Primarily, Mullen said, because this was day-one of spring-two for his program. And it showed.
"I just think the whole approach to practice. But you expect that. Last year's practice at this time, it's their first time doing it. Even though it's the first spring practice for a lot of our (redshirt) freshmen they've been through practices all fall; the older guys have been through spring ball, they know what to expect.
"So there's not a questioning look. When that whistle blows they know where they're going and how to get there fast."
The Bulldogs were getting around quickly today, whether in individual drills, seven-on-seven unit work, or a couple of periods pitting full 11-on-11. Since early practices are shorts-and-headgear as mandated, there was no official contact…though on occasion some Dogs managed to create some bumps and bounces in the unit and team periods. They, too, were ready to be ‘doing some football' as their coach said. The only damage noticed was when junior college running back Vick Ballard took a knee to a thigh very early and was gimping just a little the rest of the day.
Mullen and staff clearly had been ready for day-one because they attempted to cram just about every sort of practice situation into one afternoon, short of full kicking drills. Though, there were segments devoted to punting and catching; as well as a whole period where everyone except linemen and quarterbacks got to take a turn rushing the punter.
Still if one thing predominated Tuesday it was throwing and catching. Lots and lots of throwing and catching, as Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning gave their four spring quarterbacks plenty of drilling along with both the wide receivers and the backs. In fact, there were times it seemed the true receivers were doing more ‘running' plays in the form of reverses and sweeps than the running backs themselves. The latter did do a good bit of toting but more often were in receiving routes.
"We did a little different this year, we put in some different things," Mullen said. "And the first couple of days being in helmets we will probably have a little more emphasis on the pass game and doing some of that stuff. The run game, without being able to bang, we wanted to emphasize pass game a little more today."
As expected, veteran QB Chris Relf got to take the first snap of every unit session, with redshirt Tyler Russell following in turn, then either Riley Saunders or Daniel Stegall. But of course the focus is on the top two triggermen who alternated always with the first-offense. Now Relf knows how his predecessor felt as he is the one being pushed by a younger quarterback. If it bothered the junior veteran, it didn't show, and both had good stretches of unit work. And, both had their stumbles once it became 11-on-11. In fact, the very first play of this period saw Relf try to find his running back slipping underneath; only to have the pass deflected in a pile and land in the hands of DE Johnathan McKenzie for a return ‘touchdown.' Not long after it was Russell's turn as an attempt to also throw across the middle was batted and picked-for-six by DE Pernell McPhee.
Mullen didn't seem upset by those plays, as he might easily have been during his first spring camp. The coach certainly likes how Relf and Russell are pushing each other on and off the practice field. Not to mention the fact that their practices are much sharper now.
"It's different because guys now know what's going on. It's not a race to see who can learn the fastest, it's a race to see who can execute the best. So it's going to be a much different competition than last year." This is encouraging stuff simply because both of the top candidates bring their own different skills to the competition. Especially, Mullen noted, because Relf has clearly benefitted from a year in the system.
"Chris has done a great job. I think Chris finished up last season strong, he came back in a position where he felt he's the returning starting quarterback. He just had a different approach to the off-season, he did a real good job. And you can see him out here on the field with just a little different demeanor and approach to him than he took last year. A lot more serous, a lot more committed to what's going on on the field."
Behind the quarterbacks, day-one showed who is getting first shot(s) at replacing Anthony Dixon at tailback. Though, Dixon was in attendance Tuesday, wearing NFL combine garb and chatting with anyone in earshot. Meanwhile junior Robert Elliot took first turn at tailback, followed in order by redshirt Montrell Conner, juco Ballard, and redshirt LaDarius Perkins. That rotation seemed consistent in both unit and team drills.
"It'll be good," Mullen said of his backfield. "Obviously when you look at it today with one guy, Robert Elliot, who has played in games; who has a lot more experience than everybody else, it's easy for him to jump out on day-one over the other guys. But today we weren't in pads so it's really hard to see what a running back can do when we're just in helmets."
Though media and fans naturally gravitated to areas of the field where passers, catchers, and runners worked, the boss roamed freely. "I watch them all," said Mullen. And with the same theme as during his first State spring. Competition, all day and every day.
"To me there's no position that is safe on the field. And no job safe from practice to practice. Guys have got to come out and compete every day. And we keep growing and building this program up and we get some more depth it's going to create better competition. Better competition really results in better players out on the field, you see a lot more improvement. Hopefully we have that competition at every single position across the way."
The Bulldogs have their second practice Thursday at 3:45.
SIDELINES: In pre-stretching unit drills, new defensive line coach Chris Wilson had his troops working in three-man sets. Though this was partly because some of the d-line Dogs—such as Devin Jones and Rodney Prince--were occupied in another area of the field on punt-protection. The first trio, right-to-left, was Sean Ferguson, Fletcher Cox, and Pernell McPhee. The second was Nick Bell, Fletcher Cox, and Trevor Stigers… In the offensive backfield, the fullback order was Patrick Hanrahan, Sylvester Hemphill, and William Shumpert… Though as Mullen said passing was today's offensive emphasis, when the Dogs did run the ball it was almost entirely spread-option plays with pitches to either the full- or tailbacks… Though veterans like Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry took the lead at receiver spots, redshirt walk-on Sam Williams took plenty of turns with the first unit. So did Charles Bailey, who struggled to get in action last fall as a sophomore… After sitting out the 2009 season under suspension, Arceto Clark is now back in action and competing for a rung on the depth chart at cornerback… Former guard Templeton Hardy is practicing at tackle now, with a heavy brace and wrap on the right knee… Second center D.J. Looney did not practice as he recovers from a knee problem, though he did take part in some early snap-drills.