Contact Work Heats Up Bulldog Bowl Practice

Dan Mullen rubbed his (gloved) hands together and grinned. "It's Big Ten weather," he told some shivering media members. "Like we're in the Big Ten today!" Well, if not entirely accurate, the coach's comment did at least relate to the day's topic of how his Bulldogs were preparing for the Gator Bowl date with Michigan.

Mississippi State spent two outdoors hours Tuesday as December bowl camp continued. Though the thermometer did hover around the freezing mark, the northwesterly breeze made things much more miserable for watchers than participants. Of course the Bulldogs weren't allowed many chances to chill as Mullen and staff kept things moving briskly enough that even some sweating was observed and an occasional cramping by a player who didn't think hydration was necessary on a cold day.

The result was a productive day's work from Mullen's immediate perspective.

"Pretty good, pretty good," he said. "You know, it wasn't sloppy. At times it can become a distraction if you're more worried about being out here in the cold. Even though I guess there's a lot of teams around the country that wouldn't consider this a cold practice! But I was pleased, the focus was real good today, guys just working to get better."

Working it was, with a variety of scripted drills and contact work. Lots of contact work, in fact. Whether in partial-team periods, kick return-and-coverage, or the full eleven-on-eleven competition, there was plenty of hitting going on. "Not more than we've had," Mullen started to respond, before reconsidering. "Maybe we're just starting to hit harder and getting used to hitting again!"

The Bulldogs had better be back used to knocking each other around because not much was off-limits Monday. Even the quarterbacks took some contact despite the cautionary red jerseys. In one drill #2 triggerman Tyler Russell was dropped by most of the defensive line. In another third QB Dylan Favre was swarmed under, the ball popping loose in-air so DT Fletcher Cox could catch it for a fumble.

The hitting began with seven-on-six interior drills, though first TB Vick Ballard was handled with a bit more care; all other runners were fair game for the six-man defense (one tackle, two ends, three linebackers). LaDarius Perkins, Robert Elliott, and Nick Griffin took more knocks but also ran well given the chance. Later in 7-on-7 passing drills to catch a pass meant taking a lick; most notably when redshirting TE Brandon Hill made the over-middle grab and turned only to be flushed-flat by S Nickoe Whitley.

In those drills Favre showed off the arm by finding WR Robert Johnson deep down the left sideline, though CB-turned-S Louis Watson overran the play. Watson made up for it a series later when on other sideline he did intercept Favre on a throw for WR Michael Carr.

The day's most dramatic pop though was in full-field, full-team play. Tailback Perkins made the swing-out catch only to be crushed by CB Corey Broomfield. While the defense celebrated, and a dazed Perkins was helped up, Mullen made a beeline for wideout Carr and informed the freshman, loudly, that this was what happens when receivers don't execute their blocks.

The team-on-team periods occupied a larger percentage of Monday snaps, as Mullen shifted the emphasis somewhat. "We did a lot more game situation so instead of it being controlled it was a down-and-distance deal, so they have to get used to playing a football game." Still the coaching staff stuck to the same general practice approach that more resembles pre-season instead of what would be expected of post-season.

With good reason, Mullen said. Time for bowl preparation will come soon enough. For now?

"This whole week is getting the young guys to improve. A lot of base offense, not much complicated stuff put in. And base defense without many of the complicated blitzes put in. And giving the young players opportunity to go out and make plays."

Asked which of those young—whether redshirted or activated freshmen—may have caught his eye so far, the coach said nobody in particular. "I think guys are starting to work and get better. And I think what you want to see is guys just handle things, get used to doing it. Because a lot of these guys have been on scout team for a long time, they've had limited reps of running our plays on offense and defense. So it's good to see them do that."

With practice moved back outdoors today, State was able to get in some serious special teams work beyond field goals and punt-catching. "And I wanted to see some live kickoffs against a live return team," Mullen said. "Just so guys get experience doing that, because they haven't had a live kickoff before." For today WR Brandon Heavens and CB Maurice Langston were first-team kickoff return; though they rarely got a chance. Most of the kickoffs were high and short into the wind leading to some comedy such as when DE Kaleb Euells had to field the ball. The one deep kick cost Langston when his feet were slashed out from under him.

Perkins and Carr are listed as the regular first return men but others are getting looks here in camp.

With WR Chad Bumphis out, the first receiver rotation still has Heavens as the #1 slot man with Arceto Clark and Chris Smith the wide receivers. Ricco Sanders and redshirting Jameon Lewis are the backups in slot, while the two freshmen Johnsons—Malcolm, then Robert—back up Smith; and Carr and Sam Williams are behind Clark. Robert Johnson returned to practicing today after missing two days with a minor leg issue.

Bowl practice has been a boon to FB William Shumpert, who was sidelined all season after back surgery. The second-year freshman has been able to show up and show off in camp, and makes for a physical backfield when teamed with redshirting frosh Nick Griffin.

These pups will still be the focus of early bowl work up through Thursday, when Mullen takes the whole team to Scott Field for an evening scrimmage. After that attention will be on actual Gator Bowl preparations through the 21st when the players will go on a short holiday break. Mullen has few specific goals for the scrimmage, he said today.

"It'll be stuff we've seen out here. Just going in the stadium, go live tackle and see some guys make plays. A lot of that is just the opportunity to go make plays when the lights come on. Hopefully that's what we're billing it as."

By then the forecast calls for at least a little warming, albeit with the threat of wet weather. That might encourage other staffers to follow the example set today by offensive line coach John Hevesy, who braved the wind-chill in shorts. "He's from Connecticut," Mullen shrugged. "That's what they do up there, it's a sun-shiny day." Perhaps so, but then the head coach hails from even farther north as a New Hampshire native, and today he was bundled, capped, and even gloved?

"Yeah, but I'm a Southerner now, so…!"

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