"Yeah, I'd love to catch it and score a touchdown," Wilder says. "That's all I'm looking for now."
Well, maybe not all. In the context of the current Bulldog offensive philosophy, Wilder would do well to look for something else. The 6-5 target has shown he can find openings, almost always along an assigned sideline, stop, turn, and pull in the pass. That's good. Even better would be gaining some ground after the grab, which Wilder has yet to show. But it's coming, along with the rest of his still-developing college game.
"I'm glad it finally came," says Wilder of getting on the field. "I was kind of depressed my first couple of years because I didn't really get to do anything. Everybody just thought I was just a track guy and didn't see anything on the football field. Now I'm contributing to the team and I'm thankful to do that."
Wilder oughtn't sell himself short in the ‘just a track guy' department because he's a darned good track guy. Good enough to own a bronze medal from the IAAF World Junior National championships in the 400 meter dash, and a gold from the 4x400 relay team in that meet. He is the 5th-fasted Dog ever in the 400 and was All-SEC as a rookie.
But he's also at Mississippi State on a gridiron grant, and besides trying to find a football pace Wilder has been slowed along the way with knee problems that needed time and attention. Wilder might have sat out 2008 anyway as a redshirt but he hurt himself the week before the Louisiana Tech game. He had a good spring and made real noise in the spring game with two big catches, while defended no less, yet there were still nagging worries about the fall season.
"We had a couple of issues at the beginning of the year with my knee but it's getting stronger," Wilder says. "And Coach (Matt) Balis has done some extra stuff in the training room. It's finally getting where it needs to be so I'm 100% to play." Not just play, but produce.
The year's delay is paying off in another way, as the ‘spread' system brought in by Coach Dan Mullen offers more opportunities for all wideouts. For that matter redshirting while hurting means Wilder doesn't have as much ‘West Coast' mentality to forget as some other Dogs did.
"Now I'm coming into the spread and it's so many ways how you can change stuff around. We don't know them yet but we're getting to where we will know them in probably two more years." Which Wilder and most of MSU's catching corps have. At the same time everyone would like to accelerate the process if possible and expand the passing plans.
Such as, getting the ball downfield more often and farther. Wilder certainly doesn't mind the go-and-stop schemes of the moment as it's getting the ball in his hands. But he would love a chance to snare a throw in-stride and show defenders that sprinter speed. Ditto all his cohorts who are chafing at the proverbial bit about showing some ‘vertical' passing game before this season is done.
Wishes might be granted. "Me and Tyson (Lee) have actually been working on a couple of deep balls lately just to get the timing of it and everything," reports Wilders. "It's definitely going to have to evolve into that, I think we might try to take a couple of shots. I hope so, and maybe we can get the offense going a little bit. We're going to get around to it, we just have to show Coach Mullen we want the ball. And I think he's seeing it."
Meanwhile Wilder enjoys seeing the field. All fields in fact; as inspiring as the atmosphere at Scott Field was this past Saturday, the rookie likes road trips and even the attitude of underdogs in hostile settings. Then again, he notes, it might be nothing more than just having folk cheering and/or booing from the bleachers. "It's different than track, you might have two home meets and maybe a hundred people. In football it's definitely a change of pace and atmosphere, but it's a good atmosphere and I like it!"
Depending on how his knee holds up over the remaining games and in off-season work, O'Neal does plan to be back in the blocks for 2010 track season. "Coach Mullen is fine with it, I'm fine with it, I've talked to the track coach and he can't wait for me to get out there." Coach Al Schmidt will see a different Wilder too, as the former 188-pounder has added a score of pounds since and intends to get down to 203-204 for spring season. Either way, Wilder is glad to have proved he can perform in both outdoor arenas and that he's no longer ‘just a track guy'.
"It's coming around, people are learning to say now ‘OK, well maybe he has a little football mentality' It's getting good."
AIMING HIGHER? QB Lee also would like to let go with a few more longer throws. But the senior play-caller understands why State's gameplans of late have been more ‘horizontal' in the air attack. "The way Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre run the ball we haven't had to worry about it," Lee said. Or not until Florida slammed the door on Dog runners. Though, Lee did use Dixon and Ducre as receivers more often than in previous games, and State's longest offensive play of the night came when Lee read the defense rightly and checked into a toss to Ducre over on the left sideline. It went for a 54-yard gainer.
At the same time SEC defenses know the Bulldog gameplan begins with record-setting runner Dixon and they try to make it end there as well. A year ago at Scott Field, the Kentucky defense clamped down on Dixon and forced Lee to the air. It did produced two touchdowns, the same as the Wildcats, but a blocked PAT proved UK's margin of 14-13 victory. Based on scouting tape Lee sees the same defensive approach this time around.
