Defense Dominates First Full Spring Scrimmage

It's the eternal scrimmage question…and oddly enough it was posed by the very man expected to answer. "Was our offense really bad today, or was our defense really good?" mused Coach Dan Mullen following Saturday's morning scrimmage. "That's always the tough thing to figure out in spring."

Tough the task may be, but then that is exactly why Mullen has the job of figuring out the best ways and means with this Mississippi State spring squad. And, why he had the Bulldogs knocking heads for over two hours on a Saturday morning when the rest of campus was empty for the Easter holiday. The scrimmage was at least scheduled so players could have something of a break themselves, though the actual on-field business began an hour later than originally planned.

That's because the coaching staff had players in team and unit meetings practically from the time Friday's non-contact practice ended to the start of scrimmaging today. How much of the instruction was put into action Saturday only post-scrimmage review will show, but it was obvious to Mullen which side learned faster overnight.

Or, perhaps, just got a little more motivated. "The defense really did a good job today," Mullen said. Often a really, really good job in fact, making things miserable for an offense that had come out of Friday's drills feeling pretty good about themselves. For that matter the offensive side had done a little crowing at the end of last Saturday's abbreviated contact periods, too.

This learned today it is always best to let a sleeping Dog defense lie. Particularly one that now has both the muscle and mindset at the line of scrimmage to lay down the law. Not to mention lay the lumber.

"They dominated at the line," Mullen said. "You know, I'm really disappointed in our offensive line's performance. The offense had a great practice yesterday, they really moved the ball well and did a lot of good things. They came out today and just kind of didn't come out with the intensity we need up front by the offensive line. And no one stepped up to give the leadership when things weren't going well."

This was not a game-type scrimmage, as the coaching staff preferred using specific situations to evaluate the team(s). Maybe a third of the total periods involved attempts at extended drives…and on the whole not many of them produced good things for the offense. Though, interestingly, some did come early. On the second series of ones-vs-ones, QB Chris Relf took off around the right end and went 62 yards for a touchdown, only slightly aided in this case by the no-tackle red jerseys quarterbacks wear. These shirts wouldn't completely protect the passers as the day progressed, however. A series later with the second teams facing off, QB Tyler Russell read a third-down blitz and found RB LaDarius Perkins for a screen and 40-yard touchdown play.

Both quarterbacks did stand-in under repeated pressure often. In another mid-field series, Russell waited until oncoming DE Johnathan McKenzie was in his facemask before hitting TE Kendrick Cook. Later, with the offense starting at the 40-yard line going in, Russell worked the sideline to TE Brandon Henderson for a first down around the 15. That drive had to settle for a field goal, but also exemplified how much of a role tight ends are filling now when the pressure is on.

Those plays did not make up for many other series that ended quickly as the first and second defenses did have the overall better of things in open-field work. And neither offense got anything going on the ground at all beyond Relf's ramble. So about 90 minutes in, Mullen let the first offense go against the second defense to try to pound the ground. It worked with backs Vick Ballard and Robert Elliott moving the ball within field goal range for Derek DePasquale to again convert.

At that the top two quarterbacks took a quick break with reserves Riley Saunders and Daniel Stegall taking some turns. This produced the first real turnover as CB Louis Watson picked Saunders…and more were soon to come at the expense of the varsity passers when coordinator Manny Diaz let his defense come with more, and more varied, blitzes. On a third down Russell was rushed into a hasty dump-off for Perkins that was deflected and caught by #2 CB Arceto Clark.

Switching to starting series backed-up inside the five-yard line the first offense got something going on the ground with Ballard and Elliott netting almost 40 yards on three combined carries. Twice they caught the defense blitzing and the middle open for a ten-yard bursts. But on first down Relf did try to throw and was picked by #1 CB Maurice Langston. In his turn trying to lead the #2 offense out away from the goal line Russell threw right where #2 CB Damein Anderson could intercept on the run and return for a touchdown.

With the ball spotted on the 40 and a designated 3rd-and-9, Relf showed more poise against a linebacker blitz and found WR Chad Bumphis a step behind S Charles Mitchell for a 60-yard touchdown play. Later, the series starting at the 25 going in, Relf read the defensive flow and kept on another option play for a diving touchdown. Russell however waited too long in the pocket and McKenzie swatted the ball out of his hands for a fumble.

Mullen gave the offense some easier chances to conclude the scrimmage, and both units produced. Relf found favorite target Bumphis in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown pass; and after a defensive offsides kept the series going Ballard battled in from a yard away.

Relf was credited by MSU officials with 7-of-11 passing for 33 yards in full-field work only; third down, red zone, and goal line passes were not counted in the total, thus that 60-yard scoring play wasn't figured into the total. Russell was listed at 12-of-17 for 156 yards in full-field situations. In those same sorts of settings the three halfbacks had just 20 yards on 12 carries. WR Brandon Heavens had five catches for 52 yards to lead the receivers out in the open-field work.

State came out of Saturday with no apparent injuries. First-team WLB K.J. Wright did need his left ankle retaped and after an initial series never returned to play. That was no problem for the first defense and allowed redshirt freshman Deonte Skinner to work the rest of the scrimmage with the number-one unit.

DT Josh Boyd, sidelined midway in Friday drills with an ankle, was back to speed today and scrimmaged as usual with the first defense. But RB Montrell Conner was held out entirely a second day after hurting a knee (exact injury still not explained) during a unit drill Wednesday. First CB Corey Broomfield (shoulder rehab) was held out of contact as usual. TE Thomas Webb has missed all but the first two days of camp with a big toe injury.

