STARKVILLE — The third day of Mississippi State”s spring practices on Saturday gave the coaches and players the first opportunity to have live contact.
As MSU coach Dan Mullen expected, the crispness was lacking.
Mullen described the workout as “sloppy,” but he admitted he anticipated it with the players” excitement over the first day of pads and the team installing its base offense.
“What I was happy to see was the excitement of guys happy to go hit each other and play with that effort,” Mullen said. “Because of that, we got a little bit sloppy with the execution part of things. But guys are popping, guys are hitting. We”ve just got to be cleaner executing.”
A noticeable change from last year”s spring practices is Mullen being less vocal. Last season he jumped around and easily was the loudest coach on the field. He”s got help, especially on the defensive side of the ball, from defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Manny Diaz and co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Chris Wilson.
The duo has installed an attack-first defense and their energy is a reflection of how they want their defensive players to practice and play, Mullen said.
“That”s what we wanted: a high energy defense that”s going to fly around after you,” Mullen said. “That”s what you want to see, the type of energy you want to have.”
The defensive energy of Saturday”s practice was evident at the end of practice, when the players went 11-on-11 in four-down situations on the goal line.
Reggie Odom sacked Tyler Russell and the defense stuffed redshirt freshman Montrell Conner on three carries. Then sophomore Cameron Lawrence met Robert Elliott at the 2-yard line for a punishing one-on-one tackle where the junior running back had nowhere go.
Then junior safety Charles Mitchell picked off Chris Relf in the end zone on a pass intended for tight end Marcus Green.
“We”re out of pajamas and now you see who”s really prepared to go put their face on people,” Wilson said. “Guys who can play off blocks, get off blocks. It gives us a great measuring stick and gives clarity on where we”re at.”
Mullen said he was pleased with the defensive line”s quickness off the ball and the “pop” they provided, and while Wilson concurred, he admitted the learning process is still a lengthy one for his defensive line.
The new system is night-and-day from how the Bulldogs played last year, and while things are simplified, there”s still a process of breaking the players of habits formed from reading blocks before attacking upfield.
“The jury is still out on that,” Wilson said of the learning curve. “I”ve been in this style of defense for almost 10-15 years and what we”re trying to do in retrospect is take away decision making by letting you attack. When you do (make decisions), you”re doing it on the run. It”ll take all 12 days for them to feel comfortable of working through and working around them.”
Physically, there isn”t much of an adjustment for the players to make in changing systems, Diaz said. Instead, he wants players to totally change their mindset.
“I can”t really tell what they did last year, but what we”re trying to do is get them on the front foot and get our guys as aggressive as possible,” Diaz said. “It”s hard to be aggressive when you”re thinking a lot.
“There”s not a lot of science to it; we”re just trying to get guys going after the ball.”
McKenzie makes impression
As a redshirt freshman, defensive end Johnathan McKenzie, of Starkville, used last year to get stronger, quicker and make the adjustment from private school ball to the Southeastern Conference.
It hasn”t taken long for the former Starkville Academy standout and former Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Player of the Year to impress the defensive coaches.
McKenzie has earned first-team reps opposite senior Pernell McPhee and has held his own at the point of attack during one-on-one drills with the team”s offensive linemen.
McKenzie said the transition has included the obvious adjustments with the speed of the game and learning new techniques, but hard-working end hasn”t been as satisfied with his spring performances as his coaches have been.
“Not today, but maybe next week,” McKenzie said. “(It”s about) Making sure I”ve got my assignments right and everything. You make one little mistake and it can cause a touchdown.”
Wilson believes McKenzie has done everything he can to earn starter”s reps, and the only thing left for the former Volunteer is to get game action after redshirting last season.
“Obviously, I wasn”t here a year ago to watch him, but he looks awesome and had a great offseason,” Wilson said. “He hadn”t played in over a year and hadn”t played at this level, so the speed of the game is an adjustment.
“The biggest thing is teaching him what to do and when to do it.”
Carmon”s ”big” adjustments
When Mullen talked about the increased size along the defensive line, a big large portion of that is reserved for junior defensive tackle James Carmon.
At 6-foot-7, 350 pounds, the junior college transfer was an unblockable force on the interior during Saturday”s practice.
Having drawn comparisons to former Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody, the former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College guard eater”s weight is the only issue he”ll have over the next two years in Starkville, Wilson said.
“A guy his size has to be in really great shape and have great endurance to play,” Wilson said. “Again, we”re rushing the passer 99.9 percent of the time, so to do that you”ve got to be in maximum shape.
“He”s got a big learning curve and we”ve got to teach him to play underneath his pads.”