Speaking of contact…"I really don't think about it as much as you might. It never came across my mind." Fortunately not the repaired knee, either. Taking a hit there might not have been on Griffin's mind but it certainly was in his coach's thoughts.
"Getting a carry, it was huge," said Dan Mullen. "His first time he's carried a ball in a game and he's coming off a knee injury in live action. I don't want him to get tackled, I want him to score every time he touches it! But the fact that he got tackled will give him a lot more confidence playing on that knee."
Griffin's own confidence had been successfully rebuilt as well. He garnered more attention last December in pre-Gator Bowl camp than many active Dogs with strong rookie running. Then in spring training Griffin was a three-week star, until a bad landing during a passing drill left him limping. What looked like a minor matter turned major when a torn ligament was found. Because it came late in camp, October 1 was set as his ideal return date.
For obvious reasons Griffin didn't get used at Georgia that date. The non-conference match at UAB served this purpose much more conveniently, and Griffin prepared accordingly with extra carries and more film-work. "It was a real exciting experience," he said.
"When you're a football player you want to play, nobody likes sitting on the bench. But my coaches and teammates and friends kept telling me be patient, work hard, and your time would come." Now, it has, and Griffin is ready. Really, really ready. "I feel faster, to tell the truth!" he claimed. This despite now carrying 223 pounds, up eight from his Gator Bowl camp weight.
Moving up the tailback depth chart, now, will be a tougher task. "And I'm fine with that, I'm not expecting to get a lot of carries. I just want to step on the field and do whatever I can, whatever Coach needs me to do."
"We've got to see how his confidence builds off playing in that game," Mullen said. "I still don't think he's at 100%. He's cleared to play, he can go play and be effective, but I would still not say he's at 100%. I think that comes with confidence throughout the year. We'll see how it's holding up."
GETTING A SHOT: Another redshirt freshman got his own first college carry last Saturday. Not that Robert Johnson is a tailback of course. But the wide receiver has caught the coach's eye lately.
"He's an exciting player, we wanted to put the ball in his hand and give him the chance to go do something," Mullen said. "I've seen him run with the ball, so I thought I can script the first play of the game to make sure he gets the ball in his hands and we'll see what he can do."
The head coach's prerogative paid off in a seven-yard gain as Johnson ran an end-around on, yes, the first offensive State snap. A good gain to be sure, though had Johnson kept stretching outside instead of cutting behind QB Chris Relf's block much more ground was there for the taking.
Johnson, a spring standout, has struggled to get into the receiver rotation and is without a catch so far. He played in the Memphis game on opening night, but did not take a field again until UAB. It was more than Mullen wanting to see those skills in action, though; it was his practice effort that earned Johnson a starting snap…albeit, his only offensive snap all day.
"Again it's the development, there's a redshirt freshman we get to grow, and continue to see him improve," Mullen said.
ROLL THE TAPE: His coaches weren't the only ones noticing how DT Fletcher Cox dominated play at UAB. The junior was recognized Monday as the SEC's Defensive Lineman of the Week after a seven-tackle afternoon in Birmingham.
"Oh, it's an honor," Cox said. "I got a message this morning saying I got player of the week. I started smiling."
The whole Bulldog defense was smiling about how Cox took control of the trenches, allowing Mississippi State to hold the host Blazers to only three points; that on a first half field goal. "I feel I played one of the best games of the season," said Cox. Raising the natural follow-up, why so?
"Last week I spent a whole lot of time in the film room just studying my opponent and knowing what I was getting, knowing what they like to do on down-and-distance, what side of the field. And I just went in and executed."
Cox's comment was very much along the same line lots of Bulldogs gave about the non-conference win; how this past week it seemed everyone invested more time to video review. It apparently paid off nicely. Cox noted how he focused more closely on clues that offensive linemen inevitably, if accidentally, offer about upcoming plays.
"Just studying my guy, knowing what moves, knowing when does he do this, how he sets his feet when he gets ready to pull, does he twitch his finger, and how is he getting set for pass rush. Is his hand on the ground on 2nd-and-10 or on third down. There are a whole lot of things they do to tip you off, and the older you get the more you notice it."
Good stuff…but don't the blockers suspect such things after a while and perhaps do some decoying during games? "Well, if you consistently watch it I don't think they can fool you!" Besides, Cox added, by mid-season most teams have tipped their play-call anyway based on substitutions and personnel packages.
"It's really just knowing what you're about to get. I think Coach does a good job on the sidelines of letting us know what personnel is in the game. And if you study film all week you actually know what you're going to get."
Opponents have a good idea what to expect from Cox and cohort Josh Boyd, the classmate tackles who are core and key to State's defensive line and gameplan alike. Cox's big statistical day at UAB was an exception since the nature of their position(s) means credit for tackles is hard to come by at times. More often they clear the field for linebackers and safeties to pile up the numbers. It makes POTW honors so much more, well, honorable.
Still, "The work can never stop," said Cox. "You always have to have that hunger to go and get it, never being satisfied. Coach says when you get comfortable that's when you start losing things, going through the motions. That's not what we're here to do."
DAY BY DAY DUEL: Offensive coordinator Les Koenning discussed quarterback plans for this practice week after splitting halves at UAB, with the story to be filed tomorrow.
Mullen offered his own insights though, making clear that Chris Relf and Tyler Russell are still exactly where they were a week ago. And the week before that, and so on. "It's wide-open going into practice. I tell them every week its wide-open, go claim a starting job."
"We've always done that. Because you're a play away from the next guy being on the field and I don't want that guy stepping on the field and we're not in position to win." Russell obviously was ready, throwing three second-half touchdowns and completing 11 of his 13 official throws (not counting penalty plays). Mullen was not surprised.
"I thought last week he had a great week of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, then kind of had an average day. He put himself in position last week that we felt comfortable enough to get him on the field."
What Mullen is not overly interested in at this moment is who ‘starts' this next game. In fact, "I preached to all of them they all needed to be a starting quarterback," Mullen said. ‘All' including #3 man Dylan Favre. "Whoever steps in the huddle has to be a starting quarterback. From spring ball through preseason everybody gets reps with the ones and twos, so they have to bring their demeanor and leadership to the huddle. We'll do it this week like we've done every week since I've been here."
Now, since opening day of 2010 it has been Relf as the known starter. Now the senior is back in position of having to seriously defend such status. But then Relf knows the drill better than anyone, having pushed Tyson Lee all during 2009.
"He has a good attitude," Mullen said. "Same thing we saw in the locker room (at UAB). Our whole mindset is whatever we need to do to win the game. And I haven't seen him change."
UPDATING: Mullen said Monday DE Sean Ferguson is the only injury situation of note this week. The senior was at UAB but not dressed out. "He's got some tendinitis in his knee He'll be day to day this week, it's not a structural injury."
Meanwhile LT James Carmon is having his own sore knee monitored closely each day. The senior did not start or play the whole first half Saturday, but was inserted after intermission to boost Bulldog blocking. By no coincidence the ground game improved greatly to that side, along with right-handed passer protection. The twist of course is Carmon was coming off a whole game and his first experience at right guard, at Georgia.
Mullen said today Carmon would be graded about equally for the different positions. "He probably actually graded higher at guard than at tackle. But we'll see what this week brings." As in, once again not only are the starting five in flux but so are where they will be aligned for South Carolina.
Mullen doesn't downplay the need to have Carmon on the job full-time again, but "Everybody is important right now on the offensive line! When you lose probably your top lineman that sets everybody back. Not only the trickle-down effect of another guy has got to come in, but your best lineman is no longer your best lineman!"