Mississippi State held its most important preseason scrimmage under the lights at Davis Wade Stadium on Friday night and left Dan Mullen pleased with what he saw.
The Bulldogs ran 151 plays during the two-hour scrimmage giving many of the younger players extended reps in a game-like simulation.
"We got what we wanted accomplished I think," Mullen said. "We put young guys in situations that they're going to have to get ready to play in the game. There were some positives and some negatives of it. There were some things where guys aren't game ready yet that were playing 70 reps yesterday and when we get into game week, they'll only be playing 15 reps in the game. They have to learn to flip that switch of their level on those 15 plays to much higher than what we saw in 70 yesterday."
Four players vying for playing time impressed Mullen Friday night. The third year head coach singled out senior running back Robert Elliott, redshirt freshman wide receiver Jameon Lewis, junior linebacker Cameron Lawrence and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls for their efforts during the scrimmage.
Several defensive starters were used in limited roles in order to get backups more reps and also avoid injuries. Mullen stated that Nickoe Whitley, Charles Mitchell, Wade Bonner, Josh Boyd, Fletcher Cox.
With so many starters on the sidelines defensively, there was a little bit of apprehension on Mullen's part with the defense.
"I'm concerned about the depth," Mullen said. "There were a lot of guys we didn't let play very much. There are a lot of guys who haven't played in games that are going to have to play in games. It's different than even in practice. We kind of force fed a lot of those guys."
MSU lost its biggest pass rushing threat at defensive end in Pernell McPhee but is still finding ways to apply pressure on the quarterback on occasion.
"At times there was some good pressure from those guys here and there," Mullen said. "There was also times when there was no pressure."
There is also a vacancy at linebacker where the Bulldogs lost all three starters from a year ago. State received a boost in that area however when senior Brandon Maye transferred in from Clemson and is eligible to play immediately.
"I thought he did a better job last night," Mullen said. "From what I've seen, he's grasping things more and more. When you look at Brandon, first of all he is an older guy so the game speed he understands. He's adapting to a new defense and a new program. In this program you conform to the program, the program doesn't conform to you. That's just the learning curve and what our expectations are of how you play out there on the field. He's figuring it all out."
Mullen stated that neither the first team offense or defense were ever on the field at any point during the scrimmage. Naturally that mean a lot of mixing and matching on the offensive line as well.
"(The second team offensive line was) very up and down," Mullen said. "I think the hard thing with that is when you go into a scrimmage like that and pulling a lot of starters, when you go wholesale - that's when they look rougher. When we start rotating the Damien Robinson's and the Blaine Clausell's and the Dillon Day's early with the ones individually rolling guys through, then they play at a higher level than wholesale when we sub the twos. We've got to get them to play at that level consistently."
The competition as the backup to Chris Relf at quarterback is also starting to unfold. Mullen mentioned there was separation starting between sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dylan Favre but declined to say which signal caller had the edge.
The quarterbacks were not live during the scrimmage.
"Tyler has played in games so I don't need to see so I don't need to see how he's going to react when he gets hit," Mullen said. "We made Dylan live a whole bunch in the spring. I got enough out of that now we've got to go get ready for the game."
Mullen also critiqued his own unit, the special teams, during Friday's scrimmage.
"They'd been doing great," Mullen said. "The punters were kind of average last night and I wasn't pleased with that. I thought Brian Egan did a great job kicking last night and I was pleased to see that in a pressure stadium situation with field goals and kickoffs. I wasn't that happy with Derek (Depasquale) in his field goal kicking and his place kicking but I thought he did a great job on kickoffs last night. Both players did a great job on kickoffs."
Mullen stated that his squad has managed to stay "relatively healthy" during fall camp and immediately knocked on the wood podium that he was speaking at. The only major injury thus far was to freshman safety Taveze Calhoun likely missing the season due to a shoulder injury.
Mississippi State also has received a boost on the injury front as redshirt freshman running back Nick Griffin continues to be ahead of schedule on his rehab and is already working in some drills at practice, making his head coach cringe at times.
"I get really nervous because he's out there doing a lot of drills right now," Mullen said. "He was out in a helmet and shoulder pads doing some drills the other day and I try to hold him back. They think he's ahead of schedule but I'm thinking that October 1st is really the cleared date for him to start practicing and getting ready to go."
The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 20 in Saturday's first AP poll of the season
"I think when you throw preseason rankings out they don't mean a thing during the season," Mullen said. "They are just people's opinion of your program as a whole. I thank everyone who looked at our program and said 'hey, they're a top 20 program'. How it affects this season I have no idea."
MSU will take the rest of the weekend off outside of a team chapel on Sunday and resume practice Monday afternoon. Mullen stated that Monday would be the first day of scout team work in preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener against Memphis.