At the same time Mullen and staff are taking some intangible lessons learned a week ago at Auburn into preparations for this game. Not just schemes—Vanderbilt also runs a spread offense—and sets, either. "Playing two tough road games early in the season, especially two tough conference road games, is always tricky." All the more because this isn't the same old Vanderbilt longtime SEC folk have dismissed for generations.
"They're very confident, coming off a big bowl season last year, and have a lot of experienced guys coming back. We've worked really hard getting ready for this game." Though, the first-year boss might have dug a bit too deep into coach-speak when he praised the game atmosphere at Vandy. "It's a tough environment, especially at nighttime," he said.
Speaking of rankings; the Bulldogs need to take advantage of this meeting with an un-listed opponent. Because while State is at home the next three weeks, all the foes are ranked this week: LSU is 9th by Associated Press, Georgia Tech 14th, and Houston 21st. For that matter MSU will host #1 Florida, #4 Alabama, and #5 Ole Miss in the second half of the home schedule. Back in the summer Mullen used this as a selling-point for State's season-ticket drive. Now? Well…
"I've noticed it, I'm not thinking about it," he said of the foreboding slate the rest of this schedule. "I'm focused on Vanderbilt right now and not worried about anybody else." Well, as long as nobody reminds him…such as folk calling the coach for tickets.
"I think I hear more of it from family excited to come to a game that they're getting to see a top-25 team at home!"
GREEN BUT GROWING: After making a big debut-splash against Jackson State, freshman WR Chad Bumphis was given a much more restricted role at Auburn. His only catch, an eight-yarder, came late in the game. Classmate WR Brandon Heavens saw even less action in game-two and no stats. Fans were naturally confused and questioning. Passing game Coach Mark Hudspeth provided the answers following Tuesday's practice, after assuring that yes, "We're going to try to get Bumphis and Heavens a little more involved than this past weekend.
"There were some circumstances that kept them from playing, like some illnesses, but they'll be back to full-swing this week." The illness was a mid-week case of flu for Bumphis. But Hudspeth acknowledged there was a much more fundamental reason both rookies spent more game-two time watching than running routes. It was due to poor performance in other aspects of the Jackson State game; primarily, poor blocking on the edge. An unacceptable percentage of State's penalties in the opener were holding calls on wideouts.
"The first game, even though Bumphis played well, you could tell they were still freshmen, still young!" Hudspeth said. "They've just got to mature. We're asking them to mature pretty fast, throwing them in the fire!"
Fortunately these frosh have the talents State needs to get this spread offense firing on all cylinders, in time at least. Specifically, speed, which has been lacking in the lineup for too many years. Bumphis, Heavens, and Chris Smith are the first freshmen to get their chances this year. Could others, such as Dennis Thames and Ricco Sanders be activated as well? Hudspeth says no yea-or-nay calls have been made in their cases yet.
"Oh, no, it's still ten games left. You never know what can happen. But if nothing else happened today we'd probably go with the guys we've got." Besides, the coach points out, there is enough teaching still to be done with the guys who've already got on the field. Much, much more before State's passing attack ‘spreads' out to more than what has been show in just the first two games. Real downfield throws, for one example.
"We're just now getting to where we're understanding the offense a little bit," says Hudspeth. "Because everybody that we're playing didn't go through spring ball; Brandon McRae, none of the freshmen, O'Neal Wilder only had a few days. So this is all so new to them. They're going to continue to get better each week."
But what is not new to older guys, even if just a year older, is how to execute a block without resorting to grabbing the jersey. Thus the experienced hands get more snaps here in the early season. But as 2009 plays, out?
"I want the young guys to have confidence and I'm trying to bring them along," Hudspeth explains. "They're getting to the point they're ready to compete in the SEC. The only way they're going to be able to that though is by actually doing it! You've really got to be a smart receiver, got to know how to beat your opponents. And know how to be physical. It's tough out there and I think they realized that a little last week. That's why we sort of eased them into a little bit."
ROOKIE REPORT: Besides the three aforementioned receivers, true 2009 frosh who have played in the first two weeks are DTs Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, DB Jonathan Banks, ST Cameron Lawrence, along with walk-on rookies like WR Taylor Reed and QB Riley Saunders. That leaves 11 true scholarship freshmen yet to participate.
Mullen isn't assigning redshirts to any of these just yet, though neither does the coach have plans to play more rookies for now. "They've all developed well. It's hard to say, its such a long season right now. we'll see how things shake out and when we feel they're ready."
Naturally the un-activated freshman of most interest is QB Tyler Russell, who was the #3 triggerman in August camp and was included in the 70-man road roster for Auburn. It wasn't any surprise that Saunders took care of the mop-up snaps in the JSU game as Russell remained on the sideline. But, is Russell still the #3 man in a serious must-win situation now? Mullen is coy on that count.
