Thursday Spring Football Notebook

Mississippi State held its tenth working day of spring with a Thursday session that was both a practice and a clinic. What looked like a couple hundred high school, juco and some college coaches too observed the Bulldogs at work as part of the annual MSU clinic.

There were probably twice as many such observers as there were practicing players, in fact. Which is a show of how much larger the spring event has become, to attract this much interest; as well as the investment Mississippi State makes. Coach Dan Mullen spoke to the assembled coaches in the Seal Complex dining hall even as practice was underway outside.

Visitors will get more Friday, including addresses by special guests. Mullen’s former mentor Urban Meyer, coach of the two-time national champions at Florida with Mullen on staff as well as this year’s Ohio State champs, is featured speaker. Also featured is former Penn State coach Bob O’Brien, another Mullen friend.

There will be no post-practice media meeting Friday, but that isn’t a big deal. Because the real action for Bulldog fans comes Saturday. Mullen puts the Bulldogs back on Scott Field around 11:30am for the second and most important scrimmage of spring camp. The scrimmage is open to public view.

*The newest member of the rehab team is WR Joe Morrow. The first-team wideout went to the sideline during Tuesday’s drills with what looked like a left arm problem after being taken down. He joined WR Gabe Myles in the pit full-time Thursday. Myles hurt his right ankle during last Saturday’s scrimmage and now is getting around on crutches.

Usual suspects CB Taveze Calhoun, S Kendrick Market, LB Dez Harris remain on the rehab team. But you knew that already.

*Not many seasons ago having a couple of front-rank receivers sidelined would have hobbled drills. Not now. Years of recruiting have stocked the wideout roster beyond recognition.

As noted Tuesday, WR De’Runnya Wilson stepped out of rehab and right back onto the first receiver rotation. He works on the slot-receiver side paired there with WR Fred Ross; on the side where TE Gus Walley is in that slot it is now—with Morrow sidelined—usually WR Donald Gray. Usually, because redshirt WR Jesse Jackson has been getting lots of #1 snaps at split end, too.

Otherwise Jackson was the second wideout on the tight end side while WR Fred Brown backs up Wilson. With Myles down now, true frosh WR Malik Dear is taking advantage. Fast. He was running #2 to Ross all day, and literally running at times too. The high school back doesn’t just run routes, he runs the ball out of end-arounds and sweeps and such.

It doesn’t hurt overall depth either that not only is Shelby Christy able to practice again, he’s doing it as a tight end now. But with the routes run, he certainly looks like a regular slot receiver matched with Dear or Ross from the other side.

Getting WR Deddrick Thomas back after a brief absence helps with depth too. He came up with a tough catch today when the throw from QB Damian Williams was low and Thomas dove, got hands between ball and grass, and rolled to keep control.

*There haven’t been any real changes on the first team lines of scrimmage, either side, during spring ball. Until Thursday, that is.

DT Nick James was running #1 at right tackle during full-team periods. That’s the spot held up to now by DT Nelson Adams, and purely on appearances Adams will still be first in fall. He did go with the 2s today most periods, but most figure this was a rotation sort of move to get junior James used to working alongside #1 LDT Chris Jones. They are the three veterans of the unit, after all.

So for Thursday the first defensive line was RE A.J. Jefferson, James, Jones, LE Ryan Brown; backed by RE Torrey Dale, Adams, RT Cory Thomas, RE Will Coleman. The third group was RE Jonathan Calvin, RT Braxton Hoyette, LT Lawrence Brown, LE Grant Harris.

On the offensive side the first-five hasn’t changed in a month. Things are a little more interesting on the second squad this week. For a second day redshirt Elgton Jenkins was #2 at left tackle, ahead of Cole Carter. The rest of the second line is LG Kent Flowers, C Jocquell Johnson, RG Deion Calhoun, RT Martinas Rankin. The latter runs with the 2s when senior OT Damien Robinson can’t participate.

The third unit was LT Carter, LG Michael Story, C Nick Proby, RG Jake Thomas, RT Ronald Cochran.

*Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz made his displeasure over the first scrimmage results very clear. His squad seems to have gotten the message. Because they have showed up stronger this week, and even a little chippier at times.

