but the 195-pounder showed his speed, too.
"Nick's doing good," Mullen said. "He had a couple of explosive runs and we've seen that in our Sunday night football in game weeks. He's just got to learn the offense, and how to play to his size sometimes. He's an explosive player but he's also big and physical and he's got to learn how to play at the physical level of the SEC."
A physical season is one other reason Mullen is giving a number of starters lots of downtime here in the first half of campus bowl camp. Naturally this came at some price, such as cohesion at the line of scrimmage or in some pass-protection by runners. Still it is not a big issue with the coach as he wants to get a longer look at the future, before practices change next Friday to focus on the real game January 1.
"There's a lot of guys out there. Derek Sherrod didn't take one snap when we went to team situations, that's even bigger than not having Chris Relf out there. Vick Ballard didn't go at the end. Some of those guys, they're practicing all the individual work and all the group work. Then when we get to team at the end we want to see what the young guys can do. I've seen what the older guys can do."
Despite being indoors special teams had enough room for some drills. Derek DePasquale and Sean Brauchle were almost perfect in placekicking. They didn't miss any attempts but CB Maurice Langston came around to block one 27-yard try. LaDarius Perkins and Michael Carr were the first-team return pair; with Robert Elliott and Lewis second-teaming. The third pair was Bure and Nickoe Whitley.
With school out, the Bulldogs will go to afternoon practices the next few days with 1:30 start times Monday and Tuesday. The hinge-point of camp comes Thursday with an evening scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium, open to public view. Fans can also come watch Monday if they wish, though the forecast is for continued cold. But not that cold, Mullen forecasts, which is why he is taking the team back outdoors tomorrow.
"The sun is supposed to be shining, it will be a beautiful sunny day. So we'll be outside."
Yeah, there must be some residual New Hampshire in the bloodstream...