Red Zone Scrimmaging Highlights Tuesday Work

The coach's response was almost as loud as the hit itself. "That's the first time I've heard a collision all training camp!" shouted Dan Mullen as bodies unstacked—save one left facemask-down—from the kickoff return and tackle. Fortunately no one was really hurt; rookie LB Christian Holmes even resumed play soon. But that one big lick still had the boss smiling over an hour later.

"Finally!" Mullen grinned. Not because he was talking with media of course; because he'd seen plenty of energy, intensity, and yes hard hitting during Tuesday's practice. From vigorous special teams periods, to an even more entertaining stretch of red-zone competition to conclude day-five of Gator Bowl camp, there was a lot to make coach and team alike smile.

Well, save some of the victims. Such as freshman cornerback Jay Hughes after he figured he was supposed to take it easy on red-jersied quarterback Dylan Favre when the latter scrambled. Hughes' reward was to have his classmate lower the left shoulder and plow him over at the sideline…the offensive team's sideline at that, which only added to the verbal abuse.

For that matter Favre was likely the day's leading notebook story given his performance in the red zone, full-team matchups. The redshirting freshman sparked an offensive comeback that let his team come away with a ‘win' by Mullen's calculations. Yes, he enjoyed this outcome, too, and the tone it set to conclude practice on.

"It was good, it was a little red zone scrimmage," Mullen said. "The defense was up 5 to 1 and then the offense scored five straight touchdowns to win it." #2 QB Tyler Russell accounted for some of the rally also, but it was Favre who stole the show. He got the offense's first red zone touchdown himself on 3rd-and-goal, after TB LaDarius Perkins had bee stuffed short of the goal twice. Favre went under-center and squirmed behind Sam Watts for the score.

The rookie scrambled 12 yards for another touchdown (though a couple of safeties eased-up at the last instant near the goal); threw a six-yard TD strike to slot receiver Ricco Sanders; froze a second-team defense with play-action and hit FB Sylvester Hemphill for another score; and finally kept on a naked bootleg around the right end. He chose to strut, literally, across the goal line, too, which in a real game would have merited a celebration penalty.

"Yeah, but that was the game-winning touchdown on the last play of the game," Mullen joked. "I think the future rules that might be an issue! I told him in the future rules it will be 15 yards from the spot, but since now it would be a dead-ball penalty the touchdown would stand." Actually the coach was a little confused that Favre was still standing himself after some of this show. Showing off, rather, which a few elder linebackers on the sidelines seemed sure to remember.

"Yeah, they've been wanting to hit Dylan for a while so I'm shocked and surprised they didn't get more of a piece of him!" Mullen said. What surprised a few observers was how Mississippi State made Favre and Russell relatively fair-game for the defense this day. Not to the point of laying them out, of course, but in most cases the quarterbacks could take a lot more contacting than is usual.

"I do it here and there," Mullen explained. "We're very selective when we do it and what situations we do it. It's probably the first time since training camp."

While Favre will be the top talking point from Tuesday, Russell was not exactly overlooked. He threw the ball well in preceding 7-on-7 drills; and in the concluding scrimmaging drew the defense with a sweep to the left gap before pitching to TB Nick Griffin for a touchdown. Starting QB Chris Relf did all of his Tuesday work in unit drills, 6-on-5 running play situations, and 7-on-7. Beyond that he and the coaches watched Russell and Favre have at it.

The same held true for a few other first-teammers. OT Derek Sherrod has been allowed to play observer almost all camp, and save for a couple of unit drills OC J.C. Brignone has enjoyed almost as much down-time. Brignone did have to take a few turns at center Tuesday as first OG Gabe Jackson was sidelined with an unspecified injury. This meant for some drills Quentin Saulsberry returned to his regular job of left guard, whereas so far in camp he has been the top center. Tobias Smith was the other first-team guard, while frosh Eric Lawson and Damien Robinson took a lot of second-team guard turns.

Other players out with various injuries today were WR Chad Bumphis, S Zach Smith, DE Curtis Virges, and OL Archie Muniz.

