As was the case in last week's hitting days, Wesley Carroll was the only varsity quarterback wearing no-touch red. Besides not needing to risk contact with the veteran starter, Carroll doesn't require added pressure to push himself anyway. Nor did the offensive staff give him many series today; just two in fact, against the first defense. Carroll moved the chains three times, usually on quick-hit throws in the flats to Co-Eric Riley, to get the ball down to the 24-yard line. There the defense guessed right and blitzed, with WLB Terrell Johnson—promoted today with Dominic Douglas ill and out—catching Carroll and HB Anthony Dixon literally during the handoff.
Dixon recovered the loose ball and Eric Richards hit the 39-yard field goal two snaps later. Carroll was 5-of-8 passing for 46 yards; one of those incompletions was a drop, the other a third-down bat at the line by DT Kyle Love to force the field goal.
When the first offense returned (after a couple of twos-on-twos series) it was with winter transfer Tyson Lee under-center. The junior's first drive stalled on downs; the second ended in a seven-yard touchdown drive with Brandon McRae catching a eight-yard score on a slant-pattern. Later in the scrimmage Lee came back with the first offense on the same end of the field and got the ball to Aubrey Bell at the left pylon for another eight-yard touchdown play.
Lee had the biggest numbers of the day; he was given 24 passes and completed 19 of them for 201 yards and two scores. Actually it was three scores, because Lee's one big gaffe became a defensive touchdown. Under pressure from DE Quinton Wesley he unloaded into a crowd; DT Jessie Bowman came up with the carom and ran 69 long yards into the other end zone, with S De'Mon Glanton knocking Lee aside for good measure. Bowman still was able to jog back to the sideline, though Love ran too hard following for a celebration and flopped in exhaustion.
That turnover-score came in one of the two series Lee ran against the full #1 defense. The other stopped on 4th down when HB Robert Elliot was stuffed by Wesley.
Redshirt freshman Chris Relf alternated duty, his first work coming on series with the #2 offense against their defensive counterparts. Neither of those produced scores. But when Relf got his turn with the first offense things improved, as he found WR Jameyel Smith down the right sideline for a 49-yard strike laid just over CB Jasper O'Quinn. The drive stopped at the 9-yard line with Richards hitting a 26-yard field goal. A turn later though Relf took his unit all the way in, finding WR Aubrey Bell crossing right-to-left underneath for a quick throw and 19-yard touchdown play.
Relf was 6-of-22 for 100 yards passing and the score with no turnovers. He also ran the ball five times, usually by plan, for 31 yards. Lee kept just once for seven yards. Not surprisingly, Croom said the primary purpose of this scrimmage—on offense at least—was to get as much full-speed evaluation of Relf and Lee as possible. "They've both done some good things. It's still going to be end of camp before I definitely decided who is number-two, but I feel a lot better about where we are right now with the way they've performed," Croom said.
"Chris' physical abilities stand out. He's got a strong arm, a quick release, and probably the most impressive thing is when he pulls the ball down and runs it's like having another Anthony Dixon out there. He's that physical a runner. He's still got a lot to learn about running the offense, but there are certain elements in our play-action game and other things we do no question he should be proficient at by opening day. Continued work like this is only going to help him."
In Lee's case the two years of junior college ball have equipped him for the spring transition to college ball. As have his intangible abilities. "Tyson knows how to make plays," Croom said. "His experience and maturity has served him well at this point. He's still got a lot to learn about what we're doing offensively, but I think he has grasped a lot of the things faster than I would have anticipated. The knock throughout his career has always been his height, but hey, just like I ignored (Jerious) Norwood's legs I'm going to ignore his height! Because if he gets the job done, he gets the job done. So far he's been pleasing."
All the more because Mississippi State is developing a versatile group of triggermen, not to mention corps-competition. But it's no surprise Carroll has kept his edge all camp. Nor that more is being asked of him now.
"It's obvious Wes shows he can manage the offense, he doesn't make a lot of mistakes," Croom said. "But what we're looking for out of him this year is to step up his role as a playmaker, particularly in the passing game."
It wasn't just a day for the throwers and catchers. The haulers got in their snaps, and got hit. Not so much starter Dixon who only had two carries and five yards; and Christian Ducre didn't participate at all. That wasn't the Tuesday goal. "We really wanted to look at the two young running backs," Croom said, adding "It wasn't a good day for Robert Elliot and Wade Bonner." Elliot had nice numbers, 87 yards on 23 attempts with the first and second offenses, and the redshirt's ability and agility were on display. Converted safety Bonner had seven carries and 17 yards.
Both showed flashes of the ‘explosive' gifts they bring to the depth chart, yet the head coach wasn't satisfied. "They didn't run as hard as they had been and I was a little disappointed in them. But they're going to be alright in time, we'll just keep working them."
