Camp Coaching Has Mullen Eager For Real Thing

Never mind those weren't his players—or perhaps more accurately not yet his players—racing around Scott Field. Dan Mullen was in his element just as surely as if this were game week. "It's great, any time it's good to get out on the field doing some coaching," said Mullen after the Big Dawg Camp. "I love being on the field doing some coaching, it's been too long since we were able to do that."

Since the Mississippi State coach still has over a week to wait before he resumes coaching his own team, the next-best thing was hosting several-score quality high school players Friday. The visiting ‘team' was composed almost entirely of rising seniors and 2010 juniors. Most had been invited, though the Big Dawg Camp also accepted requests to participate.

Thus technically it was not a specific camp for prospective college recruits…though naturally both host school and visiting players were there to make the very best impression possible on each other. The mutual evaluation was part of the fun. But nobody was smiling more over the course of four-plus hours than Dan Mullen. Why, in a way this being a bunch of young men not familiar with his coaching styles and schemes made it that much more enjoyable for him.

"It's great to teach young guys. I mean they get to learn some things from us, learn different techniques that maybe they haven't seen. You can see some really see some quick, drastic improvements in guys."

The guests were not due in the Palmeiro Center until 5:00 but many were arriving with family, coaches, and friends as early as 3:30 for check-in. When everybody assembled strength Coach Matt Balis put them through a real warm-up so everyone could be at their best for the opening round of 40-yard sprints and vertical jumps. All had their heights and weights measured as well, which is quite convenient for college coaches who hesitate to rely on such statistics in a high school game program sheet.

The players worked in groups indoors, keeping shuttle busses busy ferrying each finished squad to the Holliman Center weightroom for a modest ‘workout' of sorts if they wished. Nothing too rigorous was forced on anyone, though naturally some would want to show their strength after watching the fast guys strut through the 40s.

By 7:00 the first groups were arriving at Scott Field, and when the entire visit roster was ready Balis and line coach John Hevesy directed the same sort of pre-game or pre-practice stretching routine as the Bulldog varsity. Only a trio of kickers were excused from this; they were with Coach Mullen at the south end of the field booting field goals and punts toward the video board…which was soon up and running itself. A loop of 2009 season highlights as well as tape of practices, strength workouts and conditioning drills, and other team aspects ran for the next 90 minutes.

"We're out here to keep the excitement going, the energy going with the music playing in the stadium," said Mullen.

But then everyone was too busy to watch or listen. At the whistle players grouped up again, but this time by their positions and at the same field locales used by MSU in scrimmage sessions. Numbers varied naturally, and it would be risky to judge State's recruiting ambitions by what groups were larger or smaller. But there were no less than nine quarterbacks taking turns, compared to eight defensive linemen or eleven offensive linemen. The largest groups were wide receivers/tight ends and defensive backs with over a dozen of each; what looked to be the smallest segment was true linebackers.

This really could have been a real college practice because just about every item of equipment used in a Bulldog session was brought to Scott Field. And, used. Receivers and backs were put through their paces around the cones; quarterbacks had to use real game footwork to skip over series of dummy pads on the turf; defensive backs had their required courses marked to test change-of-direction. Defensive linemen swirled around the large hoops on the ground to refine technique and body control. And on and on…

…and on some more. It could have become a long day, too much like work, except Mullen wasn't going to let things get that far into real-football mode.

"This is not a grind. We come to have a lot of fun out on the field, and hopefully tune them up, get them ready to get on the field and go play some football. That's why we do it at this time of year, it's kind of their last refresher going against all the other top players and the opportunity to get ready for the season to start." What the head coach could have also said, but didn't, was that this is also likely to be the last summer visit for most of the prospects to any college; thus their clearest recent memories will be of an evening at Mississippi State.

As one would expect the passers and catchers had first chance to do something more enjoyable than just individually drill, with a lengthy period of route-running and throwing. Then the defensive backs were called over to join and offer some real coverage. Normally in a pre-college camp there would have been jabbing and jibing over who beat who, but these youngsters had caught the evening's serious spirit and went at this like the sort of work they'll soon enough be doing for team-real.

Eventually everyone got in on the matchup fun; running backs and linebackers/safeties squared off ten yards apart and tried making their best move on each other. There was no tackling but clearly a few guys were holding back. Even the respective lines of scrimmage took some turns with one-on-one drills to test both pass rushing and protecting. The target was a dummy that had to be hit in a set time. As usually happens at the college level too, the defenders won more than they lost.

This went on until 8:45, by which time the varsity Dogs had left. Not from boredom, but because they were due back at Holliman Center by 10:00 for a real weight workout of their own. Though it wasn't supposed to be quite so serious as most, with players told to come costumed in some fashion. Besides, football is the only sport that players are not allowed to work in, unlike baseball and basketball, so they were just on hand to watch and maybe see some familiar hometown faces.

The visitors were called to the 50-yard line, sat down facing the scoreboard, and watched two more videos. The first was a review of 2009 feats by the offense, special teams, and defense with players highlighted. Anthony Dixon's ground-pounding run where he dragged a bunch of Houston defenders the last ten yards into the end zone was a clear favorite, along with Jonthan Banks' 100-yard interception return against Florida.

But it was the second tape that really grabbed attention, beginning as a ‘game day at Mississippi State' compilation before turning entirely into a highlight review of the Egg Bowl. Whatever their respective loyalties and leanings might have been, everyone was glued to the screen watching State's victory. Corey Broomfield's pick-six and blatant juking of Rebel Jevan Snead was the real attention-grabber to these young men.

The Chapel Tower was sounding 9:00 on the nose when the tape ended and Mullen gave the group his thanks for coming to campus…and challenged them to take some lessons back home and back to their ball team. "Being a champion is not a sometimes thing, it's a way of life," the head coach said. Though as if on cue Heisman, the Mullen family dog, began barking from the sideline and eased any too-seriousness in the air. Besides, the fellows were hungry and box lunches were waiting.

Mullen managed to speak individually to just about everyone on the guest list, including parents and coaches. "It looks like everybody had a lot of fun out here tonight," he reported. And based on how many of the players and families wanted to pose for photos with the Bulldog coach, Mullen was evaluating rightly. Despite the one-evening format there was more time to meet-and-greet too because this was a somewhat smaller group of visitors. Mullen said many other players who would have participated had already been to State this summer for other camps, whether individual or team sessions.

Now all of those young men can turn their respective attentions to the their own pre-seasons and August kickoffs. Meanwhile Mullen has been able to burn some of that energy pent-up all summer with one quick evening of coaching. Come August 3, it is for-real again.

"I can't wait to get our guys back out on the field, that's for sure. They were out here tonight watching these guys play and have fun. I think our guys are ready to get back on the field."

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