For that matter after observing the Fan Day fervor I'm getting worried about a few folk who themselves sound ready to hit somebody if they can't see some football, fast. Saturday afternoon and that signal from the network's red-cap to blow the whistle can't come soon enough for State. Maybe moreso for the coaching staff than the participants.
Initially I claimed that camp was ‘completed.' That might be slightly exaggerating the case, at least based on what our handful of night-owl media noticed Friday evening when the offense's ‘skill' guys weren't excused until after 11:00. Mullen joked it off saying practice had started late; the fact is State's offensive staff is, if not actually installing many new items, still stress-testing lots of stuff that normally would be polished into play-planning form at the end of August. This isn't a normal August of course. One has to wonder if the offense aides envy their defensive counterparts, able to settle on most of their '09 package weeks ago. Certainly Mullen's post-practice briefings this past week were much shorter and less revealing, as if he could hear a countdown clock ticking.
It would be more surprising of course if any first-time head coach, putting his first team on home field for the first time, wasn't acting at least a little antsy by now. Which means this is the week for veteran hands to take more of the load on themselves. Give Mullen credit for foresight in hiring two old dogs in this brutal business. I doubt there's anything Les Koenning and Carl Torbush haven't dealt with in their extensive careers, including getting a season started for a rookie boss. As reported last week both coordinators will work from the press box.
At the same time nobody can question, this is Mullen's team. So come Saturday all can see his ideas of what ‘spreading the fun' for Mississippi State football means. Naturally this involves the actual play-calling, the schemes and sets and such, and by the evening amateur coaches everywhere will be drawing their own conclusions about what worked, or didn't. Don't overlook more intangible aspects, though, from pre-game and sideline demeanor to something as seemingly-simple as the ‘relentless effort' that is Mullen's by-line for Bulldogs. Pity the first fellow who trots off the field and finds himself singled-out for an example to the entire squad. Hmmm, you don't reckon Coach Matt Balis will have some sort of temporary ‘Pit' set up behind the bench?
Now I wouldn't want to imply that Mullen is just a bundle of nerves these game-week days. He looked pretty relaxed last night at the volleyball match, especially considering those interesting plaid-pastel check shorts which I'm reasonably certain Mrs. Megan never saw back when on-the-job with the Golf Channel. For that matter the missus was all-smiles with young Cannon, who survived tending by tight end Brandon Henderson (told you in spring he was showing better hands) unscathed. And Coach gave a good, timely talk to the Bulldog Club meeting in the Hump, which I attended as a member, not a reporter. Though upon noticing an exercise bike on the court, I asked Bart Gregory if that was the ‘Pit' for members who hadn't paid-up on their pledges to date.
Still it will be professionally interesting to gauge Mullen's demeanor at his first Monday press conference, what he's willing to say as well as how long he says it. Not that we'd expect a lot of hand-tipping, whether about plays or players alike, but it can't hurt to ask how much of the lineup is settled and what he knows about Jackson State. Hey, we might even be officially informed at last the exact nature of Anthony Dixon's internal-team discipline has been/will still be. Nope, no clues, nor any useless spekalatin'. Though we might add that the media has paid at least some price for Dixon's July indiscretion too, since we've been denied the team's most entertaining interviewee in the interim. Safe to say—if ever Boobie is entirely safe around microphone or notebook—the lad will have stored up lots of words for our use and your enjoyment.
Hopefully he'll also be turned-loose on opening day, at least partly for the side-story line of playing against the hometown program that A.D. grew up a fan of. Dixon begins the senior year at 2,603 yards, fourth on State's career list and just 609 behind Jerious Norwood's record. That should be a reasonably easy standard to surpass; in fact he just needs 217 yards, one huge game, to run past both Michael Davis and Walter Packer for second place. If…he gets enough carries. And it's a very legit question because Christian Ducre has had a great August. He might very well have achieved top-Dog status in camp anyway based purely on performance.
Most of y'all noticed in the camp featurette on Ducre his comment about falling out of favor with the previous staff. Maybe so. But whatever one thinks of a fresh start with a new staff, the biggest factor has been the new offense which Ducre fits into beautifully. Because, he can do something of everything, especially pick up in protection. Emory Bellard would have gladly fitted this guy into his wishbones; coordinator Les Koenning is doing the same, and it oughtn't surprise either if Ducre were to line up at fullback in any sort of set.
Ahhh, you ask, but what about Mullen's comments that Dixon also suits the spread? Indeed he does, which is another reason why this scheme got to Starkville at the right time, with some right people awaiting. Dixon's power and breakaway potential, with Ducre's quickness of both eye and foot and sufficient muscle of his own; both have the tools to produce without so changing the scheme to tip off defenders of what is coming at them. Now, if only Rob Elliot and Arnil Stallworth can hit 100% soon and bring their complementary skills to the gameplan.
