Friday Football Practice Notebook--Offense

Mississippi State’s second week of preseason practicing peaks Friday evening with a closed scrimmage. This is the second and last game-type session Coach Dan Mullen has scheduled for 2014 camp, and for that matter almost the end-point of camp itself. Two-a-days are done, and there is a single practice set for Saturday.

So the Bulldogs will be moving out of their temporary hotel headquarters over the weekend, and transitioning back to regular lodgings in time for Monday’s start to the fall semester at Mississippi State. With no media interviews today, nor any post-scrimmage availability, a selection of notes and quotes from the previous two weeks follows focusing on offense today.

PICKING UP THE PACE? It’s been something of a cat-and-mousey topic since camp opened and since a Bulldog came out and proclaimed the offensive ambition was “Snapping the ball every 30 seconds, that’s what we want to do.” This came from a veteran lineman (guard, senior, wears #66) who probably oughtn’t be credited with the quote now, because ever since then everyone downplays that tip-off.

Not denied really, just downplayed that and any indications Mississippi State might follow the trend towards hurry-up as the full-time attack. Going that speed would certainly go against Mullen’s own preferences and history; while he doesn’t want a plodding pace exactly this coach is not a fan of frenzied offense when not necessary. The main reason being to limit total snaps on offensive linemen to 70 or so most games. The un-said reason of course is reduced risk to quarterbacks.

Mullen does have an obligatory two-minute offense, practiced every day and something the Dogs are comfortable with. But getting the ball hiked every time in under a half-minute? Wellllll…

”It depends on the team you have, and what you’ve been able to do,” Mullen says. Not just on offense either; when the defense is strong this coaching staff likes to let them dictate terms on the field. Because Mullen says, “In the end, the program is based on playing great defense.” And the 2014 defense can be great indeed, reinforced it appears by first-class punting.

Yet couldn’t that very fact encourage the offense to take a few more chances, since the defense can cover for more mistakes? Even more, with a dual-threat quarterback of Dak Prescott’s ability and many more and better tools for utilizing, why not put pressure on opposing defenses by hiking the ball a few more times per game? Mullen does seem to be gauging such a gameplan, without coming right out and saying so.

”We’ll see how things play out. There are times when you have to do that. There are teams, when it really starts rolling that way, that feel really comfortable in the two-minute offense and just go run it all the time. For us, we like to control the tempo of the game.”

But then, controlling tempo is not necessarily slowing the snap pace, is it? So stay tuned for opening day, since it is unlikely any Dog will be offering further clues before then.

COMMITTEE CALL: Prescott has the final say on calling plays of course, and the degree of freedom—as well as responsibility—given Bulldog quarterbacks counters impressions of Mullen as some sort of control freak. Sure, the quarterback better be ready to explain any changes upon return to sideline, and this holds just as true when adjustments works as when they fail by the way.

This does make 2014 play-calling even more interesting than usual though. The January departure of his five-year coordinator prompted Mullen to adjust the offensive staff with he himself now the coordinator in both title and reality. The other shifts were really a return to his 2009-10 approach with a titled coordinators for run (line coach John Hevesy) and pass (receivers coach Billy Gonzales) games.

Their input now goes directly to the boss (Hevesy will be in the press box) rather than an assistant. Gonzales, who has worked with Mullen twice before, likes this revised approach. “Coach Mullen in my opinion is one of the best play-callers around. He’s been calling plays for almost ten years now, he’s won two national championships doing it and he’s one of the winningest coaches in the history of Mississippi State football. So if it’s not broke don’t fix it. I think as a team and as a staff we’re all on the same page.”

They ought to be. Gonzales and Hevesy have worked with Mullen at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, and now State; while backs coach Greg Knox and tight ends coach Scott Sallach came to MSU in 2009 with the then-new head coach. And of course the lone newcomer, quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, was recruited by Mullen at Utah back in the day.

AWAITING HIS TURNS: Not all uncertainty if negative. QB Damian Williams even embraces it in one way. “I honestly don’t know my role will be this year. But I’m ready for anything and when my number is called I’ll be ready.”

OK, so Williams’ situation is not truly ‘uncertain’. He expects to play and he will play, which is quite a comment on Mississippi State’s approach to developing quarterbacks. Remember that for the #2 triggerman to get on the field means taking a true star off it. But the true sophomore has earned his own opportunities thanks to 2013 heroics against Arkansas and Ole Miss when Prescott was sidelined by injury.

Williams is confident enough now to admit though, had he known in August 2013 he would start the all-important Egg Bowl “I definitely would have studied a lot harder! But I wouldn’t have backed down from it.” Nor did he in November. Now Williams is seriously studying his playbook too thanks to intense freshman experience and it is paying off in a second August.

”It’s definitely different. Last camp I had no idea what I was doing, just out there trying to hit the open guy. Playing last year definitely helped my confidence and I’m able to be comfortable out there and have fun and play the game I love.”

Eyebrows nearly disappeared last September when raw rookie Williams subbed-in during game two. The wisdom of playing him immediately was shown at do-or-die time in November. Now here in ’14 there are again two veteran quarterbacks on the roster, and Mullen makes clear a third will be developed…maybe even a fourth since there are two true frosh practicing in Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley.

“Those are two great guys,” Williams says. “They process information well.” Plus, all three of the youngest triggermen have found good fits with still-young coach Brian Johnson. “He understands what we go through because he just went through it a couple of years ago. So we can definitely relate to him. It’s good for us. He’s on us hard but he definitely understands where we’re coming from.”

