Mullen Pushes Dogs To Better Wednesday Work

Even if it was just the third day of preseason, Coach Dan Mullen saw a sharp point needed making. "The drill wasn't going how I think it needed to go, so I made sure we got it done the right way," he explained. So he called an abrupt halt to a 7-on-7 passing/coverage period; put not just the guilty parties but the entire team on one sideline; and let them run a couple of gassers.

Fortunately when practice resumed it was clear the message, emphasized in a full-huddle lecture after the running, had gotten through. The remaining ten periods saw the sort of focus and function the head coach wants to be standard practice procedure here at Mississippi State. Because, Mullen said, "It wasn't as much about the execution.

"It was more the effort going on at that point. So we had to start that drill over and make sure we got the effort we needed."

That interruption helped make State's third practice day of camp the longest, ending three hours after official start time. Though, Mullen downplayed this calling the first half-hour "like a walk-through. So two-and-a-half is about right, that's how I look at it. It was alright, there were a couple of things we had to do over so that's why I went two-and-a-half instead of two."

There was no question though that the Bulldog staff covered a whole lot of areas in Wednesday's work, which was also the first in shoulder pads. Even that walk-through featured some specific offensive and defensive 11-man drills by the first and second units; and not coincidentally the long day concluded with actual team-on-team practices, both running and passing, by all three squads. Three, because with the addition Tuesday of fall freshmen State is now able to field a trio of complete lineups on both sides of the ball.

Yet there was an obvious emphasis Wednesday in the teams that kick, return, and cover the ball. Including for the first time kickoffs, coming off the boot of either Sean Brauchle or Derek DePasquale. It hasn't taken long for new talents to find niches in this area of the game, because freshman WR Brandon Heavens got to field the opening kickoff ahead of spring first-teammer Leon Berry. WR Kyle Roberts and another frosh, RB LaDarius Perkins, took turns in kickoff return as well.

Placekicking, by the same too specialists, got the usual snaps (DB Cameron Lawrence as the first holder). Nor was punting left out, though for this day it was all done with the snap coming off the ten yard line and an emphasis on protection and getting the ball off high and fast rather than going for pure distance. This Heath Hutchins did just fine, though it is also evident State's punt-rush teams are being pushed to get to the ball somehow this season.

All told a major percentage of Wednesday's snaps were in some sort of kicking play. "That's going to be every day for us," Mullen said. "We're going to be a good special teams team and to be good you've got to practice it. We're going to have a lot of time designated at the beginning and the middle of practice towards special teams."

Whether 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 there were more passing plays called than rushes, as State both continues installing various packages as well as evaluating the longer list of fall receivers. This meant the rotations changed through the day somewhat, with Berry the one wideout who got to open every such period with the first unit. The day began with Brandon McRae and Tay Bowser also number-ones; it ended with O'Neal Wilder on the first unit in place of McRae, who admittedly is still not quite 100% speed. Bowser had a rough few early periods but settled down later.

Meanwhile Andrew Ellard and Charles Bailey have held their places in the second rotation, but the rookies are putting on pressure early. Particularly Chad Bumphis who after a couple of hours was taking his place with the number-twos and even a few times on first-unit. Dennis Thames is also working his way up the ladder, which is somewhat easier to do at this stage of camp with so many three- and four-wideout packages being practiced.

In such passing situations Marcus Green is the first tight end and Thomas Webb the second, with Kendrick Cook, Brandon Henderson, and Austin Wilbanks doing the dirty work in running drills. Which was included Wednesday, as for some consecutive periods quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell operated ground-game snaps while Tyson Lee, Riley Saunders, and Aaron Encalade worked with wideouts and defensive backs.

Though not a designated contact practice, per NCAA policies, there was sufficient colliding at the line during the rushing/stopping drills that bodies inevitably ended up on the ground. As expected, Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre performed well whether going between or at the tackles with consistent gains. More encouraging maybe was how rehabbing RB Robert Elliot and freshman Montrell Conner were able to scamper to the corners and even turn it at times; particularly rookie Conner who had two very nice read-and-runs to and down the left sideline.

The main change in the pre-camp depth chart has been on the offensive line, as after splitting snaps Monday redshirted juco tackle Phillip Freeman has been promoted to first-team ahead of spring number-one Addison Lawrence. The competition here is far from finished, but Freeman is clearly showing the benefits of sitting a season and growing to the current 6-6, 305 pounds.

Defensively the first unit hasn't altered in three days, at least not until late Wednesday when RDT Brandon Cooper went to the training room on his own steam. Trevor Stigers moved up to the number-one unit there, which meant true frosh Johnathan McKenzie found himself taking second-team snaps in the 11-on-11 drills. For that matter fellow rookies Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd also were worked-in at second-team tackles in the later drills.

When a careless reporter (ahem) mentioned to Mullen that for three days not a single player has had to spend practice in strength coach Matt Balis' reserved area for rehab, the coach grimaced. "Yeah, jinx me!" he said. "Let's hope it stays that way." Certainly no Dog wants to spend any time in the ‘bike park' which is maybe more grueling than actually practicing, which was proven in spring camp.

"I'm not worried about our conditioning," Mullen said. "Matt worked them hard this summer and our guys came in in pretty good shape. I don't think that's been the issue. It's just making sure we go as hard as we can every play and getting used to that. That is where we're still pushing them."

If there were any other annoying aspects today, it was a few too many strips of receivers—veterans and rookies alike—after catches in 7-on-7 drills. And in full-team competition the quarterbacks were not as sharp as the day before, though in this case the defense was coming a bit more aggressively. But that is part of the natural cycle of camp with the certitude of change again at the next practice Thursday.

"We'll be out here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning," said Mullen. "It's day-four of acclimation period. We have two days of helmets and two days of shoulder pads, and Friday we'll go full pads." The morning session, as is Friday's, will be open to the public fore camp is closed to all observation starting Saturday.

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