Notebooking The Bulldogs, Preseason Edition 2

Training camp has concluded, both scrimmages have been played. The Bulldogs have checked out of the hotel and returned to regular residences for the fall school semester which begins Monday. With this comes the next preseason stage as Coach Dan Mullen transitions his team from camp to more game-type preparations, beginning with a late Monday practice.

For today, Mullen and staff will finish evaluating the second scrimmage and present results to the players in meetings. Not only don’t Dogs have to practice Sunday, but they will get an afternoon treat with their annual ‘Beefin’ Up the Bulldogs’ dinner provided by Mississippi Cattlemans Association, the Mississippi Beef Council, First South Farm Credit, the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, and the University’s department of animal and dairy science. The campus office is as appreciated as those providing the protein for bringing good MSU ice cream for dessert.

For that matter the tentative schedule this week might be something of a reward for work done already. Mullen has listed—again, subject to change—practices Monday through Thursday with a couple of days off. This reflects to the relatively early start to camp back on July 31.

Monday evening will be the first time to ask Mullen his evaluation of Friday’s scrimmage and update any injuries, or at least clear up the rash of weekend rumors.

SHOW-OFF TIME: Next Sunday now, every Dog will be on Scott Field. And for a change so will every Mississippi State supporter who chooses, as part of Fan Day 2014. Not only has the event moved from the usual Saturday, the site also shifts and for obvious reason. It is time to open the gates (4:30) on the renovated, expanded, and dressed-up Davis Wade Stadium.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin has said this Wednesday, August 20, is the ‘hand over day’ when construction officials put the University back in charge. Though this does not at all signal the project is completed after close to two full years of labors. Stricklin has agreed a number of unspecified details will likely remain for addressing even after the August 30 kickoff. And as usual in any major project there will be a ‘punchlist’ of things discovered during the normal inspection process.

None of which will interfere with opening the stadium and season in style as every ticket purchased provides a seat for kickoff in two weeks. And all the big stuff will be operating, not least the matching videoscreen/scoreboard on the new north end zone structure. This was working in time for Thursday’s switch-on of the SEC Network on campus, in fact.

Bulldog players have twice scrimmaged inside the stadium, and some fortunate high school teams even got to play their weekend jamboree in the most splendid venue most will ever enter in their lives. A select few of them will be back in time wearing college gear, hopefully maroon and white.

Two scrimmages have only whetted Mullen’s appetite for a real game at DWS. “I’m going to be really excited when it’s full. That’s all I care about, when we fill the stadium with fans and they stay for the whole game and give us that home-field advantage. That’s really important for us.” As is extending the string of home-game sellouts which begun in October 2009. The last season ticket sales report was closing in on 47,000, though of course 11,000 of those counted are the seats reserved for students who will soon be picking up their ducats. An official ‘sellout’ target hasn’t been set just yet by State.

Regardless the opening-eve crowd is assured of setting the next camps attendance record, and is a fitting way to begin the 100th anniversary season of football on Scott Field. Bulldog Club members this past week got a nice memento of that in the mail, a magnetic sticker.

”It’s obviously spectacular,” says Mullen of the stadium as well as its setting. “And our fans are going to be wowed when they get in there and see it. We’ve done a pretty good job of having home-field advantage the last couple of years, hopefully this only increases that.”

MATURING MONSTER: The home fans will be watching lots of lineup things in the first game, not least where DT Chris Jones takes his initial stance of the sophomore season. It’s been a hot and even fun topic since spring ball, not least because Jones enjoys describing how he lobbies to be made a full-time end.

Funning aside, Jones is actually a pretty serious sophomore on stuff that matters much more than position labels. Call it cliché if you wish, but he has truly tried becoming a ‘student of the game’ after true freshman exposure to SEC football.

“Last year I honestly I didn’t know how to watch film,” admits Jones. “I was just listening in meeting rooms, and didn’t know what to look at. Over the summer watching film with those guys explaining to me I know a little more.”

That ought to frighten foes who had enough trouble coping with a kid playing on little more than raw ability. Take Jones’ freakish physical gifts, hone them with true college technique, and polish it all up with experience and learning, and State has one of the next great defensive linemen in the SEC. Probably the whole country.

For that matter Jones says the entire Dog d-line, all classes and ages and positions, have taken their studies seriously for 2014. Most especially when it comes to a 2013 weak link, getting quarterbacks down on the ground.

“We’ve got to look at film a lot more. Last year we didn’t have a great year sacking quarterbacks and this year we have to be more critical on that. Last year was more clogging gaps up and B-Mac and them making plays. Now we’ve got to get to it.”

Doing so means lots of extra practice and technical twists obviously. But the extra edge can come from detailed study. So, Jones says, “We’re really watching the tackles, the cadence, how they block people, if they’re heavy on their feet or are they leaning?”

Beyond that, ”I feel the talent isn’t the issue here. I feel we have all the key talents. The issue is staying healthy. I everyone is healthy I feel the sky is the limit for us.”

One of the elder Dogs, DE Preston Smith, expects passers to feel more pressure from the defensive line this fall. He also foresees much more mixing-and-matching with packages designed to give State better chances at sacks, including turning Jones loose from the edge. “Yeah, Chris is going to play defensive end in a lot of packages! I think they’re trying to focus on more guys.”

