"We'll check in the hotel tonight and get locked away for a week of all-secluded football," said Mullen. "For the opportunity to build our team on and off the field, for us to change from a group to a team and get us ready for the season. I think our guys are excited, I'm really excited."
For that matter the State squad had their share of morning excitement already with their first practice in full-gear. Which of course meant full-contact, at least most of the time, and another Bulldog benchmark to Mullen of sorts.
"We're done with the warm-up program, we had our first day in pads and go to shake the rust off." Now any lingering corrosion will be rattled off in a couple of Saturday sessions. Closed sessions for public and media, too, as Mullen is serious about that seclusion part.
As the Bulldogs go into their private practicings (there are four sets of twice-daily drillings interspersed with the NCAA-mandated single sessions) Mullen is generally satisfied with the state of State through five days of work. The new staff has been demanding of their team hard in week-one and Mullen agrees that the typical two-and-a-half hours outdoors likely has seemed longer to the players being pushed. And despite the natural ‘boost' of first-pads day the coach had some concerns about maintaining momentum and motivation.
Happily, and despite some obvious and expected lapses, Friday's practice met with approval. Mullen made it clear the defense came out the better of first-full-contact day and the offense had more lapses in execution as well as outright mistakes and turnovers than he wants. However it may have said something about the coach's overall attitude that he gave the offense a ‘double-or-nothing' opportunity on the last play of the practice: either the first-team offense scored from the one-yard line against the one-defense on one chance, or they ran four gassers as a penalty.
The offense seized the chance with both hands, or maybe more accurately RB Christian Ducre kept a death-grip on the pigskin with one hand while vaulting the line left-of-center for a touchdown. Thus nobody had to run farther than the locker room. Other notes from the morning session were posted in a previous story.
"It's hard to be intense the entire two hours," Mullen said. "I was pleased today. When the offense goes against the defense you need to turn up that intensity. They've done it the last two days, today especially you saw that intensity in full-pads when we came together."
The fact is Mullen wanted to maximize the emotions of first pads-day but modulate the intensity and get a lot of work done. It's the same approach that will be used in two-a-days: there will be teaching followed by contact work such as inside-game drills; then more instruction and some periods with the special teams; further teaching and passing offense/defensive rush and coverage. "Then the opportunity to teach some," Mullen explained, "calm it down some." Though he added Friday was a bit special as he wanted more red-zone and goal-line drills at the end. "To really let guys loose. I wanted to see that toughness come loose and that's where you see it, when you go in a very small space and go nose-to-nose." In other words, when the ‘spread' offense of manufactured matchups turns into old-fashioned collective gut-checks.
Make no mistake though, there is a whole lot of the spread system and for that matter the defensive schemes left to be installed in the coming camp days. Putting on pads didn't help this much, not at first. "I think they did take a step back today," Mullen said. "You hit day-give of installation, it's when it all falls in on them. But they fought through it."
Mullen gave his quarterbacks positive reviews after week-one, noting that Tyson Lee and Chris Relf must have taken his spring criticism to heart and done a whole lot of summer passing. "Because they're throwing more accurately than in the spring." But he added, "We still have a long way to go. Tyson, my expectations of him are very high. Tyson hasn't done anything to blow me away but he hasn't done anything to disappoint me. He knows the offense, knows the checks." Mullen even admitted that Lee has been held back so far in terms of what plays are practiced so the other quarterbacks can catch-up.
"Chris has really impressed me in the steps he's taken from spring until now, obviously he must have worked hard this summer because he looks like a different quarterback. And I thought Chris was the one I'd be most worried about. Obviously he's taken a little bit of a step forward." And what of fabled freshman Tyler Russell? Unpaid observers have come away from open practices generally impressed with the big kid's arm and even somewhat surprised by his footwork and ability to make things happen in the ground game. Mullen is more professionally guarded in evaluations offered.
"Tyler, through give days of practice you have no idea. I think he throws the ball well and to give him credit he's working really hard." Not to mention working already as the #3 quarterback where he was expected to be by now.
Mullen has not seen any major camp surprises so far. He has seen welcome progress in key areas, such as the development of the defensive line and addition of young talent that make the interior positions really deep. One rookie, Josh Boyd, is already up to a second-team job.
"The secondary, there's more confidence every day in some talented players back there," said Mullen. "The receiver position has a ways to go but they realize there's numbers. In spring one day there were three receivers at the end of practice, now we've bolstered the position with some new guys." Such as frosh Chad Bumphis, Brandon Heavens, and Dennis Thames who are already in the second and third rotations.
Actually Mullen has not been overly concerned about juggling the depth chart, not so far. What matters more is where the team generally stands at this early point of camp.
"I'm pleased we came in where we left off in spring, not behind. But we still have a ways to go at those other positions."
State has had good injury luck for a change in fall, after a rough spring in that aspect. DE Brandon Cooper missed two days' work after getting a finger in an eye Wednesday; and that end-of-Friday goal line battle left a couple of gimpy Dogs with first OG Tobias Smith limping off the field and second DE Trevor Stigers helped off after a pileup. All Mullen could report three hours later was "they got a little dinged" of those two. Their situations will be updated Saturday morning after the first practice when Mullen talks to media around 10:30.
State is also awaiting expected word that freshman WR Ricco Sanders has indeed been certified. Mullen said "it's a paper trail" for Sanders at this point.
But Saturday the practice trail takes the Bulldogs to closed camp where Mullen intends to put on even more pressure to perform. Because while he acknowledges the 2009 season kickoff are still a ways off…it doesn't feel that way when he leaves the office.
"The neat thing is you walk from this building over to the locker room and the practice fields every day, you can look to the left and see our stadium sitting there. You know that's what is waiting for us September 5."