It began early with the first 20-minute period of 11-on-11, when DE Coleman got both hands up and on QB Nick Fitzgerald’s pass. If not for point-blank range and lots of wrapping on the hands Coleman could have caught the ball like a tight end or something. A couple of series later in 1s vs 1s, MLB Richie Brown saw what was coming and came rolling across to intercept QB Dak Prescott and keep running around the right end for a 25-yard touchdown return.

When RB Brandon Holloway tried to take a pitch-left, all he found at the corner was, well, no corner at all. S Deontay Evans came up hard to seal the slot and tackle Holloway for a loss. That made Diaz happy. So did the 2s vs 2s series when new CB Jamoral Graham either read right or guessed right.

Because before wideout Jackson had begun to make a stop and turn Fitzgerald fired for the designed spot. Graham got there first for a sideline pick. Then again, maybe the former wideout recognized a play he used to practice?

Even the third teamers got into the action. When a walk-on wideout ran a middle route not only was the pass a bit off; two defenders in short order pinballed the poor guy who stayed on the turf for a few moments. Also in 3s on 3s, WR DeShun Dixon paid for a catch made when LB Quadry Antoine slammed him down.

In the second full-team competition period, CB Chris Rayford picked off Fitzgerald in 2s on 2s. With the first teams going at it, Prescott got annoyed by both a protection breakdown and a little extra contact at the whistle. He tossed the ball right into a defensive lineman’s facemask, in fact. Later on DT Jones roared up the middle untouched for a sack of Prescott. No, not a true tackle sack, the passer stayed upright, but Jones got the message across.

Diaz still found things worth his wrath Thursday. Such as when #2 MLB Gerri Green let himself get screened away so Malik Dear could cut inside the left alley and take off for a TD. Diaz lit the redshirt ‘backer up on the field then and there.

A series later the #2 defense tried a run blitz, and RB Dontavian Lee made them pay by finding a crack behind RT Martinas Rankin’s sealing block and breaking one big. When that set of snaps was done, Diaz called the whole second unit over to the side behind a crowd of coaches and held a fast session of up-downs.

*For the position drills period the running back pecking order is Ashton Shumpert, Brandon Holloway, Aeris Williams, and Lee. For 11-on-11? Lee sure was getting a lot of turns with the first and second offense again, for running plays that is. If the period emphasizes passing, classmate Williams seems to get the nod. Not that Williams doesn’t haul the ball capably, of course.

It’s just that Lee fills the bill for a power runner with speed. Like, when he turned a simple counter into a quick break outside and long gain down the sideline. S Brandon Bryant wasn’t happy and gave his classmate a shot at the end to show it.

*Dan Mullen likes to be a hands-on coach. He certainly took a hand in one practice period. That was when a running back and receiver pair were going against a trio of defenders on outside plays to test contain and control. The threesome were the ‘sam’ outside linebacker, the cornerback on that side of the field, and a supporting safety.

With the quarterbacks busy in passing drills on the other field, Mullen was the one either making the option pitch…or in a couple of plays throwing a pass to the back, just to keep the defenders on their cleat-toes. Of course the ‘back’ was usually a walk-on or kicker, and defenders didn’t mind taking advantage to give a bit of extra pop on the stop. The quarterback-coach? Oh yeah, he was safe…though on a pass for #1 slot man Fred Ross, OLB Zach Jackson came over to tip the sideline throw away at the last instant.

Also as part of that drill, often two of the three were first-team defenders joined by a #2. That way everyone gets to work with everyone, instead of a straight rotation of 1s, 2s, etc.

*Speaking of quarterbacks… His work load is necessarily limited on 11-on-11 days since QB Elijah Staley can’t ramble and scramble as the right knee heals. But there is another use for his strong arm.

During punt coverage practices, sometimes one of the kickers actually, well, kicked the ball. But most times, Staley cocked and fired a high, long pass that served just like a punt. Better even in some cases since not only could he aim it to the return man; but Staley can get a heckuva hang time, too.

We noted this week that Graham and Gray look like the leading candidates to play missiles on punt coverage. Add two more to that practice list, in Rayford and S Jahmere Irvin-Sills.

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