Mississippi State players had certainly best be prepared to go based on much hitting was seen on their sixth day of this spring session. The first two-thirds of Friday was a pretty standard practice featuring unit drills, then short-squad situations both on the ground in the air.
But around 5:20 Mullen had everyone report to the same field, divide up into offense and defense, get start the hitting. While not a real scrimmage the work was next-best-thing.
"We put in a lot of red zone and goal line stuff, really controlled situations there," Mullen said. "And, we got after it today." Fortunately for everyone involved the action was vigorous, because it was not all that precise.
"Really sloppy, some poor execution," Mullen said. "But I liked the sound of the contact and the effort of the guys running around on the field." In fact from the head coach's perspective Friday might have been the first really serious session of spring compared to the first five working dates.
Even before the full-team hitting there was some contact work in interior rushing drills, dominated as to be expected by the defense but with a couple of nice runs. They were provided by redshirt TB Nick Griffin and soph TB LaDarius Perkins, though second QB Tyler Russell also showed a new willingness to attack the interior afoot himself. Passing work opened with ladder-drills, though this time in red zone settings of the 15 and 10 yard lines. With no real pass rush QB Chris Relf picked on coverage with tosses to WR Brandon Heavens and WR Malcolm Johnson, and Russell hit TE Marcus Green and Johnson for goal-line catches too. There were a couple of turnovers, such as S Asian Ruff picking off QB Dylan Favre and CB Corey Broomfield slipping across to intercept QB Dak Prescott. There was legitimate pressure allowed when such drills shifted to the 25-yard line, though still 8-on-8. It took a series or so before the offense adjusted, Favre striking first with a deep strike to M.Johnson after he got behind CB Marvin Bure. TE Brandon Hill lost his linebacker for a catch from Russell down the middle.
But it was when the ball was spotted on the 25 with entire teams aligned that things got serious. Relf struck first, fortunately for the offense, as on his opening snap against the number one defense he found WR Ricco Sanders in the end zone, with position on CB Johnthan Banks for a tough catch. Russell's first series was stopped at the three-yard line; while Favre got big help from WR Jameon Lewis who went up in a crowd for the touchdown catch.
It wasn't all throwing, as Relf drew the defense before a pitch that Perkins turned into a pylon-clearing touchdown vault. On an option-keeper Relf kept for the first down and didn't mind being gang-tackled in the process. And if the quarterbacks thought their red jerseys were protection…not in this drill. Russell was dropped by DE Trevor Stigers, then later by DT Fletcher Cox. Under a safety blitz (Charles Mitchell) he unloaded and was intercepted by LB Cameron Lawrence.
A quick pitch from Favre to Elliott was fumbled against the second defense, with MLB Jamie Jones scooping and taking off. It was Favre and Elliott also chasing him down for a tackle that might have saved some coaching ire based on effort. The action shifted to first down at the 12-yard line, and this time when blitzed Russell hung in long enough to throw to an open WR Arceto Clark in the end zone. Later his bootleg pass was tipped in the backfield by Whitley but had enough on it to reach TE Kenneth Baldridge for the touchdown.
TB Vick Ballard came to the fore in short range running, scoring from the 12 and 3 yard lines with power runs.
Friday defense showed a couple of differing nickel packages. The first used cornerback Broomfield as the extra safety with Damein Anderson taking his corner. The second had three true safeties, starters Mitchell and Wade Bonner joined by Whitley. Third units got their share of action as well, critical at this mid-camp point to Mullen.
"We're mixing and matching guys in different combinations on the field. A lot of that is we're evaluating players. And one of the goals this spring is to really evaluate what guys can do. We have a lot of young guys taking reps, not just with the ones but with the twos. So we have to do a good job of evaluating what they do well and what they don't do well."
Such evaluation could come a little clearer after Saturday. Mullen plans to run the first and second teams up to 60 snaps apiece, then the third unit half as many. The weather might have some say in how long the Bulldogs really go, as well as when they start. The session is scheduled for noon but with players reporting by 9:00 Mullen said an earlier opening is possible. Or perhaps it will just be his wanting to get the guys on the field, squared off, and turned loose at last.
"I want to see us play," Mullen said. "So far we've practiced six and this is really our first chance to play and set it up in any sort of game situation. I mean, two practices with no pads, a practice we did a lot of individual for the clinic, and the other three were kind of installation type stuff. So it's a chance to put it all together and go play the game."
Speaking of early starts, Mississippi State was informed Friday that their 2011 season will open ahead of schedule. Memphis has moved the September 3 contest up a couple of days for a Thursday night kickoff (time TBA) at the Liberty Bowl. Prior to practice athletic director Scott Stricklin had said the head coach was in favor of the change, especially for the FOX telecast.
Mullen offered other reasons after practice.
"Any time you can start a season on Thursday night I think it's a huge plus. And here I think we start school before anybody else in the league. So we've already been in school for three weeks anyway so any chance we get to move that game up, the better for us."
Though the season will move up a couple of days, Mullen did say that August practicing won't move up to, say, July. "I think we could, but we won't," he said.
"John Clark and I will spend a lot of time after spring ball going through out schedules for training camp in the fall. He's starting work on it and he and I will come up with what the best plan is."