Which meant Mullen was not the only Bulldog glad to be back at football work again. Over the course of the two-plus-hour Thursday session the team seemed in more of a mid-season move than a club two months removed from the Gator Bowl.
"It was good, I loved the excitement, I loved the energy," Mullen said. "There's a lot of positives picking up where we left off in some things."
Day-one of spring training was, per rules, a non-contact session. Yet instead of just having the guys work in shorts or sweats, Mullen mandated practice in all football gear except the actual pads. That minor detail might have had a large impact in how the players, at least the varsity, approached this first date, and contributed to work that seemed more game-week like than just the first time out after off-season. Or at least it did to observers. The head coach was a little more reserved in this regard.
"There's so much teaching and so much learning that we've got to do, that we've got a ways to go."
That was not a critique, really; more of a reflection that as Mullen warned a day prior to starting practice, he and the coaching staff were going to be missing some familiar facemasks from the last season or two. Most notably slots on the offensive and defensive line and at linebacker(s) where graduation took the highest-profile performers of last fall. But then coaches have had the aforementioned two months to plan replacements for OC J.C. Brignone, LT Derek Sherrod, DE Pernell McPhee, MLB Chris White, and WLB K.J. Wright.
Thursday was the first chance for watchers to see who gets first shot at filling those first-team slots. As well as, how the rest of the official depth chart posted Tuesday compared to who was where today. Also as warned by Mullen, such things are subject to fast change and that was indeed confirmed. Such as with a pair of first-team cases on opposite sides of the line.
As expected, starting RG Tobias Smith is confined to the ‘pit' for exercising while the team practices as his right shoulder recovers from winter surgery. Also in the pit today was backup OC Sam Watts (ankle). And first DE Sean Ferguson missed the first day of camp with flu. "That's good, more reps for the other guys!" said Mullen, by no means approving of virus or any such implication. "He's played so I know what he's going to do."
So instead of senior Ferguson it was typically DT/DE Devin Jones taking first-team work at that end, opposite RDE Shane McCardell. Juniors Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd were the first tackles of course. The second foursome was ends Trevor Stigers and Corvell Harrison-Gay, though at first Kaleb Euells was working at second end. Later in drills he moved inside as a second-team tackle alternating with fellow redshirt Curtis Virges, while Jeff Howie was the other #2 tackle and backed by John Harris. Spring depth on the defensive line is a bit down with the move of tackle James Carmon to offensive tackle. The first-team linebackers for day-one were Brandon Wilson in the middle with Cameron Lawrence and Chris Hughes outsides, though Mike Hunt is the veteran OLB at the latter spot. It was similar on the second unit as Christian Holmes got most of the work at an outside slot where veteran Deonte Skinner is listed #2. Jamie Jones and Ferlando Bohanna are the 2-3 middle men. One of the first spring changes was also seen at linebacker with redshirted safety Matthew Wells working with the second unit behind Hughes.
Since all three starting ‘backers of 2010 are graduated this is an area of natural interest, but Mullen was not going to give any snap judgements on how things stand there just yet. "It's hard to tell because there are no pads on. They're just baby-stepping right now, it will be a while before we get to any sort of real evaluation on those guys." The same held true at the line of scrimmage where even on day-one the coaches were keeping the practice pace pretty high; so much so Mullen said it was hard to see much with things going so fast.
"But that's part of it, they need to think quick so we tried to throw a lot of stuff, go fast at them. And on the o-line to start with a little more advanced stuff than basic stuff."
The instruction might be more advanced but that did not mean putting the most veteran bunch of blockers available together. In fact Mullen altered the depth chart script from the very start, putting Templeton Hardy and Blaine Clausell at first-team tackles instead of two-year starter Addison Lawrence and moved-man Carmon as was seen in Gator Bowl camp. The latter two tackles instead ran with the #2 team.
