MSU Football: Mullen hopes scrimmage settles position battles

STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen will have a sharp eye on several position battles when Mississippi State holds its first and only full scrimmage tonight.
The closed session will start around 6:45 under the lights of Davis Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs’ first three games start at 6 p.m. or later, so at least part of the atmosphere will be simulated; all that’ll be missing is 55,000 people ringing cowbells – at appropriate times, of course.
Mullen said he’d like to run 65 plays for both the first and second teams, and he’ll do a bit of personnel switching, even with the quarterbacks.
“Yeah, there’s a good chance we’ll rotate the quarterbacks,” he said following Thursday’s practice. “I want to see how they’re going to perform with each group in the huddle.”
Other position battles Mullen will be studying: wide receiver, running back, backup offensive linemen, and backup linebackers.
“I want to just see some execution from guys that haven’t played a whole lot,” he said. “The guys that have played a lot, I’m not going to walk out of the scrimmage feeling great: ‘Hey, Derek Sherrod did a heck of a job after starting for three years’ – he should.”
A couple of those positions, quarterback and running back, have been waged since the spring, with no clear winners in sight. With the Sept. 4 season opener against Memphis just over two weeks away, Mullen isn’t sure how he’ll split the snaps between Chris Relf and Tyler Russell.
“No idea yet. I think there are so many more variables that could come with it; we’re still a couple of weeks out,” Mullen said. “A lot’s going to depend on how the flow of the game’s going, how guys are playing, to (determine) what that rotation will be.”
Three players are vying for serious time at tailback: Vick Ballard, Robert Elliott and LaDarius Perkins.
“It’s going to be a brawl to get carries for those guys,” said Mullen.
Bumphis enjoys competition
– Mullen raised some eyebrows earlier in camp when he said that Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens were “neck and neck” at the H receiver position.
Bumphis, a sophomore from Tupelo, was MSU’s leading receiver last season, while Heavens, also a sophomore, made a negligible contribution. Bumphis said Thursday that he expects to “split reps” with Heavens.
He doesn’t seem to have a problem with that.
“I feel pretty confident either way,” Bumphis said. “Both of us worked hard over the summer, both of us got a lot better. I think we’ll be fine.”
Bumphis praised Heavens’ speed, and he also cited the play of redshirt freshman Ricco Sanders and sophomore Arceto Clark.
“I think we’ve got a lot (of guys) that will help us.”
Safety lesson
– When fans think of safeties, the words “free” and “strong” generally come to mind. On the MSU depth chart, fans will see Charles Mitchell listed as a strong safety and Nickoe Whitley as a free safety, for example.
But as safeties coach Tony Hughes noted on Thursday, those terms aren’t quite accurate in coordinator Manny Diaz’s defense.
“We don’t really have a free and a strong. We play a left and a right,” Hughes said. “Some people have a field and a boundary (cornerbacks), so we’re just kind of interchangeable parts.”
So Mitchell and Whitley, who are getting first-team snaps right now, can play either side of the field. As for who’s backing them up, there is experience returning with senior Zach Smith and junior Wade Bonner, and redshirt freshman Dennis Thames is expected to be in the rotation.
Mitchell is an experienced junior, and Whitley is a redshirt freshman. While MSU expects to be strong at cornerback, the safeties will need to improve vastly from last year, when MSU ranked 11th in the SEC in pass defense (220.0 yards per game).
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal