Bulldogs Get Physical For First Pads Practice

Dan Mullen calls them the ‘All-Shorts Team'. And it is not exactly a term of spring practice endearment, either. Or as the head coach clarifies, "Some guys who are stars when it's all shorts disappear when you put the pads on."

Well, as of now the All-Shorts players must prove themselves in padding. Because that was how Mississippi State came to work on Tuesday afternoon. For their third working day of this camp the Bulldogs donned the full padding and started making genuine practice contact. Not complete tackling to ground, or not usually; but bodies were banging once again.

"We got to hit," said a satisfied Mullen, already eager to take a re-viewing of the day's deeds. "We'll go back, watch film, and see how everybody looked."

The two-plus hour session was held in the Palmeiro Center due to all-afternoon rains and the occasional flash of lightning. Mullen also had most of last Saturday's practice moved indoors as well since the weather and his own schedules are not on the same page these days.

"Yeah, I don't like coming inside too much," Mullen acknowledged. "I guess I'm getting smarter, we'll get a lot more accomplished in here than just sitting out there in the middle of the lightning and thunderstorm and high winds. And you guys like me more that way anyway!"

Not that media opinions count for much in such matters, of course. Still the handful of reporters observing Tuesday drills did get to see a better-balanced practice approach. Where the first two sessions were almost entirely built around passing plays, both offense and defense, on Tuesday the ground game came back to the forefront. As Mullen has noted there is little sense practicing interior rushing plays unless the ball carrier can get hit, and the blocking has to really light into the tackling and vice-versa.

So day-three had the four quarterbacks handing the ball off most of the time; or when throwing it the backs were often as not the targeted receivers. This being Mullen's version of a spread-offense, the slot receivers Chad Bumphis, Brandon Heavens, and Jameon Lewis also got to take their share of direct pitches in the backfield as well on reverses or true totes. Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins are the top backfield Dogs just as they ended the 2010 season and senior Robert Elliott backs both. All are aware though that redshirt Nick Griffin is now being groomed to play, and the fast, physical freshman was more impressive with pads on than without. On one ramble to the sideline and around it took two linebackers and a safety to push Griffin out of bounds." Not all the rushing was between the tackles either as backs went to the corner and even on real sweeps. Though the defensive units had a good idea what was coming many times they still gave up yards to a unit that executed nicely most of the afternoon.

Just as should have been, per Mullen. "That's our specialty, we're doing a lot of first down stuff. And run and play-action has been the strength of our team so that kind of gives a little advantage to the offense." Passing was not overlooked in full-team competition either, and with good running inside the short throwing routes were productive out on the ends. As that final period progressed the deeper patterns down the middle paid off with both H-backs and tight ends making grabs.

Marcus Green maintains his place atop the tight end roster, though he is not entirely cleared for full-tackling work yet after his September knee repair. Kendrick Cook gets more turns as a result and is showing his skills at finding openings in the flats and on the sideline for throws. Redshirt receivers Brandon Hill and Malcolm Johnson are also operating as tight receivers with State trying to expand the offensive repertoire this spring.

"Back in the old days we used to see a lot of four receiver sets," said Mullen whose ‘old days' mean tours at Utah and Florida. "We'd like to get back to doing some more of that, we just need a guy to know that position when we're in four-receiver sets."

For defensive run drills State was missing one starter as DT Fletcher Cox was excused Tuesday for what Mullen called family reasons. Senior Jeffrey Howie was promoted to the first team beside Josh Boyd, with Sean Ferguson and Devin Jones at ends. In some early periods Jones also worked as a tackle in the four-front. The second line had Curtis Virges and Kaleb Eulls at tackles, Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell the ends.

The first linebacker group of MLB Brandon Wilson and outside ‘backers Cameron Lawrence and Chris Hughes was unchanged. There was an adjustment on the second squad though as Mullen confirmed that junior Mike Hunt has left the team. "I guess he just doesn't like football," said Mullen, who does not expect Hunt back. Soph Deonte Skinner was effectively even with Hunt for #2 weak-side linebacker anyway, with MLB Jamie Jones and SLB Matthew Wells. In some early drills Jones worked at an outside slot so Ferlando Bohanna could play middle linebacker on the second unit.

Though they were indoors punting practice resumed with Baker Swedenberg and William Berg hitting the ball, albeit not at full-blast because of the low ceiling. So there wasn't much in the way of true return work by the current candidates of Bumphis, Heavens, WR Jameon Lewis, CB Johnthan Banks, and S Nickoe Whitely. What was run at full-speed was coverage as coaches Scott Sallach, Tony Hughes, and Greg Knox tested several squads at how quickly they could get down the field to the ball.

So now Mullen and staff have some hitting practice to evaluate. As to what he will be looking for in tonight's review, "The same things," said Mullen. "There's a lot of teaching and installation going on. So you want to see that. And the guys that should know, I want to see their technique; the guys that are learning I want to see what they know.

"We're tweaking things, we've got some new things on both sides of the ball that we're adding. It's making sure the stuff that we know is the old stuff that we're really good at, and evaluating the new stuff we're trying to do in all phases of the game."

Mississippi State will put the results of Tuesday's evaluations into practice Thursday, which will also be in pads. And, "We'll be pretty physical Thursday. We'll scrimmage a little bit and do some live tackling stuff," Mullen said. "It will be a pretty physical day because they get a little bit of a breather after that."

A long breather actually as the Bulldogs will have spring break starting Friday and not reassemble for a practice again until March 24. Perhaps by then the weather will be more cooperative and Mullen can keep the work going outside, with all thunder and lightning provided by the players operating full-contact. And, no more All-Shorts squad guys allowed.

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