The Bulldog player's moods mirrored that of the boss. "We came out here to have fun," said senior CB Johnthan Banks. "I think we did, everybody came out here and practiced hard and got a lot of reps. We had fun."
The Friday practice did seem to be fun for the participants, on both sides of the ball. For that matter the hundred or so fans observing enjoyed comparing impressions, when not turning around to watch the SEC/Big Ten track meeting going on the other side of the fence. Starter-pistol reports mixed with period-signaling airhorns and nobody seemed bothered in either field.
2012 camp began with four occupants in the rehab Pit during the day, but not at the same time. In fact, S Nickoe Whitley was able to run around with his fellow safeties, not actually practicing but staying with the group. Hopefully this signals the starter is on a faster recover track from his Achilles rip than expected. OG Tobias Smith is being limited in spring after fall knee surgery, SN Reed Gordon is resting a sore shoulder, and TE Rufus Warren had an unspecified issue.
While a spring-opening day typically will show more missed plays and missed cues than efficient execution, the first session of Mullen's fourth year went against that grain. In an encouraging way, too, and mostly on the offensive side. Though wearing braces on both knees, especially the still-recovering right one hurt in a December drill, QB Tyler Russell was eerily effective the first time out and admitted he surprised himself.
Junior Russell shared snaps with Dak Prescott, here for his second State spring but the first as a real contender for playing time after redshirting. The head-start of 2011 showed. Prescott wasn't nearly so sharp as old hand Russell of course, but he had some good moments and not a lot of obvious busts. One fan concern, that there are just those two scholarship quarterbacks on the spring roster, was eased by the return of '11 walk-on Sam Cowart, the former Mississippi College triggerman. He had no braces on his knees like Russell and Prescott for precaution, though Russell said those were forthcoming.
As it was the start of camp, the quarterbacking wasn't as scripted between first, second, and third units or in the number-defense faced. Everybody got turns against the same groupings whether in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11.
The ground game got its share of attention in drills and even full-team work. And despite near-total lack of padding, a running play into the line of scrimmage ended up with bodies on the ground. Not that backs LaDarius Perkins, Nick Griffin, and Josh Robinson seemed to mind. They and Derek Milton had other fun in footwork drills with Mullen swinging the blocking pad, and the backs finding a way at times to make contact with their coach.
It was a bigger day for some receivers, such as redshirt Joe Morrow. He made a sweet fingertip grab in the end zone on a long strike from Russell. Classmate WR Devin Fosselman made his presence known too with a hard-slant catch in front of backup DB Kendrick Market. Russell also threaded the needle to slot WR Chad Bumphis, slipping the ball past Banks in the process. It took a great catch-up tip by CB Darius Slay to keep Russell from connecting with WR Arceto Clark on a deep out-route.
On the other field it was backs-on-linebackers. LB Deonte Skinner mugged Griffin without complaints, though LB Benardrick McKinney had no prayer of staying with RB LaDarius Perkins once the veteran back had made a mid-field move to get open for the easy grab. Tight ends Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill also made Prescott look much better, at least until his throw for TE Allen Tolbert was intercepted by S Louis Watson. In pass-skell work, seven-on-seven passing and coverage drills, Cowart tried to slip a throw in to WR Sam Williams against the first defense. Banks made him pay with a pick-six. And on the next play it was Slay picking Prescott.
(This report is abbreviated due to coverage of the baseball game, which is now in the 7th inning. More depth chart information will be in future reports, but no position moves were noticed Friday. Your patience is appreciated.)
After the practice Mullen spoke with media.
Q: Did you see any extra energy from the redshirt freshmen? "Yeah. I think right now there is a lot of adjustment, and this is their time coming out here. They should know the offense now, the guys that redshirted. Last year coming into training camp they were just trying to figure everything out, now they're coming the second time-around and seeing what it is like to have to learn an offense, learn a defense, and apply it on the field. Hopefully we'll see some good development out of those guys throughout the spring."
Q: Some guys who have been backups, do you see them acting as if this is ‘their time' such as Tyler Russell? "Tyler started games last year so I think he comes out here with confidence. And he's been doing this for a while so he knows what he is doing. So I see a guy who is going to put a lot of pressure on himself to perform at a very high level because he has high expectations of himself."
Q: Do you like the competition at a lot of spots on defense? "Yeah, I think there are some guys that are hungry to compete, some guys that have worked really hard that want to play. And that is one of the things that I look for. They might not have that experience and we're going to have to be patient with the learning curve. But I don't think the effort, the hunger, the desire is all there for those guys, so that is what we're going to need to have that there."
Q: You got hit a few times during running back drills, what did you see from those guys? "It's bad there, they should be trying to make me miss! If you can get hit by an almost-40-year-old-man that's a bad thing, we have to have somebody who can make me miss."
Q: Did you see the same energy level from the older guys as some young guys? "Oh yeah. With the older guys you see a little bit of maturity. You know, they play with a maturity, their emotion on the field is real. They're not trying to figure it out, they know what to do, they know when to pick it up. I think you see that when you go from drill to drill sometimes; the more intense the drill, the older guys understand what level of practice it is and how to change their intensity at different levels and times throughout practice."
Q: How well is Nick Griffin running? "He's getting there. He's getting better. It's still a comfort level for those guys. I think it's more confidence, comfort in any sort of injury issue. And we'll see that a lot more once we put the pads on. It's going to be hard to see anything without pads on out here, they're just getting used to running on the field and running from drill to drill."
Q: You see Joe Morrow making moves on the field? "Joe to me was a guy I guess if we had five years of eligibility he would have played a bunch last year. By the time he was ready to play, about week-eight or week-nine of the season he would have played a bunch for us. You don't want to use a kid's year that late in a season. But I think we expect a lot of big things out of him, and he knows that. And he wants to play. So I think you're going to see him have a big spring."
Q: What do you expect from Taveze Calhoun? "He's in a great position, he gets to learn from some really good players. I mean, you've got Banks and Broomfield in front of you, you can learn the right way to do things. And he's got an unbelievable attitude, an unbelievable work ethic. Even though he got banged-up a little bit last year he had a great attitude and that is the most important thing. He's applying that on the field now, he's getting his opportunity, and he has great guys to learn from. If he acts like they do he'll become a great player like they are."
Q: What is the schedule for getting ready for contact? "We try a lot of making sure they're ready, that we don't have any pulls while we're out here, any of that stuff. That we run them a bunch coming into this practice. Now we have a quick turnaround which we tried to avoid, the weather didn't let us so we have a quick turnaround for tomorrow morning. I think hopefully after tomorrow's practice we're acclimated to be back out here on the field, and throw the full pads on on Tuesday."
Saturday's practice is 11:00 am.