"We had a great spring," Mullen said. "It's always good to be back on the field and practicing, trying to improve. We have a lot of young players on our roster right now so the more practice time we get the better, the more development the better."
It was an apt overview of how Bulldog football shapes up in this, Mullen's third season in charge. It really was good getting this varsity-and-redshirt roster back on the field for another spring and building upon the successes of a breakthrough season. At the same time many of the key figures in a 9-4 finish with victories in the Egg Bowl, again, and Gator Bowl have taken their Bulldog bows. Every SEC program lost good players to graduation or, soon, to the NFL of course.
Few conference clubs lost the general level of play-makers as State did in OL Derek Sherrod, OC J.C. Brignone, DE Pernell McPhee, and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright. For that matter, to Mullen's mind the greater losses are the sheer leadership those departing seniors provided on and off the field. So, while all SEC coaches annually comment on the ‘young team' they have…in Mississippi State's 2011 case there is good reason. Then there was the matter of taking a returning team that enjoyed great successes but now is led mostly by younger men who didn't put in the same sort of struggles as did many of the new alumni.
Thus, Mullen agrees, spring was good…a good start to a continuing process leading up to September 1 and kickoff at Memphis.
"We need to have a great summer and some of those guys need to develop."
Asked what areas were most improved or impressive in 15 spring working dates, "It's hard to say. There are some young linemen that got a lot of opportunity to develop, they still have a long way to go. I was pleased with some of our young receivers that are continuing to grow and develop, to add depth to the program. On the defensive side the linebackers kind of stepped-up, they still have a long way to go to get there. And on the defensive line we had some young guys, like Kalen Eulls and Curtis Virges."
Not that those two examples are being developed to start this fall; with returning juniors and two-year standouts Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox there is as strong a pair of starting tackles at State now as anywhere in this league. What Mullen wants here is more interior rotations to keep his top two sharp all season. Euells, along with second-year senior Jeff Howie, did their part and Virges is coming along at his pace as well. They need to since the defensive line gave up the biggest veteran body with James Carmon moving to the offensive side.
As for the defensive ends, "We have a couple of guys that are taking steps," Mullen said today. "We're still young at that position." Young overall, that is, since DE Sean Ferguson—who his position coach and defensive coordinator Chris Wilson says is the only set starter at this point—is a senior. Still losing McPhee to graduation, and before that Nick Bell to his tragic November passing, has opened the depth chart at each end slot.
"You don't always just replace those guys with somebody else, but your hope in the development of depth in the program is somebody steps up to be ‘that guy'. We'll see if guys continue to develop. Shane McCardell, Trevor Stigers, Sean Ferguson, there are some guys that can step up, they have the potential. We just have to see the development over the next few months."
Speaking of depth, when Mullen first began practicing his 2009 team he was most worried, annoyed even, but lack of both quantity and quality at the wide receiver positions. He said at the time it would take up to twelve real receivers to run his spread system. Even through 2010 the Bulldog offense operated at times with four and five regular, reliable targets in many games, especially after injuries thinned the corps. It worked, but the margins were far too fine for comfort.
Mississippi State still is not at the ideal dozen Mullen wants. But here in year-three the roster is far, far stronger here.
"I wish we had some go-to, primo wideouts," Mullen did caution. "But we have some solid wideouts." And more of them, even if as he again noted "No one has taken that step to be that star player." Though it needed noting top target WR Chad Bumphis was not purely 100% in spring after the second-quarter shoulder break suffered on a catch in the Egg Bowl. Bumphis still practiced and took contact and made spring plays, he just seemed a tiny bit rusty after missing the Gator Bowl and some January/February work recovering.
Along with slot-receiver Bumphis the final spring rotation had Ricco Sanders and Chris Smith split-out; ahead of Brandon Heavens/Arceto Clark/Sam Williams; and Jameon Lewis/Robert Johnson/Michael Carr. So yes, State is getting closer to what this coach needs stockpiled for his schemes.
"But in spread sets we usually have three receivers on the field, and when you go through that you play nine in the course of a game," Mullen reminded. "We're still really young, we don't have any seniors at the receiver position. So even though we have some depth we're still young, and it's taken some years to get to the point we're comfortable with that depth."
