Offense Wins Final State Spring Scrimmage

Spring is prime time for teaching. So when Anthony Dixon arrived for Saturday's scrimmaging, his new coach had a fresh trick for this old Dog. Specifically, a jump-pass in goal-line offense. "Today was our first day, we did it in warm-ups and I had to perform when he put it in," said Dixon. Which the senior did, flipping a one-yard touchdown toss to TE Nelson Hurst from the one-yard line.

That play, as well as a similar set at the other end of the field where Dixon took the direct snap and this time dove across the goal himself, was the highlight of Mississippi State's second scrimmage. Twice Dixon lined up as the lone back and each time he produced a touchdown against the first defense. "It was nice just showing off the skills a little bit!" he grinned afterwards. "Coach put that in today so I had to perform."

Which was a fair summary of the entire day, as Coach Dan Mullen sent his spring squad through a three-hour session. The first third was the usual stretching, unit drills, and some kickoff work; the rest was full-contact, full-speed, and full-effort in what the first-year coach had said would be the biggest scrimmage of this camp. Clearly everyone involved took Mullen seriously.

"It was a real good scrimmage, both for the offense and the defense," said first tackle Derek Sherrod. "We came out here and put it all together this Saturday and had a great scrimmage."

Then again Sherrod, as a member of the ‘winning' side this time, could easily call it a great scrimmage. A week after being beaten and often beaten-up by the defense, the offensive squad rose to this occasion and emerged ahead in the practice scoring system.

"The offense won today," confirmed Mullen, talking while behind him the defensive team ran extra sprigns as their penalty for defeat. "They started off slow, the defense got a big lead early. And the offense, I tell you they executed some things today."

A lot of things in fact, though those two special set plays for Dixon got the loudest cheers and most smiles from everyone…even the defense. The happiest Dog to see his halfback toss a TD was the guy normally responsible for all passing. "I already told him he's one for one, 100%," QB Tyson Lee joked. "I'm in trouble! And the thing about it is I'm not a running back, so I might be sitting on the bench!"

Well, probably not. For that matter starting quarterback Lee showed some fine footwork of his own against the first defense, three times. Lee finished a drive in ‘first down' periods that had begun at the other 20-yard line by pulling the ball down and scrambling into the end zone, though here his no-hit red jersey might have been a factor. Later, with this drive having started at the two-yard line and now all the way at the other end of the field, Lee also called his own number and raced around right end for what would have been a score…except the offensive staff chose to spot the ball at the one and give Dixon his big chance to show off.

That was the drive capped by Dixon taking the direct snap, jumping and finding TE Hurst in the middle of the end zone, a play only introduced prior to team stretching.

The concluding situations, red zone scrimmaging starting from the 25, 12, and 5-yard lines, saw Lee make a serious run as he started right with a trailing back, read the defensive support, and cut inside for what would have been a legitimate score even if the defense had been free to hit him. Not that the senior quarterback compares himself to Dixon as a ground-pounder. "I'm not a good downhill runner when it comes to one-on-one with a linebacker!" he said. The real point being how Lee, and the offense as a whole, made plays that counted in this scrimmage.

"We started off slow, I made some awful decisions and didn't do well," said Lee. "But we fought back and ended up doing alright." Lee was 11-of-25 passing for 113 yards with no touchdowns, and in an early series a sideline throw was picked off by WLB Chris White and returned 41 yards for a defensive TD. Lee even showed a jump-pass of his own, though this was more out of necessity as he leaped to see over the pile and find WR Delmon Robinson slanting across the middle.

At the same time backup Chris Relf had a fair scrimmage in his own right, throwing 6-of-17 for 127 yards. In fact the second offense was even better than the first unit in the opening hour. After the #1 group failed to move in first-down drills starting from the 20, Relf directed a sharp drive that included a 43-yard strike to WR Tay Bowser down to the 18-yard line. That series ended with FB Patrick Hanrahan moving the ball and pile down to the half-yard line where HB Sylvester Hemphill could dive across. On a turn opening at midfield Relf play-faked perfectly and hit TE Kendrick Cook for a long run down to the eight-yard line. In red zone the #2 quarterback threw a 24-yard bullet to WR Kyle Roberts who had beaten backup safety Robert Gurley in the end zone. He was intercepted twice, backup LCB Louis Watson and alternate #2 safety Cameron Lawrence making the picks.

Saturday's showing by Lee and Relf were an encouraging continuation of their work during weekday drills where both quarterbacks have looked their best to-date. Red jerseys or not, a combined 101 yards on their 24 carries (12 each) had to impress observers with the decision-making. "I guess it's just getting a feel for the offense," Lee said. "Now we know what guys are doing, we understand I think the scheme of the offense now. And the best thing is when we get out here and experience it, then get in the film room and get coached off that."

Much as Mullen enjoyed the special plays, it was how the first offense put together 15 snaps without a turnover or serious error to complete a touchdown drive that impressed him most. "They had their back to the wall and went on a 98-yard drive, that's great for the offense," said the head coach, adding as a cautionary note "It can never happen to the defense." That said, it was obvious the offensive staff likes what they're seeing as their squad develops.