Despite the number of offensive plays recounted, it was still a day dominated by the defense. So much so that those Dogs were excused first, while offensive players stayed behind. Not, as in the past, to run though; the extra work consisted of linemen hitched to a box, in which sat a peer of similar size, to be dragged back-and-forth across the field in turns. The skill personnel pushed a sled carrying a teammate similar distances. And when some couldn't finish the penalty, at one point Coach Matt Balis showed how to do it by shoving a sled carrying a reserve quarterback across the field himself.

The coaching staff won't have much of a holiday as they will be busy evaluating video of today's scrimmage, as well as the previous six practices. Only then can anyone say with certainty if one side of the squad is that good, the other that poor…or if it was just another turn in the typical spring practice cycle.

Additional Coach Dan Mullen post-scrimmage comments:

Q: What was the defensive line doing well? "Just coming off the ball. I mean, I'm sure it wasn't a pretty meeting for the defense last night and this morning after yesterday's practice where the offense was just moving the ball up-and-down the field at will. Even though they weren't moving the ball in a scrimmage situation (Friday) it was just play after play. So it wasn't real friendly. Which is what you want to see though, they came out and responded today to what happened yesterday in practice."

Q: There's that fine line, wanting to see the defense play well but at the expense of the offense? "Yeah, that's always the tough thing. Was our offense really bad today, or was our defense really good? That's always the tough thing to figure out in spring. We'll go back and watch the film. A lot of it, I just want to see improvement. I want to see individual effort on the field. I want to see hopefully the defense corrected the mistakes they made yesterday, and the offense will come out Tuesday and correct the mistakes we made today and just become a fundamentally better football team."

Q: What were some things you saw from the offense you did like? "Well, our quarterbacks stood in there, they're throwing the ball better this year. Tyler stood in there and was getting hit a whole bunch but continued to throw the ball well. We came back and scored a bunch in the red zone. The defense was blowing the offense out in the scrimmage, all of a sudden we score a bunch of consecutive touchdowns. Which, when you get in the red zone we need touchdowns. So they made it close there at the end. So it was good to see them come back and respond at the end."

Q: Do you like the pocket presence you see from both quarterbacks under pressure? "Yeah, that's what you want to see. I love our defense, we're going to blitz and come after you, and those are the situations you want to put your quarterbacks in in spring. Especially just make them have to make quick decisions with people coming after them all day long."

Q: What are you looking for from your quarterbacks in spring? "Just development in managing the game. When you look at game management, the quarterback's job is to get us in the right play, make the right decisions, protect the football, and when a play is there to be made, make it. But if not that's OK, just manage the game and eventually we're going to have a play there to make. That's the biggest thing, and they just get more and more comfortable in running the offense. You see that in Tyler's first real go-around and getting a great shot at it. But Chris, he's just so much more comfortable in everything that's going on on the field now than he was last year. Because he's more relaxed and just trying to manage the offense instead of figuring out what to do on every play."

Q: How comfortable are you with the running backs? "They're doing a good job. They've just got to continue to develop right now. When you look at the backs there's not a lot of experience at that position right now. But they're doing a good job. We just have to keep seeing them develop. The nice thing is if they all three develop it's good, we'll have a three-man rotation at running back. And who knows, maybe four, maybe five depending on who is ready to get into the game."

Q: How is Vick Ballard coming along? "He's doing a nice job there running the ball."

Q: Is there an update on Conner's knee? "He's got a little tweak, he's just going to have to rehab it for a couple of days. We expect him back next week."

Q: Talk about Brandon Heavens, can he be an impact guy? "Yeah. I mean, we need them to be. If you look at playing between 70 and 80 plays a game, we need our guys playing fast. That's why we need depth at that position. We need Heavens and Bumphis to be play-makers for us, if one guys comes off the field we cannot have a drop at that position. We need to have two guys with equal talent that are each going to play forty snaps a game giving us everything they have."

Q: What are you seeing from all the wide receiver positions? "I think they're doing a better job blocking. I think they understand the offense a little better, about how to get open. They've still got to do better in one-on-one and play-making situations."

Q: What is James Carmon giving the defensive line? "He's done a nice job. Obviously a junior college kid here in his first spring, has a long way to go still. He's adjusting to the difference between playing junior college football and being maybe able to get away with his size; where he's not going to be able to get away with that here. You've got to be able to play with fundamentals and intensity in the Southeastern Conference. So he's slowly learning that and hopefully by the fall he'll have that figured all out. He's got potential, but what do they say? It won't get you a cup of coffee, you still need 75 cents. He's still got to learn how to play the game."

Q: How is Louis Watson coming along at cornerback? "He's doing good. We finally have a little bit of depth, not quite enough, at the cornerback position. So he's getting a lot of reps. At corner, very much like receiver, you like to have guys you can roll in-and-out a little bit so you can keep guys fresh; and get to two-minute situation like we did at the end. We don't want to exhaust the guys on the field, we want guys that are playing fast. Hopefully he keeps it going and gets into the rotation this year."

Q: Where is the biggest improvement you've seen in spring? "I just think our guys understand everything. And we come out and have a great crowd come out here today and watch us, last year that was kind of new for them (the players) and they didn't always know how to respond. Our guys now know how to respond to practice, they know how to go in when the pressure is on and continue to make plays. It's just a sign of maturity of the guys' second year in the program. They're a lot more comfortable with what's going on."

"Right now our focus is on a team that gives great effort; a team that improves the fundamentals and guys are becoming students of the game. In year-two of a program you really need to see guys take that next step to become students of the game."

Q: What is the plan for next week? "It will be very similar to this past week. Practice Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and come back and have another big scrimmage Saturday."

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