Week-One Bulldog Spring Football Notebook

A day after putting on the full gear for the first time, Mississippi State cranked up contact for Saturday's fourth practice of spring. And they did it right, starting with individual matchups of offense/defense. It pitted offensive tackles against defensive ends; guards and centers against D-tackles; linebackers on tight ends, safeties on running backs, and cornerbacks on receivers.

From there it was full team-on-team for a lengthy period, the offense snapping at or inside the 20-yard line going out for a number of scripted snaps before starting over with a new unit. Both first teams were unchanged from Friday or for that matter opening day.

But as drills progressed, a pair of nominal #2s moved in to first-squad positions to get better tests. On offense it was at tackles, as RT Damien Robinson was replaced by Jake Thomas; and LT Blaine Clausell by Cole Carter. On defense it was both #2 cornerbacks getting to run with the starters, Will Redmond taking over for RCB Jamerson Love and Cedric Jiles for LCB Taveze Calhoun.

There was some similar mixing-and-matching with the second and third teams, mostly the receiver rotations and safeties. On the offensive front RT Rufus Warren and LT Justin Senior got to work more with the second team than before.

*Grouped with those three offensive lines were, in order, tight ends Malcolm Johnson, Artimas Samuel, and B.J. Hammond who is listed as a wide receiver but has played tight to the line so far. It would be a fourth but TE Gus Walley's availability through one week has been on-and-off, mostly the latter. When ‘on' though the sophomore does show a knack for the middle-route and good hands.

*With the first linebacker group of MLB Benardrick McKinney and OLBs Beniquez Brown and Matthew Wells well-established the competition has been more on the second group. Or alternate group to be more accurate since State likes swapping whole units during games. Certainly MLB Richie Brown is no ordinary ‘backup' and Zach Jackson gets as much work as Wells on that side.

The newcomer to the first-six is redshirt freshman Dezmond Harris, who is helping give B.Brown a healthy spring push as well as being groomed for heavy 2014 duty. And there is an entirely new linebacker in the third unit, as safety Quadry Antoine is working behind Harris at outside. The other threes are more familiar with Christian Holmes at middle and Ferlando Bohanna outside.

When Bohanna practices, that is. His status for the season remains uncertain because the senior had to miss last season with two concussions. He came to practice last week wearing a heavy padding on the outside of his helmet, in something of a turtle-shell pattern. This is not a quick lash-up but a certified piece of equipment approved for college practicing.

*Running back is interesting to watch by-turns. Josh Robinson is the clear #1 of course, though Saturday he didn't last long before apparently tweaking the right hamstring and taking most of the day off as a precaution. So who took over? It wasn't entirely clear if judged by snaps and teams, but RB Ashton Shumpert did seem to get a few more turns with the top team than RB Nick Griffin.

Shumpert certainly has the strength for the position. On one pass play he turned right tackle almost, tying up two rushers long enough for QB Dak Prescot to roll the other way and hit WR Jameon Lewis on a deep strike. But it wasn't all easy going for the big back, as later he was overmatched in a collision with classmate and DT Chris Jones. The very next play Shumpert was stopped in the backfield by S Justin Cox for loss.

*The fourth back isn't yet listed that way, but Brandon Holloway is doing a lot more carrying than catching for now. Just not as a true tailback or such; his typical rushing play begins with him flanked-out and in-motion for the sweep handoff. At one point the offense showed a two-back set with Grifin deep and Holloway in motion.

Holloway's best Saturday moment was when he read blocking right and bounced outside right end for a good gainer. This frustrated #2 defensive tackle Nick James who yelled out "Run it down the middle, man!"

*Letting the defense make real contact certainly changed the game for the offense. Passes completed routinely on Friday suddenly became far more difficult or even impossible. After several frustrating series looking for someone, anyone to haul in a ball, Prescott finally went to his safety valve of TE Johnson for a ten-yard connection. Against the first defense Prescott just underthrew his man—or more likely his man ran too far without cutting—because Redmond was there. And catching the pass for a pick-six. Much later Prescott held fire a little too long waiting for Shumpert to get in the right place. He was open by then but CB Jamerson Love had read it and got in front for the pick-six.

QB Nick Fitzgerald thought he had a little opening to slip the ball over the middle to WR Gabe Myles. LB Jackson got to the throw first. And S Deontay Evans was able to intercept QB Damian Williams for a touchdown return, too, after the sophomore tried forcing a throw through coverage.

*Williams was more fortunate during a drill than he knew, that it was a no-tackle day. Because his blind-side was completely consumed by charting DT James who could have buried the passer before the pass if freed.

*Limiting contact didn't keep some veterans from yielding to spring fever. CB Cedric Jiles thought he had RB Josh Robinson squared-up for a stop on the edge. He didn't as Robinson won that particular collision.

