Friday Football Preseason Notebook

Mississippi State wrapped up the initial five days of drills on the regular practice fields today. Now it is time for real training camp to begin, as Coach Dan Mullen takes the Bulldogs to the ‘Farm’ facility starting tomorrow.

Five days are scheduled on the special-use field on the southern end of campus. But, those include three sets of two-a-day sessions which also begin Saturday. So there will plenty of snaps down on the farm in the total seven practices. Also, the forecast predicts temperatures to hit an even 100 degrees Sunday and 99 on Monday.

It is exactly for these oppressive climate conditions that Mullen created the Farm. He has used it as a test of just how focused players can be when taken away from normal, i.e. routine settings, magnified with the challenges posed by nature. The working area is longer and somewhat wider than the three permanent practice fields so there is room to over-run plays…but then about halfway into a session nobody wants to run any farther than necessary.

Plus, just moving everyone out of their comfort (physical, mental, everything) zones is a great way to tell everyone things are suddenly very serious. The Farm week also begins after second summer semester exams end, and players are moved out of regular housing to temporary hotel lodgings. That actually serves another purpose. This is move-in weekend for most of their fellow (and as much to the point, non-fellow) students, with obvious potential for college boy distractions.

This way, it’s football all the time.

QB Dak Prescott has done this drill four times before. New Dogs have asked what the Farm is about. “You really can’t tell them much to prepare them,” Prescott said.

“So I really haven’t even talked about it. I told them it’s going to be hot, they’re going to be looking for a shade.” Which is not there, of course, unless the skinny shadow of a light post counts. Besides, Prescott smirks, “Don’t be looking for a gust of wind unless you want to smell cow manure or whatever!” In fact there is a very good chance that at some point during practices nearby herds of campus cattle will top the nearby hill to watch the Dogs at work. Or maybe not.

Regardless, “It’s the Farm, it’s what camp’s about,” said Prescott. “I’m excited about my fifth and final one and making sure we have a good time out there.”

*Friday was the third session in full pads. Contact was mostly controlled since things get really serious Saturday. Still there was a bit of hitting during the drills periods, beginning with the usual ‘Oklahoma’ segment.

The best pound-for-pound matchup looked to be redshirt freshman LB Gerri Green going against junior RB Ashton Shumpert. Or sounded to be actually as the initial contact was impressive. Neither lost because both stayed up but a point was made.

Earlier Green got to take advantage of a somewhat smaller Dog, as the 243-pound linebacker only had to stop 160-pound RB Brandon Holloway. Need you ask the outcome?

Quarterbacks participate in these Okie drills too, though they have less hitting to fear in their green jerseys. To his credit transfer LB Traver Jung, a new kid in camp, made sure Prescott knew he was around by grabbing him rather than hitting State’s star. LB Zachary Jackson wasn’t quite as kind to QB Damian Williams, giving him something of a nice pop.

RB Aeris Williams showed LB J.T. Gray a slick move in the drill, conning the linebacker into lunging one way while the back dodged the other. The next time the two were paired, Gray just grabbed wrestled Williams to the turf after the whistle.

*Bulldog wide receivers are taught to block almost as much as they are to run routes at this stage of camp. One period had the two receivers on either side of the down linemen taking on a pair of defensive backs. As in, the split end and slot receiver to one side would take on a cornerback and safety respectively; and on the other side the tight end and split end were also matched on a safety and corner.

Because it was only about blocking, no other skill personnel were involved. Mullen himself played quarterback for every snap, either side, and did so running an option offense. His pitch man though wasn’t a back, not even a receiver.

It was a special teams member imitating a running back. In a couple of cases, not too badly either. K Logan Cooke was probably the best-rounded of the bunch in both moves and muscle. K Devon Bell was the shiftiest in getting past the blockers and tacklers and breaking out. And nobody trumped SN Winston Chapman for bulling into the knot of bodies.

However, Cooke drew a bad matchup once. It was against some walk-on defensive backs, eager to impress, and they made a point by hitting the kicker harder. The older DBs knew when to dial it back.

*Since practice observation has been limited to drills periods, and no team-on-team work, tracking the depth chart moves has been based entirely on two-minute work by the offense or position practices by the defense. Still Friday showed a couple of changes to the pecking order from Wednesday, both on offense.

WR Joe Morrow moved up to the first rotation Friday, at split end opposite WR De’Runnya Wilson. That bumped WR Fred Brown down to the second team, behind Morrow and opposite WR Donald Gray who himself has moved up from third team during the week.

For the first round of two-minute it looked like another change was in the making. #3 OT Martinas Rankin worked with the second team at right tackle, leaving freshman OT Evans Wilkerson now on the third unit.

But after team stretch period, in another quick round of two-minute, the old order was back. OT Damien Robinson returned to #2 at right tackle with Rankin third and Wilkerson fourth.

*Meanwhile QB Nick Fitzgerald continues to run the second offense, ahead of veteran QB Damian Williams and fellow redshirt QB Elijah Staley. During passing drills Fitzgerald was looking sharp, too, especially on flat crossing patterns. By contrast Staley struggled, leaving the ball either behind or high of his targets ten yards away.

*Wideout Wilson was applauded by coaches during the Media Day session for blocking a punt yesterday. And it was a clean block, too, rejected on the run with both hands.

The only cautionary note: it was during an indoors practice. Meaning, the punt was angled a good bit lower than would have been the outdoors case. Still the effort was laudable and shows the sort of effort his coaches have been asking.

*It’s been an injury-free week so far, though of course real hitting only starts Saturday. As of Friday afternoon the only player occupying the rehab pit was CB Cedric Jiles, and he wasn’t wearing any braces or wraps to indication the condition.

LB Dezmond Harris has participated in drills but his contact-work status is uncertain at this point. CB Taveze Calhoun and S Kendrick Market, also coming back from 2014 season injuries, appear to be cleared for most and maybe all activity by now.

*Saturday’s two-a-day and Sunday’s practice are both closed. Nor will there be any post-practice press conference with coaches nor players. So, enjoy the weekend, fans.

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