Bulldog Spring Practice Notebook

With their first full scrimmage tomorrow, Mississippi State invested more of Friday's practice than usual in full-team work. This not only involved 11-on-11 sessions, though that did predominate; but a lot of 11-on-0 drills as Coach Dan Mullen polished plays to be run in full-hitting action Saturday (11:00am, Scott Field).

The day's emphasis was shown immediately after team-stretch, with goal-line offense and defense taking first turn. That was also the way Friday ended, again with football spotted on the two-yard line and the goal-line offense facing its matched counterpart of ones-on-ones, twos-on-twos, and so forth. Those beginning and ending periods did have the most contact by far.

*Before the concluding goal-line period though it was red zone offense and defense, and here the hitting got fun. Though it wasn't always the usual sort of tackles. On a pitch-play from the 20, RB Nick Griffin turned the corner and had a touchdown until he was stopped…by TE Brandon Hill who got blocked-back into Griffin by a double-team.

On pass plays from the 15, QB Dak Prescott found WR Robert Johnson and then TE Malcolm Johnson for touchdowns. A series later Prescott tried to come back with the same sort of throw to R.Johnson, this time LB Richie Brown was ready and got a hand in for the breakup. Prescott went back to the other (right) side the next play and found TE Hill for a catch and score.

*In goal-line offense, from the two-yard line, the first unit scored on five of their six attempts. This was with a set of three tight ends and two running backs behind Prescott, no wide receivers; so the defense could be packed-in tight and use an extra lineman.

The only failure was on the first snap, a handoff to RB Josh Robinson and straight-ahead blast. The blasting was by MLB Benardrick McKinney who came clean up the middle for a three-yard loss. After that though the first offense scored on: a catch by Hill, a dive of left guard by RB Ashton Shumpert, a Prescott naked bootleg pass to TE B.J. Hammond in back of the end zone; and an option-left with Shumpert getting to the corner ahead of three defenders.

*The second offense wasn't as effective against their counterparts. QB Damian Williams did keep around right end for a touchdown, and with Shumpert in a ‘fullback' position a pass play for him worked for the touchdown. The other tries were unsuccessful as the second defense came up clutch.

*The defensive lines were further revised today for another missing member of the top rotation. DT Chris Jones left Thursday's practice after having a thumb bent-back a little too far. Not a major injury by any means, there still was no sense risking any aggravation half-way into camp. So Jones joined first-team tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls as sidelined regulars for now. Though, the older Jones was more active while watching drills, stretching and jogging as if intent on returning to action ASAP. How much his still-gimpy left ankle needs risking though is another issue.

*Jones' absence opened the (spring) first-team door for DT Nick James to run with the top unit part of Thursday and all Friday. Not that the sophomore needed any more motivation; he has been one of the most active and emotive players in practices from any part of the squad. But first-team work today seemed to raise his game a little more, at least in energy. Efficiency, that still needs some work per his position coach (interview to be posted later).

But give James any sort of start and he will make an offense pay. Thursday, in a goal-line going out session, he simply bulldozed OC Dillon Day four steps into the backfield and right into #2 QB Damian Williams for a ‘sack' of sorts. A series later he swatted down a Williams pass at the line and did a little dance to celebrate, which his coaches are allowing.

*James has also been working with the first goal-line defense, which today featured a five-true linemen set. James was joined by his fellow ‘big' guy DT Curtis Virges along with current first-teamer DT Nelson Adams for the interior trio; Ryan Brown and Preston Smith were on the ends, as Smith has improved his run-game abilities this spring.

As for open-field sets, at times the defense looked like it was in a three-front…but wasn't. Instead one of the ends was split-out a step or two farther from the tackles than normal, to give them a different angle for pass rushing. The net effect is about the same as a three-man front though because Smith and Brown effectively become linebackers. Big ones.

Also, with a shortage of tackles at the moment, Virges pulled double-duty with the second and third teams in four-fronts; with Jordan Washington and Trent Simpson the other backups.

*The first offensive line has not changed through two work weeks. However for a couple of days now some younger tackles have been taking turns not just on the second unit rotation but with the starting interior three. Rufus Warren got some #1 snaps today at right tackle, Cole Carter at left tackle. Up to now Warren had usually been paired with LT Justin Senior as the 3rd/2nd team tackles; with Jake Thomas the second right tackle.

