"It was good," Mullen said of practice #12, adding that the real test could come at #13 this afternoon. This is the third of four two-a-day dates on the August calendar. So,…
"Today should be one of the toughest days of the year for us," said Mullen. "We're kind of at the mid-point of camp, about the halfway point and having two practices today. Everybody is tired, but you're supposed to be tired. It should hurt, you should be miserable, it should be painful. But if it can hurt and we can fight through and prove, we've got a chance to be a good team. And I thought we did."
In keeping with the practice plans for training camp, the morning workout in full-gear leaned towards the ground game for both sides of the ball. Not that passing was entirely reserved for afternoon, of course. But if more plays called for hauling the ball out of the increasing variety of sets—or at the more aggressive defensive schemes introduced for '10—that's how this staff likes to work.
Until Thursday the backfield was working with a full five man rotation. That was before redshirt freshman Montrell Conner left campus for what Mullen would only call "personal things" in a Thursday statement. By Friday the Monroe, La., native had taken his game down to Copiah-Lincoln Comm. College where he will play as a freshman for former MSU assistant Glenn Davis. In another pre-practice statement Mullen said he'd been informed by Conner of his decision to leave. "Montrell has been a good student and a good citizen, and we wish him the best in the future."
What the coach did not have to say was that after sitting out last season Conner expected a larger role in this offense than he was getting based on spring and preseason practices. Though Conner made a spring game splash as the most productive runner, he was struggling to crack the top-three spots in the current rotation. Lone veteran Robert Elliott, spring transfer Vick Ballard, and fellow redshirt LaDarius Perkins are dominating camp so far and true frosh Nick Griffin has come along quickly.
So Mullen did not seem all that worried after losing a 2009 signee. "We'll be fine. We'll just rotate. We were going to rotate backs anyway, probably, this year so I don't think it really means much to us."
What does mean something more as Mississippi State tests not just the various runners but all the passers and catchers as well is making more progress on the front line. Up to Thursday in most of his evaluations Mullen would give the overall edge to the defensive line in heads-up battles. That started shifting yesterday when the coach complimented Bulldog blocking in such things as red zone and goal line work.
On the whole, Mullen is beginning to talk up the big Dogs in front of the offense. With qualifications, of course.
"They're still coming along. The offensive line is five guys working together, it's not a X-receiver running a route by himself out there. It's five guys all working together and if one guy gets off-page you can look sloppy. They're coming along." And by ‘they' the coach means an ever-shifting quintet. Mississippi State returns four starters from 2009 and a third-year soph in Tobias Smith who would have started if not for injuries. All five remain nominal first-teammers just as they were in camp and the first week of fall drills.
But nominal doesn't mean the starting lineup is being posted just yet, either. "We're moving guys around to see what they can do. Because we need to have ten guys prepared for the season. Finding those different combinations and getting those ten guys ready is a key."
It is the same sort of practice-practice Mullen has used at times with the three quarterbacks, sticking each with both of the other units—a #1 with the third-team, the #2 with the starters, and so on. Why, this morning Mullen said that Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens are "neck and neck" at the H-back spot…though anyone who saw him play as a true frosh knows Bumphis is going to be on the field as many plays as possible. The key is keeping the competitive pressures on everyone, veterans and backups and newcomers alike.
And such open competition is likely to continue for most of next week as well. The Bulldogs will have a somewhat lighter afternoon practice Thursday, as usual leaning towards throwing and catching and covering. Saturday is a single practice date, and a tough one in the later afternoon, before Mullen gives the team a Sunday off. From on-field practices that is, there will be other preseason matters addressed.
Monday wraps up two-a-days for this camp, and by Wednesday the Bulldogs will have to combine class attendance with football practices. The one true scrimmage of preseason is next Friday, after which Mullen intends to start settling many of the September lineup plans and take the first steps in actual game preparation.