Fall Freshmen Make First Practice Appearances

If any rookies thought they were going to ease into training camp routine, their first full-team practice experience corrected that impression. Or as Coach Dan Mullen put it, "We're going to jam the installation right down their throat right now and see what they can learn. The faster they learn, the faster they'll have the opportunity to get on the field."

Tuesday saw Mississippi State's fall-freshmen class finally join the varsity for a real practice, on the second day of preseason work. These newest pups had a private introductory session on Monday morning, but for day-two of camp Mullen put them on the field with their elders. Often. In fact freshmen got to participate in every aspect of the nearly three-hour session, from drills to individual matchups to some 11-on-11 situations.

Talking to media immediately after practice Mullen was understandably reserved in comments about how the pups performed, or not. That would wait for review of the day's practice video. "They were out here with the older guys and got to see what the speed of practice is all about," he offered. "They figured out where the stretch-lines were and all that stuff. That's about it today. We'll find out a couple of days from now." As in, when padding goes on and contact begins.

Still interest in the freshmen from the handful of media and at least 250 fan-folk who came out to watch was obvious. Especially on the offensive side and most particularly in quarterback Tyler Russell as he touted rookie made his practice debut. Working fourth in the five-quarterback rotation, Russell participated in his fair share of drill-snaps and even got to direct the second offense in full-team snaps at the end of the evening. But if the kid caught his coach's eye, Mullen wasn't letting on yet.

"He's figuring out what's going on and learning how to call a play right now. Until he can do that it's hard to see if he can do anything else." Fall freshmen are off-limits to media interviews.

This won't prevent on-line discussions of what the kids did though. The addition of Chad Bumphis, Dennis Thames, and Brandon Heavens was an obvious benefit at the wide receiver positions as they got regular turns in the second rotation. They also took advantage of chances to show the sort of athleticism they bring to these positions, if all stick on offense that is. Some veterans and redshirts saw quickly that competition for playing time is about to get more intense. Such as in the pre-stretching offense drills where Bumphis, instead of an elder, was used on a flanker-reverse. Thames showed his footwork by tightroping the right sideline for a long completion from the wide-split position. Later in the evening both made good catches in 11-on-11 work, too, and they took some turns fielding punts.

The first receiver grouping Tuesday was still Brandon McRae, Leon Berry, and Tay Bowser; then O'Neal Wilder, Charles Bailey, and Andrew Ellard or Kyle Roberts. In his first day working with the varsity, true soph Arceto Clark—who will sit out this season—worked as a cornerback.

Other freshmen getting their first taste of offensive practice were running backs Montrell Conner—who at least once lined up in the slot as do the regular halfbacks—LaDarius Perkins, and William Shumpert; while freshman offensive lineman Gabe Jackson was a reserve left guard.

Defensively, Fletcher Cox lined up as the fourth tackle on the side where Charles Burns and Kyle Love work; while Josh Boyd was fourth on Pernell McPhee's side. The tackles alternate left and right sides in drills. Johnathan McKenzie was the third left defensive end, behind Brandon Cooper and Trevor Stigers. Linebacker Deonte Skinner worked as a third strong-side man; Nikoe Whitley got some third-team turns at safety and Jonathan Banks ran third cornerback on starter Damein Anderson's left side.

Getting the new kids into action didn't hurt the pace of practice; if anything it helped keep the evening moving at a brisk pace even with the natural mistakes. What mattered was their effort met expectations, and their presence offered the coaches fresh legs over long drills periods. "It's making the coaches run around a lot to teach them all," said Mullen. "But the thing about a lot of numbers, it lets you get a lot of reps because you're not trying to save guys or you're not blown-out after twenty plays. Having those numbers allows a lot of reps at other positions too."

For that matter Mullen was again pleased with the overall tone of practices. He said that the influence of older players showed in everybody "getting into the flow of things. I think they understand now the effort we're looking for in practice and the older guys push everybody else and get it going." It also helped that even the relatively secure veterans are working as if their jobs are on the line every snap. Because, it is. By no coincidence State's practice plans Tuesday called for much more one-, two-, or three-man matchup work than was seen Monday.

"Most of the stuff we do is competitive. That's where you're going to get better. I mean, we have our time we do stuff apart where you're learning. But you only get better if you have to go against the speed of what you're going to play against every single week."

This week continues with a 4:45 Wednesday practice, again open to the public. For the third day of camp the Dogs can don shoulder pads and contact is sure to follow, though per NCAA policy it is not supposed to include true tackling. Still Mullen expects to see even more energy just by adding partial armor.

"It always does. They'll have a little bit more energy, a little bit more juice coming out. And you get to see a little bit more, a more realistic look when you have shoulder pads on." Thursday and Friday have morning practices scheduled, the last open sessions of camp before two-a-days begin Saturday. The pace is only going to pick up as Mullen tries to complete scheme-installations ASAP.

"We'll hopefully get it all in here in the first six or seven practices, go back and clean it up, and really put the pressure on the guys to work and think."

Meanwhile Mullen wants to put a final bit of pressure on Bulldog fans to keep up their good work in reaching his oft-stated goal for season tickets. Mississippi State reported total sales of 38,469 as of Tuesday, which surpasses the 2001 season record of 38,440. Mullen found out after practice and while pleased he's not satisfied.

"I want 40,000, I'm pretty demanding! We've got 1,500 people that better get up and buy their season tickets tomorrow!"

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