"We know they're going to help us. No question they're going to give us some stuff we haven't had since Jerious Norwood left, some explosiveness. They've got to get tougher but no question they give us some explosiveness and the ability to beat some guys one-on-one out there in space we haven't had. So that's pleasing."
Bell and Smith both ended up with 71 yards but on six and four catches respectively. Riley had three grabs and 34 yards and didn't get called on often after the first fifteen minutes. McCrae caught four balls for 29 yards, Ryan Mason thee for 30. Five of the completions were to tight ends with two each for Marcus Green and Nelson Hurst and one for Brandon Henderson, while fullback Brandon Hart had two receptions and 15 yards as State showed a fair portion of the package today. That included catches by Elliot and Bonner, for 12 and nine yards respectively.
Croom repeated that Smith is the starting ‘Z' receiver and Riley the ‘X'. "After that it's all uncertain at this point," he said, though Bell and McRae are constants in the rotation and Mason has had a strong spring. There is no clear first tight end though.
Croom noted that with some defensive starters missing today—such as S Keith Fitzhugh, Douglas, and DE Tim Bailey—the results might not be an entirely accurate picture of how State's offense is doing this stage of camp. "But we made some nice plays in the passing game. It was probably Relf's best day overall. We experimented around that 40-second clock, that's going to be a little different, the tempo and speed of things are going to be a little different than what it has been. So we still have a lot of work to do on that when we get back to training camp."
The first offensive line was healthy with J. C. Brignone back at center, Anthony Strauder and Mike Gates and left and right guards, and Mike Brown and Derek Sherrod at left and right tackles. The second line, left to right, was Quentin Saulsberry, Dakota Merritt, D.J. Looney, Craig Jenkins, and Mark Melichar.
With Bailey out on a calf injury, likely all week, Brandon Cooper is running first right-DE; and on the other tackle Wesley has returned to end and taken the first left-spot. "Quinton has finished up the spring very strong, right now he seems to have the lead at the left defensive end spot to replace Titus (Brown). Now we can drop about 20 pounds off him he'll be a far more effective player." Of course Wesley gained a lot of that weight when it was thought he could make the transition to tackle.
He has taken the first spot from Cortez McCraney, now second left DE with Rodney Prince at the right end. Love and Bowman are the first tackles, Reggie Odom and LaMarcus Williams the second pair.
S Derek Pegues topped all in tackles with 11. MLB Jamar Chaney had nine but two of those were the only credited sacks of the day. Zach Smith, the nickel safety today for the first team and FS on the second, had seven tackles. With both Douglas and #2 outside LB Karlin Brown sidelined, Mark Brown moved up to second at SLB and had a tackle for loss on Relf.
"We had a lot of injuries on defense," Croom said. "I'm pleased with our linebackers, guys like Terrell Johnson, Jamie Jones, and Karlin Brown—who has been hurt—all those guys are going to be able to help us, that's the first thing. I think we can be a good defensive team. The continuity with our coaching staff has been a plus, the addition of Lewis Campbell has been a plus.
"But we've got to get them all healthy. Right now our real defense is not out there because we've got so many injuries. Our freshmen defensive linemen have got to come in and help us and give us some depth and some speed up front. Against the run I think we'll be OK right now, we still don't have that explosive defensive end. Our pass rush is going to have to come from somewhere else at this point."
With Adam Carlson excused for a Tuesday afternoon class, redshirt Richards did all placekicking; he hit both field goals and all three PATs. And in pre-scrimmage work he loosed a 50-yard punt…but came back with a 25-yarder the next time. Still the broken foot of last August isn't hampering him and Richards is making his case for fall duty.
"I was impressed with Eric's kicking today," Croom said. "He did some nice things, he did have a wind at his back so that helped! But it's good to have him back out there."
There was no punting, or returning, during the actual scrimmage; and no kickoff work at all. "Thursday we'll work all our kicking situations, introduce some situations we haven't worked on so it won't be the first time we've talked about it when season starts," Croom said. "It will primarily be kicking practice on Thursday." With the Bulldogs in shells, as all remaining contact will be saved up for Saturday. It won't be an overly long Thursday session either as Croom will call an early halt and turn things over to the staff to divide up the rosters. "And put in their trick plays for the game Saturday."
The real trick will be making the spring ‘game' last up to an hour. Croom would rather it not, as every snap is another opportunity for attitude to get the better of somebody and things to get out of hand. Or a foot to slip, a knee to stretch, or…
"We've gotten a lot of work done and haven't had any major injuries," Croom said today. "If we can get through Saturday without any major injuries it will be a pretty decent spring."