"You come out here a lot more advanced than you would be day-one, but it is almost like day-one all over again. So we've got to clean some things up tomorrow," Mullen said, before adding with a grin "The nice thing is we're going to be fresh, for sure! So hopefully we'll get it cleaned up tomorrow and a little crisper."
There were other probable reasons for the rough ruling than just a lengthy layoff. Thursday's drills, in full pads and with a couple of contact periods, had a larger audience spread all around the various sidelines. It was the annual spring coaches clinic and plenty of prep mentors turned out. "Another little distraction," Mullen called it, though after about a half-hour the players appeared able to ignore the extra presences. "We kind of changed our practice routine because of that," Mullen said.
Still within the alterations Mullen kept busy, mostly observing the offensive units on the middle field while the defense generally stayed on the west field. Naturally the greater number of visiting coaches also focused their attentions on the offense. Though, compared to previous years, it appeared a larger percentage than usual gathered around the big bodies, the linemen of both sides, in their own specific drills. Perhaps it reflected an appreciation of how Mississippi State wins games these days.
And the line Dogs did get to have some physical fun during one contact period. It wasn't a true tackling drill; more a pass block/rush situation where the quarterback didn't actually throw. Instead the goal was for the five blockers and supporting backs to protect the passer as long as possible while the defensive line, linebackers, and at least one safety came hard after him. Results seemed to score out as a draw, though there was one instance when a quarterback—starter Chris Relf at that—did hit the ground. It was because his two left-most blockers had been knocked down behind him and Relf was tripped when pushed backwards.
For their own unit work the defensive line showed their stuff in an odd-front of three, generally two tackles and one end. The first trio had starting tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox with end Sean Ferguson. The second was Devin Jones, who can work both tackle and end, true tackle Jeffrey Carr, and end Trevor Stigers. But once in the team-on-team situations it was back to the four-front with either Jones or Shane McCardell working at the end opposite Ferguson.
Non-contact offensive drills were split up with an emphasis on power-running work at one end of the field, the pitchers and catchers on the other. It was two-back work mostly with FB Adrian Marcus getting to work with first-team TB Vick Ballard, while Sylvester Hemphill and LaDarius Perkins were the second pair, and William Shumpert and Rob Elliott the third. Marcus pulled double-duty too by working with Nick Griffin's turns. These drills had the fullbacks typically in motion, whether out of a straight I or a split-back set.
A couple of weeks away might have cost the passers and receivers a bit of their early-camp timing, which had been remarkably sharp in the first few practices. And even with the overall critique there were still some good things seen Thursday in the air game. The most dramatic, from an unlikely source. When #2 QB Tyler Russell left a 10-yard out route throw very high, walk-on receiver Sheldon Evans went up for a one-handed stab and came down with possession.
Receiver drills saw Coach Angelo Mirando making it tough on his charges to get off the line clean, or he made them evade or shed him ten yards down the field as they ran along the numbers. Tight ends worked shorter patterns, typically ten-and-in, as secondary targets.
As to how the quarterbacks stand right now, Mullen said he's seen good things this spring and even today. But, he added, "I'm waiting for someone to show me something different than what they've done. Chris has made steady improvement and is real steady, Tyler is doing a real nice job throwing the ball. Dylan (Favre) comes in and makes a lot of plays.
"What I want to see is Chris make the plays, I want to see Tyler have the demeanor on the field, I want to see Dylan manage. Work on not their strengths, but their weaknesses." For that matter Mullen downplayed Relf's acknowledged status as the starter.
"I don't even look at it that way. Just let them all go and we'll evaluate them. But he's going to have the edge in the experience and the confidence. He's been in a game when things have gone bad and he's had to fight through that. The other guys are trying to figure that stuff out."
Since this was a no-tackle day, it ended with team-vs.-team running 28 passing play snaps. The same three-wide rotations as seen in the first four working days remained, though the top two trios got almost all the snaps. Just as with the quarterbacks, Mullen wants to see pass-catchers working on their own weaknesses. Of course only time can take care of one, their collective age.
"The thing is they're still young, we still don't have a senior receiver on the team. So we're still kind of a young group but, they've played some football. So we need to see them take it to the next level and start playing like that."
Mullen and staff will have more specific instructions Friday when players meet prior to the afternoon practice. The head coach said he tried to note where the Dogs were, what he liked and didn't during drills, and the evening's film review will surely point out more matters to address. Fortunately, he reminded, "There's a lot of carry over. We did a lot of individual out here because of the clinic. But when we did do the team stuff it wasn't day-one, that was a lot of the package in and mixed and thrown together. And there was a lot of retention."
"I really want to see Saturday. That's the scrimmage day and to me that's really where we see how I feel about it."
Mullen did see some familiar faces at Thursday's practice, too, headlined by record-setting rusher Anthony Dixon who was resplendent in his San Francisco 49ers workout gear. The beloved ‘Boobie' was joined by former teammates and current professionals Brandon McCrae and Kyle Love, along with expected Dog draftees Derek Sherrod and Chris White.
"It's great for us to get all the former players and NFL players back," Mullen said. "It's good motivation for our guys and hopefully it shows a lot about our program, that they want to come back and work out here in the off-season." And Dixon did a bit of working out, too, as when practice broke up he was sprinting a few 40s. At least he wasn't offering practice advice, Mullen said.
"Nah, we still manage him, he'll tell you that! He still has to deal with me and (Matt) Balis on a daily basis, we get him on the scale and make sure he's doing what he's supposed to be doing. But it's great for us to have him back and good for our young players."