Of course for all his acknowledged p.r. prowess, Mullen wasn't just putting on a show to conclude last week. That comes this weekend. There was no fooling around in the first April scrimmage as Mississippi State's coaching staff ran their respective squads through a serious game-type contest that is critical to post-spring evaluations. So will the remaining ‘real' practices, two of them this week and one more after the spring game.
That said…nothing gets football fans in general and Bulldog folk in particular motivated like big plays and big numbers reported from Scott Field. Or even the practice fields. Often as not this spring, the Bulldog offense has delivered the goods. And even on days the defense dominated, as with March 26 scrimmaging, there were still notable achievements on offense.
It oughtn't be a surprise here in 2011 though. As Mullen says, this is a quarterback-driven offense, and his third State attack is directed by a fifth-year senior. Chris Relf has performed just as such an old Dog should. If anything Relf has looked even more poised and proficient as his final spring progressed, confident as the starter and in-synch with his coaches. This doesn't downplay what backups Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre have done themselves; each have looked good enough this spring that if not for a proven big winner in front of them it would be quite a quarterback controversy looming. That can wait for next spring.
Credit is almost equally due though to welcome improvements among receivers. Somebody has to catch those passes and a bunch of still-young Dogs (no upperclassmen are in the wideout two-deep yet) have made major spring strides even over their fall work. Interestingly there've been almost no changes in the three-deep at three spots through 11 practices. Or is that, encouragingly?
Because where most of last season Mullen hesitated to alternate more than five wideouts after mid-season, there look to be at least nine reliable targets this camp…which does not include a quartet of tight end options. The latter group has been somewhat limited by injuries to the top two, Marcus Green and Kendrick Cook. But this has just allowed more snaps to two fascinating alternates as Brandon Hill and Malcolm Johnson, who like Green make for miss-match potential and thus an expanded gameplan.
At the same time for all the passing game progress this quarterback-driven approach still remains at core a quarterback-to-running-back attack. The backfield is so taken for-granted in fact that they've been allowed to practice almost in isolation some days. That would be to miss some good things though from ultra-reliable runner Vick Ballard and a stronger, maybe even a little quicker LaDarius Perkins alternating at tailback. Rob Elliott seems to have some of his rookie moves back at last and hits the hole with more authority now, too. The letdown was mid-camp loss of redshirt Nick Griffin, who in December and early spring looked ready to challenge for at least 33% of game snaps…or more. If he comes all the way back from the knee injury Griffin can become the next great true tailback at State.
For all the good news from skill positions, it has been a less-sunny spring on the line of scrimmage. Graduating two all-star blockers, and not having #1 right guard Tobias Smith (shoulder rehab) meant expected issues. Even so the rebuilding process has been slow and at times struggling, not helped last week when another starter, LG Gabe Jackson, got a scary shot to a knee. He's fine but the incident reminded how fragile things on the front can become.
That injury has also put expected starting center Quentin Saulsberry back at his old guard's job for the moment. And, forced redshirt Dillon Day into temporary first-team status for a while. Too many on the staff and outside have said good things about Day's long-term center potential for fans to become too frantic over all those high hikes seen the past week. One offensive coach even joked Day's snaps would work better for a punter than a passer, but the good thing is it was a joke. He was more effective in the latest scrimmage, too; and its easy to forget that this first-year center has one of two all-conference tackles over his head on most snaps. Saulsberry had his hands full coping with Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd as well.
Since both Jackson and Smith will be available in August, and Saulsberry has won games at center before, attention should remain most serious at left tackle. Converted defensive tackle James Carmon has had good and bad days, as expected of this transition; and soph Blaine Clausell's slightly-greater experience practicing here is showing now. Still continued competition out here doesn't concern Mullen as much as many fans. Or at least, not publicly. As he said Saturday, there are a lot of April-and-August practices before the first game.
Mullen quoted his disappointment with the defensive effort Saturday. For that matter he has had a few similar comments in other practices, more about finishing plays than simple execution. In fairness though when the Dog defense is entirely unshackled for scrimmaging, especially when freed to blitz more than the front seven, they've given the offense some pretty hard days.
And as the newly-promoted overall coordinator, Chris Wilson has kept up an aggressive approach when allowed. The front four can be ruthless at times in drills, and in some settings has brought a three-technique as well that signals all sorts of versatility in mixes and matches. Maybe no one lineman will have the impact of a Pernell McPhee this fall, but then again the overall group might be just as competent.
