Tuesday Bulldog Spring Practice Report

Dan Mullen didn't need to tell everyone which way the day's practice ‘score' had tilted. Not with most of the guys who work in offensive maroon jerseys still running gassers or doing up-downs in the background while the head coach spoke. "Our defense I thought played pretty well. Our offense…really didn't execute very well."

The slight pause spoke volumes about Tuesday's results at Mississippi State. Not that Mullen was openly angry, or even overly blunt in his post-practice commentary. It was a matter-of-fact assessment about how things stood on this 12th working day of spring camp. The defense did better and got to leave on time. The offense was bested, as a whole, and paid the price.

"A little sloppy today. We've still got a bunch of things we need to clean up Thursday," said Mullen, then adding, "And it started up-front."

Which was also pretty evident as after backs and ends had run their side-to-side laps the blockers lined up in one long row and did fire-offs…every five yards until the full length of the field had been covered. A distance, by no coincidence, neither the first nor second offense had been able to go more than a couple of times during the last hour of full team-on-team drills. Only twice did such an attempt to drive succeed and that wasn't nearly high enough a batting average to suit the staff.

So, run they did as Mullen tried to make the point. "We need some more guys to step up, some more leaders to step up so when things don't look good they're making improvement."

Tuesday's practice was in shorts and partial padding so, technically, it wasn't a contact day. Though at times it was hard to tell nobody was supposed to tackle as several Bulldogs followed-through as if Saturday's scrimmage was still going. This might have been because the offense resumed today's drills pretty much as the left off the scrimmage, working out of a no-huddle, forced-tempo format. Quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell were literally on the clock in getting whichever unit they were running at the time to the line, then re-aligned, and into the right play—almost entirely passing plays at that.

This seemed to go well enough with no serious delays in getting snaps off or confusion in positions, which had to be a positive sign. Execution after that, though, was much less satisfactory and produced few catches with a collection of turnovers. Relf tried to slip one to WR Ricco Sanders at the numbers only to leave it low where S Charles Mitchell could intercept and go all the way back. Sanders was also involved in another turnover, this time as he let a Russell throw go off his hands where #3 MLB Brandon Wilson could catch the carom. S Johnthan Banks got another interception of the first-team offense. The defense had to be feeling its oats again as once #2 DE Sean Ferguson kept coming after Russell and stripped him from behind in a 4th-and-8 setting.

Two-minute work went a little better offensively, at least at first. With the #1 group Relf hit TE Brandon Henderson for a 27-yard gainer, then WR Leon Berry for a dozen more to stop the clock. Against a coverage front he found TE Marcus Green for first-and-goal, then only the only run of the fast drive RB Vick Ballard got across the line.

The second offense only got off one play as DE Nick Bell dropped into coverage and intercepted. And on the next series Bell was on the attack and scored a sack of Russell for loss of ten. Russell came back, throwing with two rushers in his face and finding RB LaDarius Perkins for a 25 yard scamper. But WR Brandon Heavens dropped a touchdown at the goal line and on fourth down Russell's forced throw was intercepted by walk-on cornerback Phillips.

Any observer of Mullen's spring and fall camps last season could attest that for all this, the offense has made a better showing this second time around. That many of the plays made these four weeks would have been cause for 2009 practice celebration. Now, though, what was good enough then is not satisfactory now as the 2010 offense is held to a higher standard. The defense(s) that were maintaining overall control of the day were literally a mixed, not to say mixed-up, group. After establishing a pretty clear depth chart in Saturday's scrimmage, coordinator Manny Diaz did some shuffling between first and second units, and even giving some reserves turns with those groups against the varsity. Such as, #2 Devin Jones taking Josh Boyd's place at right tackle and vice-versa with the second group. And second MLB Wilson going some on the first team, as did backup S Nickoe Whitley. Late in the day it was the turn of backup tackles Josh Jackson and Reggie Odom to go against the first offense; ditto for CB Arceto Clark, and several other examples. And in multi-safety sets, Johnthan Banks lined up as a true cornerback.

Partly this was to test #2s and 3s in such situations, Mullen said. But also, given the fast pace of the no-huddle work, it was a good way to evaluate how much of a rotation the whole defense can pull off in late-game and hurry-up settings. Not to mention keep fresh legs on the practice field against the offense.

"We wanted to put some pressure on with that depth," Mullen said. "One of the things you do when you pull guys out is see how other guys respond in that group. That's why you do that."

The offense did some of the same on the line, as backups RG Mark Melichar and RT Phillip Freeman got to run as #1s for several series; and starters Tobias Smith and Addison Lawrence go down a notch on the one-day depth chart. Backup Templeton Hardy not only operated some at first right guard, he also took a few turns again at second left tackle.

While the primary focus was on full-team practice there was a fair portion of periods devoted by half-teams to the ground game on one field and passing player on the other. Here the offense showed up better in running plays, but the air attack had some issues. The main one being that only four or five possible receivers were being sent into area covered by two linebackers, two corners, and four safeties as Diaz showed what his down-and-long schemes look like. In fact one of the ‘backers was more often than not dropping into coverage as a fifth safety. Though there was only a token rush by one linebacker this drill still put a premium on quarterback recognition before and after snaps.

Both passers had some positive plays, such as Russell finding WR Sanders on on the sideline after a corner blitz vacated the area for a big gainer. Relf was able to go on the other sideline to WR Chad Bumphis for a catch-and-scamper. But this was after he'd been picked once by CB Maurice Langston.

Mullen said much of Tuesday's script called for two-minute and hurry-up work, not just by the offense but as a test of the defense as well. "We're doing a lot more two-minute situations at the end, that's a lot of what it was about today," he said. And as the final score showed, the offense came up short too often to escape penalty running. But as much as the coaching staff wants to see a higher standard of consistency, the boss is even more interested in finding runners and catchers and throwers who can change a game in an instant.

Thus making tempo-work almost entirely passing plays as State seeks answers to perhaps the most pressing camp question, who are the best wide receivers to mix-and-match. The opportunity is surely there, as Mullen said. "If you can catch the ball and you can make plays, we're going to find a way to get it in your hands.

"That's our offense: how to get the playmakers the ball in space. Whether we hand it to them, pitch it to them, snap it to them, throw it to them, that's what we're trying to get those playmakers the ball. And we've still got spots. Playmakers are still needed around here for us to get the offense the way we want it."

Mississippi State has one last true practice this spring, as they will work Thursday in full gear. Friday's schedule calls for some drills and more walk-through work after the team is split into Maroon and White rosters for Saturday's spring game.

SIDELINES: RB Montrell Conner practiced in drills with a heavy sleeve-brace on the left knee he bruised two weeks ago, but did not take part in full-team periods… First CB Corey Broomfield is not allowed to take contact, but this didn't keep him from giving a receiver a good pop that dropped him after a catch… In some coverage packages both SLBs Cameron Lawrence and Emmanuel Gatling were on the field at the same time, allowing Lawrence to drop into coverage as he did last fall as a safety… During post-practice running WR Leon Berry found he had an unexpected workout partner as Heisman Mullen, the coach's Wheaton Terrier, was running alongside. And almost tripping up the wideout with the leash… It was a non-contact day as noted, but that did not stop second DT James Carmon from teeing-off in a 7-man running drill and blowing #2 OC Sam Watts three steps into the backfield as he figured the snap count correctly.

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