Even the mistakes were excused, to an extent, by Mullen. "We got real sloppy today," he began the post-practice recap, then relented. "With the effort and excitement, you see that a lot of times the first day in pads. What I was happy to see was the excitement of guys who wanted to go hit each other and play with that effort. Kind of go play the game a little bit."
A little bit. Saturday's session was not to be confused with a true scrimmage day. Practically all the true contact (i.e. tackling) work came in the starting and ending periods; and that was confined to the five yards outside the goal line. The day began with a dozen snaps by the alternating first and second offenses against their defensive counterparts; then capped by some true red zone ‘series' where the same units had four downs to either score or stop against each other.
Not surprisingly, the defense came out ahead if counted by number of scores. In the opening period, only one of the dozen snaps produced a touchdown and that came in a twos-on-twos as HB Montrell Conner got to the left corner ahead of the pursing posse. None of the other plays came particularly close as the goal-line defense featuring extra tackles and no cornerbacks did what new coordinator Manny Diaz wants: they reestablished the line of scrimmage a yard in the backwards direction.
The concluding period was a little better for the offenses with two touchdowns. The first team punched it over with HB Vick Ballard doing the honors. Later it was Conner again in twos-vs-twos as he cut through right guard. These situations were devoted almost exclusively to running the ball (re: no wideouts involved, thus no need for cornerbacks), but a few passes were attempted. S Charles Mitchell picked off QB Chris Relf's attempt to find TE Marcus Green.
But the goal-line defense had two advantages. One was schematic, as Diaz and new line coach Chris Wilson used three true tackles in the front. The first unit had juco DT James Carmon on the nose flanked by DTs Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. The #2 team used DT Reggie Odom over the center with DTs Josh Jackson and Devin Jones to either side. This was more bulk than the five offensive blockers could shove out of the way often, if at all.
Secondly, with no officiating crew, the defensive nose men generally were anticipating the snap count and jumping early enough to merit a flag in real play. Mullen let it go, and when the 345-pound Carmon broke across the plane just as OC J.C. Brignone was moving the ball the entire middle of the o-line caved in. It might not be allowed by refs, but it was excellent practice and practical experience. Odom, who has seen little game work in his three varsity seasons, seems to have found his niche now and performed well with the second unit.
Even without the extra jump the Dog defensive front has an edge on their offensive counterparts here in the early days of camp. "I thought the defensive line was coming off the ball," Mullen said. "And we've got a lot more size in the d-line obviously than we had at this time last year. But you know what, guys are popping and guys are hitting, we just have to be cleaner executing."
Which meant the offense wasn't given a blanket pardon. In fact, following that post-practice huddling Mullen had the first teams line up for one additional unplanned play. If the offense could get in from the one-yard line, they would not have extra gassers. The motivation might have aided execution because Ballard was able to crash left guard for the touchdown.
Those plays signified a shift in practice emphasis after the first two days, where Mullen wanted the ball thrown a lot. As he said at the time, with no contact there was little to be learned about the ground game. Saturday, "We put more of the running game in. It was kind of like day-one installation, because our base offense was going in today, the first day in pads."
Which also meant the backs paid a price as fair tackling game for a defense that had spent two days allowed to chase but not hit. It likely didn't hurt, so to speak, the defense's attitude that they also knew they were not going to get hit by Anthony Dixon any more. To their credit though the four primary runners didn't make things easy for tacklers. Ballard and Conner ran hard and took contact capably in particular, while #1 HB Rob Elliott is running stronger than ever with no apparent problems on the '08-injured knee and a re-shaped physique that bodes bigger things.
The trick is getting everyone on the same page now, and there were obvious miss-steps by both the runners and top quarterbacks Relf and Tyler Russell in executing pitches, sweeps, and read-handoffs. Mullen, again, was able to critique without coming across as too critical.
"With some of the young backs coming in now it's really going to take a little bit of ‘feel' for them. But I was happy with what they did." State showed the revamped ‘wishbone' set for '10 with FB Patrick Hanrahan leading the way for first halfbacks Elliott and Ballard; and Sylvester Hemphill the blocking back for Conner and LaDarius Perkins. Though, the halfbacks did rotate some series as all four got turns with the first line.
Ball protection remains an early-camp concern with occasional—though not nearly as frequent as last spring—fumbles. Mullen himself participated in running back/quarterback strip drills. Fortunately for the participants the head coach never pulled a football free.
On the whole Mullen found a lot to like about Saturday, most of all the energy with which the Bulldogs went about their designated tasks and the consistent level of effort. High effort, too, reflecting the attitude putting on pads brings to practicing this time of a year.
"But because of that we got a little bit sloppy with all of our other execution parts," Mullen said.
Just how much so, the coaching staff will evaluate over the weekend. Not that this was the first thing on Mullen's to-do list as he left the field. "We'll go in and recruit," he said, which was part of this day with a number of high school juniors observing the day's events. "And recruit, and recruit and get us some more good players here.
"But our staff will come back and watch the film, we'll meet with the guys to review film on Monday. And then have the opportunity Tuesday to get back out here and really have our second day of base offensive installation in."
SIDELINES: Besides the end-zone pick in goal-line by the first defense, there were interceptions by CB Maurice Langston and S Nickoe Whitley in one of the few periods devoted only to passing… TE Thomas Webb did not practice Saturday with an injured toe… S Zach Smith participated in contact drills with the second team… First OT Addison Lawrence went down during post-practice running, grabbing at his right thigh that had cramped-up. He seemed alright leaving the field… In one-on-one blocking drills the linebackers won most every battle, except when veteran tight ends Brandon Henderson and Kendrick Cook were protecting the target dummy. They showed size and experience counts… Though not a real blocking back by any means, HB Rob Elliott has made vast improvement as a protector and even fought WLB K.J. Wright to a draw. Once, anyway… DE Pernell McPhee returned to the first unit after a couple of days with the twos, lining up at right end ahead of redshirt Johnathan McKenzie and Shane McCardell. On the left end it was Nick Bell, Sean Ferguson, and Trevor Stigers… When not working at nose guard in goal-line sets, James Carmon was the second left tackle.