But on Friday, Jiles had gambled on a deep, deep strike on the right sideline, timed his reach wrong and saw WR Fred Brown come down with a catch that would have scored a 70-yard touchdown. Brown chose to remind the whole cornerback crew of his ‘win' by jogging back that way and spritzing the group from his water bottle.

*Talk about different days. On Friday, WR Robert Johnson and Prescott had it going together with a series of excellent connections. Saturday it was a really different story. Johnson had the dropsies on even easy throws. And once he let a Prescott throw go off his hands where CB Taveze Calhoun could intercept it.

*By contrast, Saturday was a better turn-of-fortune for WR Joe Morrow. The junior began camp in the third wideout rotation and didn't move up until the fourth day, partly because WR Fred Ross was absent with a toe issue. Whatever the reason, Morrow made the most of a fresh chance to have a great day in both full-team and pass/skel and eventually he was working with the first offense again. He consistently beat linebackers or safeties getting to the sideline for impressive grabs from all passers.

*There were some adjustments to the wide receiver rotations from Friday to Saturday. Not in the slot, where WR Jameon Lewis, WR Jeremy Chappelle, and Myles stayed in order. WR Shelby Christy, limited the first two days, got a lot more involved the last two and by the end of Saturday had taken more second-team snaps.

*An interesting Friday drill was the ten yard out play, with the receiver cutting hard at the numbers for (hopefully) the catch; then trying to make another step and stay in bounds. WR De'Runnya Wilson didn't have any issues catching the ball, but with his long stride he caught the sideline often as not. Of course his two clutch grabs in the Egg Bowl on such routes remind the receiver knows how to handle himself. Showing the best such footwork in drills was WR Fred Brown, who also had a big Friday in pass/skel and full-team settings.

*It wasn't all just running routes and catching passes for the wideouts this week. There was a whole period devoted to interior running drills so the receivers could practice downfield blocks. This focus also showed in other periods where bubble screens were thrown so one could catch and a teammate try to tie-up one and even two defenders.

During one of those bubble screen plays Wilson executed his block well enough before checking up and shaking the right hand. He forgot the play was still live, but DT Nelson Adams reminded him with a thump to the back to never ever let down guard until a whistle is heard.

*Mullen waited a couple of days before putting placekicking to more than brief tests. Prescott is the holder for both specialist, veteran Evan Sobiesk and walk-on Westin Graves; while of course old hand Winston Chapman hikes for everyone.

On Saturday both kickers took the same turns from the same spots. Graves had his first try at the shortest distance, snapped from inside the five, blocked—it looked like Ryan Brown got a hand on the ball. He'd also had one blocked on Friday. Graves was able to hit other Saturday tries from 37 and 42 yards, as did Sobiesk. And both missed from 47, though Sobiesk was much closer and longer as would be expected.

*The most impressive individual Saturday wasn't on offense or defense. It was P Devon Bell. He was crushing his kicks consistently and for big distances. And, as Mullen commented later, for a regular hang-time in the 4.5 second range which very much plays to Bulldog coverage strengths. In two days Bell only had one ‘poor' kick of 30-something yards. However his protection cracked once as TE Johnson came of the left (his side) end to deflect another punt.

By Saturday the punt return corps had been trimmed to a trio, led of course by Lewis with cornerbacks Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles taking the second turns. Holloway had worked here the first three days, then on Saturday found himself playing punt coverage instead.

*While waiting for his boss to finish a pre-practice team talk Saturday, defensive line coach David Turner was at the other end of the field with a group of graduate assistants from both sides of the staff. After referring to Floyd Womack by his life-long nickname ‘Pork Chop' the coach was inspired as he looked at the rest of the crew. "What do we have here?" he called out. "Pork Chop, T-Bone (looking towards Tobias Smith)? And to another, younger aide "And Boston Butt?" Which Turner changed in a moment to ‘Rib Tips'. At least this signals the GA team is already well-provided for protein.

*Two of Turner's pupils ought to be well-rested. DT Kaleb Eulls and DT P.J. Jones have yet to practice as both are nursing bum wheels. Eulls wears a heavy wrap on his right lower-leg, Jones the familiar plastic boot on his left.

More encouragingly, OG Justin Malone is gradually getting into action again after the long layoff for his August 31 foot/ankle injury. He hasn't taken a snap against a defender yet but that day seems to be getting closer. For now veteran Ben Beckwith has right guard in good hands, while true soph Jamaal Clayborn works at left guard on the first team.

*The week-two schedule is for practices Tuesday (4:15), Thursday (4:00), Friday (4:00), and a 11:00am Saturday scrimmage on Scott Field.

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