"Yeah, we're just coming out here having fun, trying to relax a little bit," said junior cornerback Johnthan Banks. "We've been off for two weeks, we're all excited to get back out here and get around our coaches and teammates. And just get back out and make it as fun as possible. And, go up and beat Wake Forest."
Mississippi State (6-6) meets the Demon Deacons (6-6) in Nashville on December 30, with a 5:40 ct kickoff from LP Field. Bowl camp began Friday evening with a closed evening practice, making today the first chance for fans and media to observe the Bulldogs in December action.
Banks wasn't joking about having fun, either. Whether bored after two weeks away from practices following their now-annual Egg Bowl victory to conclude the schedule; or more likely relieved to be done with semester exams and in eight senior cases with graduation; State player really did seem to enjoy a return to routine. Rather, to the revised routine Mullen has put together for bowl camp.
The weather was wintery, but the practice plans were taken straight from spring training.
"This whole first week is going back to fundamentals," Mullen said. "Our first two days was kind of warming them up, getting them into the routine of things. We'll get a little bit more of an installation plan for Monday, and really kind of specifically work on different schemes and getting reps for a lot of young players."
A lot of young players, for sure. There were a few situations where the first offense or defense from the regular season assembled in game formation…but not many. More often than not the coordinators would put a ‘mixed' unit on the field, with a few specific backups or even reserves combined with starters taking their turns. And the second teams were for most intents and purposes third squads.
And a very few first-team Dogs had almost no work at all, such as Banks or DT Fletcher Cox. They spent more time helmet-in-hand and watching from sideline safety as if they were media and not All-SEC stars. As Banks said, "We sneak in there every now and then, coach tries to get us out there." But the junior corner wasn't a bit guilty about watching more than working.
"I've been here three years and done put in my work and all the other guys have to. But it gives a chance for guys like Taveze Calhoun who's been out the whole year to move up with the one guys and get some reps. And just come out and get some experience, the guys that don't get to play a lot to have some fun."
Mullen did set a tone by beginning work with bull-in-the-ring combats, something guaranteed to get player-blood pumping. The intensity carried into a short period of two-minute offense by the #1 team going out from the ten-yard line, while the defense had some comparable drills of their own on another field. Kickoff-fielding and coverage followed, before a long stretch of position-group drills took up most of the morning.
Though in shorts, and though well-chilled after 90 minutes, the Bulldogs concluded with team-on-team competition that fell just short of full-tackling. Or as Mullen calls it, ‘thud' work where contact is made without anyone—supposedly—going to ground. And where in August such drills do result in bodies sprawled on the turf, after a long season these players really did dial it back. Just a bit.
"It will be a lot of thud," Mullen acknowledged afterwards. "We'll get a couple of live practices in some pads as we go. But again, it's just a lot of teaching, the first week Friday-to-Friday is a lot of installation, teaching, getting back to some really base fundamentals you don't have time to work during the season. Then next Saturday we'll start our gameplanning."
Coming off his third victory against Ole Miss it was no surprise at all to see Chris Relf running the first offense with Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott rotating on the second squad. In fact for the earliest drills the #1 offense was the same as a game, with the lone exception of Nick Griffin taking senior Vick Ballard's place at tailback. Ballard spent more time running routes than rushing the ball today, in fact. LaDarius Perkins went #2 tailback along with Rob Elliott and ahead of the two redshirt, Josh Robinson and Derek Milton.
In this, Mullen was already anticipating spring camp, especially with Griffin at first-team temporarily. "It's huge when you look to the future for him. We have two senior tailbacks that graduate this year so he's going to be more of the feature back next year, this allows him to step into this role, into the one-hole huddle and be that feature back."
When Banks, who might turn professional come spring, was watching, his left corner job was filled by either Marvin Bure or Jamerson Love. Starting CB Corey Broomfield did more work than his classmate but still gave way to Darius Slay and Damien Anderson a good bit. After starting safeties Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner had put in their scripted snaps it was Louis Watson, Jay Hughes, or Kendrick Market taking turns with the first group. In front of them, the second linebacker group of Chris Holmes, Matt Wells, and Brandon Maye had a lot more work than the starters, too. So did redshirt Zach Jackson as an outside linebacker behind starter Cam Lawrence.
Redshirt John Harris got a lot of work at #2 defensive end today, as one example of how newer kids were combined with regulars. The offensive line was even more mixed, such as when guard Damien Robinson took the first-spot in place of senior Quentin Saulsberry. Or redshirting Justin Malone was given turns on the second team at left tackle, Nick Redmond at left guard, and so on.
As Mullen said, these early camp-days are focused on "Everybody from guys who redshirted to guys that are walk-ons. The opportunity for them, it's a ‘refresher' too because a lot of them have been on scout team the whole year and now they're getting in the opportunity to run our offense, run our defense, and get out of that redshirting mode and into player mode."
Both Relf and Russell had a pass intercepted. MLB Brandon Wilson picked Relf off cleanly in 7-on-7, while Russell's pick came in 11-on-11 as a throw to TE Brandon Hill went off the hands and was caught on a carom by a reserve linebacker. The closest thing to an injury observed was when young tailback Milton got up slowly and favoring his left knee, but left on his own power.
Bowl camp began minus a couple of players. Mullen confirmed that #3 quarterback Dylan Favre will transfer over the break. "We wish him the best, he has our full support. He did a great job for us in his time here," the coach said, adding there were no conditions placed by MSU upon the transfer.
"He and I met for a while a couple of times, and we'll help him however we can." Mullen didn't seem at all concerned about going into the bowl game with just a pair of active quarterbacks, as if necessary there are a couple of play-makers at other positions capable of taking snaps too. ""We'll figure that out. Our two guys are pretty tough, they suck it up and finish up."
Also, backup DE Trevor Stigers has left the team to focus on finishing school in spring, on schedule. "He has some academic things he has to get caught-up (on) before his graduation," Mullen said. And soph WR Michael Carr, who went on informal leave mid-season, will not practice for the bowl game. "We're hoping to have him back in the spring, he has some things he has to get sorted-out with himself. But talking to him the other day he plans on being here in the spring, and we plan on having him back."
State will have a Sunday off before resuming work Monday at 1:00 with an open practice.