"There would be so many variables in that. Is a guy hurt a quarter, three plays, for a season? We'd have to make that decision at that point who the next guy was depending on what the injury was, when it was during the season, what time."
TAKING TURNS: Meanwhile, Tyson Lee and Chris Relf are the co-#1s just as forecast going into the campaign. Two-quarterback systems are always a tricky matter to manage, and extremely easy to critique after-the-fact. But after two games there are no complaints from the two Dogs most involved.
"I think Chris has handled it well, I think I've handled it well," says Lee, the two game starter. "Most of all I think the offensive line and everybody on the team has handled it well. That can be the biggest problem, when the other guys on the team don't handle it well, but they have."
Indeed there's been no obvious friction between the rotating quarterbacks in games. Not that the coaching staff would allow time for it anyway. Mullen makes a big point of how his quarterbacks are supposed to operate when not on the field, beginning with getting on and off it quickly by-turn. Besides, Mullen says of questions about changing quarterbacks regularly, "I think it's overrated with those guys." In fact, he says it is helpful for one or the other to be on the sideline by turn and getting a look at the opposing defense from a different angle.
"And not be the guy taking the snap and having everything coming at them. So by rotating them, it allows them to accelerate their learning. It might allow them time to see something on the sideline they can't see on the field." This applies in particular to Relf, who despite being a third-year collegian is still making up for lack of prep quarterbacking background. And, for that matter, getting past two years in a very different system from what he's asked to operate now.
"Chris was very remedial in knowledge of offense and understanding coverages," Mullen says. "And I think he was very erratic throwing the football, he never threw it the same way twice in a row, he'd just grab it and throw it." But Relf has been able to speed up his learning of this system, not just where to take the ball but to pick up on pressures and tendencies. "And he's worked hard at becoming a better runner, working on his footwork and balance."
The obvious luxury Relf has is, of course, Lee's steady presence. The senior had at least a nodding knowledge of spread ideas from his junior college career. At the same time Relf credits Coach Les Koenning and Mullen for speeding up their own implementation process, without relaxing the responsibility a quarterback ultimately has in the spread.
"I wouldn't say it's really hard to master," Lee said. "Chris and I both know the offense, we both know the plays. Depending on who Coach wants in at the time we'll run the plays. But as far as being hard for us, I think we've picked up easily and we roll with it."
And talk about picking up easily; twice already this season State has had to change quarterbacks on a 4th-down situation at the goal line. In the JSU game Lee, who'd just scrambled to the five, was replaced by Relf. The result was a touchdown run. Well, a week later in goal-line work Relf had to come out after a knee was rapped from the side in the pileup. Lee dashed in for fourth down and flipped a one-yard TD toss to RB Christian Ducre.
So, clearly, neither has a problem finishing what the other has started. And giving due credit, too. "That was Chris' touchdown all the way, he threw the ball way down the field," said Lee. "I got to do the easy part so I told him ‘thank you, thanks for the touchdown pass!"
FIVE FOR SIXTY: One of the improved points for 2009 is the improved depth on the Bulldog offensive line, which has certainly come into play early this season. The early-August ankle injury to expected starter Tobias Smith hasn't disrupted things nearly to the extent losing a number-one blocker would have in recent years. Ranking veteran Craig Jenkins has stepped in at right guard with Mark Melichar as the backup.
But no backups saw anything other than special teams action at Auburn, with Melichar and OT Phillip Freeman playing on placekick-protect. The five blockers who started took care of all 59 offensive snaps. Admittedly, it was easier to go the distance when most second-half series lasted only three or four plays still it was a show of strength from the starting quintet.
For now Mullen is not committing himself to either playing his starters as long as possible, or working in any rotations. "I mean it just depends on how the game is going and how the flow of things is going," he said. Smith, a redshirt freshman who came off a more serious injury to the other ankle as a true frosh, is practicing more snaps each day a week after activation. His status for this weekend is still t.b.d. though.
HOME AT LAST: It took half-a-year longer than planned but DB Maurice Langston is finally cleared to join the Bulldog squad in 2009, following a spring arrest for illegal substances in the vehicle he was driving. Langston did enroll at State in summer and has worked out on his own since, but could not be part of any team functions. Now, Mullen says in an official statement, that the legal process is completed Langston remains on team probation.
"Since the incident more than six months ago Maurice has done everything that our football team and athletic department have asked of him. He has worked and will continue to work to fulfill every phase of his discipline as it relates to the football team and athletic department. We're happy to have Maurice back and look forward to him making a positive impact on this football team, this university, and this community." The statement also said Mullen would not comment further.
Langston was first-team All-Region at East Central CC and the third-ranked junior college prospect in the state this past year. He led the nation in touchdowns last fall with 21 scored either on receptions or kick returns. He signed out of Meridian High School with Arkansas State as a defensive back, and was signed for that position by State. Where he will begin college practices though is a question only those allowed to observe Wednesday's workout can answer, as the session is closed to media. Still word is bound to come out soon enough.