Mullen Looks Over Spring Work Results

He's had a couple days to go over the results. As well as get daughter Breelyn Elisabeth settled in at home. This newest member of the Mullen family wasn't specifically part of the team Coach Dan said was being ‘born' this spring, but she does sort of symbolize the fresh 2012 start for Mississippi State football.

Mullen and varsity Bulldogs wrapped up their spring semester practices over the weekend with the spring game. An entertaining one at that, won 33-22 by the Maroon squad led by—not surprisingly—veteran quarterback Tyler Russell. The split-roster approach meant the game was, well, just that. Play. Purely to entertain optimistic fans, and allow a bunch of Bulldogs to let off spring steam before facing end-of-semester examinations.

Once they've turn in finals, those players will be handed another textbook of sorts: a strength-and-conditioning script for the short May interim period. And this is something no Dog dares fail at, given the severity of testing Coach Matt Balis applies every single summer weekday. Still, Mullen and Balis both agree a little time-away will do everyone good.

Mullen even has a golf date set, as part of the annual Chick-fil-A Bowl charity event on April 29-May 1. He is teamed with former Bulldog and NFL fullback Fred McCrary. The outing is conveniently located for Mullen at the Reynolds Plantation Resort near enough to his summer lake home.

Meanwhile, Mullen participated in a SEC teleconference. Not much of sheer ‘news' value came of his stint, but in one case no news was wonderful to the MSU coach. "We were able to stay healthy which is an important part of it," he said.

Given the experiences of last fall when just a couple of injuries left such a sizable mark; or even last spring when a promising running back suffered a setback; well, escaping 13 real practices, a spring game preparation session, and the Maroon-White match itself without losing anyone was a victory. State was without a couple of previously-injured players, most notable #1 right guard Tobias Smith and starting safety Nickoe Whitley, as well as veteran deep snapper Reed Gordon.

But all are on track for summer activation and return to their primary roles. Meanwhile, Mullen and staff used their absence(s) to find real rotation depth. Not just at those two starting positions either, but everywhere. This, along with no casualties is why "It was a great spring for us," Mullen summarized.

"Also the development of the guys. I thought we played with a much greater sense of urgency this spring, trying to improve every single practice and every single play."

This sounds simpler than it is. Effort has been a Mullen hallmark since arrival, and nobody can accuse his first three teams of slacking. Yet at times last season the coach thought the effort might not have been quite relentless enough. At least that is the tone he set for 2012, and judging by practices and scrimmages the team has heard that message loud and clear.

Put another way, the coach did not recall many instances where a team or unit appeared to take the play off, as it were. Which is saying something given the grind that spring practicing can become. Now, if the Bulldogs apply that attitude to every snap of a season, Mullen needn't fear the ill-timed lapse that changes a game.

"You never know when those plays will occur. And I liked our approach, that every play was critical. You want to have it on game day but when you can develop it every day at practice you're going in the right direction."

Something else headed in the right Bulldog direction based on spring results is a depth chart with, at last, depth almost everywhere. There were a couple of exceptions, most notably quarterback where veteran Russell and redshirt Dak Prescott carried the load with third-team assists from Sam Cowart. The unexpected December departure of Dylan Favre left that roster thinner than planned but based on both recruiting success and a recent event the change is working out in Mississippi State's favor long-term. Signee Nick Schuessler will be thrown right into informal but very serious individual work with his fellow passers and all the receivers once upon campus.

Placekicker also awaits a new arrival as well. Veteran kickoff-man Brian Egan took his turns in spring with mixed results, so rookie recruit Devon Bell is already being booked to compete for that job come August. Otherwise, and allowing for injuries, State was well-stocked for healthy spring competition.

And it showed.

"The depth certainly helps," Mullen said. "And when you do have that competition it can really lead to improvement out there on the field. Because you're being pushed every day in practice."

So, where was the best pushing going on this spring. What positions had the best competition? "All of them!" Mullen said, not entirely seriously…but not completely joking either. "You name it, there are guys who are trying to get on the field at every position. Running backs, receiver, quarterbacks. Dak trying to prove he's ready to step on the field. And everybody fighting for the five spots in the offensive line. Even in the secondary, Corey Broomfield and John Banks have lots of experience but Darius Slay is trying to get playing time."

Which he will, as a three-cornerback rotation was well-established over the course of camp. And four for that matter, even five as Taveze Calhoun and Jameson Love staked their own claims. With Smith sidelined only right offensive guard was really lacking as far as scholarship numbers. But, former walk-on and special teams regular Ben Beckwith proved his worth by taking first-team status the last two weeks, ahead of 2011 freshman redshirt Justin Malone. Naturally senior Smith is very much in MSU minds but after three major surgeries in four years depth is an obvious priority at that position.

Four tackles shuffled at the two spots as well, and if there were any winners after the final practice only the head coach and line boss could say. They didn't, not for public consumption at least. And as for any particularly close competitions at other positions, Mullen did not regard things this way.

"I don't know if you look at it as hotly-contested battles, it's guys fighting for their playing time. A lot of people make a big deal who is the starter, that's to always a big deal to me. It's how many reps are you going to play." From now until August all reps will be done away from any coaching observation, once the spring squad and June enrollees assemble for summer school.

Meanwhile Mullen has some carry-over business from the 2011 team to attend to, as he flies to New York City on Thursday. He and p.r. director Joe Galbraith will accompany Fletcher Cox to the National Football League draft, where the defensive tackle expects to be a first-round selection. Much as Mullen will miss having Cox in the middle of the defensive front this fall, he applauds the junior's measured decision to turn professional at this early point.

What the Bulldog coach really hopes for now is that some '11 seniors have their names called in the coming days. Such as running back Vick Ballard, the record-setting touchdown scorer in his two seasons after going the junior college route first. Mullen is an unabashed Ballard booster.

"I think he's going to have a great impact at the next level. Because he's such an all-around player. And he's played with such a chip on his shoulder, he's a guy that overachieved at every level and wants to prove them wrong." As for questions about Ballard's sheer speed, "Turn on the film and he doesn't get caught very often! I like a guy who when you put the ball in his hands he makes plays. He's made for the NFL game."

State would love to have safety Charles Mitchell, offensive guard/center Quentin Saulsberry, and offensive/defensive tackle James Carmon drafted as well. There is a track record with State putting linemen in the league, along with defensive players. Ballard could join '09 alum Anthony Dixon as an offensive performer there, pointing to something that has not been a traditional MSU strength: graduating throwers and catchers to the NFL.

That will have to wait another year, and there are a number of '12 receivers who can earn their shot(s). "We really haven't had many ‘skill' guys enter the NFL draft since I've been here," Mullen agreed, "except for Vick and obviously Anthony. It will be interesting in the future, hopefully we have some of these guys get the chance."

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