By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State goes into isolation mode this week.
The Bulldogs have been practicing on the intramural fields, also known as South Farm, since Sunday. Today is the beginning of two-a-day workouts, and it’s also the period when practices are closed off to all outside observers.
Following Monday’s practice, MSU’s fifth of the preseason, coach Dan Mullen took the podium during his annual preseason press conference and was looking forward to getting away from things.
“One of the reasons you go out there is it’s so different,” he said. “I think everybody’s fresh, everybody’s excited to get out there on the field, see what type of team we have, and when you get out there to the farm and it’s just us, it’s a special feeling and I think there’s a lot of bonding within the team, a lot of team building that goes on out there.”
That sentiment was echoed by his players, who put on full pads for the first time Monday.
“It’s not about the fans, it’s just about you and the man beside you,” cornerback Corey Broomfield said. “You get to come together and create a bond that everybody can see is real. It’s not fake. It’s forged out there in the heat, so it’s real.”
Monday’s practice had periods of live tackling, even on the quarterbacks during a drill that had the offense starting from its own 1-yard line. Contact was emphasized in other drills, too, such as a three-on-three short-yardage exercise.
It made for a slightly different dynamic than in previous practices.
“It’s going to be a lot more physical, because you’ve got older guys out there that know what to do and how to do it and why we’re doing it,” senior center Quentin Saulsberry said. “Everything’s going to be a little faster, and everything will be a little bit more intense.”
For Mullen, though, he wants preseason camp to also be fun. That might be hard to believe when he’s forcing the defense – assistant coaches included – to run gassers for not living up to his expectations. That happened Monday.
‘The greatest time’
MSU is between academic terms, so the campus is quiet and players don’t have to worry about anything but football.
“If you’re not loving this, having fun from the first second to the end of practice, you’ve got a problem,” Mullen said. “To me, this is the greatest time of year for our kids. I can’t imagine how much fun NFL players have. All they worry about is playing football.”
The regular season could be pretty sweet for MSU, too, if it goes as last season did. The Bulldogs are coming off a 9-4 campaign in which they beat Ole Miss a second consecutive year and stomped Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
With a No. 20 ranking in the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll, there are outside expectations of MSU for the first time in years. Most of the starters are back, and Mullen insists his expectations are higher than anyone else’s.
“I see how everybody votes us,” he said, referring to being picked to finish fourth in the Western Division. “Our goal is to get to Atlanta. Nobody picked us first, so our expectations are even higher than everybody else’s. They’re handling, I guess, your guys’ expectations very well.”
Questions at certain positions remain unanswered, but it’s still early in camp. One aspect of this team that is clearly improved from the past is overall depth, which coaches and players feel will be a strength even at places lacking in star power.
Such as linebacker. All three starters are gone from last year, including NFL draft picks Chris White and K.J. Wright.
“I feel like our linebackers this year are just as good as our linebackers we had last year,” cornerback Johnthan Banks said.
Mullen said MSU is “becoming more balanced throughout our classes and balanced with our depth at each position. There are guys we can throw out there and play.”