"This was a big, big day for us," Mullen said. "This is the last two-a-days we have." The last of four such practice dates, all conducted at South Farm and closed away from most observation. With the fall semester about to begin the coaching staff intends to maximize this final experience down on the farm, as it were, and Mullen was pleased with the effort Saturday morning.
"They worked hard today. They came out and battled. We need to this afternoon again, we have school starting Monday and this is our last day out on the farm out there. There's no practice Sunday and no practice Monday so we need to really push and go hard today."
Mullen felt free to push all the harder this time because even though the Bulldogs went through their first real fall scrimmage on Thursday they'd at least had yesterday off from anything but pre-semester school matters. "I think if we'd really grinded them yesterday I don't know if we'd have gotten much out of them. We might have squeezed the orange dry at that point!" And, as noted, there will be no further such drills or hitting until Tuesday. So State is expending a whole weekend's worth of on-field work in one day, albeit a two-practice day.
"But they came out with the right attitude and gave some effort. This was a really hard practice this morning and it's going to be another really hard one this afternoon. Just that they've got to learn to finish and battle hard here with the last two-a-day."
Fortunately the battles have not left a lot of wounded Dogs so far. Mullen said he did not notice any new injuries from this morning. First OT Derek Sherrod (knee nerve) is cleared to practice but was restricted today to individual drills. "No need to push him," Mullen noted. First FS Zach Smith (hamstring) was also limited today. "Most of our guys, the bumps and bruises this point we're kind of limiting what they do so to not make the injury worse," said Mullen.
State also got to put the last cleared fall freshman, WR Ricco Sanders, on the field today. Just not in all team situations or any contact, since the rookie has to run through the NCAA's acclimation period that the rest of the roster took care of weeks ago. "We stuck him out and he did some stuff. He's just behind, he didn't get a whole month of conditioning so it's going to take some time to get in shape and caught up with everybody else."
The coming days of no on-field work give Mississippi State's staff the chance to do some catching-up of their own. Specifically, on what will ultimately be included in the 2009 playbook. Mullen and aides also spent Friday going through the scrimmage tapes for a check on where the Bulldogs stand just two weeks into camp. Mullen's evaluation?
"We've got a lot of work to do. That's what stood out to me, to be honest with you." Pressed for specifics to be worked on, Mullen smiled again. "The game of football. Offense, defense, and special teams; blocking, tackling, catching, covering, everything."
It isn't that the first-year coach is turning comedian after two grueling weeks of work. He'd love to be farther along in both installation and evaluation at this point, and is very much grateful that opening day is still three weeks off. "If we were playing a week from now I'd be paranoid. We're not so we've got to just keep fighting through it." As well as working up some sort of general gameplan for the season, if not a set opponent just yet. This too is only now taking shape.
"I'd say this, it's not on paper yet. That will be this week. But I think the coaches, everybody is formulating their opinions right now of who can do what, what we do well, and what direction we're going to go in.
Some directions are trending positively through two-a-days. For the offense turnovers are way down this week, a good sign given the increased daily contact involved. The quarterback battle has tightened up markedly as soph Chris Relf has gotten a better grasp of the overall scheme and, according to the coach, effectively drawn even with senior Tyson Lee. Young running back Rob Elliot is getting up to speed ahead of hopes and offers a complement to established seniors Christian Ducre and Anthony Dixon. And while injuries to Sherrod and first OG Tobias Smith (out 4 weeks with an ankle procedure) have taken two starters off the line, Mullen has turned it to an advantage of sorts by shuttling in other blockers and testing varied combinations that will almost certainly be needed during the season.
As for the defense, they've drawn positive reviews all along. "I've been impressed with the defense, the effort those guys give running to the ball has been pretty good," Mullen said. In fact there is little specific to say on that side of the ball since the defense has been so consistent in camp. The coaches have been free for their own testing of younger and less experienced personnel in the front line since the starting rotations are sound and, save for an eye accident with DE Brandon Cooper now fixed, healthy. Spring arrival DT Pernell McPhee has more than lived up to billing, though he's worked exclusively—so far anyway—at tackle instead of end where he was a ferocious juco pass rusher. That is something to watch as the season gets closer, whether McPhee gets some turns at an end slot.
The linebacker and safety groups, first and second and in a few spots third, have looked relatively established and effective, as have the top two cornerbacks on each side. In fact redshirts Louis Watson and Corey Broomfield get a good number of snaps with the top teams while starters RCB Marcus Washington and LCB Damein Anderson take some turns as a nickel safety.
Concerns remain, most obviously the fact that as Mullen has said there is not yet a all-purpose wide receiver on the roster, so at this point it will be lineups for matchups and situations more than a true rotation at the X, Y, H, and other slots. The two juco specialists have practiced as well as hoped but by no means are the complete special teams settled, and as season approaches these squads will be worked more and more.
But to Mullen one fact stands out most in his first fall camp at State. "I think what we do well right now, there's a lot of guys battling for positions. And there are very few guys that have settled in and said hey, I'm a starter and not going to try as hard or a backup saying I'm a backup and not going to try as hard. Everybody is continuing to battle every day for position, and that's what is going to make us better."
The competition resumes this afternoon, with the final session of two-a-days a non-contact practice that will focus on passing offense/defense as well as some specific kicking teams situations. And, as Mullen said, just "the fundamentals of where we're grinding to get ourselves ready to go." Come Sunday it will be a different sort of grind since everybody will have checked out of the camp-hotel and into dorm rooms and apartments for the duration of fall.
For that matter it hasn't been all-work all the time for the players. And just because there was no Friday practice it didn't mean the Dogs weren't assembled. They did, at the picture show to see a movie of the head coach's choosing: G.I. Joe. Hey, why not a little light-hearted late-summer film fare?
"Three stars," said Mullen. "A little entertaining. A lot of excitement, a little far-fetched in certain parts, but that's G.I. Joe, you know, they have all the neat toys!" The coach also said that had any players been in ‘the pit' as Coach Matt Balis' practice punishment pen is called, they'd have been sent to watch Julie and Julia. None were.
There isn't a lot of time left for play of course now that school opens. The Bulldogs will have a Sunday brunch and team chapel at the Templeton Center, then meetings and film study. "I think they're going to get a lift in tomorrow. And with school starting we're going to do a big kind-of prep, go through all of our team policies which we haven't done in two-a-days. All the different policies and getting them ready to be students."
Meanwhile the coaches will have a big week ahead, because after morning class-checks the staff bear down on further evaluations of what has and hasn't worked and what else can be taught and tried before it's time to start prepping to play for-real.
"Monday is going to be a huge day, we'll probably spend cleaning and tidying things up. I guess this is our practice number 14 or 15 and it's only about half-way through training camp before your first game. And we're done with two-a-days and school is already started." Along with once-daily practice beginning Tuesday. Mullen doesn't want to get into a set schedule just yet.
"So we have two more weeks of training camp. Our practice times are going to be a little different, we might go late at night next week and early in the morning the following week before we settle into our normal schedule. So that when we start our normal routine for game week, it's game week."