Just as the coordinator expected.
"I know one thing about our guys, they may not do it right but they love to compete. And I had no doubt in my mind they'd be ready to compete."
The intrasquad competition continues this afternoon as head Coach Dan Mullen puts the entire team on the fields for what, essentially, is their final true practice of this spring session. And it will not even be entirely devoted to regular practicing anyway as at least some time will be spent preparing the respected, morning-drafted squads for Saturday's Maroon-White game. That will be a whole ‘nother sort of competition, or the ‘fun day' as Mullen calls it.
Mullen has booked next Monday for a closed brush-up practice to go over some specific items and conclude his third camp at Mississippi State.
Of course Wilson, in his first semester as the chief coordinator on defense as well as line coach, has already been using this week to address a few issues from last weekend's true game-type scrimmage. Some technical aspects, to be sure, but he said there were some more intangible items of his interest.
"I was disappointed when it comes down to two things. I was disappointed in the things that we can control; we had too many mental errors, and we had too many missed assignments. Then you combine that with guys who had ‘loafs'." OK, maybe not the most technical of terms but the meaning is very clear. Whether on the field that day, or reviewing the video, Wilson and staff caught various Bulldogs either taking a relaxed approach to some plays or letting up long before the whistle.
And loafing is losing. Not that Wilson downplays the work done on the other side of the scrimmage line, understand. "They just played better. The offense really did play well, I want to give them a lot of credit. They played extremely well." And even a 15-year veteran of coaching defense knows nothing stirs excitement spring or fall like an offense that plays well.
"But the thing that really stood out to me, that made it glaring, were the M.A.'s and the loafs. That's the thing that we've got to get more emphasis on."
Safe to say the Dog defense got that message. Because Tuesday they looked much more like the unit that had performed very well in the final week of March, including in a controlled scrimmage where they made much more happen than the offense. It even looked as if they wished to send their offensive counterparts a message Tuesday because, while it was a ‘thud' practice without true tackling, a lot of the thudding was pretty impressive. Aggressive, too.
Which is in keeping with how Wilson will coordinate the defense. Some State fans wondered if the program would keep playing things that way after one-year chief coordinator Manny Diaz was hired away to run Texas' defense. What this spring has shown, to no surprise from those closer to the program last fall, is just how much co-coordinator Wilson was in synch with his nominal superior. For that matter, just how much say Wilson had in how the whole show was run. Only true games will reveal any technical or tactical differences but the attitudes and the approach remains the same. Maybe even more so.
By the same token only time—like, say, the evening of September 1—will tell exactly how Wilson's first defense is assigned and aligned. Because here in the final days of spring the coordinator is mixing and matching personnel like, well, let him say it.
"Yes, it's kind of like we're the ‘mad scientists' right now!" he admitted. "We're trying to make sure we get the best guys on the field."
So Tuesday was an interesting, if not frustrating, practice for devotees of depth charts. Oh, the essentials were intact. Even a reporter can confidently assign Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox as the top tackle tandem. Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes have done more than just be promoted to first linebackers, they've risen to opportunity and practiced like SEC veterans. And whatever group of safeties see the field it's been steady in support.
Still Wilson's experimenting has been madness with method, as he counts down the camp dates.
"And at the end of the day either way, I've been taught…they're all Xs. And the way you move them around is really irrelevant just as long as they are the right guys. So what we want to do is make sure we've got the right guys out on the field."
Not just the right guys but the best positionings for the play at hand. Though still a 4-3 base, and with the four-front dominating drills, the line coach has applied three-man techniques at times too. "We mix it up. It's like anything, whether your hand is down at the end of the line of scrimmage or if you're standing up. So there is so much carry-over and so much same-as; it really makes you so multiple, and that's what is nice about our defense."
It also helps having defensive linemen who can vary their slots, such as Devin Jones. Some snaps he's the #1 end; others the backup tackle at either spot. Oh, take that ‘#1' title with a grain of salt, too, because Wilson says the d-end depth charts are works in progress.
"I've got one guy who I would consider a starter, that's Sean Ferguson. After that it's by committee. So I'm working for every avenue I can. It might be Deonte Skinner, it might be John Banks!" Calm down, the coordinator is quipping about moving defensive back Banks to the interior line. Linebacker Skinner? That's another matter. Even a Wilson-type could play there, much the way last fall Diaz and Wilson would put a true linebacker at end in a three-lineman set. Against a Florida, for example, and fans know how well that worked in a big road win.
"And at the end of the day all we want is the best eleven guys out there. Really, the best 22. So we'll kind of devise our scheme based on who our people are."
Ditto in the secondary, which has been shuffled a lot the last week. An obvious reason is the knee injury to second rotation safety (and first nickel safety) Nickoe Whitley. That was a factor in taking 2010 cornerback Banks and returning him to his '09 safety slot in the past four practices. Starters Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner have been superb in run-support, and as Wilson said their play "has really allowed us to cut loose up front" to rush passers.
At the same time Wilson is testing as many defensive backs as possible here in the waning week.
"But there's nobody set in stone back there. So what we're doing is trying to compete the best matchups, the best chemistry, and competition. Nothing replaces competition. So that's kind of what that provides us, great competition. In other words if you don't come out prepared every day to play well…who's next?"
It's easier to say what is next for the Bulldog defense in today's practice. Or at least, what their coach is demanding. "And we've got three practices to see where we're at," Wilson said. "I want to see no mental errors, and no loafs.
"That's my goal every day, to come out here and execute at a high level and play with relentless effort. That's what we control, and what I believe is if we can control we'll have a chance to be a really good defense."