"As soon as I walked out of the classroom everybody was calling me," McPhee says.
For that matter folk figured to hear McPhee's named called a lot this 2009 season. The junior college star made immediate impact upon spring arrival at State, slotted into a first-team job on the first day of camp and never giving up that status. Still stats have been hard to come by for the starting left DE with eight tackles in three games. And it wasn't until last Saturday he finally collected a college quarterback, catching Vandy's Larry Smith.
There was more relief than joy in the act, he says. "When I got that sack I looked to the sky and said ‘thank you God', I didn't want to celebrate. Because I had to get that chip off my shoulder, I'd went two games without a sack and that usually isn't me. I'm going to keep battling to reach my goals and the team goals."
Lofty team goals, he means. Because back in August camp McPhee boldly predicted the Bulldog d-line could lead the league in sacks. The unit has done OK, tied for sixth this week with—further irony—LSU. But State has only half as many sacks as the league co-leaders so there's a lot of ground to make up.
"I try to do my part," McPhee says. "Those were some strong words that I said! We're trying to stay on that track so we're going to stay focused and go after the goal we've set for ourselves." McPhee also admits that the college game has been just a little bit more challenging than expected, from the physical standpoint. It's an adjustment for a fellow who is used to having his way on the field of play.
"It's a lot more bigger, faster, and aggressive guys than it is in junior college. And a lot of tough guys that aren't going to lay down on a play, they're going to keep going and going."
Something else that's gotten, literally, in McPhee's way so far this season: two blockers. Clearly opposing offenses know what this junior transfer has brought to the Bulldog gameplan because everyone gives him extra attention. Is he bothered?
"Ahh, I love it! That lets me know I'm not just another player, I'm a player that's got special abilities to make plays. So if draw double-team it leaves one of my teammates free to make the play."
Still every d-line Dog has to exert maximum effort and execution this week if State is to make any plays against this Tiger team. Auburn taught State's defense some hard lessons, especially in the ground game, which McPhee & Company appear to have applied well at Vanderbilt. "Now we're trying to do the same thing for the LSU game," he says.
"I'm not going to make any comments about what we're going to do, we're just going to keep our pads low and play aggressively and just continue from last week." Naturally McPhee wouldn't mind continuing to draw the sort of awards he earned this past week, too. Not that he expects it to provide any extra credits with his Football Theory instructor, though.
"Nahh, he's going to make me work and take the tests and come to class every day! He ain't going to show no favoritism!"
GETTING HIS KICKS PART II: Speaking of tough graders, yesterday we noted how P Heath Hutchins had lost some ground in NCAA and SEC punting stats in the process of doing exactly what State needed of him at Vanderbilt. But what did the man himself think of his third college outing?
"I'd grade it close to an F," Hutchins says. "It was probably one of the worst games I've ever had, I've probably had two games like that in my whole life where I had two 35-yard punts. And the kicks that were touchbacks, I guess I could have put a little more hang time on them. They were both in the right spots, I just didn't get enough hang time."
Wow, talk about a perfectionist. While Mullen also noted that a tick more hang time would have helped, otherwise "Heath was solid and consistent" on his eight efforts. Hutchins though says he ought to have been even more consistent. "I hit one on the laces. And one for some reason I felt the rush was coming harder; an on film it wasn't even coming at all! I was in the back of the end zone and I figured I'd rather have a 35-yarder than a blocked kick."
Good thinking. And while he's now 4th in SEC average at 43.1 yards through three games, Hutchins sees the bigger conference picture. "There are like eight people averaging the same as me, so I could go out this week and kick four 50 yarders and be first again."
FIRM FOOTING: Hutchins isn't the only transfer kicker who has given State special teams a boost. After missing his initial attempts in the opener, PK Sean Brauchle has knocked through five field goals including a 49-yarder at Vanderbilt. He commented at the time that damp turf didn't bother him on the long attempt, though Vanderbilt had let the grass grow during some wet days.
But then the Bulldogs, kickers and all, are used to soggy September sod. If anything there has been more rain this week than last, to the point State had just one field—the artificial surface one—to work on Tuesday. Wet or not, Mullen isn't inclined to take his team indoors…and not simply because they'd only have a single field anyway in the Palmeiro Center. The New Hampshire native says he doesn't notice weather all that much.
"We just go practice. We've practiced in rain, we've practiced in wind, we've practiced in heat, we've practiced in humidity. I'm not worried much about weather when it comes to gametime. We've just got to execute." Though, Mullen added, "Now unless it snows…"
NEXT TIME: For a moment Leon Berry thought he'd gotten that first college touchdown return. But just for a moment, and not even while he was standing in the Vanderbilt end zone after the opening kickoff. By then he figured it was all for nought. "I kind of knew it, because once I broke the crowd was a little bit in it but calmed down. So I knew what it was for!"
Indeed, about the time Berry had cleared the Commodore containment flags were falling for a holding call. Ironically it was rookie DB Cameron Lawrence, one of the impressive freshmen already working on State kick-and-cover teams, who'd been penalized. "He was the first one in the end zone to jump on my back!" said Berry, who didn't discover the guilty party until reaching the sideline. "But I told him man, it's good, we just have to execute."
Sure, it still rankles Berry a bit having a 100-yard return negated. Or any return, which is one of the Georgia native's specialties. In both high school and junior college Berry ran back kickoffs and punts for points and big yards, and during his first State spring the transfer won that duty here as well. His work on kickoff return has helped establish fine field position for the offense this month, and it's only a matter of time and chances before Berry gets into the end zone.
"If we execute a little better we'll try to get one this weekend," Berry said. Though he'd be just as excited to turn a pass into points, too, in his regular job at wideout. He likes being on the field for so many snaps, of course, but adds if he does need a break Mullen is willing. Now, if only the coach could help take care of some off-field needs; as in more tickets for family in upcoming games, including next week's matchup with the home-state team from Georgia Tech.
"My Mom asked me could I get like, fifteen! I told her I don't think they'll have it. So they'll tailgate and five or six come in the game."