"The nice part now, the guys kind of understand what we're expecting on the field," Mullen said after the 12th practice day. "You're starting to see execution and that's what we want out of them. And now that they're learning to give the effort that we want, while executing at the same time."
Execution on the whole was sound Tuesday, though from the sidelines it did appear the defense came out the better in most all of the practiced situations. This might have come from a desire to avenge their defeat in the final serious scrimmage of spring, or from some fresh wrinkles they showed in a few settings. Either way, whether in passing or rushing work the defense generally kept things under a degree of control.
But then they should have given the focus of Tuesday's practice plans. With camp coming to an end soon the staff spent the longest successive segments on third-down situations; sometimes third-and-medium but more often with the marker set eight, nine, or eleven yards from the spot. These meant longer odds for the offense and a lower percentage whether it was the first or second team snapping the ball.
This emphasis on third-down work for both sides was no coincidence. "That's the key down," Mullen explained. "You have to be able to stay on the field on offense, and you have to get off the field on defense. So we're going to work real hard on third downs all the way through. If you look at it statistically that is one of the keys, that whoever wins the league championship is pretty good on third downs."
The defense didn't throw a shutout however. First QB Tyson Lee, when given time, made a few things happen on third-and-longs with either his arm or his feet. Lee was also able to lead the #1 offense the length of the field in two-minute offense and flip to WR Delmon Robinson for the short touchdown. The second offense led by Chris Relf struggled more in their respective settings. The two-minute challenge came up short, and even some of the successes on third downs were offset by lax ball-protection from receivers Tay Bowser and O'Neil Wilder. But neither passer was picked off in these drills.
One encouraging late-camp development is the increased opportunities given HB Robert Elliot to do more than just unit drills or warm the quarterbacks up while fellow backs practiced. Though still restricted from full-contact work, Elliot's duties expanded today to include snaps in 7-on-7 passing situations as a flanked-out back; and even later on in 11-on-11 situations. This included both third-down and two-minute offense against the first defense. Mostly Elliot ran routes or was a decoy from the backfield.
"We had him doing a couple of things out there today," Mullen said. "A lot of that, he's still not 100% cleared to go. But he will be starting fall camp, so what we want to do is have him have a little confidence out there. So we're trying to get him to do a couple more things here and there so he is confident."
The offense also got one back with HB Christian Ducre allowed to practice again. He'd been held out of team work for two weeks with a sore shoulder, and his presence was noticed in two-minute drills as Ducre was an easy and productive target for Lee and Relf alike. He went way up for one sideline grab and kept control landing hard. And a couple of wideouts who have had their ups and downs this camp, Charles Bailey and Terrance Davis, were very much up today with some nifty catches and positive gains after their grabs.
As for his two quarterbacks, Mullen said they've also had ups and downs over the course of camp if measured strictly by numbers. "But what I've seen is them understanding. You know, when that light clicks with them they start making better reads and that's what is important to them. I'm going to say certain plays are clicking a lot faster than others. But that's part of our job now to evaluate what they do well and what they really understand."
Lee and Relf did all the primary situation and team work as usual, with Riley Saunders and Aaron Encalade handling the ball in a few unit drills or playing quarterback in downfield coverage segments. This first camp has allowed time to just prepare the top two triggermen, which means the #3 slot is essentially still open. And while those two walk-ons have gotten the brief spring experience come fall a newcomer is expected to be an instant factor. It's no coincidence signee Tyler Russell has been to watch practices and scrimmages when possible, getting something of a head-start on his college career.
As Mullen said, "We're not a redshirt program here. So you come in and our best guys are going to play. He's been at a couple of practices so he understands the tempo of practice, what's expected. And we're going to just force-feed him and see if we can get him ready to play next year."
On the whole Mullen reported no noteworthy changes made in the lineup based on Saturday's scrimmage review, though he did add "There was some tweaking and experimenting at different things." Such as on the offensive line. After two weeks as the #2 man, Tobias Smith returned to first-team at guard for both running and passing plays. And he did so on the other side of center, going from left guard to right while first RG Quentin Saulsberry lined up for the first time this camp at LG.
The tackles—Addison Lawrence right, Derek Sherrod left—and center J. C. Brignone, lined up as usual. The second line saw backup LG Templeton Hardy taking turns at right guard as well, with Craig Jenkins the #2 left guard again. Everybody was healthy today so no moves were made for injuries.
These side-shifts reflected what had been seen on the defensive front for a couple of weeks already, with right and left tackles swapping out almost daily. For today, it was back to where they'd begun with Pernell McPhee again at left tackle and either Charles Burns or Kyle Love the right, usually depending on whether it was a running or a passing defense drill. LaMarcus Williams and/or Rodney Prince were backing up at left today, Reggie Odom or Josh Jackson at left.
Mullen indicates that too much needn't be read into such observations, or for that matter who takes first turn on what team. "For us, in terms of depth the ones and twos get equal reps. So to me there is really not a one and two group where the ones are getting more than the twos. That won't be until fall that we get that going, it's just everybody getting the opportunity to play."
There certainly were more opportunities given further variations on the defensive pass-rush. For the first time a three-man front was used in 8-on-7 running drills, using either McPhee or regular DE Devin Jones on the nose. Giving up a down-lineman had no impact, in fact this day the defensive seven had more success stopping the offensive eight's rushing than usual. In 7-on-6 pass protect/rush work, the defense dominated almost completely, a definite change from last week's trend. Part of this was an adjusted set that had two or even all three linebackers taking their stances right on the line of scrimmage, which the blockers had real troubles picking up in time.
Sidelined over a week by an elbow injury, DE Brandon Cooper returned for limited work today at right end where he had been first-team. Sean Ferguson and Jones were still the top two on that end with Nick Bell and Trevor Stigers 1-2 out left. #2 MLB Bo Walters was held out another day with a injured hip. There were no new injuries from the weekend's scrimmage to report.
The Bulldogs will have their final true practice Thursday at 3:30. Wednesday at 1:00 Mullen will be at Barnes&Noble Bookstore at the Wade Depot for the public presentation of MSU's new football. HB Anthony Dixon, MLB Jamar Chaney, and OT Derek Sherrod will model these new adidas-brand togs.