"We scrimmaged a lot to get a lot of stuff that we needed done, and to clean up today," Mullen said. "The spring game is going to be a lot of different stuff, a lot of guys playing, so we wanted get a last look at some guys doing some things today."
By ‘last look' the coach meant that Saturday really will be reserved for player fun and fan enjoyment at Scott Field. And, the 15th and final NCAA-allowed working day of camp will serve to review both the intrasquad game and the complete spring. That is next Monday, and closed to the public.
As far as today's results, there was indeed a winner. "Definitely the defense," confirmed the head coach. Whether in full-field or down-and-distance situations, the maroon side consistently had the better of things in scrimmage time. For that matter they held the offense generally in check during the other periods, whether 8-on-8 work in passing/coverage or in full-team matchups with running included.
They certainly asserted their superior strength in the concluding drills, where Mullen spotted the ball on one forty-yard line with the offense allotted 45 seconds and a couple of timeouts to get in field goal range. The first offense got far enough to set up a 47-yard try for Derek DePasquale, and he had the range but the wind carried it off well-left. The second offense got a bit closer for Brian Egan, only his 40-or-so-yarder was badly off to the right.
Mullen and staff also kept such matchups between depth-chart equals, especially in scrimmage settings. But no matter which offensive unit had the ball the corresponding defensive team kept it under their control. Mostly, Mullen said.
"They started good, then they got a little bit sloppy, and then finished really strong. The offense, just too many dropped balls, too many mistakes. No leadership really stepped up on offense today when they needed it as the scrimmage wore on. So the defense definitely rebounded from last Saturday to win today."
Mullen was referring to last Saturday's scrimmaging at Scott Field when the offense rang up eleven touchdowns. However much the conditions were controlled or not that was a lot, and Tuesday coordinator Chris Wilson said he expected his unit to respond with some pride. This afternoon, they did. Nor was Mullen surprised based on the general spring tone.
"The defense has certainly controlled things a lot out there on the field. Which is good, that's what you want. You need a strong defense if you're going to compete for any sort of championship." Fans might not be as excited to hear of offenses being shut down, but this spring when the unit was good it was very, very good. Mullen naturally credits the maturity of quarterback Chris Relf for much of the continued spring successes.
Not that the coach will let his starting triggerman feel like a finished product, of course.
"He's going to continue to develop as a leader, and he's done some great leadership. He was a great leader on offense Saturday, when things were going well he kept them going well. As adversity strikes can he get everybody locked back in, and that is the hardest part. And that's what he's working on."
Relf did share first-team snaps with his two backups, Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre, while frosh Dak Prescott got extensive second-unit work. For that matter Prescott drew other duty; he's become a regular on the kickoff-and-cover team not afraid to throw himself into pileups. Such plays were live, though probably not using exact lineups. In fact the two kicking squads were all offensive personnel, the return teams all defensive with cornerbacks fielding the ball. One, S Johnthan Banks, fumbled it away in the tackling.
Among the day's defensive highlights, Favre was picked twice in 8-on-8 work, by LB Chris Hughes and CB Marvin Bure. In team competition it was S Louis Watson intercepting Russell. And CB Damein Anderson was able to block a long field goal try by DePasquale.
TB Nick Griffin watched practice after a long stint in the Pit as he begins rehab for surgery last week to repair a torn knee ligament. Whitley nor TE Marcus Green attended practice as they would not participate. Reserve CB Jamerson Love injured his right hand during a drill today and left immediately for training room attention.
The defense welcomed Cameron Lawrence back to full-contact, as first-team outside linebacker, after a leg injury limited him a few days. Mullen had hoped to get safety Nickoe Whitley (knee) back for the spring game after almost two weeks' absence, but now thinks it will be Monday at the earliest. "He's right on the edge for Saturday."
Speaking of edges, the uncertainty at left tackle remains. Converted defensive tackle and senior James Carmon has run first team most of spring before a brief demotion last week. For Thursday he was back on the second unit again while redshirted Blaine Clausell moved up to the number-ones. Either way, though, this was an area defenders attacked and made some things happen.
Though he said both have a long ways to go, Mullen is not overly concerned who takes Derek Sherrod's old job at this point. "We have a lot of time before they have to play a game and it will be both their opportunities to play on a big stage Saturday. Well see how they respond to that situation. They're both solid players, I just see a lot of inexperience. That's what I notice. They're as talented as the guy who was there last year if not more talented. But they just have to learn to be the player that he was."
For that matter Mullen expects to learn something about many players Saturday, even if as he has often said it is an event made to have fun. "To me, it's see how guys perform in the stadium. I mean, you're going to put 40,000 people in the stadium and it's a little different just being out here at practice. There's a lot of guys who are going to have to play that have not been in live-game situations in front of a big crowd. I want to see how they respond."
By the same token there will be plenty of participants who have played in live games, and won them too. Mullen will start old hands like Relf or WR Chad Bumphis or defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox and the like. But they assuredly will not finish.
"We'll see how it goes. I want to get everybody on the field at some point during the game, so I spend most of my day just managing reps and making sure everybody gets the work they need." If needed he'll offer a little help to the guest coaches, Lee and Leo Seal on one side and Jim Rouse on the other, though those honorary bosses will have professional assistants too. The split staff coordinated Thursday's dividing draft which attempted to keep teams somewhat even. Such as, first-pick Relf was followed by Russell as the second and on opposing team; then Favre and Prescott.
As to how evenly things actually are, "I guess we'll find out on Saturday, won't we?!" Mullen said. "With our staff it usually stays balanced, one team will have an advantage in one area and the other team an advantage in another area, usually." And the teams will surely utilize whatever advantages they can find because like anything else organized by Mullen there is a winner…and more to this point, a loser.
That would be the side seen at 10:00am Sunday back at Scott Field serving as cleanup crew. Coaches included. It's a reward-and-risk scenario that has served Mississippi State well the first two springs under Mullen's management and he expects the same attitude this time around.
"I don't know about the Seal Brothers and Mr. Rouse, but the coaches have the day off Sunday and the last thing they want to do is come clean the stadium," said Mullen. Asked what side Matt Balis had drawn, Mullen wasn't sure but noticed the strength coach was nearer the White team in post-practice organization. "I guess he's on that team. Or he's spying for the other team."
The 2011 Maroon-White spring game kicks off at 5:00, with open admission.