"We're going to do a mock-game tomorrow night," Mullen said today. "A lot of just cleaning things up, of what we do on a regular game. I mean from run out of the tunnel to stretch lines and all that stuff."
Moving to Scott Field will be a welcome change of preseason pace for everyone involved. Because it has been a long month for the Bulldogs, who opened their camp back on August 3 and have been working with just a few scattered skips since. That early start was dictated by the academic calendar, but the end result has been a team and staff are getting a bit tired of themselves. Thus Mullen's plan to have his staff and squad play at playing a game before switching entirely into real season mindset.
That did not mean Mississippi State relaxed their pace Thursday. To the contrary, the Dogs had a full afternoon's practice, in full gear, and for a second day in something more like game-prep mode. It was day-two with scout teams giving the offense and defense something—if not someone—different to look at. And, a much more efficient afternoon than Wednesday, which had Mullen both upbeat and talkative afterwards.
"I liked it. It was a little bit better, a little bit cleaner today. It was a little bit better understanding and the tempo of practice was better."
Fact is, Mullen was not really disappointed with the previous day's labors. He actually anticipated it, as part of the inevitable change from straight drills and scrimmages to calling a play and attempting to execute against a scout squad. Plus, that ‘opposing' team is operating somewhat in the dark given lack of hard data about Memphis and their new management. That Mullen allowed quite a lot of slack for.
Fortunately he reported that thing ran much more crisply in every aspect Thursday. Just as he expected.
"You know, when you start changing scout teams for the first time and you're really getting a game practice and game planning, it can be a little sloppy the first day. So I think we got that corrected on the film; what is expected, how the period is supposed to look, the effort and the energy on the field."
Since Friday will be designed as a ‘how the game operates' reminder, hopefully knocking any mental rust off Bulldog veterans while introducing younger pups to home-field reality, there will be a lot of kicking involved. News has been slow from State special teams since camp was sealed, but the few words heard have been positive from coach and players. Mullen has made a preseason point of reminding that specialists' jobs have been honestly competitive. With all three Dogs who put boot to ball last fall back, this has become two truly tight fights for starting status.
For now Mullen is not tipping his hand (foot?) if there has been anyone tabbed to take first kick or punt a week from Saturday. He is, though, impressed by the progress senior Heath Hutchins has made punting this second fall on campus. "Heath has really cleaned-up, he's become much more consistent," Mullen said.
"He's a guy who last year had some talent coming out of junior college, but has really cleaned up his consistency and become a pretty solid punter. He had the leg strength, last year you'd see a 60-yarder followed by a 30-yarder. This year you're seeing consistency."
Yet this is not the same as saying Hutchins has the job. Derek DePasquale was in the punter mix when camp began, and now his fellow placekicker Sean Brauchle has been doing this other sort of kicking too, to good coaching reviews. Meanwhile Brauchle and DePasquale continue to duel for #1 kicking out of the hold…though the latter has reportedly held his status on kickoff duty.
So while Mullen is trying to settle a lot of rotations before next week, the specialist spots are not among them. Not yet.
"I'm not worried about it, really," he said. "Both of them played. If we go with one over the other, then I don't want get stuck in a situation where (the other is) not ready to play. Both guys are ready to play. You might see both of them in the first game, it just depends on how they're kicking. I might check it during warm-ups, to see who we're going to go with."
State has gotten through four weeks with only one noted, if not formally reported, injury; that to backup defensive lineman Josh Jackson who goes to and comes back from practices in uniform and on crutches. Mullen is not commenting much on health situations to the varsity this preseason, but did update a couple of pre-camp injury situations. Wide receivers Sam Williams (knee surgery in spring) and true freshman Malcolm Johnson (June foot surgery) are being held out.
"We're still protecting them right now," Mullen said. "They've been cleared to practice." But at this point the staff isn't ready to do just that. Mullen said he would rather not throw the recovered guys right into live action after missing so much work in summer and preseason. "So we've kept the red jerseys on them. They're cleared to go full, we're just protecting them."
After Friday's session the Bulldogs are not scheduled for Saturday practice but will be reporting for Fan Day duty at the Palmeiro Center (noon to 2:00). Mullen said today that this weekend's plans will be flipped from the routine to be followed after opening night…particularly because there will be a short turnaround before the Thursday night SEC debut with Auburn.
"Obviously the first game you get a little bonus," he said. "Usually we don't practice on a Monday. Come next week we'll give Sunday off, we'll practice on Monday and go full-pads and start to tail it back later in the week."