"We've got a big scrimmage day tomorrow. The next big one is the spring game which is a little different, you split the team in half so you don't get to see all the execution. So tomorrow is the biggest scrimmage of the spring for us."
Which is saying a lot given just how intense this entire spring session has been already. The Bulldogs have hit very hard on the preceding two Saturdays already, and made a pretty fair share of non-tackle contact during most of the other working days as well. So for Mullen to say April 11 will be the ‘biggest' scrimmage is a loud-and-clear signal to the squad of what he expects. As if they didn't get an idea during their Friday session, which lasted under three hours but did not feature quite as much contact. With good reason, Mullen said.
"It was a little bit lighter day, for the scrimmage tomorrow. We had a real physical day yesterday and a big day tomorrow, so today was a little lighter. It was a passing-oriented day. But you're continuing to see some of the execution that we want to see. We're finally completing a pass or two on the defense so that is a step in the right direction."
Passing plays were in fact the predominant aspect of offensive and defensive drills Friday, whether this involved running actual plays team-on-team or just individual drills of throwing, catching, rushing and protecting. Work on the ground game was relatively limited, mostly handoffs, reads-and-pitches, and the like with the only ‘defenders' coaches evaluating the technique and timing. This was also influenced by the fact that State has been short on scholarship backs all week due to injury. Fortunately HB Christian Ducre was upgraded to maroon status after missing five days with a banged-up right shoulder. Whether he joins HB Anthony Dixon for actual scrimmaging tomorrow is a wait-and-see.
So it was a day to throw and catch, or cover and blitz depending on side of ball. Not a good day in the sense that putting anything in the air was risky Friday with a stout wind gusting between 20 to 30 mph all afternoon. Anytime any quarterback threw with the wind, the receivers were usually out of luck trying to catch-up on any pattern more than 20 yards.
Yet there were some encouraging developments even under the interesting conditions. QBs Tyson Lee and Chris Relf picked up where they'd left off in Thursday's positive practicing, throwing on-target with both consistency and efficiency. This included blitz or coverage situations, too, though the first and second defense didn't make anything easy. Still Lee and Relf had solid Fridays in team work and were even sharper in unit drills.
Though here credit was also due their targets; especially the tight ends who had a very impressive afternoon running and grabbing. Where big bodies like Kendrick Cook and Brandon Henderson have run firsts in run-game work, transfer Thomas Webb has stepped to the fore in passing game and was making it look easy with or against the wind. Nelson Hurst has also been solid in these drills, but Henderson—wearing limited-yellow after his Tuesday concussion—and Cook also had some very slick grabs in both short and medium routes when Lee was throwing.
Longer routes and throws were more problematic with the wind. Still there was enough good stuff shown to affirm the progress being made this week in the aerial aspect, a worry following last Saturday's scrimmage. WR Leon Berry has worn no-hit yellow for two weeks with a tender shoulder but was put in full maroon today and practiced well as usual. Tay Bowser continues to run first-group along with O'Neal Wilder and Berry, while Delmon Robinson, Charles Bailey, and Terrance Davis work in rotation and converted walk-on quarterback Todd Kilpatrick is getting a lot of snaps with the second group.
The only shift in the offensive depth chart today was on the line at left guard, and that in pass-protect as freshman Tobias Smith returned to the first group where he began camp. Senior Craig Jenkins began the day as #1 left guard for the short spell of running-game drills.
Meanwhile the defense also paid more attention to passing plays in the form of showing more blitz packages, for both long and short yardage situations, to test that offensive line. The four-man base for pass attack had tackles Pernell McPhee and Charles Burns as the first pair, backed by Rodney Prince and Josuha Jackson. The right ends were either Sean Ferguson or Devin Jones; left ends Nick Bell or Shane McCardell.
But State also practiced more of some odd-fronts as well to get pass pressure, with either Kyle Love or LaMarcus Williams lining up over-center. First-ends (or tackles if you prefer) in these sets were McPhee left and Ferguson right, backed up by respectively Jones and Bell. To test these squads the odd line and three linebackers practiced blitzing against just the five down-blockers and a tight end. Initially they were able to get to Lee and Relf in time but as drills went on the quarterbacks were more often able to get the ball away.
There were no changes seen in the two-deeps at linebacker, safety, or cornerback Friday, as both players unable to practice Thursday—first DE Brandon Cooper (elbow) and #2 MLB Bo Walters (hip)—were sidelined another day.
Despite the conditions the kickoff teams, receiving and returning, went through their paces, though often as not the return man had to take a ball tossed from a manager as the kickoff would carry far to one side in the breeze. Mullen actually liked this unexpected test. "The wind started swirling a whole bunch and it was tough when we had kickoff return. It was good teaching for those guys of trying to catch the ball and seeing who has the ball-skills to go back and do that. But it's not the perfect day to be out there doing kickoff return!"
Berry and S Wade Bonner are the first two kickoff return men, backed by Dixon and reserve CB Marvin Bure along with Wilder. Punting only got brief attention though placekicking was practiced, with the wind which did good things for Sean Brauchle's range without hampering accuracy too much. All these things will get more attention Saturday whatever the weather, though the wind should have headed east by then.
Then again, just about everything will be objects of Mullen's attention in the ‘biggest scrimmage.' Sure, next Saturday's spring game will be fun for the fans; but a split-roster contest isn't the best evaluation tool. Tomorrow should produce the most telling video of how the Bulldogs are progressing as individuals and as a team.
What does Mullen himself hope to see on the field? "Just continued execution. The effort has been good, we continue to see that. But I want to see some improvement. I want to see us play the game of football a little bit tomorrow; offense, defense, execute throwing and catching the ball, defensive guys running to the ball and making plays. Seeing those things."
Something Mississippi State folk have seen on the sidelines this week are some Bulldogs-to-be, as February signees have been taking advantage of their school Easter break to come watch their future teammates work. Thursday the headliner was quarterback Tyler Russell; today it was wideout-athlete Dennis Thames. Naturally given State's thin spring roster at each slot Mullen couldn't be blamed for wishing these young talents were available. "I tell you what, it makes us excited to get them out here. I wish we could throw some pads on them and get them practicing right now!" he said.
"But it's what I wanted. Those guys know it's a family atmosphere and know they're already a part of the program. They already feel a part of the family and that's what's great with us. Especially getting kids form Mississippi that they can come out and be a part of the team as soon as they sign."
Meanwhile the current squad is under Friday orders to rest up for their demanding day tomorrow. Though how easy they can take it with meal money in their hands is a question. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush even informed them that the amount would by "two-and-a-half trips" to a local buffet restaurant.
After Saturday's big scrimmaging, the Bulldogs are off until Tuesday afternoon. Next week will have three regular practices with the camp-concluding spring game April 18 at Scott Field.