It's been an easy bowl camp for senior linebackers K.J. Wright and Chris White as well with a few appearances in 6-on-5 run drills. But today they were back out in action for some 7-on-7 pass coverage work; as well as on kickoff return team number-three. They were not involved in the play that planted young Holmes, and he did return to duty after shaking off the shock that his coach so enjoyed.

In fact Holmes is just one of several true frosh being tested on kickoff coverage and return, along with classmates such as TB Griffin, TE Brandon Hill, CB Jamerson Love, WR Jameon Lewis, DE Kaleb Eulls, S Matt Wells, WR Malcolm Johnson, and CB Hughes. Watching the kids take their best shot, not to mention some shots, was why Mullen invested so much Tuesday time on kickoff teams.

"One of the things that we're trying to do is the young players learn what it's like to be a SEC football player. And a lot of it is special teams, they've got to learn how to really run down the field and cover a kickoff. Not just with scouts, not with other stuff, really go do it." Kickoffs were intentionally short, too, to assure faster coverage and more contact. WR Brandon Heavens and CB Maurice Langston were the first return pair, with CB Corey Broomfield and Love the second. In the bowl game though TB Perkins and WR Michael Carr are expected to field real kickoffs.

The defensive line drilled in both three- and four-man sets to open the afternoon, though in the final scrimmaging it was always the even front utilized. The odd-front alternated Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox as the nose tackle with Pernell McPhee and Sean Ferguson the first tackles; Trevor Stigers and Jeff Howie the second; then Eulls and Corvell Harrison-Gay taking third turns. For four-man Shane McCardell moved in as the other #1 defensive end.

Those first-team linemen got a turn or two in the red zone scrimmaging (three of them managed to get a piece of Favre on the first series to squelch things on fourth down) before backups and reserves took care of the rest of such situations. As the scoring showed, the defense did dominate the first six scored series…until Favre and Russell cranked up the offense with five-straight scoring series.

Which of course left Mullen with a head coach's mixed emotions. "It was great for the offense to realize one thing they say, it takes one score to get two; so you don't worry about how many you have to score, worry about the next one. And they did a nice job of that today." By the same token, the defense that allowed those scores is part of the same team…

"It's something we have to learn as a team. The defense had the offense down and then let them back in it, they didn't put them away. We had some teams that we could have put away this season and we let them hang around in the game. We've got to learn to put teams away when you have them down."

There were some other less-than-satisfying aspects to Tuesday, such as all the pre-snap penalties on both offense and defense—more so the latter—in the red zone contests. More bluntly, there was a whole lot of jumping the snap by both lines of scrimmage. Yet in a way Mullen could smile about this as it reflected the excitement of scrimmaging for a bunch of backups and reserves and redshirts who were getting to go at it for-almost-real.

"I think the guys have got to have fun playing the game," Mullen said. "It's an opportunity for young guys to get out and play. A lot of our experienced guys get a lot of fun playing every Saturday in the stadium and playing in the big games. A lot of these young guys all their work has come in practice. So it's kind of a reward for them."

Reward, yes, but also opportunity. The overriding fact of State's first five bowl practices is, honestly, the Bulldogs aren't practicing for Michigan at all. They are working much more as if this were spring training…just as the boss intended.

"That's what it is," Mullen said. "The competition to spring has already started. It kind of lets everybody know that hey, there might be somebody right behind me that can step in and make the plays. So I'd better get going!"

Mississippi State will have one more specific practice day of this same sort Wednesday. "We're going to clean up a lot of this stuff we've done," said Mullen. "A little bit more ‘thud' and not as much live tackling, not game situations, kind of controlled things to really get ready to go. And we'll go in the stadium to be live and let guys go make plays." That is at 5:30 Thursday when everything is live, save only for how hard the quarterbacks will be hit.

Then again, a few more displays like today and Mullen fears he might not be able to keep the tackling tamed. Especially if that Favre kid teases the defense again. "I'm sure now we have to listen to him talk, and all that stuff," Mullen grimaced.

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