"We are very proud to be a part of this historical game," Mullen said Monday at his first season press conference. "I know the guys on the team are excited, a lot of these guys grew up playing against each other in high school. Jackson State is a strong team, they know how to win."
At the same time, September 5 has long been marked on MSU calendars not just for the matchup. To fans it is the day they've waited for since Mullen's hiring; to see what the acclaimed offensive expert has done with this roster, how his system works in real action. To see if indeed this will be as exciting as the advertising has boasted. The coach certainly expects so.
"I'm really excited. This is obviously something that I wanted, to be a head coach my whole life. And to have this opportunity is unbelievable. And now that this week is here it's another first for me. Just like the first team meeting, first workouts, first practice, first camp. And now the first game week and first game."
Mullen's excitability is natural, and seemingly infectious. He got game-week started with a morning team meeting prior to Monday's class schedule. "Just to change the tempo and make sure everybody is ready," he said, admitting he arrived "fired up and ready to go." This, not to mention the extra intensity shown at last week's practices, has amused much of the assistant staff, particularly those who have been through this sort of thing before.
"They kind of chuckle and laugh at me," Mullen said. "They can't wait to see how my personality changes in the week. And how friendly I become by Saturday morning with them. But it's an unbelievable experience."
That said, there is still plenty of routine work to get done in the remaining days to kickoff. The Bulldogs were given Saturday and Sunday both off from real practices, after a hard stretch of work in the final week of training camp. Today's schedule called for weight workouts prior to the afternoon practice which will be in full pads with "a lot of run game" as the emphasis for both offense and defense. Mullen said the net result is for this week only Monday is like a normal Tuesday practice the rest of the season. Tomorrow will feature passing work on both sides of the ball in partial pads, shifting to clean-up and polishing the rest of the week.
"Obviously the last couple of weeks have been about us, learning how to run our offense and defense. Now it's to complete application."
As well as preparing for a real opponent. Jackson State does not play football in the top NCAA Division, but anyone familiar with this program knows there are Blue Bengals who compare capably with the top players in any BCS league. "The first thing you see on film is extraordinary athletes," said Mullen, who recruited one Tiger, return ace Carlos Everett, as Florida's coordinator. He's just one example of the skill personnel State is going to face on both sides of the ball.
"They're very multiple on defense and the different looks they give you. They're very athletic out in space on the perimeter, I think that's where they match up well with us. They run the spread offense and try to spread the field the way we do. They have some athletic quarterbacks that can make things happen when they get in the open field."
And obviously the Tigers bring extra motivation to this matchup, as well as a healthy sense of confidence that they belong. "They got to play for their conference championship last year," Mullen said, "they know how to win. They're coming off that type season, in their minds playing for another conference championship. We'll have our hands full. But it's obvious our team is excited."
Not to mention ready to play a real game after four-plus weeks of camping. It's been a tough stretch, mentally and physically alike, though the injury report is encouragingly short with only OG Tobias Smith expected to miss the affair. Mullen and staff had pushed the Bulldogs long and hard; so far everyone has responded in the right way.
"What I'm most happy with our team is how they've all stuck together. There's no guys that have stood up and taken on an individual approach, ‘I know my job and let's move on'. The defense is working to help the offense and vice-versa. That's the most encouraging thing coming into the season."
While the players have stuck together the staff has been putting together their own gameplans, though these have been altered almost daily over the course of camp. For that matter final touches are still a couple days away after Mullen and coordinators Les Koenning and Carl Torbush get their last, best read on what works best for whom and when. Mullen said today that the plan for now is to script "anywhere from the first 10-15 plays" to be utilized. "That doesn't mean call them in that order, but the plays we like to run in the first two series.
"After that we'll get on the headsets and review what we've run, (the assistants) go over adjustments with their players, come back and give input. We'll go back them to the players and coach them up that (next) eight plays and what we expect to see from them. What order we'll run those eight in, a lot will be Les and a lot will be me making suggestions on what order we need to call those in."
As for who will be putting those plays into motion, Mullen gave both senior Tyson Lee and sophomore Chris Relf positive reviews from camp in certain things. Consistency has not been one of those. "Tyson will have a great day one day and then drop the next day, Chris a great day and then drop the next day. So we're really working on the consistency of those two on a daily basis.
"I see both of them playing, right now the plan is to play both in the first half." Now, as to who will play the very first snap? Mullen acknowledged that this defines ‘starter' in most minds. But not his. "I consider the starter whoever plays the most plays and plays the best." Which means there will be a rotation in the works for game-one.
"A lot will depend on play-calling, whatever play we call the first play of the game will probably depend on who is in there. A lot will depend on field position who is going to be in the game." Which, Mullen added, applies to just about all positions on this team, though most notably at quarterback and running back. State has spend camp practicing various tempos in rotations, of five and three plays or single series. "I look at it a lot like any position on our team. If Christian Ducre goes out and Anthony Dixon comes in it doesn't change the tempo or the expectations or the mindset of the team. Their job is to run on the field as fast as they can, do their jobs, run off the field, and listen to the coach."
Speaking of running, while the coach isn't naming starters there either Ducre is officially listed as first halfback in order; which only affirms what has been seen at or said about this camp. Mullen will not offer any details about the ongoing discipline regimen of record-setting runner Dixon, whether it will impact his participation for the opening game. "That will be determined later this week, obviously by us," Mullen said, adding that Dixon has worked hard and well. "He's fulfilled his requirements for some of the things we've expected for him to get back in good standing with the team."
Either way, having two proven seniors and a fast-healing classmate Arnil Stallworth is a big deal in this backfield. "That has got to be the position on our team with the most depth and experience," Mullen said. "Those are the guys we will need to lean on this year, not just their talents but their leadership.
At the same time State is counting on the talents of several fine freshmen, particularly wide receivers, to make early impacts. One of the best, Chad Bumphis, is back to practice this week after some down-time with a foot injury. He and fellow rookies like Brandon Heavens, Chris White, et.al. can anticipate making their college debuts this first month of the 2009 season and, maybe, in the first game.
With first-team guard Smith out this week (he's expected to resume practice for Auburn week) backup Mark Melichar is now listed first at right guard with veteran Craig Jenkins his alternate as well as #2 at left guard. First LT Derek Sherrod has practiced two weeks now with no problems from the early-camp knee problem, and Phillip Freeman has taken over right tackle. Mullen said first center J.C. Brignone, who had a low-ankle issue last week, will be limited at least for Monday and be ready to play in the opener. State has tried turning those camp interruptions on the line into an advantage for the whole season.
The benefit of having injuries is getting guys some experience that otherwise they might not get, and also being able to play guys at different positions. We've had to play some guys at different positions and a lot of guys play with the first team, and when you're in that first huddle your level of play picks up."
Of course this week everything picks up as everyone points to Saturday afternoon and kickoff of 2009. The historic cultural aspect will be played to the hilt this week, as will the simple in-state nature of this matchup. There is the potential for a rematch in 2010 if this first meeting goes well for all involved, though athletic director Greg Byrne is also in talks with the state's other two SWAC programs about that I-AA opening in the '10 and '11 slates. Mullen, who has been involved in his share of true rivalries such as Bowling Green-Toledo, Utah-Brigham Young, and Florida-Florida State, could see this becoming a rivalry as well.
But all those headliner angles are really not the fundamental story here. A new Bulldog football season is ready to open, with a new staff, new systems, and renewed hope both inside and outside the locker room. "And, my first game as a head football coach," reminds Mullen. "And I think our team feels different. The mindset of our program is changing, to get ready to go play our first football game."