"We're going to get a lot of plays in tomorrow," the head coach promised. "We'll be out there for a while." Exactly how long will likely depend on how well the Bulldogs collectively perform in the closed scrimmage. Or perhaps not, since on this one-practice camp date the staff can keep everyone going for as long as enough bodies hold up and the video crew's batteries hold out. It is up to the players, because when Mullen holds a scrimmage he means business.
"In a lot of the drills right now you keep everybody up and healthy in a ‘thud' tempo, they don't always know would he have made the tackle or would the guy have broken the tackle in that situations," he explains. "Tomorrow, with a competitive situation, we get to find out."
There will be lots of finding-out done if things proceed and players compete as planned. Not just compete against each other, offense against defense and vice-versa however important that is; but compete against alternates and backups who want to improve their standing on the depth chart. This too is part of the winners-and-losers philosophy Mullen has instilled in MSU's mindset.
More technically speaking, "We'll do all kinds of different situations. We'll start driving the ball in different parts of the field. We'll do back-to-the-wall, do a third-down scrimmage, do a red zone/goal line scrimmages. So we'll just kind of move the ball around, it will be very similar to what we did in the spring."
Meanwhile the Bulldogs put in a pretty competitive morning practice Wednesday, one of the four two-a-day dates this preseason. It was obvious things ran well because this time Mullen beat his p.r. staff to the press briefing and was close enough to the scheduled time.
"A good morning," he called it. "We came out and worked hard today. Maybe a little cloud cover doesn't hurt the cause for them when they get a little bit tired and sore. But I was pleased." Likely one good reason for the coach's post-practice pleasure was the progress made since the weekend when, as reported by several players, turnovers were an offensive issue. This seems to have been fixed to a large extent.
"Much better, much better," said Mullen. And while there are technical reasons for much better ball handling, whether center exchanges or handoffs or at the point of contact, the coach says there is a very practical reason as well. Snaps are at stake now. "I mean it's a pretty simple thing: guys look and say OK, I put the ball on the ground and I'm not going to play, we're going to protect it better. The backs have done much better job of ball security the last two days."
The four backs, that is. Mullen has consistently praised the efforts of senior RB Christian Ducre in camp, and record-setting senior RB Anthony Dixon has worked his way back into good graces again too. "And hopefully Arnil Stallworth comes back to start battling for that position too," said Mullen. The third senior is still kept out of contact based on the rehab schedule from his March knee injury and operation, but working well in all individual drills.
RB Robert Elliot is much farther along, to the point Mullen considers the soph fair game in full-pads and scrimmage situations. That September knee injury and spring/summer rehab are officially over now and Elliot has responded as hoped. "Rob is doing good," Mullen said. "I'm still shaking some rust off him, being a young guy coming off an injury, I think he still has a little catching up to do. But he gets a lot of full contact."
Since camp went into seclusion setting there's been no outside observation of how the lineups have or have not changed other than for injuries. Then again Mullen points out that what fans and media would list as first- or second-teammers might not tell the true story. Nor is he overly concerned about where there might be ‘good battles' for status taking place.
"More of my evaluation is who can play for us. If we're two-deep at a position we'll rotate guys. That's more it than saying this guy is a starter, this guy is the backup. I'm trying to find the guys who can play a position. Who is our starting tailback? You have Ducre and Boobie; I'm good! In my mind they're both starting tailbacks. Through your perception the guy that plays the first play of the game is the starter. That's not always my perception."
At the same time the quarterback pecking order is reasonably settled with senior Tyson Lee the starter, soph Chris Relf the alternate, and true freshman Tyler Russell third on the chart. Yet here too Mullen is not so concerned about guys moving up or down as he is about finding the ideal ways to fit them in and out of various schemes. Put another way, this offensive staff is preparing for a two-quarterback system and, maybe, three.
Nor, Mullen stressed, is changing triggermen an absolute indicator of the call. "You play to their strengths, but you're also going to take what the defense gives you. You're not going to just say Chris you're going to run it and Tyson you're going to throw it. You're going to see what the defense gives you with those two, too.
"A lot of it is just about situation. There's all different ways to play two quarterbacks, what we have to do is figure what the best plan for us is."
The two veterans have bought into this approach. Mullen praised Lee's "tremendous amount of effort" put forth this camp, adding "That's my expectation and he hasn't let me down. He'll continue to work and continue to develop." Meanwhile Relf continues to put potential into practice. "Chris is up and down," Mullen said.
"I think for a guy like Chris with his athletic ability he does a little better this morning in the running game part of practice than he does with all the changes of protections in the throw-game. He's much-improved but still has a long way to go. He had a nice practice this morning, what we need is him not regress now, manage the team when we have to throw the ball this afternoon."
And what of touted rookie Russell? Getting outright praise from this coach for a first-year guy isn't easy. "He's just learning, like all freshmen coming in. Everybody else had a spring to go through it and has been used to the speed of the game. Tyler is improving, he's working hard. That's a position it just takes some time to develop." But it is equally clear the staff is trying to accelerate the development, and for now Russell is being prepped to play in 2009. With good reason, Mullen said.
"Two guys trip in the locker room today or fall down the stairs and he's the starter! There's no redshirting in our minds for a long time."
Not that injuries are usually a laughing MSU matter, of course. But so far this has been a reasonably painless camp, with only first OG Tobias Smith (ankle ligament) needing surgical attention. His timeframe for return is about a month now. First OT Derek Sherrod (pinched knee nerve) is "better than the trainers thought he would be" Mullen said this morning. The junior left tackle could scrimmage and would certainly play if this were game-week. But, "We're not in a hurry to rush him back into things now. Everything else was bumps and bruises, a couple of guys are limited with tweaks and stuff. I'll say this, there are some guys hurt and no new injuries today!"
Sherrod might be held out into next week, in fact. If having two starting blockers is a concern in week-two of camp, Mullen isn't showing it. Instead he is turning it to a scrimmage advantage and giving other linemen chances to show their stuff under game-type pressures. Because they will almost surely be needed sometime in 2009.
"You want to have the flexibility to put in different guys. It's a long season, you're going to have to make different combinations. And we might have done that without injuries, we interchange guys here and there just to give them the opportunity to play."
Besides, Mullen noted, "I think when you have the opportunity to play with the ones, in the first team, all the players around you ‘pick up' your level of play. So it's not bad for us as we mix and roll different players in with the ones you see their level of play rise. And that's what we want to get accomplished."
With the morning work done, Mullen and staff grabbed the usual quick camp lunch and kept evaluating full-contact practice tape. They'll rejoin the players for the afternoon session which will be in shoulder pads and helmet and, for the most part, tackle-free. Though even in these drills bodies end up on the ground, hard, because this camp is all about competition and nobody wants to hold back.
Which explains Mullen's grin when asked if this would be a light afternoon for the Dogs, considering they hit this morning and will scrimmage Thursday. "No," he said. "We're going to be more pass-emphasis this afternoon. But lighter? Besides not wearing (football) pants lighter wouldn't be the word for what we'll put them through this afternoon."