"As we're executing right now we're continuing to insert (new plays)," Mullen said. "I think we've slowed some things down, we're continuing some installation. And I think we got a couple of guys back today. Delmon was healthy and Leon Berry is back out, so that helps the receiving corps to have those guys healthy." Berry, protected for two weeks with a sore shoulder, caught a day-best four balls for 50 yards while Robinson had three catches and 21 yards. WR O'Neal Wilder had three catches, 35 yards, and Kyle Roberts two for 31.

State still had to scrimmage another week with just one scholarship running back. HB Christian Ducre resumed practicing Friday but was held out today to protect the bruised shoulder. Hanrahan did the dirty work again with 16 totes and 77 yards, while Dixon was 14 carries, 63 yards, and two scores.

"This was the best day no doubt for the offense," Dixon said. "We had a 98-yard drive and another couple of drives where we racked up a lot of yards. So I felt like this was our best day."

"Oh, today was their day," starting SLB K.J. Wright agreed. "We started out fast and they finished strong. They get the big plays and that's bad for us. They just got more big plays and they scored more than us today. At the same time I like to see them doing good…but not against us! But I'm glad they're improving and I hope they keep it come Saturday (this fall)."

There was even a ‘halftime' of sorts with the third teams scrimmaging, though the third defense did have a generous sprinkling of regulars. Backup RCB Marvin Bure was the standout, intercepting both Riley Saunders and Aaron Encalade…the latter in the end zone as a throw meant for DB-turned-WR Jarvis Williams. A red jersey didn't do Saunders any good on a scramble as he was flattened by DE Devin Jones anyway.

In ‘defense' of the losing Saturday side, there were some qualifications. State limited the work of a few regulars, such as MLB Jamar Chaney and DT Pernell McPhee, to cameo appearances. Wright even found himself playing the middle position on some series. The defensive staff also used this scrimmage to further test a variety of sets installed this past week, particularly a couple of ‘nickel' packages that aren't only for passing situations but are to be used against the run as well. And in the course of this testing different combinations of personnel were rotated regularly. Thus for the first time in a while the defense as a whole did not seem as sure of their assignments and angles, though to their credit effort wasn't lacking.

"We made some individual mistakes that we have to get on film and watch," said Wright. "And we don't plan on them happening again. We were throwing guys in there, we've got a lot of depth and we're trying to get it rolling."

Some of the things State rolled out was a twist on the line-sets. For the first ten working days series would always begin out of the base four-man line; today a number of series in either mid-field or red-zone settings the defense started with a three-man scheme and extra safety playing close to the line. Only then, depending on what the offense did, would the fourth lineman return…or not. Though this naturally contributed to some of the defense's challenge for this scrimmage, it was also a sign of how confident their coaches are with the basic sets at this point in camp.

Sherrod, who has been working against a wider variety of alignments the last four practices, has maybe the best vantage point to comment. "Our defense is doing great things this spring. And that's only going to make us better because if you go out every day and work against a great defense that's going to make the offense better."

What was much better this scrimmage was placekicking, at least in long attempts where both Sean Brauchle and Derek DePasquale struggled last week. Today's tries didn't begin well either as some short tries were miss-handled and missed. It helped as the kickers moved farther-out that first HO Cameron Lawrence was pulled off his third job as a kick-rush man to do the holding. Then both booters started connecting consistently with makes of 37, 42, and 50 yards. Brauchle got a chance to try from 57 and was good, though wind did help some.

"They did a nice job today, both of those guys," Mullen said. "That's a good competition between Brauchle and DePasquale. Brauchle as we go farther out has a little bit stronger leg so he has that advantage, but DePasquale is doing a nice job of getting that ball up quick."

By virtue of their win the offense got to leave the field quicker, though tellingly QB Lee hung around with the defense for some of their post-practice running. And even then the defense didn't seem too frustrated, as signs of an effective offense are encouraging to everyone thinking ahead to real games in fall. What mattered more to Mullen was how the entire team followed up three good weekdays of work with a strong scrimmage.

"I was really pleased. We had that one good practice early in the week but you always think it could fall off," Mullen said. It didn't, fortunately, which means everyone has a happy holiday ahead.

"The nice thing today, both sides of the ball came out and played hard. When you do this it's great for us. Now we can go watch the film and we can really coach. Early we were doing so much to try to just teach the offense, teach the defense. Now they know what they're doing so now we're really coaching the techniques of it all."

But there are only two true ‘coaching' days left this camp as later in week-four attention turns to specific preparations for the spring game. That will be a true split-roster contest and thus much more for entertainment purposes than actual football coaching. Many details remain to be set but Mullen did say today that the losing team will do community service work Sunday as a penalty, so sides should choose carefully. Until then he and his staff have a couple of days for serious coaching.

"Obviously everybody is looking forward to the weekend, the celebration, and hopefully we'll have a huge turnout for that. But it's really the Tuesday and Thursday that wrap it up for us practice-wise. So we've to be really sharp those two days to finish strong."

No significant injuries were noted Saturday. DE Brandon Cooper (elbow) and #2 MLB Bo Walters (hip) missed the scrimmage with their practice injuries, while RB Robert Elliot and WR Brandon McRae were held out with their continuing rehab from fall injuries. WR Terrance Davis (hamstring) did not scrimmage.

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