Monday Bulldog Football Notebook

QUARTERBACK TO WORK: With a school holiday, Mississippi State was able to get on the field around noon and take care of Monday's first practice of Auburn game week. The Bulldogs were also able to see starting quarterback Tyson Lee back in action, after missing the whole second half of the 45-7 debut victory over Jackson State.

Ironically, given how often last week Coach Dan Mullen talked of two quarterbacks "shouldering the load", it was spasms in the throwing shoulder that kept Lee on the sidelines as a precaution. "It's better today," Lee reported. "I got a shot in it Saturday after the game and it's still a little sore today but a lot better." Good enough that the senior was able to participate in all drills, though none involved lofting a football too far down the field. "It was real limited; a lot of short routes, just trying to work it out. Hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to get the distance back."

Lee's limitations didn't impinge on usual practice plans, though. Per Mullen's schedule, Monday is built around the ground game—offense and defense both. Thus, "He did a lot more handing-off," said Mullen. "We'll see more tomorrow with him throwing the ball. He thinks he'll be 100% for the game. In the limited amount of time we were going to throw today, he didn't throw a lot. But we fully expect him to be full-go tomorrow."

Tuesday being when the focus shifts to passing and defending said passing. Lee won't have to ‘shoulder' all the duty of course, with alternate Chris Relf coming off an excellent afternoon against JSU. Splitting series in the first half, and taking care of all the second half that mattered, the soph was 7-of-10 throwing for 70 yards with three touchdown tosses. All the while with Lee cheering his cohort/competitor on.

"Chris did extremely well. I was proud of him," said Lee. "We talked about it and he understood everything that was going on. But his performance was exceptional, it really was."

Interestingly, Lee didn't know until the team returned to the field that he wouldn't play any of the second half. He'd taken a hard landing on a scramble just before halftime, run down and out at the five-yard line, and noticed nothing wrong at the time. "I didn't feel anything all," he said. Relf subbed-in during a time-out to run on 4th-and-1 and went all the way in for the touchdown and a 14-0 intermission lead.

"I came back out the second half expecting to go in and was warming up," Lee said. "After the very first throw it was killing me, that's when I went and talked to the doctors." And was done for the day, though the medical staff did say Lee could have played if needed. He wasn't and didn't with Relf taking care of business, just as the two triggermen had in their first-half rotation. As planned, the coach said.

"It really didn't affect us much in how we were calling the game," Mullen said. "We just called the game and gave them a chance to do things. They both did a good job for us, but for Chris to come out and go 7-of-10 and throw three touchdowns, that's an efficient day for Chris. That's really important to us." Especially with State planning to alternate quarterbacks this Saturday, though Mullen isn't tipping any cards about how it will be scheduled or for that matter which will get the first snap.

Neither got on the field last year when Auburn took the now-infamous 3-2 win in Starkville. But they had good views of a bad Bulldog evening. "It was very frustrating, because we didn't execute," Lee said. "Not a lot of offense but great defense. It's going to be that way this week as far as a lot of defense, but hopefully the offense will move the ball and put some points on the board."

And hey, if Lee gets his fisrt shot at a Tiger team this week, by the same token they've no first-hand experience against him, either. "Hopefully it will be a different thing for both of us!" Lee grinned.

INJURY REPORT: TE Brandon Henderson was the only real injury in the opening game, spraining his right ankle. Henderson missed Monday's practice. RB Arnil Stallworth had a minor knee tweak Saturday, which could have been worrisome given his spring knee injury, but he is at work as usual. "And we'll see by Wednesday practice on Tobias Smith is going to be for the game," Mullen said. The right guard hurt an ankle on August 7 and returned to practice today for the first time since.

AT LEAST HE ENJOYED IT: Mullen has avoided, as much as practical, looking at most of the 2008 season's games. His aides can find what there is in those contests that might apply to planning for this year's matchup, but the coach is pragmatic.

"I don't know if it holds much this year, they have a new staff and we have a new staff." But, he has seen some of that memorable—if for mostly the wrong reasons—game at Scott Field last September when Auburn took a 3-2 win. Thing is, he saw it from the standpoint of a Florida coordinator relaxing at the TV."We'd played early that day, I was just watching."

Of course what he saw was complete offensive futility from both sides. Yet this was what the offensive coordinator actually enjoyed observing. "It was a pretty exciting game I think," Mullen recalls. "Not in terms of scoring but as a close defensive battle. And a couple of special teams opportunities that the game could have swung in either direction." Should this rematch develop along any similar sort of lines, State's new head coach would be comfortable in a defensive brawl too.

"I have no problem with 3-2 games as long as we have the three!"

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SEC SUN: Mullen says he has never faced off with Tiger counterpart and fellow first-year SEC head coach Gene Chizik. About the only tenuous tie with the two is that Chizik is a Florida alumnus (1985). Mullen does have a link with Tiger safeties coach Tommy Thigpen, who was cornerbacks coach at Bowling Green when Mullen coached quarterbacks.

And State's head coach has gotten familiar with AU's Gus Malzahn, back when the Tiger offensive coordinator was at Springdale High School. "I'd visit Springdale and we'd talk a lot of football, share ideas. I went on and faced him when he was offensive coordinator at Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game." Which the Gators won in 2006. "He had some very innovative ideas then, created a lot of different things."

But, not all that different from what Mullen and Urban Meyer were doing in Gainesville. Yes, Malzahn gets kudos for the ‘wild' formations the Razorbacks applied successfully. But Mullen says this is "very similar to direct snapping it to Tim Tebow in the single-wing. Almost the same plays. You can look at a lot of similarities in the shotgun, there is a lot of cross-over."

With a game, and a win, to their credit now it might seem the offensive staff could try to expand the repertoire for game-two. Mullen is more cautious. "I don't know that it's the playbook specifically. We didn't want to get too complicated in game-one, just so we could let our guys get their feet wet and adjust to the speed of the game and execute. But, part of your playbook are added to (adjust to) what the defense gives you. Auburn is a different challenge so we might go in a little different direction. Might open it up more with our quarterbacks having a game under their belts."

Speaking of quarterbacks, Auburn has handed the job again to Chris Todd. The former Texas Tech transfer was 14-of-26 against State last year for 154 yards. Kodi Burns, who subbed-in against MSU in 2007, is the ‘wild' factor now in the offense as a runner/receiver. But, Mullen says, "He gives a little more advantage in the fact he's a quarterback that can come in, the threat of throwing a football at that position. It adds a dimension other teams might not have." Not that State's quarterbacks can't move their feet as well, and at 240 pounds Relf is practically a running back himself.

"The thing that maybe makes them different is their version of the spread offense," Mullen said. "Putting up over 500 yards (in the first game), scoring a bunch of points. They have an explosive offensive scheme and players that we need to contain, their speed is going to be a little different this year."

ANOTHER LEAGUE ENTIRELY: Auburn indeed is a different challenge, on both sides of the ball. Staffs and schemes come and go but Mullen has been in the game and in this league long enough to understand what doesn't change in the SEC landscape.

"Auburn has always played great defense. Their defensive coach has been there before, they did a great job stopping Louisiana Tech over the weekend. They have great pass-rushing defensive ends, great size in the middle, their defensive front four is very stout. They are always athletic at linebacker, and play a lot of man-to-man in the secondary and always find corners that can cover you." In short, the Tigers have everything Jackson State's Tigers did not to line up against State's still-developing offense.

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