"It's actually a great learning experience for them to come see all the individual work and how we coach each position. I hope they got a lot out of it, and a lot of drills they can take back to their teams and work on their individual instructions."
It was no coincidence this spring's clinic was scheduled for this particular Thursday. With the Bulldogs having practiced in full-pads on Tuesday, along with another pads session Friday and an all-out scrimmage Saturday, the State staff had booked the 9th practice of camp for teaching. And, as Mullen said, since most of the primary schemes have been installed, for getting the players ready to really practice in the remaining six dates of spring.
"It was just a lot of individual instruction," Mullen said, of how the overall theme changes at this practice-point. "You start with a lot of individual instruction, put in a lot of scheme when you're putting in the offense and defense and special teams. Now that all of it is in you get the opportunity to come back and clean up some fundamentals."
Much of today's drilling was very fundamental, fixing some lapses in instruction for each player or correcting bad habits. Whole extended periods were devoted to basic moves on both sides of the ball, since now that those players are trying to execute this can get overlooked. Running backs were sent through simple handoffs and ball-protection drills while taking scripted steps that now, presumably, they know the purpose of. Receivers refined their routes, tight ends included, meaning a lot of balls got thrown and fortunately many caught.
The defense took over an entire field midway of practice to run a ‘circuit' of sections by groupings. Yet, each defensive coach got a turn to work every group, so that defensive linemen were drilled by DB coaches Tony Hughes and Melvin Smith for example; or linebackers got instructed by line coach Chris Wilson. And of course everyone came under the eye of Manny Diaz in one end of the field where the coordinator had them taking care of such core items as tackling angles, proper hand placement and elbow elevation, and the like. While most of his staff would complement players on a well-done move, the highest praise Diaz would offer was an occasional—and earned—"not bad" evaluation.
As it was a partial-pads date on the spring schedule there was no tackling or serious running game work in 7- or 11-man teams. There was contact though as offensive and defensive linemen did one-on-one competitions. Make that, two-vs.-two as Wilson and OL Coach John Hevesy would match the offensive tackles against the defensive ends on the same snap; or, both guards had to take on both defensive tackles. This, while on the other end of the same field a six-man offense ran passing plays against the linebackers and secondary.
For Thursday the quarterback pecking order returned to normal, with Chris Relf taking the first snap in every drill. On Tuesday, Mullen had turned things around for a test of both veteran Relf and redshirt Tyler Russell by letting the younger quarterback work solely first-team. Relf was back in his usual #1 slot today, though realistically he and Russell are 1 and 1A this spring.
One change was seen Thursday though as CB Arceto Clark returned to his original role as a wide receiver. Clark had been running #2 at right cornerback much of the past two weeks and is very much still in that picture. But for today at least State needed him back in the old job. "We've had a couple of injuries," Mullen said. "Arceto has been a receiver, I talked to him about it. He's done a lot of work on defense, I don't know if that's permanent. It's kind of a team move, an unselfish move for him to come back and help us out."
State is a little short on true wideouts at the moment, as veteran O'Neal Wilder turned solely to track this spring; and walk-on Sam Williams is now out with a ACL tear that will need surgery. The redshirt receiver had been a camp surprise, working mostly with the first rotation until the knee injury. Mullen hopes to have Williams back in time for the 2010 season.
For now, though, "We just have no depth at all at receivers. I think we're down now to four or five scholarship receivers, it's hard to run a spread offense with no receivers." That's a slight exaggeration because Chad Bumphis has had an outstanding spring and Brandon Heavens, Chris Smith, and Ricco Sanders have made notable progress from their first college fall.
"With those guys that have played in games you're seeing a lot of improvement. Because last year they're coming in as true freshmen trying to figure out an offense and trying to get caught up, they were forced to have to play as freshmen. Now, this is their first spring. Really it's a chance to learn how to be a wide receiver. I've seen a lot of improvement out of those guys but we need to see a lot more before we're going to be ready to go for the fall."
With Clark switching sides, the cornerback depth chart was first-teammers Louis Watson and Maurice Langston, backed by Corey Broomfield and Damein Anderson; and a third pair of Marvin Bure and an unlisted walk-on. At safeties, the first two pairings were unchanged; #1s Charles Mitchell and Jonathan Banks backed by Wade Bonner and Zach Smith. Redshirt Dennis Thames has worked up into the third group, though for today soph Chris Cameron was getting snaps ahead of redshirt Nickoe Whitley.
Williams' knee injury was the first serious such setback of spring, which has seen no other real injuries to-date. RB Montrell Conner returned to practicing today, having missed three days with a hurt left knee. He wore a protective sleeve-brace for precaution, though his status for the scrimmage will depend on Friday's work. Conner doesn't need to miss much more time though because redshirt classmate LaDarius Perkins and juco Vick Ballard have been standouts in the past few practices, chasing veteran Rob Elliott on the halfback depth order.
DT James Carmon was practicing normally today after a minor knee issue earlier in the week. DT Josh Boyd shows no ill effects from his own knee problem last week.
With practically all practice time spent on player instruction, punting and placekicking could be pushed back to Friday and Saturday and full-team settings. But the specialist's jobs are seeing fine spring competition so far. And while Derek DePasquale has had some very, very impressive long field goals, and Heath Hutchins is punting the ball consistently, Mullen said everything is too close to call now. PK Sean Brauchle and P Baker Swedenburg aren't simply standing aside.
"I would say today I wouldn't know who the starter is, I'd say we're dead-even at both positions now," Mullen said. "Which is what you want, when there's competition and pushing each other that's what is going to lead to improvement. It's going to be a long battle I think until we figure who it is going to be, and we might not figure it out until we get close to that first game."
For returning kicks, the obvious veteran candidates came to the fore Thursday with WRs Bumphis, Leon Berry, and Heavens getting the first turns fielding the ball. State also resumed the individual kickoff drills, with a host of candidates for both blocking and coverage jobs taking their one-on-one turns. Finer points on this were emphasized too, such as lane discipline for assignments in both directions.
"I think our guys understand special teams a lot more," Mullen said. "They understand the importance of it. So the competition to get on special teams here is pretty fierce. That's what we want. I know there are guys competing for positions, but they know what special teams mean and are competing for a position there as well. That leads to a lot of improvement."
Yet there is much left to improve everywhere and just six more practice dates to do it in. Make that five, since the last date is reserved for playing the Maroon-White Game. So after investing a day in both instructing individuals and giving fellow coaches an up-close look at State's way of doing things, Mullen will get back on camp-track Friday.
"We'll come out and clean up things. We had a lot of individual work today, we'll do a little bit more group and team work. So clean up the fundamentals today, clean up the group work tomorrow, and have a great scrimmage Saturday."