"I always look forward to them," he said, stressing how Dog and Tiger scraps come down to trench combat. That suits the style of Love and Company. "Coach (David) Turner is always saying the game is won or lost on the line of scrimmage, we call it L.O.S. Big boys, go hard! That's what Coach always tells us. We know it's up to us to determine the outcome of the game so we're going to have to step and play."
And when Love says ‘we' this fall he really means everyone in his unit. D-line boss Turner and coordinator Carl Torbush have as deep and versatile a collection of bodies as seen at Mississippi State in over a decade, and intend to take full advantage. That showed in the 2009 opener when no single d-tackle or –end had to be on Scott Field for more than 22 snaps, according to Coach Dan Mullen's participation chart.
No wonder Love can say "It's the greatest rotation we had!" Sure, it might limit the chance for any of these Dogs to pile up big individual tackle totals. But if it keeps the big bodies fresh so they can make the big play at crunch time, it's worth giving up some stats.
Besides, Love notes, "Really what helped us out is the defense played so hard we only had to go three-and-out. Every series we went out there it was three-and-out, so it kept guys off the field and new bodies in. It was really easy for us actually."
The rotation also allowed two true freshmen DTs, Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, to make their Dog debuts in style. Each got a pair of credited tackles…or twice Love's own tally! Not that the senior minds a bit because he's proud how these new kids have performed in practices and now the first game. But, Love adds, the second contest is an entirely different proposition.
"I've been talking to them since summer, that this ain't high school ball. And the team we played, not to put them down but they're nothing like the SEC. It's a total difference when you're going against stronger, faster guys, more athletic. I've been letting them know. They're going to come hard so you better come hard to." Still, Love says, these kids are alright and give the tackle rotation welcome help.
"They're freshmen and coming along real fast. They haven't surprised me, I've really expected it."
At Tuesday's practice Cox was running #2 at left tackle, Boyd the second-team right tackle; with Love and Charles Burns the respective starters now that Pernell McPhee is starting at right defensive end.
CONSISTENT GRADES: Following Saturday's victory, QB Chris Relf gave himself a quickie grading of 98 for his performance against Jackson State. After having a couple of days to review the game and get his coach's input, what was Relf's final judgement?
"I evaluate myself I'd say about 98!" he smiled. And as far as anything he'd do differently now following further review, well…
"Nothing, really," Relf said. "I think I played a pretty god game Saturday. We didn't throw that much, I was like 7-for-10. We really didn't throw that much I guess because it was wet. But hopefully this week we'll throw a lot."
Certainly that would be a fine gameplan if Relf can produce the same rate of results against a SEC defense as he did in this year's debut. Not only was he a 70% passer against SWAC stalwart Jackson State, but three of those seven completions went for touchdowns. "It felt good, real good!" he said of producing points on one-third of his throws with no interceptions. Or turnovers of any sort as Relf kept the handle on all dozen rushes and gained a game-best 82 yards.
An excellent start, to be sure. But that was a SWAC defense. For that matter all of Relf's prior experience came as a relief quarterback in a win over Southeastern Louisiana last year, and run-out-clock duty at Oxford. Auburn is an entirely different proposition because A) it is a serious SEC defense and B) Relf will playing while it's a real game. Is he concerned about the upgrade in opposition?
It doesn't show. "I just think I need to go out there and execute just as I did Saturday," he said. "If I make the right reads I think I'll be able to run well."
Interestingly, in his brief 2008 duty Relf was 2-of-9 throwing for 13 yards. His very first pass of 2009 was completed for 15 yards, and a touchdown. Not that his coach looks at numbers when grading the progress Relf has made.
"He's worked hard. I can't tell you how much he's improved since my first day here. In his comfort, his whole throwing motion, we had to clean up a lot of things. And he's worked hard at not just being an athlete but being a quarterback." Though, Mullen adds, "He gives you that extra aspect of being a great athlete."
Both Relf and senior Tyson Lee, who has no after-effects from his Saturday shoulder spasms, are prepping for game-two just as they did the opener with Mullen planning further rotation. Which will get the first snap, now… "We won't decide on who actually starts until know what call first play. But I do see both guys will play."
ROOKIE REPORT II: As notebooked Tuesday, seven true 2009 freshmen saw action in the opening game. Asked this morning if other rookies might get on the field this week, Mullen said he does not expect so. One good reason is simply that SEC rules limit the travel roster to 70 players. Thus, "I don't think we'll play more than last week, we'll mostly see the same guys."
