Mullen Likes Effort On First Spring Work Day

He's been building up to this day for the four months since arriving in Starkville, not to mention his fifteen falls since becoming a college assistant. Still Dan Mullen approaches his first spring session as a head SEC coach, and his first on-field days at Mississippi State, with patience. And pragmatism. "We're just looking for a lot of effort," he said after Tuesday's camp-debut.

"It's grasping that we're on the first day of practice and the guys are learning the system again," Mullen explained about the initial afternoon of Mississippi State spring work. "We don't have guys that have run this offense for three or years, this defense for three or four years. There is that learning curve. But they gave me what they wanted, which is guys running to the football and guys playing excited with a lot of effort."

Effort over a long opening-day haul, too. The Bulldogs reported to the practice field well before the scheduled 3:30 start, and didn't break the final full-squad huddle until almost 6:50. During those three-plus hours Mullen and staff gave their spring team a healthy taste of almost everything they could have worked on, from pre-drills stretching to concluding placekicks. About the only items not practiced were kickoffs and punt returns.

With such a packed practice plan there was no one area specifically focused on, either. But that wasn't the point of a first-day on the job for Mullen. Just to have players and staff together at last, lined up and snapping the ball, was the priority Tuesday.

"It's good to be back on the field now," Mullen said. "This is what you work for! You do all the off-season to come out here and play some football. I know it's great for this team to get back on the field."

This was the first of the 15 dates allotted for spring semester work by the NCAA, and as required was a shorts-and-headgear session. Speaking of which both equipment items were new for MSU, or at least different. The Bulldogs wore shorts made from last year's maroon game pants; the helmets were indeed new, all-maroon including the facemasks. But for a non-contact day there was no lack of bodies banging in team drills, whether 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, as the Dogs displayed some first-day enthusiasm of their own by managing to run into each other often enough.

This was part of what pleased their first-year coach, too. Because Mullen neither expected nor demanded much in the way of efficiency under the circumstances. Instead, he wants "Guys coming out and giving effort right now. It's going to be a learning process for them, the adjustment to the coaching, our expectation levels of practice as well as the offensive and defensive schematics. That's going to be the slowest thing; what I'm looking for is them coming out and giving great effort."

As for what particular efforts might have caught the coach's eye, Mullen did say after a slow start the defense got up to speed soon. Otherwise, "I don't know if there was anybody that really jumped-out and boy, right there we've got ourselves a football player. I think we've got a long way to go to get ourselves some football players."

Last week Mullen joked that he might pick his depth charts for opening-day by report cards. But when the Bulldogs began lining up for drills it was mostly based on resumes. Mostly, because there were some shifts and even interesting promotions in a few areas, none moreso than on the first offensive line. Three of the '08 starters were on the #1 group but only two—LT Derek Sherrod and OC J. C. Brignone—in their same spots. Twelve-game starting RT Quentin Saulsberry took his stance this time at right guard, and Addison Lawrence—an alternate tight end and placekick team blocker last fall—now the first right tackle. And redshirt Tobias Smith was at left guard, where he would almost surely have played as a true freshman if not for an August ankle injury he has overcome.

The second o-line was RT Phillip Freeman, RG Craig Jenkins, OC D.J. Looney, LG Templeton Hardy, LT Chris Spencer. The third team was RT Dakota Merrit, RG Sam Latham, OC Sam Watts, LG John McMillan, LT Michael Bufkin. Tackle Mark Melichar was held out Tuesday with mono-like symptoms.

Returning starter Tyson Lee and third-year soph Chris Relf were 1-2 at quarterback as expected, with freshman Cameron Lawrence running #3 already ahead of walk-ons Todd Kilpatrick and Riley Saunders. The halfback trio of Anthony Dixon, Arnil Stallworth, and Christian Ducre got equal snaps though not in any discernable pecking order on day-one. On encouraging sign was the return of injured HB Robert Elliot to practices after tearing two knee ligaments in October. He took part in unit drills only, doing no team work.

Kendrick Cook too the first tight-end turn ahead of Brandon Henderson. Wide receivers alternated extensively in passing drills, with redshirt O'Neal Wilder showing no ill-effects of his left knee problems running usually first-team. Delmon Robinson, Tay Bowser, Charles Bailey, and Terrance Davis also rotated with the first and second quarterbacks throwing to all.

Getting a first-day read on how the defensive line stacks up was interesting as ends and tackles alike took turns drilling at both left and right sides. Still when full elevens squared off the #1 group was RE Brandon Cooper, RT Pernell McPhee, LT Charles Burns, and LE Sean Ferguson. The second foursome was Trevor Stigers, Rodney Prince, Kyle Love, and Nick Bell; with Shane McCardell, LaMarcus Williams, Reggie Odom or Josh Jackson, and Sean Ferguson the third squad…at least for now. This group is likely to see shuffling daily for a while.

A newcomer has already crashed the first linebackers group, too, with mid-year transfer Chris White opening Tuesday at weakside opposite SLB K.J. Wright. And senior Jamar Chaney has come back from his '08 opening night ankle injury to regain the top spot at middle linebacker.

The second group had Bo Walters in the middle flanked by SLB Mike Hunt and WLB Karlin Brown; backed by Jamie Jones, Terrell Johnson, and walk-on Joseph Gonzales or Mark Lynn. As expected Charles Mitchell and Zach Smith were the first safeties; the second pair was Wade Bonner and Emmanuel Gatling with Chris Cameron and T.J. Patterson in the third unit. On the left corner it was Damein Anderson, Louis Watson and Jarvis Williams; on the right Marcus Washington, Corey Broomfield, Marvin Bure.

Once the team vs. team work began Elliot and McRae moved over to the exercise bikes to resume rehab, where K Eric Richards spent most of the day. Not participating Tuesday was TE Marcus Green, still coming back from a pelvic muscle problem that required follow-up checks in January; and Melichar.

Also, veteran CB Anthony Johnson, soph WR Arceto Clark, and transfer WR Maurice Langston did not dress out today though Clark was on the roster. All remain under suspension Mullen said as the University looks into their separate situations. Redshirt OL John Paul Alford was not on the roster after telling Mullen earlier this month he was leaving the team. The coach gave Alford spring break to think it over before making the choice final.

Now with day-one done, the coaches are going through the practice tapes to judge who did what and how in this first on-field exposure. It won't be any surprise if by Thursday's practice some things change, Mullen indicated. "With everybody right now it's a lot of evaluation by our staff. As we evaluate everything through spring we're going to try to place guys at different positions," he explained.

"We've just got a lot of execution and a lot of learning to do. Fortunately we have two days to get some things cleaned up and it will be a little bit better Thursday." That practice starts at 3:30 and, like all spring drill days, is open to the public. Up to fifty observers came by for opening date, some of then visiting prospects and their coaches but most just MSU fans eager for a first look at the new coach, new schemes, and new hope.

"We want to embrace the community," Mullen said. "I think as fans come out and get the opportunity to watch their team practice you will see more and more all spring, have people coming out and having fun watching a little bit of football.

Camp concludes April 18 with the Maroon-White spring game, at 5:30 that Saturday as part of Super Bulldog Weekend #24.

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