"So again it's a lot to be determined," Mullen said. "We (kick) Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday was the ‘resting their legs of kickers'." Said with a smile as nobody got over-worked on opening night exactly.
Bell, the touted true freshman, knocked through four points-after just fine in his college debut. Then Mullen turned the duty over to a senior but also first-timer, as walk-on Charlie Grandfield capably handled the other three PATs.
The lone mark against first-game placekicking was a missed 42-yard field goal by Bell. Even this didn't entirely displease the head coach upon review. The get-off time was "really fast" he said; maybe too much so as Mullen figured the fired-up freshman over-strode and got the plant foot out of ideal position. "But to me, that was energy, I think he was ready to go crush that ball."
Otherwise results were positive all around. Even the lack of touchbacks under the new and presumably easier rules, with just three in seven chances, was not an issue afterwards. Mullen had mentioned during preseason the revised rules might invite teams to kick off high and close to the goal to tempt a return that could be stopped short of the 25-yard line. If this was State's strategy it worked; Jackson State averaged 14.4 yards on five return tries, one time going to a knee inside the five-yard line upon fielding.
Bell kicked off the first four times, then '11 veteran Brian Egan the rest. The specialist in least need of resting was P Baker Swedenburg with a single kick. "And he pinned them on the eight-yard line," Mullen said.
Still somebody has to kick off and placekick first for State, and while a sure-thing starter is ideal Mullen is comfortable with weekly duels for dibs. "You can worry about it, with confidence and what's going on with guys," he said. Instead, "We kept it competitive and I thought the all performed really well in the game. If it ain't broke don't change it!"
THROWING AND CATCHING: There is one Bulldog on this 2012 roster who has thrown a pass against Auburn. Whether or not Chad Bumphis gets another chance this year is debatable, though the wideout did complete his throw-back to Chris Relf for a three-yard game. But it was 3rd-and-7 and State punted.
Tyler Russell did not take a snap in last year's game, so he awaits his first action against an Auburn team since 2010 (4-of-9 for 19 yards, one interception). This time it will be as the starter, Russell's fourth opening assignment in SEC play. He had a solid opening appearance with 15-of-24 passing for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Not spectacular maybe, but an average gain of 12-plus yards on each completed throw reminded that State intends to go downfield more often, and efficiently, than in Mullen's first three seasons.
Mullen is known for setting high standards for his quarterbacks. "I don't know if I can pick a game throughout my career that I said OK, I'm great with how you played the entire game." Meaning the head coach spent Sunday and Monday showing Russell the good, the bad, and the fixable. "But I really liked what his game-day demeanor was. Not just how it was on the field, but how he was on the sideline and with every adjustment. I was pretty pleased."
So was quarterbacks Coach Les Koenning. And not just with starter Russell but rookie backup Dak Prescott. The best thing both did? "The one thing I'm very pleased with, there were no turnovers. And I think that's the key. We're getting into SEC play and that's a big issue. Changing field position and no turnovers are a great way to win a football game."
Russell has had his turnover-prone games of course. There were three interceptions thrown at LSU two years ago; and in '11, in his first start, Russell was picked twice by South Carolina. Though in fairness the last pick was on a last-chance drive and the intended target could have better helped the cause. Still State believes Russell has the eye and the awareness to better read coverages and avoid throwing at the wrong team.
Or at least Auburn will be the real trial by '12 fire. "He's been tested, but this is a much bigger test for him this week than last week's was," Mullen said. "I know he wants that role, he wants the game to be put on his shoulders. He wants to be the leader and the guy that's out there making the plays and leading the offense."
At the same time, Mullen and Koenning don't look at second-year frosh Prescott as only a reserve. It might exaggerate things to call it a rotation right now, but there is a definite plan. "We've got keep him ready, he's our backup quarterback," said Mullen. "But we'll have some things we can put him in the game to do." Such as, maybe, run the ball a la Relf? Only Saturday will show.
Prescott got to run a couple of times against JSU and scored on one called carry. Koenning said it made for a rowdy meeting room review. "When he scored his first touchdown he was really stoked! And it couldn't happen to a better kid, he told me Coach I got in the end zone. I told him I hope that isn't your only trip, I hope there's a lot more!"
At the same time the quarterback's job, more so this season, is to throw touchdowns. Here Prescott still must prove himself, and it won't be Jackson State Tigers across the line of scrimmage any more. What could be taken from a 1-of-4 first showing?
"He actually made some good reads in the throwing game," Koenning said. "There were a couple of times he got rushed. But it's the same thing we did with Tyler, get him in the game and get him some experience. You don't get better unless you play."
Getting better is a theme for the fellows Russell and Prescott will send on their routes. Reviews from opening night were generally strong for State's wide receivers and tight ends. Koenning didn't see many major missed assignments or false moves. But as he reminds, and with no disrespect meant, that was against a lower-division opponent.
Now Bulldogs have to not only run their routes right against a SEC defense, but get a lot more physical.
"Just like the NFL, separation gets closer with the toughest teams," Koenning said. "Obviously they are going to have good DBs, they show that on film. So we're going to have to separate and catch the football."
Almost overlooked in this emphasis on pitch-and-catch were the running backs. Just as hoped, the coaching staff got to spread the running around nicely. Starter LaDarius Perkins did lead the list with nine rushes, but just barely. If there was a surprise it was Derrick Milton getting second-turn and eight carries. All spring and preseason this redshirt freshman was usually the fourth back mentioned in squad discussions, at least partly due to an August 2011 knee injury that put him back of the pack.
By his second or third run though Milton was raising eyebrows with a mix of moves and muscle. He ended up with a game-best 65 yards and got to score a touchdown too. Perkins did punch across a pair of carries. After that it was redshirt Josh Robinson (5 for 35) and soph Nick Griffin (5 for 12) running out the evening, so to speak.
Was that a hint how State is approaching the SEC opener? "Coach Knox subs how he feels best," said Koenning. "You only get so many opportunities and you have to take advantage." If there was any first-game concern it was Griffin, who seemed a step slow getting going after handoffs compared to Milton and Robinson.
"The other two looked like the decision making was quicker," Koenning agreed. "He looked a little hesitant at times. But he hasn't played for a long time either."