"Two days ago it definitely was the offense that kind of took the day. But the defense had some momentum at different times during the practice. That's where the offensive guys need to step up."
Stepping things up was the order of the morning for Mississippi State on their second day of preseason practices at the Farm, their temporary camp headquarters from now until the start of semester classes next week. Just as in Sunday's first session there the Bulldogs were in full-gear; unlike yesterday though this fifth practice date of camp was the official start of real tackling. Not that either side had been taking it very easy on each other in preceding practices, understand. Even without armor the Dogs have a habit of hitting.
This was the next phase, though, and much of the morning Mullen actually found himself dialing back on the hard stuff. "I thought it was good intensity," he said. "We didn't do a lot of live tackling, just a real quick period here and there where we went live-to-tackle. So it wasn't a whole lot different than yesterday."
Those familiar with Mullen's competitive approach to any practice could figure out the real story here. Had there been any lack in licks the coach would have let them know…emphatically. So what it all meant was Mullen saw a team working just the way they should at this preseason point.
"When you get out there and go full pads the demeanor of the team has to change. And I thought it did, us adjusting to what's going on on the field and the intensity they're bringing, I'm pretty happy with. That being said, it has to greater than last year's intensity if we're going to improve a lot."
Monday's morning weather was certainly improvement on the usual trend, what with an overcast and breeze making things almost comfortable. Despite the milder conditions there was still the scheduled break at period 14 and non-stop shuttling of water bottles to stave off cramping. Temperatures are expected to resume normal brutality Tuesday for the first two-a-day date.
The first and second offenses were unchanged from lineups seen in prior non-pads practices. There were two adjustments on defense as Chris Hughes moved up to first team outside linebacker and Matthew Wells went back to the second group; just as they had been in spring training. And at one defensive end Trevor Stigers ran first team today with Shane McCardell on the twos.
Mullen was pushing the opening pace as usual with a full-field edition of hurry up offense. Being on the same single field this time, though, meant the #1s ran three snaps to build a ‘lead' before the second squads followed. Fortunately the first team did get in the end zone, on a WR Chad Bumphis run, just ahead of their backups. The third and fourth teams didn't snap but simply ran behind.
For the first observed time, there was an extended period of punt drill for protect-and-rush with the kickers in the end zone. The kicking wasn't strong at first but this had more to do with constant shuffling of protect teams as coaches look for the right guys in these roles. Towards the end both P Baker Swedenburg and P William Berg were getting off good ones, fielded by return candidates Bumphis, WR Brandon Heavens, WR Jameon Lewis, and CB Johnthan Banks. While this was going on, over on the sideline RB LaDarius Perkins, WR Michael Carr, and freshmen backs Derek Milton and Josh Robinson fielded kickoffs. More would be heard from kicking teams at the end of the morning.
With most basics such as ball-protection addressed the first few days, Monday saw the running backs working on other aspects. Such as, blocking. An extended period had the wideouts taking pitches and the tailbacks and fullbacks diving into defense-dummies. Given how many end-arounds and reverses Mullen likes to call in games such skills come in handy.
And because everyone was in full pads and cleared for full contact the ground game got as much 7-on-7 time as the passing. More, maybe, with serious hitting in such drills. Though unlike usual drills the backs were allowed to sweep much farther around either end and force the defense to pursue; usually such drills are straight-ahead blasts. Mullen prepared everyone for this phase by a variation on 1-on-1 contact matches. This time it was the Bulldog Drill, three offensive players on three defenders crammed into a four-yard wide area with no room to run but straight ahead.
The situation certainly favored defense but on the fourth sequence TB Vick Ballard busted clean up the middle. Later on QB Dylan Favre and QB Dak Prescott also worked their way(s) through traffic successfully. Favre had the advantage of OC Quentin Saulsberry's blocking on that play. So the 7-on-7 passing period was much shorter than usual, followed by a period of the offense working as a unit while all defensive players practiced individual pass-rush tactics.
Russell had a short bullet throw deflect off his WR Arceto Clark and intercepted by S Darius Slay. Then DB Damein Anderson stepped in front of the receiver to pick a Favre throw. The #3 passer had another turnover in 7-man when on a throw for rookie WR Joe Morrow it was S Nickoe Whitley going waaaay up for the one-handed stab.
From there State went straight to 11-on-11 with each unit running a series of scripted down-and-distance plays; almost entirely passing plays. Unlike previous days, the defensive coaches threw some different combinations of linebackers and cornerbacks together so second-team alternates could replace sure starters and make their own cases for promotion. Most of these worked well, as Mullen noted.
Relf beat good coverage with a ‘progression' read that resulted in a long completion to WR Ricco Sanders. Russell wasn't as fortunate as a combined blitz of a safety and cornerback off the wide side produced a sack. He did make one very nice sideline throw that became a great diving catch by Carr. The third defense had to scuffle to chase down the frequently scrambling Favre. When the offense(s) ran a designed rush they often produced, such as #3 TB Robert Elliott shaking off a facemasking to gain 15 more yards.
Favre wasn't the only quarterback showing toughness. On a wide scramble Prescott got to the sideline where #3 CB Jamerson Love was set up for the stop. Instead of taking the easy step-out the quarterback bulled right over Love.
Instead of two- or one-minute situation to complete the session as before, this time Mullen called for ‘back to the wall' work. The offense was spotted on the one-yard line going out with the objective a first down by any means possible. The losing side would run gassers. In this case the defense did lose. Relf took it on himself to move the marker with two called carries.
Russell ran once too, then play-faked to freeze coverage and found Williams on the sideline open. Favre's third team needed all four plays though to sneak the last yard.
Had everything ended there it might have been best. But placekicking drills had also been scheduled, now that everyone could go full-speed. The results were not exactly positive; in fact of the eight attempts, four each by starter Derek DePasquale and Brian Egan, seven were missed. That included every kick from more than PAT distance, which DePasquale had made.
Two tries apiece from 27, 37,and 47 yards sailed to the right or in Egan's case were blocked. In fact the transfer from Western Illinois only got one of his four shots beyond the line of scrimmage. Nothing else was above shoulder-level and that one was blocked by McCardell by just extending his hand. Two more went right into his own protectors. While the actual kicking left much to be desired, the real fault seemed in set-and-holds by Swedenburg and WR Williams.
Mullen said later that kicking should be OK, but… "They weren't very good at all today. The first day we did live kicking and they were terrible. But Derek has been in big games, made big kicks in big situations." He was more curious with the punting, since Swedenburg at least had a good spring game to his credit. "But until he gets in a live game situation we're going to have to wait-and-see," Mullen said. "It looks good in practice, but there is a big difference."
Five days into drills, Mullen is not ready to make any major pronouncements on positions and depth charts. Or for that matter how the team ‘looks' at this early point. As head coach he watches for effort, general execution, and attention. Everything else is for the evening's video review.
"You don't see total evaluations because it is still a lot of installation going on. Right now offense is trying to install and teach certain things, the defense is teaching certain things. So you're not really scheming against each other. But I thought the defense did a god job making plays today, where the offense when things weren't going great, the quarterbacks were checking down, let's take what they're giving us, and keep forcing the ball down the field."
Tuesday is the first of the four allowed two-a-day dates. All practices now are closed to media and public alike.