Still, at least a couple of true frosh who have yet to play will be on that dress-out roster. Will one of them be 2009 signing-class headliner QB Tyler Russell? And for that matter, will the freshman see action this season? Mullen won't say yea or nay publicly at this point, beyond the fact that most redshirt decisions are being held off until a month into the season. Russell of course isn't like most freshmen, and while he is for now essentially redshirting as informed last week that status is meaningless this early in a season when so much can happen with the older quarterbacks ahead of him.
"What we're going to do with Tyler is not put him in a situation until he's ready to go." Or as the coach added, he has no interest in throwing the rookie on the field for a final series "to turn around and hand off the last two plays." Still, Russell isn't sitting back in practices like a kid who knows he isn't playing.
"He's had a great week of practice. We're not 100% whether he's going to redshirt right now. But if he's not ready to play meaningful snaps in a ball game we're not going to play him."
BACK ON THE JOB(S): Opening day 2009 was something to celebrate for a quartet of Bulldogs who all at one point wondered if they would play this year. Or maybe ever again. The most remarkable recovery has to be RB Arnil Stallworth after a knee ligament injury one week into spring camp. Just over five months later, the senior was not only able to play but play with most of his old ability.
"My knee is healthy but I'm just trying to get stronger where I can cut extra-hard off it," Stallworth said. Not that he couldn't cut up Jackson State's defense anyway with 31 yards on seven carries, as well as three receptions for 28 more yards. "It felt great. I knew I was going to be back out there, but not as fast. I had that doubt in the back of mind but I was pushing to be sure and it felt good going back out on the field."
Especially in the expanded role the new State staff has for this very versatile back. Stallworth showed last year how much he can contribute as both a half/tail back or fullback, and his quickness of both eye and feet makes him an effective blocker. Now, though, he's getting more chances in more ways to get the football thrown his way. "He mixed it up a lot, I ran some and caught some," said Stallworth of his initial experience in the ‘spread' offense.
"I caught a couple out of the backfield but I caught one as a receiver also. Not only am I just running flat-routes or things like that, I'm actually running receiver routes; like corner routes and slant routes and posts. I'm able to catch the ball and that's what I really want to do."
HIS HOME STATE? Stallworth, like Relf, is a native Alabamian. Daphne, to be exact. Once upon a time he knew a fair portion of the Auburn roster but "most of the guys I did know have graduated," he says. "But I'll watch a lot of film and get to know them." And interestingly, this is not the main personal rivalry for Stallworth. Not any more. Yes, it means something to him, as does a game with Alabama. But "Even though I'm not from Mississippi, Ole Miss means a lot to me. Because while I've been here I'm yet to beat them. When we did win (2007) I didn't play."
Eighteen members of the official 2009 roster have Alabama home towns.
HE'S BAAAACK: With his full return to active status, RB Anthony Dixon is expected to make his senior-season debut this weekend. Dixon sat out the opener as part of his suspension process. Now he can resume his pursuit of the MSU rushing record, needing 609 yards to catch the mark of 3,212 set by Jerious Norwood.
Dixon, who is already the career touchdowns leader at State with 30 rushing and 4 receiving scores, is also looking to notch his first points in a game with Auburn. He has scored a touchdown on every other SEC West rival but in 52 rushes and a handful of catches has yet to get in an Auburn end zone.
Classmate Christian Ducre—who scored State's winning touchdown at Auburn in 2007—is booked to start again this week, though much like quarterback Mullen isn't tying himself to the normal idea of a ‘starter' in this offense. "Who we start might depend on what play we call, or who is up in the rotation," he said today. Still he has Dixon back in the system again and it's another proven ball-toter to call upon as needed.
"We rotate those guys throughout," Mullen added about the four available veteran halfbacks. "I want to keep them as fresh and as powerful in the fourth quarter as they are in the first quarter. Some of it is by series. If it's a longer drive we might have to rotate a couple of guys to keep them fresh."
SECRET NO MORE: He had just one catch, for 50 yards, in a couple of early-year appearances before TE Marcus Green had his 2008 season shut down by a pelvic area muscle problem. In his 2009 opener Green got to work fast, catching three balls for 40 yards including his first State touchdown. And he did it pain-free.
"It just felt good being back out there," Green said. "I just felt like the old me!"
Maybe so, but in a new system that gives Green expectations of a really big offensive role. Yes, he has the usual blocking duties. But, he said, "In this offense you can kind of look at tight end as another receiver, plus a blocker. So he can be used any way as possible, especially in this spread offense here. He's kind of like a secret weapon!"