The first line had LT Clausell, LG Gabe Jackson, OC Quentin Saulsberry, RG Damien Robinson (in place of Smith) and Hardy; the second unit was Carmon, Archie Muniz, Dillon Day, Nick Redmond, and A.Lawrence; with a third team of Joey Trapp, Ben Beckwith or Paul Thompson, Corbin Stewart, Redmond, and Eric Lawson.
The backfield did line up as expected with QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, and FB Adrian Marcus or Sylvester Hemphill. William Shumpert is back in the fullback mix too after missing all last season with emergency back surgery. LaDarius Perkins and Robert Elliott rotated at second tailback though redshirt Nick Griffin picked up where he left off in a strong bowl camp and looked ready to make some depth chart moves of his own.
Tyler Russell, Dylan Favre, and Dak Prescott are stacked up behind Relf. Yet Mullen did as he forecast, mixing all the quarterbacks in with all the offensive units to get everyone comfortable working with everybody. This was especially true with the receiver groupings. Usually, though not always, the first rotation in standard three-wideout sets had Chad Bumphis in the slot and split ends Chris Smith and Sam Williams.
The second group was slotman Brandon Heavens with splits Michael Carr and Robert Johnson; followed by a number of alternating combinations that typically put Jameon Lewis in the slot with Ricco Sanders and Charles Bailey wider out. And in four-wide set TE Brandon Hill took a second slot position matched with Malcolm Johnson.
Once past unit drills, the 7-on-7 and full-team periods were almost exclusively passing plays. "We tweak things and do a lot of teaching," Mullen explained. "On day-one you like to put in a lot of base run plays on day-one; well, since we're not in any pads we kind of put in some more pass-oriented offense and pass-oriented defense." That, by the way, was reflected by the linebacker mixes too. Wells for one example is a combination linebacker/nickel back and since the practice plays were throwing-and-covering this meant more need for him and Hughes as compared to Hunt and Skinner.
Besides, throwing and catching and defending and deflecting are more fun than ground game grinding, lending a little more flair to first-day. Both sides had their big moments. C.Smith twice in 7-on-7 drills made good moves and better catches down the left sideline, once getting behind all coverage for a ‘touchdown'. Lewis and M.Johnson also came down with some excellent leaping grabs in these periods.
Things got tougher for receivers, not to mention throwers, in full-team period which consisted of 36 scripted passing plays. Relf was picked off by S Charles Mitchell on the third play, with CB Jay Hughes intercepting Favre. Later it was third MLB Ferlando Bohanna getting ahold of a throw by Russell, and CB Johnthan Banks picking another Farve force.
Those turnovers didn't diminish what Mullen initially thought of how these drills went though, as he liked where the ball was going for the most part. "When you look at some quarterbacks that have been around, a receiving crew that has started to get older now, so when you're throwing the ball it's a little bit cleaner. Same thing on the back end, the secondary some guys have been around. So a lot of the execution is cleaner."
The first cornerbacks were Banks and Marvin Bure, backed by J.Hughes and Corey Broomfield respectively; Damien Anderson and Josh Morris the thirds with Jamerson Love alternating there. Mitchell and Wade Bonner return as first safeties with Nickoe Whitley and Dennis Thames their twos followed by converted corner Louis Watson and Asian Ruff, then Jonathan Phillips and Ivan Muniz.
The first day began with a good look at one of the first concerns for '11, with punting drills. Fortunately both Baker Swedenburg and William Berg hit them high and well under moderate pressure. Placekicking was not part of Thursday's schedule.
It is included in upcoming workouts though, and might be seen Saturday when the Bulldogs reassemble for a 9:30 morning session. That might be a bit tentative now though as weather is approaching; in fact Mullen advanced camp a day with Friday rain forecast. He has to work the weekend around both the second practice as well as the baseball team's busy schedule which would need the Palmeiro Center available to the Diamond Dogs and their two visiting opponents.
However the weekend schedule plays out, though, one fact is as obvious as the grin on the head coach's face following day-one of spring 2011. "I'm just happy to be back here out on the field!" Mullen said.