To be exact, Thursday did not end in a true deadlock. The defense still came out with a 84-71 final margin when the last round of contact competition concluded. But that was far closer than things had been before the closing stages, which was all red-zone work. Up to then the defense led 75-45 through the first two hours of first-down and goal-line drilling. So the offense made a spirited comeback in the last thirty minutes to make it close. Or close enough for Mullen's satisfaction.
"The defense started off real well in the first-down part of the scrimmage. We got to the red zone and the offense kept punching it in and that can't happen. So the defense finished ahead on points but it wasn't good enough to win the scrimmage." Which meant that the whole team had to do gassers, though even this post-practice segment was shortened thanks to the head coach's overall positive impression. A ‘first good practice' was something worth cheering.
But what made it so good was as much the intangibles as the performances. "Just everybody came out with intensity today," Mullen said. "Everyone came out and played hard. The offense executed a little bit better today, the defense played real hard today.
"So there's some times there's been a lot of frustration with everybody this spring, but we took a step. I feel like we had a real football practice instead of a massive teaching session.
This was achieved despite a number of first- and second-group Dogs not being able to scrimmage for another day, almost all on offense. The defense missed only a couple of guys, primarily first DE Brandon Cooper, sidelined by a right elbow injury suffered last Saturday. His place was taken by either Devin Jones, Shane McCardell, or Nick Bell depending on the type of drills being run. Early in drills #2 MLB Bo Walters limped off to the ‘bike park' for recovery work, with Jamie Jones quickly promoted to second unit and walk-on Brandon Wilson taking the #3 slot. The defense lost another body, not to injury though as reserve S T.J. Patterson left the squad due to struggles to overcome last summer's major leg injury and rehabilitation. But even the offense got some encouraging returns Thursday.
Such as WR Delmon Robinson, hampered for days by a hamstring. He not only took part in drills but scrimmaged and twice caught touchdowns against the first defense, going to opposite corners of the end zone in red zone work. TE Kendrick Cook shook off a ‘burner' suffered Tuesday to practice all settings today. OG Tobias Smith also had a Tuesday burner on the left shoulder; he was back to work as the second left guard. Even WR Brandon McRae got to participate more than he has all camp, running routes in 7-on-7 situations. He still isn't being allowed to scrimmage as that leg broken in the Egg Bowl heals, but McRae reported he felt good running routes today.
WR Terrance Davis came back from a Tuesday illness to practice but not scrimmage, and WR Leon Berry was allowed to scrimmage but in a no-hit yellow jersey. Reserve QB Riley Saunders had missed Tuesday with illness also; he was back today running the third offense ahead of fellow walk-on Aaron Encalade.
Offensive players not scrimmaging Thursday included TE Brandon Henderson (concussion), HB Robert Elliot (knee rehab), and HB Christian Ducre (shoulder). However Elliot is getting steadily more work in unit drills and running without obvious problems on the repaired knee.
After the struggles of Tuesday, this day saw the passing game make major strides as both quarterbacks practiced very well. #1 QB Tyson Lee had his best session of camp to-date, whether in one-on-one drills or full-team settings. "Tyson had a better day today," Mullen agreed. The senior was better-prepared to face the variety of schemes thrown at him by the defense, which this week has expanded both the coverage and blitz packages. At least three types of ‘nickel' packages are being shown now and as many more special sets depending on whether a lineman or linebacker is replaced by the extra safety.
Those sets dominated passing work earlier this week whether in first-down or red-zone settings. Thursday, both Lee and backup Chris Relf had a better grasp on how to handle the pressure first and then where to take the ball. Mullen said this is how it should be at this stage.
"It's going to take a while at the quarterback position. But the amazing thing is one you know what's going on on the field you can start playing with some more confidence. And I think that's going to be a big deal for those guys, gaining a little bit more of that confidence."
Besides his throws to Anderson for scores, Lee used his backs and tight ends to make gains and move chains. He also ran himself on either delay keepers or scrambles as needed and was sacked just once, though he also simply lost the handle one time with first DT Pernell McPhee coming up with the fumble.
Relf had a scare during 8-on-8 work as he went down holding his leg. It was just a bruise and he bounced up to continue drills. Later he threw an option pitch wildly in first-down work with RCB Marcus Washington scooping for a touchdown return. Relf also had a tipped pass picked off by second WLB Karlin Brown. But the quarterback made up for it by keeping on a option-read and slamming aside #2 DT Charles Burns, not trying to avoid the contract. Relf also ran a delay-keeper right up the gut for a 15 yard touchdown.
There were no changes to the offensive two-deep, though backup LG Templeton Hardy did get some snaps with the first unit ahead of Smith. Craig Jenkins was promoted to first left guard last week and has held the spot. Also, with Chris Spencer taking a late-day class, Dakota Merritt got most of the snaps as the #2 left tackle.
On the other half of the team, the defensive line was ‘flipped' from side to side. Where first DTs Pernell McPhee and Kyle Love have been running left and right respectively, today they reversed sides of the ball. As did the ends with Sean Ferguson on left end. The front-four also showed some wider splits here in week three as part of the pass-rush packages being developed.
Wade Bonner continue as the first nickel safety and backup in base defense. Youngsters Cameron Lawrence, moved from offense last week, and Chris Cameron are making their bids to climb the depth chart at safeties and were paired on the second team for several series today, though older hands Robert Gurley and Emmanuel Gatling haven't given up those spots just yet. There were no changes on either corner.
With today's practice a half-hour shorter than the previous work days, the kicking games got less attention. That will likely change tomorrow. Friday's practice—which has been moved up to 1:30 with the school Easter break underway—will have more special situations addressed to prepare for another vigorous Saturday session of full-contact.
And Mullen probably won't be as generous with the scoring margin that day, when one side will win and the other…will suffer the consequences.