Or more so. Cox and Boyd have excellent backups in Jeff Howie and Kaleb Euells—a star of the future himself with end-speed and tackle-strength so look for some spring game intensity here as each combo tries to prove itself against the blocking. No wonder giving up Carmon to the offense was acceptable. Devin Jones, who is a competent backup tackle himself, has been steady as a first end opposite Sean Ferguson. Depth here isn't quite as proven though Trevor Stigers has had some good days and Shane McCardell is athletic enough.
No-realistic-body expects instant replacement of Chris White and K.J. Wright, statistically or intangibly. But Brandon Wilson has seized his opening at middle linebacker and Chris Hughes is a true play-maker outside. A leg bruise has sidelined veteran OLB Cameron Lawrence lately, though he's a pretty proven product. It's up to Deonte Skinner and Christian Holmes now as to which has the #2 edge coming out of camp. Moving Matthew Wells from redshirting safety to freshman outside linebacker has worked well, offering more coverage or blitzing possibilities from what Mullen calls a ‘hybrid' position already.
Somebody has to pay a price for all the completed passes this spring, and an almost all-veteran secondary has absorbed coaching criticism. Some has been purely for show of course, just keeping everyone on-edge, since even a good defense likes seeing their counterparts put up a few points. Still Mullen has used spring to pick on finer points, so to speak, of coverage, such as perceived laxness in finishing or unnecessary interference penalties. It also reflect the fact that so, so much is expected from a group of guys who have made plays before.
It was a healthy group too until #2 safety (and #1 nickel safety) Nickoe Whitley dinged the right knee. Wilson and staff at first moved in backup Dennis Thames or Louis Watson for such practice duty, but by the weekend 2009 safety and 2010 starting corner Johnthan Banks was back at the prior position. First team at times, too, alongside SS Charles Mitchell, alternating with old hand Wade Bonner. Whether Banks remains there is a matter really for pre-season determining, but such an option is outstanding.
And to his credit Thames has practiced well this spring, most notably in run-support situations. It's a rather deep chart here too with youngsters like Ivan Muniz and Asian Ruff, good athletes stuck behind a lengthy list of elder ones.
Banks is still officially a first-corner opposite Corey Broomfield, who doubles as the blitzing nickel corner in such sets. State can go this way since Damein Anderson rotates in at the opened corner, and because Marvin Bure is just steady in Banks' spot as needed. Meanwhile redshirts Jamerson Love and Jay Hughes are trying to be patient. The coaching staff has tried a bunch more combinations of linebackers, safeties, and corners in recent practices because they need video evidence for summer evaluating.
Special teams aren't exactly overlooked with so much else to be done, but spring is not when most jobs here are won. Senior and post-practice media hound Derek DePasquale has had a competent camp place-kicking, his concerns being fine-tuning the snapping-and-holding since both are new here. Reed Gordon hikes and Favre holds, so far, as the first group. Naturally this is a trio that can hone their craft allllll summer. Mullen gives mixed scores to his punters; not because Baker Swedenburg and William Berg don't have the legs or length. They do and can hit enough 50-plus yarders in drills. It's the 35s on other kicks that annoy the coach, who asks consistency first from this position.
All sorts of obvious options have shown in returning kicks, with Bumphis the consistent first turn. He has been paired of late with Lewis on kickoffs, ahead of Perkins and Carr or Heavens or several others. Needless to say this is where an incoming fall freshman can make a quick impression. As seen in the previous two spring games, Mullen lets kickers and returners have free rein in such settings so by Saturday evening fans will have as good an idea here as practice reporters.
The only real disappointment will be the sidelined players with injuries. A pain-free spring is unlikely anyway, and especially not the way Mississippi State practices football. Mullen's imperative on the physical means somebody(s) are gonna get hurt. Or as he shouted for all to hear during a late-March scrimmage when a play ended without enough effort from the defense, "It's not flag football, hit somebody!"
It surely won't be flag football or fast whistles—except on contact with quarterbacks and even here Mullen has allowed young triggermen to get hit—at Scott Field this weekend. This spring's game also should serve as a reminder of what the 2010 Bulldog accomplished, not least because so many of the same faces who made plays in a 9-4 season and bowl victories over Ole Miss and Michigan are back on home-field display. And if the announced attendance should have four also-familiar 2010 figures, well, the fun will be guessing which bowl success is so commemorated.
Besides, with a fine forecast for weekend weather and an improving Diamond Dog club playing at home the same day, that long-sought goal of 40,000 reporting for a spring game is all the more realistic in 2011. What they see should tantalize fans for fall, not to mention maybe frighten a few foes as well.
The Bulldogs have two more public mid-week practices as well this Tuesday and Thursday, with the usual 4:00 to 4:30 starting times.