They certainly must. Because for the best part of those two Saturday morning hours the Bulldogs did appear to be having fun on the practice fields. Never mind that it was a partial pads day, in advance of Sunday’s scheduled scrimmaging. Mississippi State players went after each other with good effort and good humor.
Mostly good that is. There was one brief flare of temper when DT Nick James got frustrated by a legitimate block from linebacker-turned-temporary TE Christian Holmes, and rassled him to the turf after the whistle. It took a couple of teammates and James’ position coach to pull the hefty tackle off, but Holmes wasn’t complaining. And Mullen was openly grinning, though he did call the freshman aside for a moment’s talk.
That exception didn’t alter the Saturday rule of a pretty good time had by all. The only other potential sore point was having the starters, offense and defense, taking turns running with Coach Matt Balis on another field while the rest of the roster played 11-on-11. The varsity didn’t seem to mind much either. Whether it was looking forward to a serious scrimmage tomorrow, or the prospect of beginning real preparations for their Gator Bowl date with Northwestern; or just relief that school is out, everybody had some bounce in their step this time.
Mullen wasn’t surprised. “This time of year when they’re out here, there’s no school going on, really no game-planning. It’s just playing the game of football and working and getting better for themselves. To me, it’s a great feeling knowing you have a bunch of guys that love to do that.”
Some of those guys, eight to be exact, were not part of the practicing fun. They were in Humphrey Coliseum for fall semester graduation. One, S Nickoe Whitley, has earned his bachelors in 3-1/2 years. He was joined in the diploma-walk line by CB Corey Broomfield, OG Tobias Smith, WR Arceto Clark, TE Marcus Green, FB Adrian Marcus, DT Devin Jones, and OG Joey Trapp.
Not practicing with injuries today were LB Christian Holmes, CB Cedric Jiles, OG Ben Beckwith, and CB Xavier Grindle. QB Tyler Russell threw a few passes in drills but did little other work…though he was also excused from the varsity wind-sprinting.
In the individual rush/protect drills WR Brandon Holloway delivered a surprising shot to walk-on cornerback Davis, showing his prep background as a tailback. At one point WR Jameon Lewis got some pre-snap coaching from CB John Banks, but either it didn’t help or the cornerback was just setting the receiver up. Because CB Will Redmond whipped Lewis easily.
Other drill-work had linebackers trying to cover backs and tight ends one-on-one, with the offense owning this period. Holmes, who just moved to offense for camp, had a fine catch against former cohort LB Matt Wells. LB Zach Jackson had his side’s best play as he got position on TE Malcolm Johnson for a breakup.
Kickoff coverage got another day of attention against a scratch return team. But CB Darius Slay wasn’t fooling around, he was serious on his return and broke the middle for a ‘touchdown’. S Louis Watson and WR Sam Williams also got to field kicks for the coverage club’s practicing.
Despite being a shorts-and-shoulder pads day, the energy produced quite a bit of above-the-waist contact and some outright tackling. In pass-skel work WR Robert Johnson had the ball separated from him by Slay, who scooped and ‘scored’ by running through the rest of the offensive roster for the fun of it. Working with the second defense MLB Richie Brown was constantly told by Coach Geoff Collisn to “be a cobra Richie, be a cobra.” The freshman certainly struck when QB Dak Prescott tried throwing to TE Brandon Hill, stepping inside for the interception.
To round-out some complete units a couple of starters did work in 11-on-11 competition, such as MLB Benardrick McKinney, OLB Matt Wells, and both Malcolm and Robert Johnson. In a few cases a youngster was promoted too, with redshirt Beniquez Brown taking snaps with the first unit at weak-side.
Going team-on-team, WR Ricco Sanders got behind Redmond for a sideline catch from QB Jamil Golden. The walk-on quarterback split all the team snaps with Prescott. It was Prescott who made a smart play-fake and rollout that got Lewis open for the catch…though the receiver paid for it as CB Taveze Calhoun gave him quite a shot. WR Joe Morrow got the same treatment only harder, as when he spun after a catch B.Brown put him down hard.
Holmes showed he could block as he helped spring R.Johnson for a good gain after the screen catch. That was the play that so irked DT James, who was the only Dog held after practice for some gassers. WR Fred Brown showed both moves and muscle as he spun off one tackle, stiff-armed fellow redshirt S Deontay Evans for a longer gain. Evans made up for this by reading a tight end pass play and coming up to deflect the throw for Holmes.
S Dee Arrington was sandwiched by downfield blocking on a RB Josh Robinson run. On the play Arrington came up limping and had his left leg looked at. A couple of snaps later Robinson broke through the right guard and went the distance with M.Johnson leading the blocking. The play was possible because DT James, still frustrated, had charged inside too soon and vacated his gap.
The first turnover of team finally came as Wells picked Prescott. Later Prescott under pressure tried dumping to Robinson in traffic, and DE Ryan Brown came up with the carom for a return touchdown. The day ended on ‘sack’ by DE John Harris as he came in behind Golden and knocked the ball free.
Mullen spoke briefly with the handful of media who’d made the early session, while the rest of his staff raced to their offices for a fast change and quick recruiting trips.
A lot of energy was showed today? “And that’s part of it. I bet these guys could have stayed out there and practiced for another couple of hours and probably still continued to have fun doing it! So it’s good to see the guys and the attitude they have and how they are as a team.”
And finals ended yesterday, too? “I think that helps! Right now all they’re worried about is being football players and that’s why you see a lot of smiles on their faces.”
Will you scrimmage regardless of weather? “Scrimmage, rain or shine tomorrow. Now the time of the scrimmage tomorrow might fluctuate. Because it’s supposed to rain early. We’re going to get out and scrimmage in the stadium tomorrow and we’ve just got to be flexible with the schedule. There’s no lights (due to construction) so it has to be before it gets dark. If it’s just going to downpour all day we’ll probably go indoors.”
Will it be mostly the same teams that have been doing drills and practicing this week? “Yeah, all the guys that have been doing everything here, they’re just going to go and scrimmage. It depends on our tempo how many plays you get. You’d love guys to get about 60 reps.”
We’ve talked to players about next year and the offense and how it might evolve? “You look, we’ve got a bunch of tight ends coming back, and we’ve got a bunch of younger receivers. So I think they’ve going to be involved a little bit more in the offense at times. And we’ll develop that into next year. These practices really haven’t been a direction that we’re going in next year, it’s more getting the experience for the guys and getting them comfortable within the system. In this off-season we’ll research like we always do. We’re not going to change our offense but tweak towards the strengths of the guys that we have.”
Will the starters begin looking at Northwestern today? “I hope so. We haven’t really grinded them on it yet. I know our coaches are all out recruiting today. So with those guys just to get a start on a good foundation about it all. We’ll do a regular game week next week so I want our guys ready to play as if it’s a week from today is game day, that we’re ready to kick it off even before we get down to Jacksonville.”