Not that Tyler Russell is barking in the linebacker's direction per se, of course. The quarterback has enough on his practice plate this spring without getting in a war of words. Then again, Lawrence figures, Russell's best response is silent treatment for the defense…and a well-executed play. Then everybody lines up and goes at it again, and again, and again as Mississippi State grinds towards the end of 2012 spring training.
It concludes, mostly, this week with Coach Dan Mullen putting his team on the practice field Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Then comes Saturday and the concluding Maroon-White Game at Scott Field. Alert fans will note that when the spring game ends only 14 sessions will have been held. That is Mullen's plan, just as in 2011 when the 15th and final NCAA-allotted date was reserved for a closed review-and-run-through.
Fans were able to get something of a spring game preview last Friday evening, also in the stadium, as the Bulldogs went at each other for some two hours in a game-type scrimmage. The head coach was excused for the birth of his second child, and first daughter, with wife Megan. Yet the scrimmage showed just how far Mississippi State has come under his direction, because observers would have been hard-pressed to tell any difference in team's intensity without the boss spurring everyone on.
The scrimmage, much like a controlled-type run on the previous Friday, also showed something inevitable. The past four, five sessions have seen the Bulldog defense taking charge. After watching—not to mention hearing—the offense have lots of fun the first two weeks, the natural spring order has reasserted itself.
"Definitely," agreed Lawrence, the senior outside linebacker. "I had a chip on my shoulder after last week, we didn't want to do what they're doing." This said as Lawrence peeked over at the offense team running penalty wind-sprints for ‘losing' another scrimmage. With all the running around done in scrimmaging the last thing an old Dog like Lawrence wanted was more. Ditto his cohorts.
"So we got in the film room, we cleaned some things up, and it showed. We looked pretty sharp."
Maybe not so much at first Friday, as the first-team offense—led by Russell—punched out a pair of fast touchdowns against the #1 defense and Lawrence. For that matter the second offense got on the board on their fourth series working against the two-defense. From then on though the defensive team(s) took control. Of the 26 total series run by the #1 and #2 teams, there were four touchdowns and a field goal.
Which meant a win for the defense, and wind-sprinting for the offense. "There were a lot of big plays," Lawrence said. "I feel like we made some mistakes, too. But guys are out there being playmakers, and if we can get everybody out there making plays on the same level it's not just one guy. I saw a handful of different guys making plays and that's what we need."
Not just making plays, but the aggressive attitude that showed a defense finding its rhythm. To Lawrence, who has been through this spring thing three times before, a turning point of sorts came a week ago when fellow starter OLB Deonte Skinner caught backup FB William Shumpert flush out in the flats. Those were two big bodies meeting and the defense came out on top. So to speak.
So yes, Lawrence said, absolutely: the attitude is back and so is the fun. "Guys were flying around, there were big hits all over the place. That kind of stuff just brings juice to the whole defense."
With the winning comes the woofing, too. Here Lawrence is also taking a lead, as befits a veteran who led Mississippi State last season in tackles. As the defense makes its read and sets up for the expected offensive snap, he is calling out instructions…and shouting out suggestions to the quarterback. Or the guy taking the snap at least; Lawrence has assumed responsibility for tweaking his counterparts when they line in for a direct snap to Chad Bumphis or Jameon Lewis.
His alter to the defense? He calls out ‘pussycat.'.
"It's just kind of our lingo for the wildcat, what most offenses run." Yeah, lingo with a laugh. Of course he and the defense can afford the humor after shutting down such snaps Friday. Bumphis lost five yards on a first-down ‘wild' try and the #1 offense didn't give it much attention the rest of the night. Lewis had a bit better success in twos-on-twos with a five-yard gainer.
Mississippi State showed the wild-set more often in 2011 so it is nothing new for the Dog defense, and Lawrence said there is a planned approach for it when SEC opponents come wild too. Mostly, though, "We just come out and play technique against it. And whatever happens, happens." So far what has happened has generally favored the defense, evidently.
And by the way, all Lawrence can do is attack Russell or Dak Prescott mentally. Varsity quarterbacks are hands-off under the best of Mississippi State circumstances in practices already; this particular spring having just two scholarship signal-callers means any defender laying a hand on the passer risks his own scholarship and the team's season.
"It is frustrating. I would say we had sacks a couple of times when they completed it downfield, I'm a little biased when it comes to that kind of thing!"
The larger point is that Mullen's prediction, that once camp goes full-contact the defensive guys should have an advantage, has proven true. Just not so easily as in the past at State, and setting aside unit pride Lawrence recognizes this is a good thing for the entire team. Defenses like seeing teammates put up points, after all.
Just not in scrimmages when the price is sprinting.
"It's probably a little bit of both. As a defensive player we've been going ‘thud' tempo and when you go live it kind of has to change your mindset. But yeah, the offense is doing good, they're breaking tackles..,and that's defense, we have to tackle better."
An interesting aspect to this spring, so far, is how little post-practice or –scrimmage attention the linebackers have gotten. Interviews and comments have focused on the linemen, or secondary. It's natural given the need to replace NFL-bound DT Fletcher Cox, and graduations at both safety spots. Meanwhile Lawrence and peers have simply gone about their business of, you know, making plays.
"From what I saw the linebackers are all over the place. I mean, we're covering receivers, we're in the run game, we're doing a little bit of it all you know." Not just that, but showing a mix of three- and four-linebacker sets utilizing combinations of size, or speed, or experience, or all the above. Lawrence likes the versatility being developed this spring, and what it signals for 2012 gameplanning.
One writer suggested that scrimmage results have looked like a ‘bend don't break' philosophy. Lawrence doesn't entirely agree. "I'd like for us to not even bend! But as long as we don't break I'm fine with it." Eliminating breakdowns in either technique or approach is part of the to-do list for this final spring week, naturally.
"Keep on progressing. We're pretty much done with the install, now it's getting your technique flawless. We already know what to do and when to do it, now we want to know why we're doing it. That is the step we're working on now."
Working, and talking too. It would make for fascinating football if Lawrence could be miked-up for the spring game, just to hear the sort of head-games he is playing with Russell. It has worked at times, Lawrence claims, even if the always-calm Russell rarely shows a hint of emotion.
"But we're back-and-forth, it's pretty even. He's a smart player and he's fun to mess with."
Mullen has referred to this week's Tuesday and Thursday practices as the last ‘real' practices for spring, as a big portion of Friday's session will be invested in preparations for the split-squad spring game.