Johnson’s boss is using Williams’ 2013 experience as an example to keep these two frosh on their toes today. “During training camp last year nobody thought Damian would start the Egg Bowl,” Mullen says. “He started and got a win as a starter. Our jobs are to make sure we get guys ready for those situations. We try to do that through the course of the whole season, you never know when some huge moment is going to come on us and we need to make a play.”

POWER PLAYER: Any group of 100-plus persons, and personalities, will rarely be unanimous on any subject. Yet the Bulldog locker room is pretty much unanimous on one question: who is the strongest player on the team?

By acclimation, it is OG Jamaal Clayborn. Even DT Chris Jones goes along with the club consensus, though he tries to joke he can go pound-for-pound with Clayborn in weight work. Much more seriously though… “Oh, it’s shocking! He’s a freak man, he can go in there without lifting for a week and do 400 pounds. It’s nasty. I look at him and just go whoa!”

There ain’t no whoaing-up by Clayborn in the weightroom, and for the record the sophomore doesn’t take any weeks or even days off. “I always want to get stronger,” he says, even as he agrees with the squad’s strongest-ranking. “Pretty much, I am.” What Clayborn can’t say at the moment is any specific numbers for the squat, bench, clean, etc.

”Honestly I couldn’t tell you. Probably whatever they put on the bar right now! I never really maxed-out before. “I just like to do whatever the strength staff wants me to do.”

The thing is, Clayborn is a relative late-comer to real strength work having started serious lifting only in high school. Now, “The weightroom is probably my favorite place.” No prizes for guessing what is not; Clayborn doesn’t claim any special prowess out there on the track.

What matters more than any numbers though is Clayborn’s candid appreciation of the place mighty muscle has on a football field…and what it doesn’t do. He could bench-press a corner of the Seal Complex and it wouldn’t matter if he can’t execute off the snap.

”Exactly, exactly. So the biggest thing with me is just getting the fundamentals down pat. Because strength can only take you so far. So you have to be able to have the mental aspects of the game to excel at this level.”

By the way, it isn’t just Clayborn not revealing his weightroom numbers. The voluble Jones is uncharacteristically shy on this subject. “I’m not going to say!” Jones laughs, admitting, “I’m not the strongest guy. I’m more speed!”

TALL TARGETS: When Mullen read his first Bulldog roster way back in December 2008 some hard facts glared back. Among them was a group of wide receivers not only short on numbers, but short period. It’s taken five years of recruiting to finally assemble enough route-runners to meet this offense’s needs. And, to raise the altitude as much as the aptitude.

Now State has wideouts easier to spot downfield. WR De’Runnya Wilson is the, ahem, standout at 6-5 with WR Joe Morrow a solid 6-4. It’s worth noting that two seasons ago Robert (6-1) and Malcolm (6-2) Johnson would’ve been the big guys of the group. Now they look up to most of the younger guys in the group. And even more so to the newer tight ends with 6-4 Gus Walley and B.J. Hammond, and especially 6-7 Darrion Hutcherson.

What does it realistically mean? Well for one thing, Wilson expects better results from pass plays around the end zone. “That’s one of our team goals. Every time we get into the red zone we should be able to score. With the ability I have, Darrion being 6-7, we should be able to do anything to score on the goal line.”

Hutcherson has been of particular fan fascination this preseason, along with frustration that he and the whole team have only been observed a single hour all camp. But word has a way of getting out and the juco tight end is a hot topic indeed. Every interview has teammates comparing him to NFL big-body Jimmy Graham.

“Just looking at him with his pads on makes me look smaller!” Wilson says. “He’s moving and he has good footwork. I live with him and I tell him every day you have to work hard and make a name for yourself.”

The depth chart took a hit last week when WR Shelby Christy (6-3) was lost for the year with a knee ligament injury. This had to frustrate the second-year frosh since he was redshirted in ’13 after a minor camp injury. By November, his scout team play had coaches excited for this season but now Christy is delayed again. On the positive side, WR Fred Ross seems recovered from his late-season shoulder injury and ready to be a 2014 factor.

None of the healthy receivers can afford much down-time though. Soon practice snaps will be reduced to prepare for a real game and the rotation will settle down. Even a rising star like Wilson has to keep pushing, and while he’s over his spring hip issue the soph still shows a little fragility at times in practices. Competition for first-team stature does have a way of making a guy feel better, though. And all this depth on the wideout roster?

”It shows the recruiting is going well,” Wilson says.

SHORTER STUFF, BIGGER PLAYS? Height is not everything, to be fair. Defenders might have a harder time seeing WR Jameon Lewis but be assured they are watching for him intently after a big breakout 2013 season. Lewis’ explosive skills and knack for operating in traffic—doubtless due to his high school quarterbacking career--make him ideal in the slot receiver role.

So there may be taller targets out there. Or as Prescott jokes, “We don’t throw too many jump balls to Jameon! But he’s a guy in one-on-one situations where he is going to get open. And we have to get him the ball quick so he can make guys miss, and he’s good in space.”

If it sounds strange to think of rotating Prescott out for a series or two, why would a Lewis ever leave the field? Because there are young talents preparing for their turns at slot receiver action. A freshman fall at cornerback didn’t slow WR Gabe Myles’ spring development on offense and reports of his camp production are encouraging. He, like Lewis, is yet another prep quarterback signed by Mullen’s staff for a different college position.

Then there is Jamoral Graham, the true frosh who even in a strong depth chart might be too talented to sit this season. It was touch-and-go getting him onto campus in time for camp but the effort was worth it. Graham immediately moved to slot receiver behind Myles, and even if those two don’t get the same snaps as Lewis they show who will step right in after the senior graduates.

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