"I graded champion the last game," Smith reported, which meant he successfully executed a high enough percentage of his blocks to be recognized by the staff. It was a great way to celebrate the first collegiate action indeed. "First game, grading champion, I was so proud!" Smith said. "I just wish we would have won."
Smith was not given enough total snaps in the Houston game to be graded. Still there is every reason to expect he will be regularly receiving report cards the rest of this season as Smith continues to develop into the expected first-class blocker. He actually was the #1 right guard going into August camp, up until the fifth day when in goal-line scrimmaging he came up limping. He shortly underwent surgery to correct an inherent condition with his ankle joint and has been battling back ever since.
He wears a boot around campus as a precaution. Interestingly, first RT Addison Lawrence came to the same interview session with the same type boot on the same right ankle, since State's staff is taking no chances on their big Dogs. Smith's ankle isn't just taped but has a ‘corset' type of brace for extra support in practices. Then there is the post-practice swelling to treat. Still, "I feel I'm just about where I need to be," Smith said. "I don't think I'm too far behind 100%, so I'm doing pretty good."
Very good in one key aspect. Over the last five games Hevesy has relied on the starting five blockers to play just about the complete games. In fact for a couple of contests the starters took every offensive snap. But now there is the exception of Smith, the one backup being regularly rotated in. "Coach said I'll be in no later than the third series," Smith said, though there is no scripted number of snaps. "We see how the game develops."
So it says much about what Mississippi State sees in Smith, both now and for the future. And yes, the kid admits it is a good feeling to be the sixth man on this unit. Or more accurately, the third guard. "I think I feel kind of special coming off the bench. Because we've got big guards that need a rest sometimes. So Coach feels confident enough in me to put his job on the line for me to play."
Whether Hevesy is risking anything by playing a redshirt rookie or not, the fact is Bulldog blocking has made remarkable strides this first fall in the new regime. Some of it naturally is that previous years of recruiting have finally stocked enough quality starters and developable depth to approach SEC standards. But this doesn't downplay what these Dogs, coach and players alike, have done to motivate themselves further.
"Before the season Coach came and put a big ‘12' on the board," said Smith. "He said ‘you guys know what this is? Y'all have been rated the #12 offensive line in the SEC.' So we all took that personally, we've been trying to grind and do what it takes to be a good offensive line and a good offense." Based on both total numbers and specific big plays, the offense is progressing nicely.
So is Smith. Not that he figures he's up to 100% speed in all areas of the game just yet.
"Sometimes you get lost ‘cause I'm just a freshman," he admits. Fortunately there is the comforting presence of center J.C. Brignone to his left, who not only is a veteran of line battles but a former guard himself. "He'll help me out a lot. He's my crutch! He's well-experienced and knows what he's doing." At the same time Smith intends to stand on his own cleats, and talents and experiences, soon enough. For now, he accepts his place in the current 2009 gameplans.
"I'm a team player, I'm just taking what they give me, trying to push and do my job. Play my role. I'm just glad to be playing now, it felt so good to play. It had been a while since I played football against somebody else besides my own team, I was so happy to play again!"
As well as get that first ‘Champion' grading. But of course the only mark that really matters to Smith and his line-mates is a big W on the record. He agrees with Mullen's assessment half-way into the season, that the effort has always been there and the execution often there; it just hasn't been quite enough to come away with more Ws than Ls so far.
"I mean, as a team we've got to learn how to win, learn how to put all of it on the field and put it all together and come out with a victory."
MAKING THOSE HITS COUNT: Speaking of playing lots of snaps, Bulldog linebackers have done heavy duty this month without much in the way of breaks. That applies to both how long they are on the field each week, and the types of attacks faced. "So we've been put to the test lately," said WLB Chris White, noting how he's had to prepare for option-based running, high-flying pass schemes, and clever combinations of everything. "I hope we've seen them all!" said White.
And, that Mississippi State's defense will begin asserting themselves more frequently and effectively against whatever offensive style faced. Because review of the Houston game had a lot of Bulldog defenders cringing while their coach was counting.
"We missed 17 tackles," reported White. "That's way too many. That just leads to the big play really."
Not that White didn't have some big plays of his own Saturday, en route to a team-best nine tackles with one pass break-up and a half-sack credited. "I got to blitz a lot more Saturday and I was happy about that." But the linebacker did more than chase the passer, at times he had to run after receivers…such as when he caught up with a Cougar after the completion to keep the gain down to a dozen yards and eventually force a missed field goal.
That and several other such plays gave White chances to show his speed getting around the field, and that has earned applause from fans. White appreciates this but... "I wish I didn't have to show it, I wish we could have tackled him earlier than that!" Which gets to the real point of this week from the head coach and coordinator Carl Torbush. Saving plays are exciting but not the ideal gameplan.
"It's better to make them right there at the line," White agreed. "We had some people in position to make the tackle, they just didn't. We need to be in better position and probably become smarter football players. Tackles aren't all about being physical, it's about being smart."
