Bulldogs Pick Up Thursday Practice Pace

It's still a bit early to call anything about preseason football camp ‘routine' exactly. But as far as Coach Dan Mullen is concerned his Bulldogs returned to the sort of track he demands from daily drills this first week. "Better than yesterday," he summarized Thursday's morning session. "It was back to what we expect our normal practices to look like."

As in, focused attention and vigorous work from the moment every Dog walked—make that, jogged—across the line marking the start of another Mississippi State session. In this case, one that also ran much closer to the 2:30 schedule than did Wednesday's evening session which had to be interrupted when Mullen thought focus and effort were lagging. Not so Thursday, fortunately, which allowed the coaching staff to let the Bulldogs loose just after 11:30am.

And, for Mullen to have much kinder words about the results from day-four of preseason. "There's a lot to clean up. But if you give real good effort we can spend time coaching the little details. Because we're not coaching how to run to the ball and how to go hard. They're doing that. So there is an awful lot we've got to clean up, those little things, and we'll be able to do that as long as we have the same intensity every day."

Actually Thursday was a good test of player mindsets, since they had to report to Shira Complex less than a dozen hours after ending Wednesday's evening workout. It was the second day in shoulder pads, and very much warmer as well. Still just about everything Mullen and staff saw from the squad met their approval in the effort department. For that matter execution was pretty fair on both sides of the ball, too.

This is a good sign since now a couple of days into fall camp the coaches are trying to build upon what was carried-over from spring practices. Though, with the number of true freshmen involved there is also some hurried introductory teaching going on. Yet it has to encourage the coaches how veteran Dogs are assisting with instructions, too. Such in the opening periods Thursday with the quarterbacks and centers. First-team tandem QB Tyson Lee and OC J. C. Brignone were placed between their backup pairs intentionally, so that when Coach Les Koenning made the call the vets could offer their own tips to the counterparts. Not just Lee to younger triggermen Chris Relf and freshman Tyler Russell, but Brignone as well to true frosh Sam Watts.

As has been the case so far in camp the greater portion of offensive snaps in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills have been passing plays. There is still a big chunk of playbook to practice in that air-aspect and five quarterbacks to do it with, at least until it comes camp-time to prepare the players for a game. A lot is being, literally, thrown out there and results have been mixed. As in, who wins those particular plays. On the whole the defense seemed to come out ahead Thursday for a change and instead of settling for strips actually picked off passes.

Such as in seven-man team setting when Relf tried to finesse one out to WR O'Neal Wilder in the right flats. #1 CB Damein Anderson was able to find inside position for the intercept. In fact the last play of the practice day, team-on-team, saw Russell force his throw over the middle. Marcus Washington, the other starting cornerback but also a top nickel-safety, caught it on the move and ran it back into the end zone where the entire defense joined him to celebrate. Even Lee wasn't immune, though his pick came on a batted ball that ended up in the hands of first FS Zach Smith.

Mullen has liked what he's seen from the defensive secondary so far, most of all the safeties. "They're doing a nice job. When you have guys with the toughness with Charles Mitchell and Zach Smith with some leadership back there, and Marcus Washington as a senior with the whole group that's a group we expect and awful lot out of. Because there are guys that we're depending on back there, and they're also trying to be good leaders so these young guys can learn and accelerate their learning curve."

Not that the DBs were unbeaten all day. Such as when the big bodies of both sides practiced ground-game drills with the backs and ‘backers; the secondary and wide receivers went to another field to work on their tasks in a running play. On the whole the wideouts were able to successfully block the corners and safeties from getting by. Tempers flared a bit once to the point Smith and WR Leon Berry had to be pushed apart by coaches; on the next chance Berry wrestled Smith to the ground. One-on-one passing drills also gave the wideouts a bit more advantage and they took it, such as when rookie Chad Bumphis beat Mitchell by a step and made the safety jump—unsuccessfully—for Lee's perfect strike.