This doesn't mean any promotions just yet, because those four backups still split snaps with the second and third units again today. It is encouraging though that the first-teamers RT Damian Robinson and LT Blaine Clausell are getting to watch younger tackles go some snaps.

*The first receiver rotation has been consistent so far, with split ends Johnson and De'Runnya Wilson, slot Jameon Lewis, and tight end Malcolm Johnson. The second group has seen more shuffles through the second week, sometimes hinging on health. After some turf toe troubles WR Fred Ross is back and running #2 split end opposite either WR Joe Morrow or WR Fred Brown who are effectively even at this point.

The change for Friday was an increased share of second-team snaps for redshirt frosh Gabe Myles, at the expense of senior Jeremy Chappelle. Myles also was used more like Lewis in some running play, as a motion man for sweeps and reverses. He has not shown his high school champion quarterback's arm so far in spring, though. Nor has Lewis for that matter. Maybe at the scrimmage?

*The backup quarterback job is true soph Williams' since, after all, he not only played real games as a freshman but won one of them (Arkansas) and started another victory (Egg Bowl). So Williams is getting a number of turns running the first offense in his first college spring. The defense has made some things tough on Williams with pressures and turnovers.

And Williams has made things tough on himself, too. Thursday he dropped a couple of snaps in goal-line going-out drills. One bobble was snagged one-handed off the turf by DT Preston Smith who jogged across the goal line holding up his prize. Smith to be fair was an equal-opportunity harasser of quarterbacks, as in 1s-on-1s he had Prescott dead to rights. Smith settled for a two-handed tag in passing as if it were backyard football.

Friday, an end-around pitch from Williams for Myles was fumbled, unforced, and recovered by MLB Christian Holmes. Later in 3s-on-3s third QB Nick Fitzgerald unwisely forced a throw into the middle where S Justin Cox was waiting for the easy pick-six. Fitzgerald had a Friday touchdown on a scramble up the middle only to lose his grip extending the ball at the goal line. CB Jahmere Irvin-Sills got to the fumble first.

It isn't exactly a high-interest item this spring, but there is a fourth quarterback. Josiah Phillips took some Thursday snaps with the third offense, even keeping around right end for 15 yards.

*Punting was a little more iffy Friday due to southerly winds blowing right into the kickers' facemasks. After shanking his first try though P Devon Bell found his groove and despite the breeze was getting at least 35 yards—on very high kicks—each attempt and more often 40-45 yards. Lewis and Holloway fielded the punts though the wind also kept them moving around and up most times with tough reads.

This week saw some serious work on punt blocking too, though none were rejected the past two days. It wasn't for lack of effort either as three complete units of punt block/return are practicing these days and all are trying to impress the various coaches involved with this area. Mostly defensive players—safeties, cornerbacks, small linebackers—run these drills with the top team but the second and third groups have more receivers and running backs involved.

And because there was so much full-team drilling Friday, a couple of backup, walk-on kickers found themselves pressed into duty as ‘cornerbacks' during passing practice. Not that they were supposed to truly defend the wideouts, but to give the receivers a frame of reference for their moves and routes.

*There has yet to be any practice of full-field kickoff returns. Instead the ball is booted from around the 50 and not caught, with another ball flipped by a manager to one of the return duos. Those pairings today began with last year's starters Lewis and Robert Johnson; behind them were Will Redmond and Cox; then Robinson and Fred Brown.

*Thursday had a period of one-on-one pass protect/rush drills, and here the defense just about dominated. LB Richie Brown showed Shumpert something with a fake and spin-move that put him right into the ‘quarterback'. LB Matt Wells just plain out-ran his blocker off the whistle. And RB Brandon Holloway was entirely over-matched by LB Dezmond Harris. Holloway had better luck against LB Deandre Ward, but few could handle S Cox after the senior got off to that quick first step.

The best matchup was TE M.Johnson, using all his experience (and hands) to tie-up LB McKinney long enough and even rip off the defender's helmet at the end. RB Griffin lost his helmet once but only after successfully blocking LB Beniquez Brown.

*A good way to get practice juices going is a 3-on-3 running drill; two blockers and a back starting three yards behind, and three interior defenders awaiting. Since the ball carrier can only run within a very narrow are, the deck is stacked in defensive favor. About the only way to ‘score' was to find a rare crease and hit it before closing. But Shumpert did manage to bull through the white jerseys once for a real gainer after contact. No surprise to that, of course.

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