Well, the physical part is a factor too in the sense that Mullen notices his defenders are showing the strains. So, "Coach was pointing out he was going to try to get some more players in there," said White, "rotate us more so we don't get so tired at the end of the game." Last game it was veteran Karlin Brown doing all the rotating, based on his knack for pass coverage between the hash-lines and mobility. Other linebackers like Jamie Jones have been limited to kicking coverage roles in recent weeks but the staff is looking at true defensive snaps for backups, and White isn't complaining. "I think they're going to start playing more."
But whoever lines up on defense whenever, the same theme is being stressed this week: make that first contact count for a tackle. It doesn't matter what style of offense, or how efficient that club might be at the time, every team has playmakers to respect. Including this upcoming opponent.
"Middle Tennessee has a good football team so we can't go in there thinking we're just going to beat them, we need to go in with a good attitude and get back on track."
THIS IS GONNA BE FAMILIAR: One track the Bulldog defense should be used to by now is a no-huddle, spread-set system. Yes, Middle Tennessee operates this way. Unlike Houston, where star quarterback Case Keenum only ran when necessary, Raider triggerman Dwight Dasher is, well, a dasher. "It's more of a running quarterback than a passing quarterback this week," Mullen said. "Not that he doesn't throw the ball well, but he leads their team in rushing. He's going to take off and make some plays with his feet."
Still Dasher does put the ball up often enough that State's secondary cannot just come up in support; he's tossed 40 or more passes in four of the team's five games with 1,273 yards and a 55% completion rate. Yet in all five contests Dasher has rushed, whether it was called or read that way, 16-to-20 times. Put another way, he accounts for almost 79% of his team's total offense.
So, tracking and tackling the triggerman is the Dog defensive job-one this week in game preparations. Mullen doesn't think State can wait for Dasher to come at them, they have to get to the runner/passer first much better than in the last three losses. Better tackling is just one part of the plan.
"At times our guys need to be a little more aggressive getting off blocks," Mullen says. "And other times we have a tendency to get out of football position." Not just where they are on the field, he means; but their actual stature. Players are supposed to have bent knees and straight waists. "When guys get tired their knees straighten and their waists bend," Mullen said. "That's what I mean by football position. We might need to play more guys."
"Give Houston credit, they had some talented receivers that make you miss in the open field. But to may times we're giving up five, six, seven yards after first contact. It might not seem as much as giving up a big play, but when it happens over the course of a game it allows drives to sustain. We only had two three-and-outs, they averaged 50 yards per drive."
So getting the Raider offense off their home field early and often is a must this week, if State isn't to become the second BCS-league victim of their season. Middle Tennessee already has a 32-31 decision over Maryland, and a thrashing of CUSA-club Memphis to their credit. Veteran Raiders can also remember having a third-quarter lead at Scott Field last year. Plus, Mullen notes, they've had all sorts of extra practice time for State since playing last Tuesday at Troy.
"They're coming off basically a bye-week, so I'm sure they'll have a great plan ready for us. And it's going to be a big game for them at home."
State has split road games this season, losing at Auburn while winning at Vanderbilt.
RAIN MEN: Though the expected heavy rains held off long to finish Tuesday's practice, the Bulldogs still worked in a misty drizzle and on saturated fields. Make that field, since only the artificial surface field is available for serious use after weeks of wet weather. "I didn't think it would be like this," Mullen mentioned as he left the practice area. It usually isn't, local reporters assured.
Weather or not, though, Mullen hewed to his policy of doing the day's work outdoors in all but the most threatening conditions. Only twice since he took over, in either spring or fall drills, have the Dogs gone inside the Palmeiro Center. That was when lightning was in the area. Otherwise his teams are going to go about their business no matter how messy.
"You know what it is? You've got to play in the rain, you have to play in the elements," Mullen said. "And I think there is a little bit of a confidence if you've practiced in it. There comes a confidence on game-day. If you've never been practicing and playing in it you get out there, your mental state can get to you; oh, the ball is wet, I haven't done this. Our guys are just used to practicing in the elements."
For the record though, the coach has taken the team indoors lately. But not for a real practice. "We did it Friday, for our walk-through," he said.
INJURY UPDATE: PK Sean Brauchle has not seen action since feeling a pop in the kicking leg early in the Georgia Tech game. The junior did not dress out this past Saturday for Houston, and as of now Mullen is not sure of his status. "He's coming. It's day-to-day still, I don't know if he'll be ready for this week or not. The neat thing is Sean is a tough k id, a hard worker, he wants to get out there. and the other positive is it's not a long recovery, it's not like he has to learn the whole gameplan. Just go kick the ball!"
That said, Mullen won't hesitate to use PK Derek DePasquale just as in the last game. "It was evident, I have confidence in Derek to do just what we would do with Sean."
S Wade Bonner spent a day hospitalized to have an infected elbow treated. He was not working today as planned, while getting more treatment for continued swelling in the joint. "He said he felt great," reported Mullen, who expects Bonner to be ready for Middle Tennessee. DT Charles Burns (knee) remains questionable for this game after missing the Houston game. FS Zach Smith (concussion) is still day-to-day but certainly seems preparing to play this week. "He's played a bunch of football, he's a student of the game, he's out here getting the mental reps and doing all the different stuff," Mullen said. "So if he's ready we can throw him in there."