Smith, having gone through the career-cycle himself, is also a good judge of how his younger teammate is handling the maturation process. Such as getting to the right weight. “I see him trying not to eat as much as he used to, stuffing his face!” Smith jokes. More seriously…

“He’s more focused, he’s matured of course and learned his plays a lot better so he doesn’t come out and ask what to do. He’s not the freshman that came in just playing to get a feel for things.”

ALL BUSINESS, ALMOST: Some of it comes naturally with the assignment. Seriously, how many ‘nice’ guys thrive coaching defensive linemen in any league, much less the Southeastern Conference? At the same time Coach David Turner’s tough, demanding approach is just the way the man works, and was familiar already to Mississippi State folk after his 2007-09 stint here.

So when Turner returned to campus in January 2013 everyone cheered, perhaps even Dog d-linemen who were about to have the intensity turned up by several orders of magnitude. Almost everyone in his group survived the transition and those, along with the annual crop of new big bodies State prioritizes in recruiting (again, this is the SEC where defensive line play is paramount), are better ballplayers for it.

And while Turner keeps things clear and to the point verging on raw blunt-ness, a few of his players will—cautiously, hoping he doesn’t hear—tell you that the coach does have a sense of humor. Even that he will share a funny at practice… “Sometimes,” DT Nelson Adams reported. “Not often! But he will sometimes. As he says, it’s a time for everything.”

LOOSE THE JUICE: For a near-complete contrast, one need look no farther back in the lineup than the linebackers. Where coordinator and unit coach Geoff Collins is, shall we say, somewhat more emotive going about business?

And it is business to be sure, just with a little more flair. Or juice rather, the term Collins has made a them for the Bulldog defense in general and his group in particular. He is by no means softer on his squad, just more openly energetic and with the volume turned to 11. Or higher. Which is important to his players, they say, in assuring even the most basic drills stay amped to the maximum.

”You know, some days you might not feel it,” LB Beniquez Brown said. “And he brings the juice. So he brings everybody up with him and once he brings the juice it makes others bring the juice so it carries on down.”

BROWN TOWN: Sophomore Brown knows this season he has to bring more than energy to the field. Taking over the open ‘big’ outside linebacker spot he is called on to execute at a higher level than allowed a freshman backup, as well as continue developing into a group leader in his own right. To that end, Brown says he follows both the example and the advice of MLB Benardrick McKinney.

”Oh he’s been a big thing to my development. Watching him, how he prepares, just how he brings energy and excitement to practice every single day. Coming in behind him I want to do the things he does, like be the number-one linebacker in the SEC. Really I look up to him as a big brother and follow the things he does.”

Of course he has a same-class sibling already around, since Collins delights in calling Beniquez and soph MLB Richie Brown the ‘Brown Brothers’. And even if they are on the 1A and 1B linebacker units they have certainly practiced together and in situations this season will play together. Which brother is boss? Well, we’ll have to wait on that item.

FAMILIAR FACES: Mullen’s offensive staff was reorganized in spring, the first really major changes in his six years. Until now the defensive staff has seen many more changes, with safeties coach Tony Hughes the lone five-year familiar face. But after the 2013 exits and arrivals the four-man coach crew is returned for a second year together. This is a good thing per Preston Smith, even more for pre-season than in-season.

”A coach kind of changes the chemistry of players because everybody is trying to fight for playing time and for a spot in the coach’s eye. Now everybody knows what the coaches want and the coaches know what the players want. So it’s easy for everybody to come back and know what to work on.”

MEANWHILE… On the other side of the trench, work continues on settling the base group of offensive linemen Coach John Hevesy needs. Before now he has mandated a minimum of eight blockers; two centers, three guards, three tackles, and of course that most be interchangeable. That number reflects SEC road-game roster limits, remember.

For year-six though the goal is raising the ‘regulars’ roster, per OG Ben Beckwith. “Coach Hevesy wants ten guys to be ready to play, and right now it’s looking good.” This is thanks to the well-known returnees from ’13, and a collection of sophs, redshirts, even true frosh to work with. Beckwith gives an upbeat review on Devon Desper, Kent Flowers, Jake Thomas, and Cole Carter. And that doesn’t count a hopefully-healthy transfer Jocquell Johnson, signed out of juco to further increase up-front options. “Those guys have come a long way.”

Maybe the best part is Beckwith’s comment on camp competition. Instead of settling for second-team or backup jobs, he has seen some hungry younger guys. “Every position is a battle. Competition breeds excellence. “That’s how it should be, he says.

”You came here to play, you didn’t come here to be behind somebody. So everybody is trying to take somebody’s spot.” And as 2013 reminded, depth at these positions where contact is made every single snap is vital. “You don’t want anybody to get hurt,” Beckwith says. “But that’s a possibility every season.” As he knows well, since injury to opening-game starter OG Justin Malone last year opened the job up for Beckwith to start the next 12 games and establish his place in the 2014 lineup at either guard job.

Oh, and it isn’t just Hevesy pushing his linemen hard this preseason. There’s a voice right behind them Bulldog blockers listen too maybe even more intently. “When you go out there every day with Dak (Prescott) you can’t be a slouch,” Beckwith says. “Because he’s going to get on you.”

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