It may well be a school holiday but not for a Bulldog team just about to hit the half-way point of camp. In fact Mullen took advantage of classes being out Friday to have practices begin at 2:00 instead of 3:45 as usual for a weekday.
"It's great to be able to get out there a little earlier than normal today, so we can finish up earlier and go in and try to clean-up some of the things we practiced today to get ready for the scrimmage in the morning."
Practicing in partial pads today also gave the coaching staff more flexibility within specific drills periods. But there was an obvious emphasis to full team-on-team work Friday, including the entire final 40 minutes as offense battled defense in set down-and-distance situations. As only the coaches on either side of the line knew what was supposed to be happening, declaring a ‘winner' is dubious. Still from a sideline vantage point the offense certainly held its own and at times pulled off strings of successful plays…all kept within the context that no real contact was allowed. True tackling would assuredly have brought more balanced results.
That said, both quarterbacks performed consistently in this extended span. #1 man Chris Relf in particular was sharp in both picking up the proper targets and delivering the pass in time. Only a couple of his throws were deflected and none intercepted. Tyler Russell had a solid afternoon as well, though not quite as quick on either the throw or pulling down the ball to move. Deep throws were rare as most passes were out-routes or dumped over the middle. In that latter scheme the target was just as likely to be a true wideout as a tight end or back, showing how much the gameplan is being expanded here in spring-two of Mullen's tenure.
And, how even with just over half the practices left, Mullen can hear the camp-clock ticking. Thus the importance of Saturday's plans.
"We're really getting close to wrapping up all of our installation, so now everything is in the mind. We've just got to get it from the mind down into the body and get them moving fast," Mullen said. "It's always going to keep taking time to develop those guys. All the timing of our receivers and the timing of our quarterbacks down. especially when you're installing, and a lot of different defensive looks come at you, you've got to get used to seeing those things."
The running game was less of a focus today, having gotten plenty of attention Thursday in full-pads work. Robert Elliott and Vick Ballard continue to set the pace in the backfield, backed by LaDarius Perkins. Their share(s) of carries increased Friday with the absence of Montrell Conner after the redshirt hurt a knee Thursday in non-contact drilling. Mullen was doubtful for now if Conner can participate Saturday.
"It might be a couple more days. They don't think it's bad, I'm going to meet with the doctors now. They want to check it out and didn't think it was too bad, just sore. We'll try to get him back mid-next week."
Kicking teams again received sizable segments of attention, beginning with placekicking. Both Sean Brauchle and Derek DesPasquale were able to take care of routine field goals with no problems even allowing for a stiff side-to-side wind. And DePasquale was crushing kicks from longer ranges as his very impressive camp continues. The punters at least had the wind at their backs somewhat in their drills, but were also trying to get the kicks off from the end zone under real pressure. Heath Hutchins hit his punts high and let the wind do the rest; with a variety of return men including Bumphis and Elliott.
Even on a non-tackling date, both sets of linemen got their share of contact in all sorts of settings. First was a 7-on-7 period with the front defensive seven doing nothing but pass rushing against five blockers, a running back, and a helpless quarterback (walk-on Riley Saunders). No passes were thrown, it was purely a test of how long the basic blockers could hold up under standard pressure; and conversely how long it took the defense to get to the in-pocket passer.
During these drills first DT Josh Boyd went down and stayed down for a while with a turned ankle. He would not do any more practicing, but was kept around to jog on the sideline. OT Derek Sherrod also went down but only long enough to have his right ankle re-taped before returning to usual work.
"Josh tweaked his ankle a little bit, I think he'll be OK," said Mullen. Boyd's place with the first defensive front was taken by junior transfer James Carmon; and Josh Jackson moved up temporarily to the second team. As this was a non-hitting day, CB Corey Broomfield was able to practice with the first defense again; he was held out Thursday to protect a shoulder fixed over the winter. Mullen isn't ruling out using Broomfield tomorrow entirely.
"He might want to get in there for a couple but we'll have to quick-whistle him." Otherwise, Maurice Langston and Louis Watson are the first-team corners ahead of Damein Anderson and Arceto Clark. Six practices have done nothing to change the pecking order at safeties with Jonathan Banks and Charles Mitchell first-team, Wade Bonner and Zach Smith the twos. The third grouping does alternate somewhat with usually Nickoe Whitley and Dennis Thames.
On the defensive ends, Pernell McPhee and Nick Bell are running first pair as expected. And, working either end as new coordinator Manny Diaz wants both the d-ends and tackles to be comfortable working both left and right as needed. Johnathan McKenzie and Sean Ferguson are the second ends respectively; while after first tackles Boyd and Fletcher Cox it has been either Devin Jones or Jackson alternating while big Carmon is the constant on #2 team.
The offensive line has seen no changes since camp began with RT Addison Lawrence, RG Tobias Smith, C J.C. Brignone, LG Quentin Saulsberry, and LT Derek Sherrod. Veteran backup center D.J. Looney can practice but is not taking contact after knee procedures; and Templeton Hardy began as the backup at right tackle but has been slowed by a minor injury and is now working as third left tackle. That makes the second line now RT Phillip Freeman, RG Mark Melichar, C Sam Watts, LG Gabe Jackson, and LT Blaine Clausell.
That backup group is likely to get a good long look Saturday as Mullen wants to know more about the kind of depth State has on the line this season. By contrast the defensive line will be evaluated more with an eye to rotations and combinations with so many still-young players to work into groupings. The offensive staff always needs to get a longer look at most of the true wide receivers, as other than Bumphis and Leon Berry there are so many not-yet-known quantities to scheme with. Not for lack of practice trying, though, as Friday in those full-team drills the sets usually saw at least three and more often four ends split and slotted and in motion.
State has had some for-real contact work already but it has been in limited Dog-doses. And, generally, limited to red-zone and goal-line situations, as was the case last Saturday and this past Thursday. Tomorrow, though, it will be all-out hitting all over the field. "I want to see guys play. Play the game," Mullen said.
"When you do controlled instructions like this you don't feel any impact of any plays. You don't feel the impact of a turnover, you don't feel the impact as much of a sack, the impact of a long pass or long run. I think in a scrimmage situation and in a game situation you're going to feel that more."
The Bulldogs will also be feeling pretty tired and likely bruised, too, based on just how much Mullen wants to get done. "I mean we'll do just about every situation possible, put the ball all over different parts of the field and do some red zone. We'll do a little bit of third-down but we should get a lot of that in the scrimmage as well."