Freshman Bumphis is on a fast track, already in the second receiver rotation after three days. The first group has alternated at times this week but usually has seniors Brandon McRae and Tay Bowser along with juco transfer Berry in three-receiver sets. For four-wides they are usually joined by O'Neal Wilder. But there is some shuffling of the first and second groups to give kids like Bumphis, Dennis Thames, and Chris Smith turns with the varsity, along with redshirt Charles Bailey.

Youth wants to be served in the backfield, too, and freshman Montrell Conner is making a fast impression of his own. But here there are much better-settled veterans ahead. Mullen has been satisfied with the senior halfbacks here in week-one, especially Christian Ducre who has picked up further nuances of the spread system quickly after his spring shoulder problem.

"Ducre is doing an unbelievable job, everything you ask Christian to do he seems to be right on it. You watch him on special teams, that's where I see him, he does a tremendous job. He catches the ball, blocks, runs, does all those things. Anthony Dixon is coming back and working hard right now, I'm really pleased with the effort, he brings a little energy to that position." Mullen was spot-on with that, because while the coach talked Dixon could be heard in the background leaving the field shouting he was working on his tan. These veterans make an interesting pair to Mullen.

"Those two old guys, just non-stop energy, (from one) and the other that just does everything right out here on the field. Those are two guys to look up to hopefully to learn how to do things." Also hopefully, Arnil Stallworth is still pushing his re-hab from the spring knee operation in an effort to get into the '09 mix at halfback. "We're pleased with his progress, I didn't think he'd be as far along as he is now to go through individual and do some things. So that's a positive sign for him this year."

There were no Thursday changes to the first or second offenses. Phillip Freeman has strengthened his hold as the new first right tackle ahead of Addison Lawrence, the only real move to-date. Tobias Smith and Mark Melichar are 1-2 at right guard; Brignone and D.J. Looney at center; Quentin Saulsberry and either Templeton Hardy or Craig Jenkins at left guard; and Derek Sherrod and Chris Spencer at left tackle. The third offensive line, right to left, is Dakota Merritt, John McMillan, freshman Watts, freshman Gabe Jackson, and transfer Michael Bufkin.

The defense was without a starter today for the first time as DE Brandon Cooper, who left the field midway Wednesday, had a morning appointment to check on an eye. So instead of moving a #2 up at right end, starting LE Nick Bell moved to the other side and Sean Ferguson stepped up to first left end. This made the backups for the day RDE Trevor Stigers and LDE Shane McCardell, with Devin Jones and freshman Johnathan McKenzie the third pair.

Pernell McPhee and Charles Burns have held the top tackle jobs all week, working both sides of center but beginning the day left and right respectively. Kyle Love is the second RDE, but freshman Josh Boyd is already taking turns as the backup to McPhee. Rookie Fletcher Cox and Rodney Prince are third-team, with LaMarcus Williams and Josh Jackson the reserves in what has become the deepest part of the roster.

Wednesday Mullen talked at length about his emphasis on the kicking game(s), and that was again evident this morning with placekicking and punting receiving the attention. Kickoffs dominated yesterday's session. This focus will continue, Mullen said.

"A lot of it too for us is to identify some special teams players, those guys that just have a knack for giving that effort, for getting to the ball, making plays in punt-block, giving that relentless effort on a kickoff return. That's what we're looking for to identify those guys while we're installing and teaching some of the schemes. Hopefully by the end of camp we'll have those guys identified so as we get into the season we can really hone-in on our gameplans."

For that matter it will be a while before the staff can seriously hone-in on regular offense and defense. Mullen said it is still early in camp and there is soooo much teaching still to do. "It's all still installation. Today is all-new stuff from yesterday; tomorrow will be all-new stuff from today. I mean, the first week is a lot of installation. And then really you go back and clean it all up again afterwards."

Speaking of cleaning it up, the managers will likely be scrubbing the practice uniforms Friday evening. Because for day-five the Bulldogs can pull on all their gear and get after each other for-real.

"Tomorrow is full pads, I can't wait," Mullen said. "It will be a black-and-blue practice out here tomorrow, that's for sure!"

Friday is also a morning workout, starting at 9:00, and is the last open-to-public and media session of camp.

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