Saturday Bowl Practice Notebook, Dec 14th

BIG NICK: He's already hard not to notice, as even within a group of big guys Nick James stands out. This morning though the defensive tackle's presence was not just seen but heard. A lot, and loudly.

James apparently has adapted well to the early-season choice by coaches to sit him out after being activated as a true freshman. This wasn't the normal career track to be sure and many wondered how the talented but inconsistent kid would handle the challenge. Just fine, it seems, as working on the scout team all season gave time to mature and learn the discipline of SEC line play (see Mullen comments in practice Q&A).

But getting back into action with the varsity is allowing James to let the personality show through in a much more positive way. Certainly louder too; during sled drill James took credit for moving the four-man mechanism alone, raising both arms in triumph and howling. This and other antics had his line-mates amused, to the point DT Kaleb Eulls commented for all to hear ‘D***, Bobby Bouchet!' During 11-on-11 passing drills James made some strong moves through second- or third-team blocking to pressure the passer. In fact freshman Nick Fitzgerald was lucky to duck at the last possible instant or his bell would have been rung by James' forearm as the tackle ran past.

There was one touchy moment when DT Curtis Virges wrapped James at waist level and literally lifted him off the ground; but James got the temper under control quickly and work proceeded. With what State has already to work with in this unit, a smarter and sharper James could turn the Bulldog front into one of the very best…not just in the SEC but the nation.

Related to this, DT Quay Evans was not at today's practice. His status is not reported at this time.

Starting DT P.J. Jones watched most of the day with a protective boot on his left foot, as he's dealt with the bum ankle most of the season but made the games. So today's defensive line depth chart was Denico Autry-Kaleb Eulls-Chris Jones-Preston Smith the first team; Ryan Brown-Curtis Virges-Nick James-A.J. Jefferson second; John Harris-Nelson Adams-Jordan Washington or James-Corvell Harrison the threes.

NEW FACEMASK: Fitzgerald is the newest member of the Bulldog roster, having graduated early from Richmond Hill in Georgia. He has yet to take a college class, that starts in January, but he is free now that the fall semester is finished to practice all bowl camp. Fitzgerald cannot dress for the Liberty Bowl per rule as he is not an active player.

Having just gotten a look at Mississippi State's playbook Friday, the rookie got thrown into instant action Saturday as the second-team quarterback. Of course QB Dak Prescott was present but only participated in drills and not the full-team work. QB Damian Williams was the first-team triggerman, with Sam Cowart and Josh Hand the reserves. Fitzgerald wore #7, which is not a number conflict as RB Nick Griffin did not practice.

Unfamiliarity or not Fitzgerald practiced with poise in the drills periods. And he's easy to notice as already the tallest of the healthy quarterbacks, now that senior Tyler Russell is out after shoulder surgery. But, the green—and not just his jersey—showed when Fitzgerald tried drilling a pass through traffic on arm-strength alone. CB Taveze Calhoun made him pay with a pick.

MOVING IN, MOVING OVER: He won't get to finish his fine college career in a bowl game, after surgery a week ago to fix the left knee ligament torn in September. But FS Nickoe Whitley came out to watch practice, on crutches, and was greeted by his fellow defensive backs.

This left an opening in the starting lineup, with Deontay Evans filling it today alongside SS Kendrick Market. Initially the backup safeties were Quadry Antoine and Kivon Coman, with Brandon Wells and Tyrell Miller in reserve.

But when 11-on-11 period began, cornerback Justin Cox was playing second-team safety along with Antoine. And the player who began this season as the alternate safety is now elsewhere, as Dee Arrington has moved to outside linebacker.

With starting OLB Deontae Skinner a senior, his position with the first unit was played by Beniquez Brown and Arrington backing him on the second squad.

The defense has lost one player to the other side of things. After redshirting at cornerback this fall Gabe Myles has moved to offense as a slot receiver. He will also work as a ‘wild' quarterback reports are, a task he filled so well when playing scout team for the Texas A&M game in mimic of a famously mobile playmaker.

The change looked good today as against the second defense Myles streaked the right sideline for an in-stride catch and big gainer. Myle's move to the inside receiver position allows Brandon Holloway to go work one of the outside receiver positions, today on the same field side as the slot-man. So backing starting slot Jameon Lewis now is Michael Hodges, Myles, and an unidentified walk-on.

INJURY UPDATES: TE Gus Walley had to miss the whole season after an elbow injury in the early days of preseason. He is back to practicing with the arm wrapped and braced, yet made a fine catch just as he had done often in August.

TE Brandon Hill, recovering from his mid-season injury, watched practice with a protective boot on the right foot.

WELL, IT IS A FUTBALL: Cornerbacks Coach Deshea Townsend applied an interesting twist to his unit's drills. Instead of just letting corners go one-on-one for a lobbed ball and see who could tip it away, the coach had them square-off as if for a tip-off. And it wasn't a football or even basketball, but a soccer ball used.

The results would have Bulldog basketball trying to get some of those guys on the court, maybe even for tipoff. Starters Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun acquitted themselves well, but the best hops belonged to Will Redmond and Cox. They were paired for the ‘finals' and sideline judgement gave Redmond a very narrow win.

Use of the speckled ball wasn't an accident either. Dan Mullen began watching UEFA years ago and appreciates the European game's style. In fact, when reminded of that this morning during the drills Mullen responded that "Yeah, there's a Premiership game going on now!"

INDIVIDUALS: Maybe the best catch of the day came on a double-tipped pass originally meant for Jameon Lewis. Somehow RB Josh Robinson got under the carom for a sideline reception…The annoyed defense came back the very next play to force a turnover as Redmond got an interception…In full-team play CB Cedric Jiles was able to strip the ball and return it for a touchdown…CB Jahmere-Irvin Sills made the first interception of 1-on-1 passing drills…RB Derrick Milton had some fumbling issues on rushes, but he turned a sideline catch from Williams into a touchdown against the varsity defense this day…Williams had a throw batted up, and DT A.J. Jefferson came down with it.

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