"They have a lot of guys back from last year. They run the same scheme, are really basic as far as what they do." The trick for State on Halloween night 2009 is treating Dixon to more and better opportunities for ground-gains…and presumably create coverage gaps downfield? Lee hopes so.
"This year hopefully we can get the running game going. That's the biggest thing with us, when we run the ball well we're able to pass the ball well. We're really going to work on that." But not overlook the counter-notion that hitting a few long throws might just pull some Kats out of the box, in the eternal gridiron guessing-game.
"It's a possibility," said Lee of plans to add deep-passing to the week's playbook. "I don't know the gameplan for this week but we have the guys that can really go downfield and make the plays and we haven't given them the opportunity in the past couple of weeks. I think Coach might throw that out there."
NUMBERS GAME: Thing is, based on season statistics this would seem a good game for Mississippi State to pound the ground at every opportunity. Kentucky is 12th this week in SEC rushing defense, allowing 174 yards per game. Actually it's 174.1 with Auburn at 174.0 even in 11th place, and there isn't a nice run's difference between the bottom-fourth of the chart right now.
Just don't tell Mullen that the Wildcats could be pushovers for a hard-running Dog like Dixon. After all, they held him to 48 yards on 15 runs last November. But the MSU coach has looked into the current numbers a little deeper and isn't buying popular perception.
"You can say they're last with the average, but they've given up a couple of big games to Florida and Auburn, and a lot of yards to Alabama. But other games they've shut people down. I think sometimes statistics can get skewed because of who you've played. Their body of work has been very good."
Good enough that UK has been scored on via rushing just eight times in seven games, a stat that does not mislead. For that matter just two SEC teams have better pass-defense completion rates, so these Kats aren't easy pickings by air either.
BACK IN ACTION: QB Chris Relf returned from a two-game suspension in the third quarter of the Florida game. He had five-straight carries in his initial series, four on purpose and the last a sack to end the drive. Relf finished with 34 yards on eight runs, and did not throw a pass.
"It felt very good, very good. I wanted to get back to the team real bad," said Relf in his first media access since the suspension. "I had a good practice last week so I thought I was going to play pretty good." Regarding his downtime, the juniors said he'd learned "You've just got to make the right decisions, that's all." But he wouldn't offer any information on the suspension. "You'd have to ask Coach about that."
Actually the questions regarding his alternate quarterback posed to Mullen were aimed at Relf's status in the week's gameplan. "We'll see when we watch today's practice and see what he did," the coach said. "But I thought he had a great attitude last week. I hope the same continues, and we might see him a little bit more this week."
Seeing Relf on the field lately has been a near-sure sign that State was staying on the ground, as the sack came on a long-down situation. He has not thrown a pass in his two October games, and only tossed once in the LSU game before that. Yet, amazingly, he still ranks second in SEC passing efficiency at a 149.2 score! That's second only to Tim Tebow's 151.3. But then this is a statistical fluke since the other nine names on this week's list have from 1,100 to 1,900 passing yards for the season and Relf just 213.
And yet, Relf insists that he is still more than a ‘package' quarterback. "I can run and throw," he said today. "Coach was trying to get me back on the field, that's the main thing." And as recounted above, State can't afford to signal the defense that it will be run-only when Relf takes the field. So, the strong arm could be coming back into play. "I think this week we're going to open it up more," Relf said. "A.D. opening up the run, we're going to open up the pass."
PRACTICE NOTES: The Bulldogs got their Tuesday work done before rains returned. In fact there were cracks in the overcast that allowed some westering sunshine through, getting a comment from Mullen about how nice the dusk-clouds looked. "I enjoy the little things in life!" he quipped with media… Nor did the inevitable question about his Monday reprimand from the SEC Office, regarding his public criticism of officiating in the Florida game, change Mullen's mood. "That's done with and we're moving on to Kentucky," was his complete response…PK Sean Brauchle was booting field goals in early practice today, ranging from 30 to 40 yards as he returns from a leg strain that has kept him sidelined since Georgia Tech. "He feels good now," said Mullen, "which means he's probably about a week away still to make sure he doesn't go out and irritate it more."… The coach said OG Tobias Smith (ankle) is "still struggling, and I'd say he'd still be doubtful this week." Meanwhile DE Charles Burns was given the go-ahead to resume practicing normally on this healing knee, only to come down with flu Tuesday and miss work anyway. "But maybe that one extra day of rest on the leg will do him good," Mullen said. "But he's cleared on the leg and we expect him to play this week."