"I was pleased with the effort today," said Mullen following a nearly three-hour Thursday workout. "It was a good practice."
It was also the last true ‘practice' day, too. There are two more dates on the camp calendar but one will focus on prepping for the other, Saturday's Maroon-White game at Scott Field. So Mullen and staff had a long list of items to run—as well as pass, tackle, and cover—through on Thursday. On the whole it went well, and in particular things went right for the offense more often than the norm for this spring. That's why the defensive team, for a change, had to stay later and run gassers while the offense had a few unit meetings.
All except the quarterbacks, of course; they run win or lose. Yet the good feelings from ‘winning' a day obviously were strong enough to survive some gassers and the four quarterbacks led by redshirt Tyler Russell make their unusual request. Not successfully, it seemed, but it did leave the boss grinning too.
Thursday's periods were pretty sharply defined, with about an hour spent mostly in unit or partial-team drills; and the last 90 minutes in full-team, full-contact work. The scrimmaging itself was organized into full-field drives and yes, there were a few of those completed, followed by mid-field third down situations, red zone going-in, and finally goal line.
"We wanted to get some scrimmaging in during the second half of practice and do some of that in the end," Mullen said. "I think we mixed up a lot of different combinations, let a lot of different guys get reps so we can see what they're doing here at the end of spring. And I was pretty pleased with what happened."
The coach wasn't exaggerating about the ‘different combinations' part. The depth chart compiled by sideline observation over the first dozen practices and scrimmages was almost useless today as the respective coordinators threw together lineups mixing first, second, and at times third team personnel. The video of these periods and plays will do much to settle where everyone really stands at the end of camp, how much progress has been made in building up depth…and not least offering clues about recruiting needs in the coming classs.
The offense set something of an early tone as Mullen began the day's practice periods with a goal-line drill. The #1 group scored immediately as RB Vick Ballard bounced to the left end and in, then the second unit got a touchdown toss from Tyler Russell to TE Brandon Henderson over in the left corner. The top pairing was again FB Patrick Hanrahan blocking for RB Robert Elliot; then FB (and sometimes HB) Adrian Marcus teamed with Ballard; and the third pair of FB Sylvester Hemphill and LaDarius Perkins. For the first time in two weeks, since bruising the left knee, RB Montrell Conner got to do some real work in both drills and a few times later in scrimmaging. Results were encouraging for the redshirt.
"I thought he ran the ball harder," said Mullen. "He still kind of soft-foots it and dances around sometimes. And when you're a big 235 pounds and in pads, go hit it! But he's missed some spring and we wanted to give him a little extra work today. He's missed out on a couple of carries the last two weeks."
The full-team portion was what mattered most though as the top two quarterbacks took turns with cobbled-together units around them…much like they will be doing during the spring game of course. For that matter the defense faces was usually also a mish-mash of starters, regulars, and backups. Russell's first chance nearly ended on a pick but receiver Charles Bailey turned defensive back to keep Marvin Bure from an interception.
Russell wasn't so lucky on an out-route attempt to Chris Smith as MLB Chris White got that far down the field and inside position for a pick. Taking next turn, first QB Chris Relf found WR Chad Bumphis slipping through traffic on a short post and hit him for a 25-yard touchdown play. Russell took notes and went a similar approach. His throw was somewhat high in the end zone but WR Leon Berry went high enough himself to pull it down.
WR Ricco Sanders got behind first CB Maurice Langston for a sideline catch and breakaway thrown from Relf. Relf would get swarmed by a safety blitz later, while Russell hit Smith for a big gainer and then Heavens made the passer look good with a great grab in traffic. That drive ended though when first Gatling and then LB Terrell Johnson successively rushed Russell into losses…the latter time with a pretty stiff shot given the young passer in a supposedly no-contact red jersey.
The defense rose to the occasion in 25-yard line work. Relf's series was stopped on a 4th-and-one keeper, while on the first play Russell was picked. But in ‘last play' work each quarterback got a shot at scoring from point-blank range. Relf was successful keeping around right tackle; Russell tried the same play and was stopped at the goal. Still it was enough to give the offense their win.
The shuffling of lineups was meant to test all units, but maybe most of all an offensive line that has been a subject of spring scrutiny. Mullen graded their efforts today as "Not bad. At times we've been where we wanted to, at other times we've taken a little bit of a step-back. But a lot of that is the depth. When we start mixing-and-matching the O-lines and take the ones out there are a lot of young faces in there. So those guys have got to grow up fast and get used to playing at a higher level."
Meanwhile a portion of the wideout roster has raised their games this spring, with Mullen noting the work of receivers like Bumphis, Heavens, Smith, and Berry.
"That's four, but we need to have eight to even get through a game. We've got four that can step on the field right now, and we're going to find four more between now and September 4." That being when Mississippi State kicks off the 2010 season at Scott Field. But of course the current Bulldogs will be on the home turf first this Saturday. Mullen and staff will oversee a team-dividing draft Friday morning with the winning honorary coaches, then in the afternoon there will be a full-team session in shorts before the respective squads have a walk-through.
And then it's time to conclude camp formally with the 5:00 festival at Davis Wade Stadium. Mullen's ambitions for his second spring game aren't so much execution as, well, excitement. For the players and the fans alike. Everyone has similar hopes for the contest, too.
"I want to see some guys make some plays in the stadium that haven't made a lot of plays in the stadium," said Mullen. "Chris Relf has played in front of large crowds and in pressure-packed situations; Tyler Russell hasn't. I want to see how our guys respond when we have a huge crowd and an exciting atmosphere. I want to see how our guys respond to that pressure."
SIDE LINES: ESPN football commentator and former Pitt star Mark May was on campus for an evening engagement. He spoke to the Bulldogs briefly at the beginning of practices… In placekicking drills Sean Brauchle continued to be more consistent at shorter ranges, while Derek DePasquale was making the longer attempts… And on really long kicks, the squad practiced fake field goal/punts consistently angling it to the right corner… CB Corey Broomfield took some turns in full-team drills but never had to test the healing shoulder with a real hit… S Jonathan Banks worked a second day at cornerback, first on the left side but later on the right corner… SLBs Cameron Lawrence and Emmanuel Gatling swapped status for this day, Lawrence working mostly as the #2 man and Gatling as the first-unit. Both are converted safeties playing linebacker for the first time here… Veterans Zach Smith and Wade Bonner took turns at one safety slot on both first and second squads; while redshirt Dennis Thames was paired with one of those for consecutive periods.