Incidentally, a social network message attributed to Bumphis late Monday spread word that he had badly hurt an ankle in a workout that day. Now it appears it was nothing serious, if a little scary at the time, with Bumphis backing away. State is not making official comments on this or other such matters. Asked for an update this morning, ""We don't discuss injuries," Mullen said. "It's a policy, just for everybody that knows, we don't discuss injuries in our program."
Not after open practices and the spring game end, that is. Observers could see who was gimpy, restricted, or injured during drills. Such as redshirt TB Nick Griffin who injured a knee in a passing drill one day; and after taking a weekend off to reduce swelling was found to have torn a ligament. He is due back at full-strength by the end of September. There were lesser injuries to a couple of defensive regulars. #2 rotation S Nickoe Whitley did sprain a knee but is fine for summer; and #1 OLB Cameron Lawrence has a bad quadriceps that slowed him some mid-camp with no worries for fall.
The offensive line was short-handed all spring without #1 RG Tobias Smith and backup OC Sam Watts, both coming off winter surgeries and due back full-go for August if not earlier. Though Mullen would have preferred an intact first unit to practice it did give more chances for other line-looks. For that matter evaluations remain ongoing for a long time yet here.
Most obviously at left tackle where converted d-tackle Carmon and redshirt Blaine Clausell contested all camp with no winner yet. Carmon ran first-team the first half of spring, Clausell the last half and the spring game…and it means little at this April point anyway.
"I just look at their improvement in spring because there's so much time," said Mullen. "They both made some huge gains, but a lot of that was they had so far to go, the experience and not being used to being out there at that position. But I am pleased with the progress they're making." That doesn't keep fans and observers from pointing to this one position as key to what Mississippi State might achieve on offense in 2011. That's their problem, the coach shrugs.
"We don't show up in August and have to play a game. You have May, June, July to develop on your own, and then 29 practices. Hopefully someone will separate themselves by the game week at the end of August."
All observations in spring agreed that senior Chris Relf has separated himself as not just the veteran starting quarterback but the leader of the entire offense. All observations, that is, but the one that matters. In fact Mullen offered a somewhat surprising statement today about how things shape up going into this special summer for a trio of triggermen.
"The competition is wide-open right now," Mullen said.
Which, he added, was not a critique on how Relf operated in is final State off-season. Just the opposite. "Chris obviously did a great job this spring," Mullen said, but… "I don't know if he separated himself from the other guys." The message here was how well both Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre functioned in their own turns with the number-one offense. Call it keeping pressure on Relf from behind to continue improving, or encouragement to the younger kids about their own opportunities; either way it signals good things at the crucial offensive position.
"Chris has the experience and has played in games," agreed Mullen, which gives the senior top quarterback status. Albeit, "Right now going into summer," the coach cautioned. "Tyler and Dylan are still competing, they made big strides. It's a long way until we play a game and it will be interesting to see their development, who takes the next stride."
There's that d-word again. Development. It is easy to see how far Bulldog football has done that over the first two years under Mullen's management, most obviously the second time around. But this boss is not content with a competitive program right now and demands ever more development. Not just on the practice field, either. Prior to the spring game he and athletic director Scott Stricklin displayed drawings of the planned football office/locker room/support facility to be built, with construction to begin hopefully late this fall. It will be named the Seal Complex in honor of the key donation from the Seal Family Foundation presented two weeks ago.
For now the Bulldogs are taking care of spring semester-concluding business and final exams next week. They will get a few weeks away in May, then return to Coach Matt Balis' care and keeping for two very tough summer months. In fact Mullen includes the time players are away from school in May as part of his ongoing development goals. Put another way, anyone showing up for the first summer semester not merely in physical shape but football sharp as well is going to dig himself into a hole with the boss.
"The key is the progress they make over the next three months when I can't be around," said Mullen. And speaking of which, the coach himself doesn't won't be around town or campus quite a bit over the coming months. Mullen, with wife Megan and two-year-old son Cannon, have their own getaway trips and times planned so everyone can recharge for what is setting up as an exciting 2011 pre-, in-, and post-season stretch from August 4 through the holiday bowl.
Whether he was sending a don't-call signal to media, or just wishing everyone well, it fit that Mullen closed the SEC call with "You guys have a great summer!"