Whether it was the unusual hours, or the fact they were coming off a couple of free days, or most likely both, the Bulldogs responded well to the evening opportunity. "It was good," Mullen reported at the Wednesday afternoon briefing. "We had three days off so they came back with a lot of energy, and we looked OK." Or better than OK if the demanding coach is allowing his squad to ‘bank' a good day against the chance of a poorer practice sometime between now and the conclusion of camp.
At the same time the pressure stays on everyone involved to keep up that good work. Mullen stresses that to his mind this and next week are both still ‘training camp' and will be approached with that sort of intensity. Still, based on Tuesday plans and Wednesday reports there has been a pronounced practice shift. Which means that by and large the installation phase is done; the tidying-up and polishing stages are underway. The contact? That continues with full-pads practices for at least three nights this week.
Mullen reported that Tuesday's working schedule leaned towards the ground game, which was typical during two-a-days when the morning full-pads drills focused on rushing the football and afternoons featured more throwing. So for this Wednesday evening "It might be a little more pass emphasis tonight. Keep working and trying to polish up the stuff we already have installed."
However the routine will have to adjust somewhat for the first and second offensive units when they do air it out Wednesday because one of the quarterbacks is missing. In fact true freshman Tyler Russell has yet to get back on the practice fields since the weekend, as Tuesday he showed signs of tonsillitis and was held out. He's still staying away from the team tonight and for a while longer, though how long Mullen doesn't know. "I'm not a doctor, I have no idea on that!"
This leaves senior Tyson Lee and sophomore Chris Relf to split the share of varsity snaps their rookie cohort had been getting…and Russell was getting plenty. Over the weekend Mullen said quarterback had turned into an even battle for the top spot between Lee and Relf and had Russell been around more than a couple of summer months it would likely be a three-way fight. With the freshman out, spring walk-ons Riley Saunders and Aaron Encalade nominally become the third teamers here.
But the only battle that matters is at the top of the list and Mullen affirmed today that it is "pretty tight right now," adding that "It depends on what you're doing." Which is the coach's way of saying both Lee and Relf have their strengths and their weaker points which don't happen to match. Loosely, Lee's experience has shown in areas such as reading coverages and directing receivers; where Relf's physical gifts come to the fore in some specific aspects of the ground game. Though it's not really that clear-cut for the moment.
"I think one of the guys grasped something better than the other in certain situations, and then it's flipped in other situations," said Mullen. "Depending on the situation you get into one guy looks better than the other." The coach certainly hopes rookie Russell isn't sidelined too long because he needs to show more of what he can do in all those situations, run or throw, before the tone turns from training camp to game preparation.
Speaking of rookies, Mullen said the healthy freshmen seemed to have responded best to the weekend break and evening practice regimen. "The fact it wasn't the first day, it wasn't rushing right from class over to meetings, allowed them to be focused a little bit more on football. I think that went pretty well." This doesn't mean the newest kids have been settled entirely in. Yes, frosh like Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens and (when he returns from a foot problem) Chad Bumphis are going to be receivers. But are they Xs, Ys, Hs, what? For now, all the above says Mullen. Freshmen defensive linemen, too, are getting immersed in life as ends and tackles but not being entirely restricted to either. And so it goes, as first-year Dogs do well to check the practice depth chart before leaving the locker room. For that matter the veterans might follow that example from the way their coach talks.
"Oh, there's a lot of moving around going on right now. I don't think anybody, freshmen or seniors, is fit into a place yet for another two weeks." The point remains though that at least as far as the frosh receivers go, there are jobs for the taking. Mullen expects some to seize the opportunity with both hands.
"They're getting there, learning the offense. I think it's a little hard to figure out how to do things when you don't know what to do in the first place. Once they get the what-to-do figured out they can start working on how to do it and become better football players." Up until the painful foot finally got the better of him Bumphis was making the fastest progress…and had to, Mullen noted, from the sheer need at his best position(s). Meanwhile classmate Ricco Sanders, cleared over the weekend to enroll and practice just in time, is trying to make up for the lost summer.
"We're just getting him worked in. It's tough for him because he didn't get to go through all the conditioning, he's coming in right at the first day of school, so obviously it makes the transition tougher for him than some of the other guys."
The weekend allowed some Dogs to heal up from scrimmage scars, though now another issue is looming. Second DE Trevor Stigers was to miss Wednesday after showing "flu-like symptoms" according to Mullen. The Bulldog joins a number of MSU students reported to have been hit by a variety of that illness, which is causing concern all over the state these days. Mullen added that "we have a couple of sick guys on the team right now" without offering more names when asked about the overall injury list.
"If you can call those injuries," he spoke of the ill. "Injuries to me (are) like Tim Tebow played with a broken leg in high school. That's an injury!"
State has had one true injury in camp, with first OG Tobias Smith out for three more weeks after a procedure for a sprained ankle. First OT Derek Sherrod is being worked back into the routine coming off a minor knee issue. "Not having (them) practice at the same time I think slows you a little bit because there's the trickle-down effect; by the time you get to the two-reps," Mullen said. "You also have Michael Bufkin who would be our fifth tackle. So when you go with the twos your sixth tackle is playing, that's where you start to see it."
Still, "Just like anything, the next guy has got to be ready to jump in and go," said the coach. "It's allowed some other guys to get experience and for us to roll people through. And it increases depth a little bit." Though Mullen added that by this point in camp almost all situation-practicing is done by the first and second teams. "And not a whole lot of threes-on-threes at practice."
The Bulldogs were supposed to wrap up Wednesday work just after ten o'clock, at which point their coach would know if another deposit could be made in the Camp Account.