Where all practices, including two-a-day dates, will be held from now until the start of the fall school semester. Thus, Mullen says, "For me, training camp begins for real. We get out on the field and start pushing and get this season rolling."
Saturday's work was to begin at 4:00 and run to around 6:00, with gear still limited to helmet and shoulder pads just as yesterday. This whole portion of training camp is also closed to the public, though for Saturday only media will be allowed a glimpse of how things work at the South Farm facility. The rest of the way the Bulldogs will go about work with as few distractions as practical. Mullen initiated this practice-practice in his first Mississippi State preseason and liked how relative isolation emphasize an all-business approach from everyone involved. Though, he did often joke about how South Farm's cattle seemed to take an interest in the proceedings.
There's no bull about how crucial the next two weeks will be in getting these Bulldogs ready for the real season, though. Mullen has been generally satisfied with the effort and the execution shown over the opening sessions out on the regular practice fields…but he also keeps that in his own perspective.
Those first couple of days when you're just in helmets there's a lot of introductory work that gets done, a lot of getting used to being back out on the field. And you get back in the flow of practice. We've done a good job of doing that."
Under these early circumstances there have been no significant changes in either lineups or rotations from how State completed spring camp. Nor have there been any real injuries, though when asked the status of backup defensive end Trevor Stigers—who was helped off the field Friday night with a hurt knee—Mullen said there would be a new policy of not commenting on injuries until Thursdays of game weeks. This means no injury updates in practice camp either, it appears.
In fact the biggest injury news is the non-injury news, especially at one pain-prone position. If coaches and fans are keeping an eye on #1 right offensive guard Tobias Smith's ankles it is with good reason. First because the third-year soph has had each previous preseason either ended or interrupted by ankle injuries. Second, because after a unspoiled spring Smith is a key to State's entire offensive line. "He's working on staying healthy," Mullen said. "He was going to be a starter for us last year until the injury set him back." Now, Smith is expected again to start and is on track health-wise to do so. "He has the potential to become a real, solid SEC lineman," Mullen added.
At this early point Mullen is not as concerned with keeping a depth chart at most positions as developing the players there, such as at running back. With All-SEC Anthony Dixon gone to the NFL, somebody has to pick up his considerable load. Instead of radically adapting the gameplan because there isn't one big Dog hauler, though.
"We're not going to shy away from running the football this year," Mullen said. "Last year a lot of times our focus was to get Anthony the ball. When you spread the ball and spread the wealth around it actually opens your offense up a little." For that matter Mullen thinks not having one feature back could ultimately mean a more productive running game in total.
"We're going to run plays that we think are going to be good schematically and it doesn't who is going to touch the ball, instead of trying to focus on getting one individual the ball. I think that can really make the offense perform at a much higher level." State now has five tailbacks competing with lone veteran Robert Elliott and spring JC transfer Vick Ballard setting the pace for now; backed by redshirts LaDarius Perkins and Montrell Conner, with true frosh Nick Griffin getting up to speed daily.
There is a fair number of wideouts on the roster, and two proven producers in Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry. Soph Chris Smith has worked his way up into the first rotation as well though Mullen said besides good hands and speed there remains more to learn here about how to use physical skills to best advantage. After that, a bunch of younger guys and true frosh are trying to fill-out the three, four, and five wide spots Mullen wants to utilize here in year-two. There is progress, he said, but…
"We're another year or two away from where we need to be in the receiving ranks. There are some guys that are developing, coming up through the ranks, they're all learning how to play. That's what takes time. But it will be another year, or two even before we get the depth we need."
Though Chris Relf, the only game-tested quarterback, came out of spring the clear #1 man, Mullen said today that he doesn't know if there is much of a gap now between Relf and redshirt Tyler Russell. "Each of them have their strengths in certain things and I see certain things out of them. That's a battle to me that isn't decided." Which is not of quite as much concern to the coach as fans would likely assume. To the contrary, Mullen likes keeping this competitive.
"Hopefully it prepares both of them," he said. Oops, make that all three of them, he corrected. "There's a third guy that wants ever single snap," he said, referring to true frosh Dylan Farve who was #3 quarterback the day he checked-in on campus. Though there has been a clear pecking-order in camp snaps so far, Mullen implied that for the next few weeks nobody has set status. "They'll work with the first, second, or third offense," he said, "so I can see how they perform in that group all during training camp with different groups."
The best defensive lineup competition at the moment is at strong-side linebacker, as converted safeties Emmanuel Gatling and Cameron Lawrence battle for who starts and who rotates in. Lawrence opened spring camp topping the chart but Gatling, a former walk-on, is holding the edge for now. "Emmanuel is a guy who has really worked hard to do things the right way, and show the staff he can make plays out there during the game." Both former DBs have also enjoyed being able to add weight—i.e., eat in ways their more restricted teammates couldn't—over the summer for this hybrid linebacker/safety position new coordinator Manny Diaz plans to employ.
"But that battle will go on for quite a while before we know, if we ever know," Mullen said.
Meanwhile Freshman All-SEC safety Johnthan Banks has made himself at home as a cornerback now. Switching a centerfielder who had four interceptions, two for touchdowns against Florida, and made other big plays to a single corner might seem an odd move, but Mullen notes Banks enrolled a year ago as a corner anyway. And, he could still end up playing a safety-type spot anyway in a scheme that isn't as scripted as before.
"It's great having a guy with his versatility that can do both," Mullen said. "John Banks certainly helps that with his versatility, when we roll him back and even when he's at corner he's playing safety techniques." Still the more-encouraging fact is that State's defense has sufficient depth and variety to make such moves. Diaz will play some three-cornerback schemes this fall, using the strengths of Maurice Langston and Corey Broomfield to move from a corner to midfield in nickel and dime and even more (quarter?) sets. They can do so with veteran Charles Mitchell and redshirt Nickoe Whitley settling the starting safety jobs and old hands Zach Smith and Wade Bonner behind them.
The defensive front is the deepest in over a decade for Mississippi State, in numbers and ability based on spring ball. So early practices have seen constant rotations, a trend likely to continue in South Farm work. Moving Chris White to middle linebacker and K.J. Wright to the weak side has worked just as well as expected, though ironically for Mississippi State there are at least some concerns about overall linebacking depth. This is where some more true frosh will get long August looks. Because the Bulldogs are not fielding a defense that intends to let the game come at them; State is going on the attack and fresh legs will be at a 2010 premium.
But them, Mullen hired Diaz because he wanted the Dog defense to set the pace just the way this offense will try to.
"That's kind of my mentality," Mullen said. "Manny really had a similar philosophy to defense that I had to offense, he's not afraid to think outside the box." This does not translate exactly to reckless defense, the coach cautions…but it is clear the Bulldogs will take their best shots as well as some risks.
"It will cause issues for the offense, put the offense in uncomfortable positions where they have to come out of what they want to do."
Speaking of comfort, the second-year head coach is that much more at-ease with what he is trying to get done in a preseason this second time-around. That should carry over into the real season. Not that Mullen has ever lacked for confidence, of course…but just like with his players, experience is always the best teacher.
"It's knowing what is going on, and having done it before," he said. "Last year, even though you expect what is going to take place it is your first time doing anything so every situation that presents itself it was my first time dealing with as a head coach. Having gone through it I'm a little more comfortable dealing with situations. I've been through it once before."