The game renews what was once an annual interstate rivalry, which went on-hold after a 2003 visit by the Tigers. State won that game, their tenth-straight success in the series. Now Mullen must prepare for as unfamiliar a foe as possible under 2010 circumstances. Not only does MSU have no ‘book' on Tiger football but Memphis is under entirely new management as well.
Which does at least give Mullen some empathy for Larry Porter's program in their '10 debut.
"As a first-year head coach last year I know how important that first game is for you," Mullen said. "How much they're going to put in the first game, what a big game it is for them for their players and for their coaching staff. We know that we've got to be ready to go."
Perhaps it was the usual coach-speak when Mullen called Memphis "a very talented team" since the Tigers went 2-10 in Tommy West's final season. Now former UM running back Porter, hired off the Louisiana State staff, will try to resurrect his alma mater. Outside opinions aren't exactly glowing for Memphis' potential this season, but then Mullen isn't relying on analysts to do his game-scouting.
The Bulldog coach has to assume the worst and prepare for the best. And in the case of these Tigers he sees some signs of the latter.
"You look at their roster, they've had some transfers from a lot of different schools," he said. "Several of them were recruited here at Mississippi State. Other were recruited by a lot of big schools around the country. So they don't lack for talent." Those former Bulldogs are linebacker Jamon Hughes and receiver Delmon Robinson.
"So I know Larry will do a good job of getting them coached-up," Mullen said. But that raises the question how and where and what the Tiger staff will be coaching-up their team to do. Mississippi State has had all summer to work on a scouting report for Memphis, and the way Mullen talked today every hour has been needed just to scratch together limited clues to schemes and tendencies. What, then, has he specifically looked at with these Tigers?
"Everything!" Mullen grinned. "Everything, and nothing!" That response is not nearly so zen-like as it would seem, and even as a second-year head coach himself Mullen knows better than obsess on matters that can't be clearly known. Or controlled. So, "One of the things you have to do is focus on yourself a lot. A lot of our stuff is focused on our execution and our fundamentals," he said.
"But you're looking stuff from them from Michigan, from Southern Miss, whatever you can get your hands on. Where it be offense, defense or specials teams. Everybody is a couple years removed from being in the coordinator position for their staff. So we've had to pick-and-choose and look at different things for an idea of what we think they're going to do. And really concentrate on the fundamentals of our team and worry about us executing at a higher level, more than all the different schemes they're going to throw at us."
Besides, State's staff has their own list of game decisions to make in the remaining practices. Quarterback would be of leading public interest even in a normal season, but preseason reports of good competition among the three candidates have been suddenly amplified by the Saturday absence of veteran Chris Relf from Fan Day activities. Monday, Mullen said that Relf was not on the injury list he announced, which was rhetorically accurate…even though a Bulldog player said later that Relf "had a little injured finger" from a practice incident last week. Observers allowed to attend last Thursday's practice say Relf did not throw any passes that day.
Asked to amplify, Mullen said Relf was attending to a family issue on Saturday and that he would be practicing today as usual. Which would indicate the coach does not consider Relf injured; after all, in his rundown of injuries he called backup defensive lineman Josh Jackson ‘doubtful'…when he has been on crutches for two weeks now and had ankle surgery. It was a reminder that an injury has to be truly serious for this coach to count it as such. Related to that, wideout Sam Williams (spring knee surgery), wideout Malcolm Johnson (summer foot surgery), and kicker Baker Swedenburg (foot) were all called ‘probables' today.
"The quarterback situation right now, I think it's going pretty well," Mullen said. "I have a pretty good idea how we're going to do it. I think in the first game we'll play more than one quarterback." He would not label Relf or anyone as the starter today, not even when he said "Only one of our guys has limited experience at that position anyway." Because, he continued, "We've got to get the experience going at that position. Our guys have competed well. So I think you can count on seeing more than one quarterback in the game Saturday."
That stated, Mullen is saying good things about his only veteran. Such as his revelation that just yesterday, Sunday, he phoned Relf with a question of some sort. "And he was right down the hall, watching film. Just on his own." Which to the coach signals a change in maturity for a quarterback who was comfortable as a backup last fall without all the added demands a starter has to cope with.
"Last year he'd watch Tyson and see what he did, but didn't really understand the commitment level. After having success in the last game last year, really the pressure coming on him is its now-or-never for you at the quarterback position. And he really changed his whole demeanor."
Starting status at tailback is just as uncertain, and lack of college experience just as pronounced. Yet here the uncertainty has a positive tinge as good things are expected whoever gets the snaps and totes.
"We haven't defined the number of plays and carries for the tailbacks yet," Mullen said, as he anticipates a variety of personnel groupings for the opening game and for that matter all season. "It's really three number-ones to us, as I look at it." That being lone veteran Robert Elliott, juco transfer Vick Ballard, and redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins." What is the best news at this position is Mullen has had so little bad news all preseason on practice review. "More times than not when I'm watching film and looking to see corrections to be made, the running backs don't show up in that category a lot. With those three guys we're going to feel pretty good about rotating them throughout the game."
Freshman tailback Nick Griffin wasn't in Mullen's list, or not yet. For that matter he is not booking any true freshman for a sure lineup spot in game-one, though he does see the opportunity in kicking coverage and return work. "There are some guys in some backup roles, I don't know how much you're going to see them. Looking at it I don't see any of them starting on offense or defense in this game. But I do see some potentially rotating with the special teams."
For what it is worth, the formal first depth chart does list veterans first at all offensive positions except one of the outside receiver slots, where wideout-turned-cornerback-returned-to-wideout Arceto Clark is on the first team. Elliott and Ballard are essentially co-#1 tailbacks, and at left guard either veteran Quentin Saulsberry or redshirt Gabe Jackson will take the first snap. Defensively the lone toss-up spot, officially anyway, is left cornerback where former safety Johnthan Banks and Maurice Langston are either/or as starters. Though, coordinator Manny Diaz and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith both said last week RCB Corey Broomfield and Banks are the starters. Senior Emmanuel Gatling is holding his lead on soph Cameron Lawrence in a continuing battle for starting strong-side linebacker.
Veteran Heath Hutchins is listed first punter, but placekicker remains a two-man race and Mullen isn't ready to pick between Sean Brauchle or Derek DePasquale. "The kickers are not really worried about it," said Mullen. "I have a good idea where we are going into the game, after warm-ups that might change. If one of them gets in the zone then I might send that person in. That's how I feel comfortable with either one of them on the field."
Mullen had no specific answer to questions about players either not eligible or under suspension for the opening game. "There may be, but we'll announce that on Saturday," was the limited response.
Meanwhile there are four practices left to get available Bulldogs ready as possible for kickoff of year-two. And yes, Mullen said, even the second time-around there are natural nerves for opening night. That, he said, never changes.
"There are always a little first-game jitters and excitement for everybody. We've got to manage through all that stuff, play sound on offense and defense and do what we do well and find a way to win this Saturday."