Coach Dan Mullen will have everyone playing hard and on the attack Friday evening, in a straightforward offense vs. defense matchup. There will likely be some mixing and matching of personnel packages between first, second, and third teams of course. But none of this split-squad stuff which can wait for the official Maroon-White affair April 21. On Friday the 13th the offense is in maroon, the defense in white, and only the red-clad quarterbacks are off-limits to hitting and tackling.
"We're looking forward to it," said Banks. "Every time we go in that stadium we've got to be turned-up by the gate. So I'm going out there and going all-out. The guy that lines up in front of me knows I'm going all-out, the defense is going all-out, and Tyler (Russell) is going all-out. And we're going to be ready to play."
Because the contact will be real tomorrow, Mullen relaxed the Thursday regimen. He didn't shorten practice much; in fact the 2:30-plus session went even longer than usual for a pre-scrimmage day. Partly this was to give visiting high school and junior college coaches attending the campus clinic a good look at Mississippi State's approach to practicing. But it was also to run through the sort of plays, as well as sets and lineups, that will pull on full padding Friday and play to—even through—the whistles.
"The beginning of practice was going over our fundamentals and stuff," TE Malcolm Johnson said. "Then we were reviewing overall stuff for tomorrow and going all-out."
Johnson was telling the truth about attention to fundamentals Thursday. Besides stretching and warm-ups, much of the first 90 or so minutes were entirely invested in unit drills by the respective position groups. Technique, positioning, reads, ball security, steps, routes, all the basic items that were introduced three weeks ago returned to the forefront for this practice. After all, why bother scrimmaging if a team can't execute a simple handoff headed in the right direction?
Fortunately the Bulldogs, all units, rolled through such drills without any observed breakdowns and no noticed recriminations from coaches. Just as one would expect for a tenth practice, certainly, but encouraging all the same. Mullen was also able to hone some areas of the kicking games, though not as a complete team. Everyone except down linemen, both sides of the ball, participated in such things as punt-rush and blocking, or downfield coverage vs. shedding defenders, as well as fielding, etc. Mullen had the first, second, and even third kickoff-and-cover teams get a lot of work last Friday in a more practice-type scrimmage so he let this go today.
The usual pass/skel period was shortened somewhat Thursday so the final 40 minutes could be spent in full-team situation practice, offense vs. defense. Technically it was a no-contact day since players were in helmets and shoulder pads, not full gear. As usual this didn't prevent the occasional lick-laying when the defense judged a receiver had run far enough; or a running back decided he'd rather go through than around a half-speed defender. The biggest hit of the afternoon was actually between defensive teammates as S Dee Arrington and S Jay Hughes collided chasing an incomplete throw.
By now the Dog defense has a pretty good idea of the offensive plays being called, and it showed with some interceptions. On the second snap QB Russell's throw to the left side was cleanly picked by Banks, who clearly anticipated the route he was jumping. It helped that the nickel secondary was on the field with Banks moving inside to a third safety slot while Darius Slay stepped in at his corner opposite Corey Broomfield.
That set had a four-man line but one specific to pass plays with DE Kaleb Eulls moving to tackle and juco Denico Autry taking his place on the edge; with DT Josh Boyd and DE Shane McCardell rounding out the unit. Or, with DT Curtis Virges lining up directly on the ball in place of Boyd. MLB Benardick McKinney would step off the field leaving OLBs Cameron Lawrence and Deonte Skinner for rushing speed. The second linebacker set would have Ferlando Bohanna in the middle of Christian Holmes and Chris Hughes, or Matt Wells coming in for extra coverage.
Alternate cornerback Slay intercepted Russell in 11-on-11 as well, and not long after he was shaken-up by the aforementioned collision S Arrington also got ahold of the #1 quarterback's throw for another turnover. #2 QB Dak Prescott didn't go unscathed either as he overthrew a strike down the middle where S Louis Watson could catch it.
Given that so much of the full-team plays were brush-ups for Friday, Mullen did not seem overly bothered by the turnovers. Besides, he had scripted a long list of plays to run through and there was no time for lecturing. Nor did Banks, who has been through this spring thing a few times before, read too much into such plays. Quite the contrary, he has been very impressed this camp with his offensive counterparts.
"That's what I was telling, since I've been here we've usually dominated the offense. But Tyler is older and we've got some older receivers that know how to get the ball, they know how to run routes and how to run option routes. And a lot of guys have grown up." Guys such as the four all-underclassman running backs who are having productive springs.
What fans will be watching, and almost certainly the defense attacking, tomorrow is the revamped blocking in front of those runners and throwers. On Tuesday, the first real shuffles were seen on the offensive line, at the two tackle positions specifically. But today it was back to the same two-deep at those spots as seen the first eight practice days. Blaine Clausell returned to first-team and left tackle, and Damien Robinson went from left back to #1 right tackle. Joey Trapp and Charles Siddoway were back in backup as they had been.
The one change that has stuck for three days is veteran walk-on Ben Beckwith, who began camp as a reserve center, now the #1 right guard ahead of true freshman Justin Malone. Left guard remains Gabe Jackson and Templeton Hardy, with returning starter Dillon Day ahead of juco transfer Dylan Holley at center.
Tight end Johnson, who has been a real offensive standout all spring, affirms the progress made on his side of the ball in 2012. "I feel we're a step ahead of where we were last year," he said. This doesn't mean he and other Dogs in maroon are taking anything for granted just yet. In fact Johnson said the approach in Thursday shorts was as focused as it will be in full Friday pads.
"We take every day serious. We can't take a day off because when you do your opponent is getting better at the same time. We just want to take a step at a tie and make improvement day-by-day and see how things come out."
Which is all the more reason for Bulldog fans who can't wait another week to be at Davis Wade Stadium on Friday. For a scrimmage that ought to make for a better spring game than the Spring Game.
Mullen did not comment on Thursday's practice as he will be available following the scrimmage.