Mississippi State moved into an even more serious phase of preseason Wednesday as the head coach began lining his team(s) up for more practical practicing. As in, having the Bulldogs on offense and defense going against units attempting to give them an initial exposure to what is expected a week from Saturday.
All in all, said Mullen, "It was a good day. We're just getting closer to game week. We're starting to really get into game-prep, doing scout team work and getting used to doing those shorts of things. So it's a little different than what we've been doing."
A little different and, the coach added, not as crisp as practices have been for the past several days. Not from lack of effort, though. For that matter, Mullen said the pace has been up to his increased expectations for the second Mississippi State preseason. "Oh yeah. I like our tempo at practices." It was simply a matter of making the transition from drills-type sessions to something closer resembling real game scouting and planning. That took some edge off the tempo Wednesday.
"Things slowed down a little bit with a lot of work with the scout teams for the first team," Mullen said. "But we'll get it back and we'll get used to practicing this way now."
Now, since scout squads have been put on the field, it signals that at least one major ‘division' in the whole roster has been made. Practices are closed so who makes up those scout teams is yet to be told. The converse would seem to be a firming-up of lineups on offense and defense to go against those simulated opponents.
Or, is it? Not at a number of positions, Mullen said. For the time being competition continues at some preseason hot spots, most notably for now at tailback. A quartet of underclassmen are battling for any edge in status and the end result is as undecided as it is encouraging. The fact is Mullen likes the whole foursome and even now is confident they can deliver in September.
"I have no problem rotating guys through for us," he said. "The benefit is you're an injury away from another guy having to be the guy, if you had one anyway. So if we can rotate them through and keep them fresh, or if a guy is hot maybe we'll stick with them more during the game."
The closest contenders are Robert Elliott, the only tailback on the team with a real SEC carry to his credit; and junior transfer Vick Ballard. To be sure the offensive staff is already counting on contributions from redshirt LaDarius Perkins in a variety of ways based on his speed, quicks, and good hands. True freshman Nick Griffin has shown good early skills as a physical runner too.
The older others? It is a case of two well-matched men, Mullen said. "It's similar in some ways. Ballard is probably a little bit more power, and Elliott is a little bit faster. But it's minimal in both those categories to each guy's advantage." Not to mention Mississippi State's advantage.
Nor has the defensive staff made any clear calls on who will start at strong-side linebacker or the other defensive end spot not owned by All-SEC senior Pernell McPhee. The ‘sam' competition is probably the tightest on the team between converted safeties Emmanuel Gatling and Cameron Lawrence. While coordinator Manny Diaz did give a slight early edge to Gatling, based mostly on him being a hungrier senior, that was far from final.
As for the ongoing competition of Nick Bell and Sean Ferguson at end, that too is a race that may go all the way to opening day. Which is just fine with Mullen.
"We've got plenty of time and we'll make a decision probably like the running backs. If we've got to play more than one we'll play more than one and if we can rotate them through we'll rotate them through."
Mississippi State will have a Thursday afternoon practice, then work under the Scott Field lights Friday evening. Saturday is Fan Day, beginning at noon, with no practice. Though, Mullen will be working that day; as a special assistant coach when Mississippi State volleyball takes on Montana at 7:00 in Newell-Grissom.