"A good, hard practice today," he reported. "We did a little more scrimmaging at the end, that's where you saw some competitive juices come out, to try to break up the routine of going through all the drills and practice. We wanted to put a little winner and loser in situations so it was a little more competitive."
Late-practice scrimmages have been a routine since Mississippi State players pulled on full pads last Friday. This staff likes letting the Dog have at each other to conclude their sessions when practical, and Tuesday was no exception. Interestingly, the full-contact periods produced improvement in an area both offensive and defensive personnel commented on from Monday's practice: the number of fumbled footballs.
Though it would seem counter-intuitive, Mullen understood why Tuesday's semi-scrimmaging saw fewer such mistakes…and Monday's drilling did. "Just lack of mental toughness, that's it," he explained. "We had a lot of turnovers and ball on the ground yesterday, today it was a little bit better. The difference is we put them in competitive situations and they wanted to compete today."
And to compete offensively means keeping a grip on the ball, or for that matter making consistently successful quarterback/center exchanges and clean handoffs. Mullen is encouraged of course that in game-like situations the Dogs are protecting the pigskin, but that isn't enough when State is also working to install and develop an entirely new system. Put another way, turnovers interrupt the process in practice almost as much as they hurt in a game. Almost.
"What they have to do is learn to work when we're not keeping score," said Mullen. "They need to practice at that high intensity level. That's what we were missing yesterday that we got today."
When pads-practicing began Mullen said he expected to have a couple of traditional scrimmages to complement the similar periods in regular practices. He now has tentatively set that schedule. "We're going to have at least two full scrimmages. We'll probably do one on Thursday this week and one maybe ten days later before the first game."
Of course with contact comes injuries, and the Bulldog offensive front has taken a couple of hits. The most serious is to redshirt freshman guard Smith, who went down last Friday at the end of a scrimmage period holding an ankle. Not, fortunately, the one badly damaged last August in the first 2008 preseason scrimmage which required surgery and put him out for the season.
Smith was sidelined by a sprain Saturday and Monday morning and at yesterday's media meet Mullen offered no hint surgery was forthcoming. But in the afternoon the medical staff went ahead with a procedure to take care of Smith's naturally-tight ankle ligaments. "It's a little worse than what we thought," Mullen said today, adding "Whether they put the wire in to keep it tight or not it was going to be the same length of time with his rehab." So doctors went ahead and wired Smith's ankle up, and the wiring should help protect the joint during recovery. Mullen said it will be "two weeks of limited and then two weeks of really getting back." In the interim Smith, once cleared to walk, will do as much as possible to practice footwork, steps, and assignments.
Meanwhile Sherrod began having problems with a knee Monday, and was held out again today with what Mullen said was a pinched nerve that impacts his range-of-motion. "He could possibly go tomorrow or Thursday if we really wanted to push him. If it were game week he'd be ready to go."
As for re-aligning a line for scrimmaging, Mullen did not say who is promoted to Smith's open slot. During open practices Mark Melichar was the usual #2 man at right guard, with redshirt Templeton Hardy and senior Craig Jenkins nominally the backups at left guard but also with practice time—or in Jenkins' case real game time—as a right guard. For that matter 2008 starting tackle Quentin Saulsberry practiced most of spring at right before moving to left where he is first-team. Senior Chris Spencer is Sherrod's immediate backup.
Not that Mullen is restricted by depth charts per se. "We're putting a lot of people in there, rolling them through. We're trying all kinds of combinations on the line, we have to find ways to have our best five on the field. So it doesn't mean when a guard goes down another guard moves in." Ditto at tackle(s).
As to other injured Dogs, first DE Brandon Cooper (eye) is back practicing but not full-speed and with a protective visor. Starting DT Pernell McPhee (Saturday concussion) is practicing also in most if not all situations. Mullen isn't pushing this comeback either. "We've seen him make plays already, we don't need to put him in competitive situations all the time. We know he's a competitor." Freshman WR Brandon Heavens, the coach said, is looking good and made some plays today after a weekend groin strain.
"Everybody else that was kind of limited today was just a ding-up," Mullen said, contributing a new phrase to the injury vernacular.
Mullen expects final affirmation today that the last uncertified freshman, WR Ricco Sanders, will at last be cleared to join the roster. The rookie will still have to serve the normal ‘acclimation' period, and because he hasn't been able to participate in summer workouts or pre-season practices Sanders is going to be behind. Not that this will earn any coaching mercy. "We've got a lot to throw at him immediately, how much will stick we'll see!"
With the day's one practice done the Bulldogs were to report back from lunch for a weights session while the coaches reviewed morning video. "Then we'll have a walk-through and some more meetings pretty much the rest of the day," said Mullen. Wednesday is the third of four two-a-day dates on this preseason calendar, which means pads work in the morning and shorts session in the afternoon. Two-a-days ends Saturday. Mullen will also be busy off-the-field this week with ESPNU on campus.
And of course the Thursday scrimmage looms larger in week-two plans. Mullen says his idea of a scrimmage game follows a couple of distinct tracks. "One, put our team in game situations that they have to make adjustments to. But also just to find who makes plays. Some of the young running backs and receivers, who can do something with the ball. Then young defensive players who can run to the ball and make some tackles."
If that implies the State staff is not currently counting many of the 2009 rookie class as redshirt candidates, correct. Nobody is promised the year-off yet, especially at the speed positions either side of the ball. Mullen says it will probably be the third, fourth, even fifth game before final choices are made for the frosh.
"Once the season gets going we'll look at it. The problem is we're operating at around 78 scholarship guys, if you have that sort of numbers you need people to get through a season. It's going to be a long season so it won't be until middle of the season we decide to redshirt guys." As for some non-scholarship guys who might go on-grant for 2009, Mullen said a few of those calls will come sooner.
"A couple of guys will be on scholarship after two-a-days or when we get ready to start the season. Guys we think can contribute and play games for us this year, a couple of them will get scholarships." He declined to i.d. who those guys may be.