Nope, we're not doing full position-by-position breakdowns today. Take too long and, given Mullen's hints, not mean that much right now. Sure, there will be a real starting lineup and discernable rotations…but you just know the coach and staff want to get this one under control ASAP and put as many players, in as many combinations, on the field and under first-game fire as are practicable. Which, by the way, does not depend on it being a blowout. In fact I suspect Mullen would prefer it be played with real competitive intensity, within and without, for as long as conditions permit. This of course implies the very dangerous—given State's age-old tendencies in such matchups—conclusion that the Bulldogs will take care of this one with minimal fuss. Sigh, how often will somebody quip ‘Remember the Maine' this week? Though my own memory goes back enough to include other about-as-infuriating dates at Scott Field.
Still one position does demand addressing going into game week. It's not exactly going out on any long limb to say Tyson Lee should get the first snap of the season based on superior experience and proven poise. But…this coach doesn't seem too concerned with S.O.P. or routine or tradition or whatever. More like, whatever he believes suits the situation decides who is under center. For what it is worth, the camp coaching consensus is pretty much what you and I could have derived: that senior Lee is the right man to manage a game for a still-maturing team, sophomore Chris Relf the more potentially-explosive and less-proven player, and both are going to be utilized on opening day to the best of their disparate abilities. Any previous year, any coach, I'd have said this meant an automatic default to the known quantity. Y'all who recall, oh, say the 1980 season know what I mean; you youngsters can look it up, do you good to know some Bulldog history.
But this isn't any year, any coach. 2009 is the start of something very different at Mississippi State. If it makes sense to state it this way, Mullen may well surprise us with everything but nothing he does should shock us. Not even allowing Dixon to do that direct-snap stuff seen in spring, though I can only imagine just how blatant A.D.'s excitement would be leaving the huddle. More seriously, though, Mullen is not one to limit ideas and attitudes about playing this game. Perhaps this risks attempting too much, whether it be impromptu practice additions or in actual game play selections. That again is up to the coordinators to package for best application.
But y'know what? At this point in Bulldog football history the bigger risk would be playing things too safely. Whether that means how guys are aligned and where they are pointed, or who gets to play and who doesn't (referring mostly to freshmen, who with just a couple of exceptions are all available for immediate action), 2009 is the perfect fall for springing new ideas on both this program and the opposition. That is why Dan Mullen was hired in the first place.
And come Saturday, we get to see the first act in what must—must—become a long-running hit for Mississippi State. For now we can take their word for it: this is gonna be exciting.
One added and non-football note. Last year for the pre-season basketball issue (December 2008) of Dawgs' Bite we featured a compilation of ‘Old Tales From the New Gym', true (we assumed, though one was later fiercely disputed) stories from McCarthy Gymnasium days. Well, in six weeks the 2009-10 basketball preseason issue goes to press, and I'm putting out a similar request that will involve the younger half of State's fan base.
I'm asking for your best, or maybe in perspective worst, stories from Humphrey Coliseum. Not just your favorite game, the biggest win, most heartbreaking loss, most idolized players, etc., though that of course is welcome and needed. I also want as many ‘personal' angles as possible, too. Like the best/worst/weirdest experiences before and during games. I'd imagine there are quite a few fascinating tales from folk who camped-out for games, some of which can even be printed with no names changed to protect the guilty.
What about great dates, or broken ones, at the game? Future spouses first-met, marriage proposals, or if it's remotely amusing divorces resulting from a Bulldog game? The most you ever paid a scalper, only to find a buddy free-loaded his way in? The most somebody ever offered for your ticket? Were you involved in the chaos after the infamous gun-firing incident on the concourse?
Were you among the ‘riff raff' that abused Wimp Sanderson that night? Did you spin out the car parking for the ice-delayed Georgia game? Did you see the empty rum bottle tossed by the Alcorn State fan in '79? What's the best insults ever hurled at Dale Brown? Did he laugh back? Those are just some suggestions but I hope y'all can come up with more and better.
To submit, either post them on one of the message boards; or send to me direct (DavidHMurray) as a PM. And for honesty's sake, we ask your real name for use in the magazine. I'm trusting your Bulldog honor to be accurate and honest in this, after the aforementioned disputed account we had last year that can't be proven either way.
Most of all, have fun with this. It's your chance to be published, after all, so make it as good as we expect Bulldog basketball to be this winter.