Mullen’s third season brings higher hopes

Published 12:19 am Friday, August 5, 2011

STARKVILLE (AP) — Expectations have risen dramatically for Mississippi State’s football program in coach Dan Mullen’s third season and that’s a welcome change for a program that recently suffered through a long, loss-filled decade.

Mullen led the Bulldogs to the practice field for their first preseason workout on Thursday night, one season after finishing with a 9-4 record and a dominant 52-14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

Much of that team returns, including quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard. The duo was among the biggest surprises in the Southeastern Conference last season, with Relf throwing for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns while Ballard rushed for 986 yards and a school-record 19 touchdowns.

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“There are a lot of guys who know what they’re doing,” Mullen said. “There are different expectations on the field.”

Relf’s confidence was obvious during the first practice, with most of his passes on the mark. Unlike past seasons, when he was in the middle of a quarterback battle, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior should have the position all to himself. Mullen said the change in Relf’s maturity is obvious.

“Now, in a quick passing moment I can tell him something and he gets it immediately,” Mullen said. “That’s the thing with older guys, they know exactly what you’re talking about at all times.”

The most uncertainty for the Bulldogs’ offense is along the line, especially at left tackle, where Blaine Clausell and James Carmon are the leading candidates. Clausell is a 6-foot-7, 295-pound redshirt freshman while Carmon is a 6-foot-7, 320-pound senior who moved from the defensive line to the offensive line during the offseason.

The Bulldogs got a break from the sweltering 100-degree heat when heavy thunderstorms rolled through eastern Mississippi. The 2 ½ hour practice only suffered a momentary hitch, moving inside to the team’s practice facility.

Senior Quentin Saulsberry, who moved from guard to center in the offseason, said he could sense the difference in attitude.

“It was a good, productive day,” Saulsberry said. “Showing the young guys what to do, when to do it and how to do it at the right intensity level. The attitude was better than ever. I see more guys flying to the ball.”

The defense returns seven starters and appears especially deep on the defensive line and in the secondary. But the Bulldogs are trying to replace all three starting linebackers, including Chris White and K.J. Wright, who ranked first and second in the team in tackles, respectively.

Mullen hopes senior Brandon Maye can provide some help. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder transferred from Clemson under the NCAA rule that allows a player to transfer without sitting out a season if he’s completed his undergraduate degree but wants to attend graduate school elsewhere.

Several linebackers rotated among the starting group on Thursday, including Cameron Lawrence, Matthew Wells, Ferlando Bohanna, Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes. Maye played mostly with the third team.

Mullen said the depth chart would be fluid for the first several practices as he worked to get all players the same amount of repetitions. The Bulldogs have a slightly earlier season opener than most schools, travelling to face Memphis for a Thursday night game on Sept. 1.

“We want to have the best 11 guys on the field at the same time,” Mullen said. “That can affect a lot of different things. If two guys battling at one position are better than a third guy somewhere, we need to tweak some things.”