Defense Keeps Up Pressure In Tuesday Drills

Dan Mullen knew he had a short list to begin with this first spring camp at Mississippi State. Now even the head coach needs a roster to check who is practicing or playing some spots. "I mean, our two-group has a walk-on quarterback, a guy that's been on the team for three days; and I don't even know who the third guy is. So it's tough duty that way."

Tough stuff indeed, as Mississippi State started week-three of practices with over three hours of work Tuesday afternoon. Hard work, too. Because even though the Bulldogs were in a non-tackle date, the facts that they were still wearing full padding and still being pushed by coaches, head and assistant alike, to ever-greater efforts meant bodies collided with game-type intensity. And it took a Tuesday toll.

Most notably at tight ends, where veterans Brandon Henderson (concussion) and Kendrick Cook (burner) were put out of action at various points. Even HB Anthony Dixon, the lone healthy scholarship halfback for team-on-team drills, wasn't spared. Late in the session he needed help getting up and leaving the field, though he did return later. Walk-on WR Kyle Roberts also went down hard in a two-minute situation and didn't return though it did not seem serious.

While not a big body-count in itself, these bangs and bruises came on the side of the ball State can least afford further losses. The offense, short-handed all camp already with rehabilitating players, is down to the bare minimum of practicing personnel in several spots now. Both of Dixon's veteran cohorts, HB Arnil Stallworth (ACL tear, surgery scheduled Thursday) and HB Christian Ducre (shoulder) were out. HB Robert Elliot can only practice in drills, risking no contact in partial- or full-team work on the rehabilitating knee.

Things are almost as serious at wide receiver where there are only six scholarship holders practicing now and one of those, Leon Berry, wears don't-hit yellow to guard a bruised shoulder. While WR Delmon Robinson and WR Brandon McRae do drills they, like Elliot, do not play in team settings just yet; and WR Terrance Davis missed today with illness on top of his tender hamstring. Also, QB-turned-WR Cameron Lawrence moved over to defensive safety Tuesday taking one more name from the list. Things got so thin that late in the day CB Marvin Bure had to take a few turns as a split end. None of this helps with the demanding job of installing an entirely new offensive approach.

"We've just got so far to go offensively," Mullen said. "And it just keeps getting tougher."

The only folk not taking these offensive issues as tough stuff is a defense that had a good Tuesday. Often a very good Tuesday, and maybe a bit too good Mullen thought. "I like the effort out of the defense and the things they're doing. The only thing that makes me nervous defensively is just the lack of skill on offense, so we're not getting a false of confidence.

"They're covering and locking everybody down, but they're going against a walk-on quarterback and fullbacks and tight ends are playing receiver for us right now. That's one thing that we've got to watch, that we don't get a false sense of confidence that way."

By no means was the day a complete defeat for the offense. The group again ran consistently well whether in 8-on-7 or full-team work, certainly when Dixon toted the ball but even at times with walk-on Sylvester Hemphill, a fullback forced into duty at halfback. This was further evidence of progress being made by the offensive line in this aspect of the gameplan. The first line was the same as in Saturday's scrimmage, with RT Addison Lawrence, RG Quentin Saulsberry, OC J. C. Brignone, LG Craig Jenkins, and LT Derek Sherrod. Though, after two days of demotion, Tobias Smith was back taking snaps with the first unit at left guard for a while. Then he too was bit by the injury bug with a burner on the left shoulder and sidelined. Templeton Hardy moved up to second LG then.

Otherwise the o-line has had better health so far this camp. And even with top blockers Henderson and Cook out, TE Nelson Hurst and TE Thomas Webb did well enough in the ground game themselves. But when it was time to practice throwing, the day took a turn for the worse. Certainly QB Tyson Lee, backup Chris Relf, and new walk-on Aaron Encalade had a tough time getting time to make both reads and throws. And when they did too many balls were dropped or just missed. Even Dixon had consecutive drops in one series, though he made up for it later. For that matter the wideouts who did work today weren't productive on the whole in beating coverage and completing connections. At times when they did they paid, as when Roberts—a walk-on who has earned favorable comments in just a couple of days—was separated from the ball by S Zach Smith for a forced fumble.

Still lack of protection showed more. There was no lack of practice-snaps in this area, whether in drills or as a unit. Mullen doesn't see a lack of ability here though; familiarity seems to be the issue at this mid-camp point. And even as the head coach was talking, behind him the o-linemen and Coach John Hevesy were putting in overtime instruction all by themselves; Mullen said it was a blitz walk-through of sorts.

"I don't know if they were quite as complex last year protection-wise in the offensive line as we are, in how much we put on the line," Mullen said. "So they're just getting used to it. And the nice thing, our defense is bringing us all kinds of different blitzes which is what we want thrown at us. They're just going to get extra work to make sure they get it picked up."

Then again picking up the defense might challenge a veteran line this camp, because in the last few days that group has picked up their play markedly. Whether the first or second units, the front-four has practiced very well in most pass-rush situations. The addition of juco Pernell McPhee at left tackle has paid immediate benefits, but returning linemen have clearly progressed over the winter. Nor has the defense suffered the injuries that have hit their counterparts. Today only first RDE Brandon Cooper was sidelined, by an elbow injured Saturday. His place was taken at #1 today by Sean Ferguson, backed by Devin Jones. At left DE Trevor Stigers has moved in front of Shane McCardell. McPhee is backed by Rodney Prince at left tackle; Kyle Love has gone ahead of Charles Burns at right tackle.

Mullen has liked the work by all groups of linebackers since camp opened. The first safety group of Charles Mitchell and Smith has also practiced well, and now the backup pair of Wade Bonner and Emmanuel Gatling has a challenge with the move of Lawrence. The freshman got some snaps in the second team in fact today.

Among the blitz packages State showed today were additions to the nickel sets practiced last week, with Bonner the #1 nickel and starting right CB Marcus Washington the second. In the standard nickel pack the strong-side linebacker (either #1 K.J. Wright or #2 Mike Hunt) come out for the extra safety's insertion. Today coordinator Carl Torbush practiced another nickel set, but this one with a defensive tackle pulled and all linebackers staying in. And the odd-front puts the remaining tackle over the ball. This extra set gave the blocking more headaches all of Tuesday, though to Mullen it was also a chance to learn more tricks of the trade.

"Then you combine that with all the stuff our defense is bringing at us, that's new for a lot of these guys. I don't think they've done a lot where the offensive line is responsible for as much of the protection as they have been in the past. I think they had (in the past) just a couple of protections and that was it; our guys are responsible to make a lot of calls and other things within protections."

In outside coverage, Damein Anderson returned to the first team at left cornerback with Louis Watson back at #2. Anderson celebrated by picking off a pass from Relf intended for WR O'Neal Wilder and running it back to the end zone. Later in two-minute work Lee was picked off in the end zone at the end of the drive by S Mitchell.

If the passers really wanted more protection, they could have solicited aid from a score of folk watching on the sideline. Tuesday Mississippi State entertained members of the University Police as well as Oktibbeha County sheriffs. "It was great to have them all out here at practice today and supporting us," Mullen said. "What we want to do is help them meet our players, and to meet them. I think so many times people don't get to meet our team in a personal setting. They'll have dinner with us tonight, get to sit and talk to them and meet our players in an off-the-field setting." Hopefully such interaction also helps encourage MSU athletes not to need meeting these members of the local constabulary in less entertaining settings.

The Bulldogs will take Wednesday off before returning to practices Thursday at 3:30. They will also work on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

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