The Bulldogs came out in full-gear and were allowed, yes encouraged to get busy making contact with each other. It was not all-out tackling of course; that isn’t permitted per policy just yet. Still getting to collide made Mississippi State’s Thursday session more energetic in those contact periods.
The first was the traditional Oklahoma drills, one-on-one collisions off the whistle between matched opponents of offense and defense. Since not everyone has a chance to participate in that few minutes, how much good this really does a team technically is always a debate.
That it gets every mindset ready for Mullen’s sort of practicing is proven.
*Again, this early in camp full tackling to ground is not allowed. That seems to be tough on several defensive Dogs, the young safeties in particular. During one competition period S Mark McLaurin timed his arrival at WR Deddrick Thomas to coincide with the pass from QB Damian Williams, and drilled him from the helpless left side. While the defense cheered, an assistant coach met McLaurin and, it seemed, suggested he take it just a little easier on defenseless receivers at this early point of camp.
And during offense/defense QB Elijah Staley was lucky it was non-contact. Peters ran a safety blitz and got to the passer so quickly, he ran on past four full steps before the ball was ever thrown. A while later Peters was not so easy on QB Nick Tiano. On the same sort of blitz he didn’t put the passer down but did make enough contact to notice.
The rules are looser at the line of scrimmage and the contact inevitable. Any concerns how DT Nick James is handling his role as nose tackle in a three-man front seem unnecessary. During a 1s-vs-1s, James didn’t just tie-up both OC Jamaal Clayborn and LG Deion Calhoun. He bulled them both into the backfield and just about ‘sacked’ Williams in the process.
*Mullen also tends to save run-play offense and defense for when the pads are on. So yesterday was the first real look at how Mississippi State means to pound ground. There was no change in the running back order during unit drills or 7-on-7 interior drills; the seniors Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert were co-first teamers, then sophs Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee with the second group; and redshirts Alec Murphy and Nick Gibson.
What is changing this spring is an addition to the backfield set. Mullen has made clear to the offensive staff the Bulldogs have to run the football more often and more productively than in 2015. That’s regardless of who emerges as the starting quarterback. So State has been practicing a two-back set this week.
Typically for the first pair Holloway is to the left of the quarterback, Shumpert to the right; and the latter tends to work as a blocking back. Not always, Shumpert, as does Lee when paired with Williams, gets his share of carries too. But it’s unmistakable that those two are working in these sets as a more-or-less fullback type.
Fans shouldn’t read this as a complete change of philosophy. During both interior and full-team plays the single-back set was predominant. But the two-back set is intriguing since to run it means taking one wide receiver out of the offense, or even two to have a tight end added to the set.
*Also worth noting from interior drills, Thursday the seven-man defense was exclusively a three-man front. And for these plays the ‘viper’ linebacker would take a spot almost where a true four-front defensive end would stand, though the viper stays upright. A few times he would drop a half-step off the line of scrimmage but it was close enough to look like an offset even-front.
Now for passing plays, the viper flanked out a step or three farther to have a better angle to blitz from. Or, to read and drop back quickly into coverage. Either way it points to how versatile the fourth linebacker has to be, big enough to take on power run plays and agile enough to cover.
Also, once during interior run drills, D.Williams faked the handoff and flipped a short pass to freshman TE Christian Roberson…just to remind the defense to stay alert.
*The viper-Dogs are going to be in great spring shape. While the 7-on-7 pass-skel drills are run at one end of one practice field, the defensive linemen are doing unit drills at the far end of the next field. And during pass-skel vipers Will Coleman and Anfernee Mullins were rotating between the groups. Meaning, about a 100-yard jog back and forth repeatedly during the period.
*Mullen alerted media two weeks ago not to read much into where the quarterbacks stand by who goes first, second, third, and so on in drills. That was more true than ever Thursday.
For examples, in the normal pre-stretch series it was D.Williams running the first team first but stepping aside after a couple of snaps for Nick Fitzgerald to finish. Then it was Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano alternating with the #2 offense.
Fast-forward to the really interesting parts, the two 15-minute periods of full team, offense vs. defense. Again it was Williams going with the #1s for a whole series, and this time against the #1 defense. For 2s-on-2s it was Staley going first. When the sequence started over Fitzgerald had the #1 offense and Tiano the #2.
But as the day went on, even the veterans took turns with the #3 offense, more to the point the third offensive line.
*Mullen did not mind showing a little offensive trickery for the public. Twice in offense-defense a flea-flicker was called. The first was with Tiano, running #1 offense, taking the pitch-back from Shumpert and throwing down the middle for WR Gabe Myles. The throw was left a little short though.
A few snaps later it was Fitzgerald taking the pitch-back, from A.Williams, and throwing for a wide-open WR Malik Dear. The pass was too high though. But, each time the opportunity to make the play was there as the defense was surprised.
*There hasn’t been a lot of movement on the offensive line so far. The only switches came late in the day as redshirts Michael Story and Darryl Williams got a series in with the #2 offense at left and right guards.
Redshirt OC Harrison Moon had his high-snap tendencies of bowl camp abruptly return. In one series four of his six hikes sailed, which was tougher on shorter quarterback Williams. Even Fitzgerald had to leave his feet to pull one snap down. This might though just be adjusting for the first time to having a true nose tackle on top of him, as Moon adjusts to the position he was switched to last fall.
That might actually have been the issue. Because even veteran OC Clayborn and reserve Nick Proby both had bad snaps during 11-man play.
*The highlights of pass-skel were two really outstanding catches. WR Donald Gray went deep on the right hashes and had to adjust as Staley’s throw was farther outside than one of them expected. Gray managed to half-jump, half-fall backwards while making the grab for at least a 40-yard gainer.
Soon after on the same sideline but much closer to the line of scrimmage TE Justin Johnson went up with CB Chris Stamps hanging on him to snare the throw in-bounds. Though, a couple of snaps later Johnson must have been too open. Because a perfect throw from Fitzgerald went off his waiting hands.
By the way, the most consistent receiver in pass-skel was not a receiver at all. It was running back Williams, who caught on to about everything thrown his direction.
*The defensive two- and three-deep has been mostly consistent for three days. The only real switches Thursday were at cornerbacks with a lot of pairings playing on different teams. CB Cedric Jiles and CB Tolando Cleveland remain the first two in just about all drills.
But for offense-vs-defense there was some mixing. There was a series with Chris Stamps at first left corner, Chris Rayford on the right. And whether or not it was a response to an injudicious tweet he made earlier about transferring, CB Jamoral Graham began the practice as #3 cornerback on the right side. By the end of the session he was taking some turns as #1 left corner, though.
*Whatever is being done in the weight room has apparently included hand strength. On a counter-run in 11-man work Williams thought he had a crease…only to be snapped up short from behind. DT Cory Thomas grabbed the jersey tail with one paw and brought the back to a complete halt. The adidas jersey material held up under the strain, too.