March 29, 2014 11:28:34 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen and his coaches are using the spring season to do a lot of experimenting with drills, formations, personnel, and style of coaching.
With only five starters lost from last season, MSU is trying to figure out how to make 15 spring practices exciting. The coaches already have talked about how the traditional installation of offenses and defenses can become monotonous for an experienced group.
"That's the definition of learning, adapting, and developing as a coach and as a staff," Mullen said. "If we don't try different things during this period then our guys are going to get too comfortable with what they're doing. The last thing we want anytime we're out here is our guys just going through the motions half speed."
New assistant coach Brian Johnson has tried to bring creativity to quarterbacks drills by having the players simulate Pete Maravich basketball drills with a football. The spider and figure eight movements with a football is designed to prepare the quarterbacks for catching snaps at different angles and to limit fumbles.
"I'm constantly addressing with our guys why we are doing this drill so they understand why it'll come up in a situation during a game," Johnson said. "They may look at me funny while we're doing it now, but it'll click with them later if they trust me. For the most part, they give me a true effort on things and get frustrated when they struggled because they're competitors."
Dak Prescott, who struggled with the new drills in the first few practices, has noticed a different flow to practices.
"I have noticed that a lot of the individual positional drills are different, but that's a good thing," Prescott said. "I don't want to come to practice and do the same thing over and over because that's how mistakes happen when you're not mentally locked in to something difficult."
MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has shown signs of testing a 3-4 alignment to get former rising sophomore Chris Jones at defensive end, the position he prefers to play. The three-man front allows Benardrick McKinney to play rush linebacker and sophomore Richie Brown to be with the first-team group. With depth in the second level of his defense, Collins is trying a fast 3-4 formation to handle an opponent's speed option tempo offense.
"We are constantly trying to make sure the tempo and emotion is high here at spring practice," Collins said. "We can correct technique issues -- and we expect those types of mistakes from the younger players -- but teaching effort is something we just can't be doing in the short amount of time we have."
Despite working in a new scheme, Collins' style hasn't changed. The second-year defensive coordinator, who received a raise and a contract extension in the offseason, still screams about juice points. Meanwhile, MSU defensive line coach David Turner has been forced to mix and match his interior lineman because Kaleb Eulls and PJ Jones have been limited due to injuries. Both players were active Saturday for a scrimmage at Davis Wade Stadium in which the defense showed a good interior push even though the quarterbacks weren't live for contact.
"You'll notice this has been a big recruiting emphasis from coach Mullen and the rest of us on staff, but length and versatility is a major key for us up front," Turner said. "It sounds like a cliche, but we're trying to figure out who can play in as many gaps as we ask them to so that player can get more snaps this upcoming season. We're evaluating that more than we are big plays."
In his second year on the staff, Deshea Townsend has brought a different ball to football practice. Townsend is using a soccer ball with his defensive backs in an attempt to help them improve their lateral foot speed. In the next drill, he tossed the soccer ball in the air and simulated the opening tip of a basketball game to try to help his cornerbacks prepare for a jump ball in the end zone.
MSU's offense also experimented with a pro-style look after suggestions that being under center better suited quarterback Tyler Russell. However, Russell was seen more out of the shotgun by the time MSU opened the 2013 season against Oklahoma State in Houston.
On the offensive line, personnel groups have been fluid, as assistant coach John Hevesy has refused to say who will start at guard besides senior center Dillon Day. Hevesy is trying to rotate Justin Malone back into the mix after he missed most of last season with an undisclosed injury. Malone has participated in some of spring practice. When Malone has been held out of contact drills, Ben Beckwith and Jamal Clayborn have been part of the first-team offense.
"What I'm trying to do is get myself used to contact and just get myself back in the mind-set of competing at the highest level with the offensive lineman," Malone said. "You can watch enough film and get your body in the best possible shape, but that doesn't mean you're ready to know your assignment when the ball is snapped."
After Saturday's scrimmage, Mullen admitted a coaching mistake has led to speedster Brandon Holloway moving from wide receiver to his original high school position of tailback. Holloway had 61 yards on 15 carries mostly on jet sweeps to the perimeter.
"I think if we were better coaches and smarter, we'd have had him at tailback because that's where he's more comfortable and he should be a offensive weapon," Mullen said. "We're really pleased Brandon has been really good with the transition."
With more than 10 practices remaining, expect MSU to continue to experiment.
"It's like two sets of groups for us," Mullen said. "The first group is the guys that have been here and experienced multiple spring seasons. We're trying stuff with them. For the newer guys, it's still about teaching them how we want to practice and getting our sets and our stuff installed. The constant with both groups is we're always teachers at the end of the day."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.