"An awful way to spend an open week!" he said, mustering something like a smile. "This isn't what I had planned! But you can't turn the ball over. Coach is trying to make a point and he's making it."
True enough. Coach Dan Mullen may have relaxed the length of this bye-week's three practice day, and with no immediate need to get into next-game instruction the mental pace is certainly slower. Still this is no reason, much less excuse, for the Bulldogs just having some happy-time on the practice fields. Or to make fundamental mistakes like turnovers or blown assignments.
"I guess it's a different feel just because of what's going on," Mullen said at the conclusion of Wednesday's two-plus-hour session. "It's a different practice than what they're used to as far as game prep. It's changed up the routine for them which has been pretty good. I've really been happy with the effort, sometimes you get into a bye-week and they have a break, they can come out and have a real sloppy or lazy practice. Our older guys worked real hard and it's great to get the live reps with our younger guys at the end of practice."
Those live reps involved a practice-ending period of scrimmaging by the redshirting freshmen, reserves, and enough backups to round out full offense and defense squads. Today's scrimmage didn't run quite as long as on Tuesday, since the full-team practice was extended just a bit. But overall the theme was the same.
And fortunately the effort showed was comparable to that of a game-week. "This week is really about getting better," Mullen said. "And you're not going to get better by going through the motions. Our older guys have responded by showing the way for the young guys of how you have to work to improve as a player."
The matter of not going-through-motions was exemplified by Lee and Relf paying the price for execution mistakes, just as in a normal game-week. Fun? Not at all. But a necessary reminder that not much gets done on offense without first taking good care of the football, something the Bulldogs are painfully aware of. Even the win at Kentucky was marred by some early turnovers and mental mistakes—not just throwing or fumbling but missed blocks and miss-run routes—that could have dug the Dogs into a dangerous hole.
This was Mullen's way of making the point that even success, or for that matter a mostly-free week, are no time to relax on the bare-bones basics of the game. Lee understands and agrees, no matter the personal price.
"Every practice, every game, first of the season, last game of the season, it doesn't change: as an offense you can't turn the ball over and that's what we've been doing," Lee said. "We've got three big games coming up and we can't turn the ball over and hurt ourselves." All the more so in those three remaining games which hold the key to a winning 2009 outcome and bowl eligibility in Mullen's first State season.
"The coaches stay consistent, our goals stay consistent," said Lee. "You can't help appreciate that, it's what winning programs do and what champions do and that's what they're trying to produce here."
At the same time there is no denying that State's staff has let up just a little bit of practice pressure in some areas, whether cutting the length of drills or number of reps. Wednesday there were some segments that were repeated only twice before a unit moved on to the next stage. Even the longer segments, such as passing offense and pass coverage, didn't have as many snaps as usual. The Dogs did most things right the first times and thus avoided penalty-reps.
And overall there was also these two days a general air of enjoyment not normally present for practices. If it were only due to having some down-time coming up Mullen might worry; instead he saw a much more positive reason. The Bulldogs have brought back more than a W from their Kentucky trip, they have gained valuable confidence and given themselves greater November opportunities.
"I think it's huge, they have a lot to play for right now and it keeps them much more focused," Mullen said. "And obviously in a great mood, there's a lot of smiles on faces here." Including his own as the head coach has allowed himself to show some grins and crack some jokes during the working day. It's contagious, this matter of success.
Still this is not a free and easy weekend for the coaching staff. Thursday will conclude the practice part of the week. "Tomorrow we're going to have a skeleton crew here so it's going to be much more team stuff, scout team stuff, working on our Alabama game plan, and a lot of special teams," Mullen said. A thinner staff since some coaches will already have hit the recruiting road by the afternoon with the rest heading out tomorrow evening. That includes Mullen who after making an appearance in Tupelo for the Thursday call-in show (7:00 to 8:00 at the Parkview Grill) flies to Atlanta and other Friday destinations. Saturday he'll be doing some TV-scouting of upcoming opponent Alabama as they host Louisiana State.
And Lee? How does he intend to spend his last college open date? "Go out of town, getting away from Starkville, Mississippi! Just hang out with friends and relax and watch some football and mostly catch up on some rest."