Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, left, talks things over with quarterback Chris Relf during a game last season. The Bulldogs open up the 2011 campaign Thursday at Memphis. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
By LEE ADAMS
Week one of the NCAA football season is here and the No. 20 Mississippi State Bulldogs will begin their season on Thursday night. All the hard practices, ticket sales and the rest of the preparation is almost complete and the excitement of college football is back.
"It's finally upon us," said head coach Dan Mullen. "We're excited to get this season started and I think everybody is. We've gone through 15 spring practices and by the time we get to game day, 29 practices in the fall camp of going against each other, we're ready to get to play somebody else. "
The MSU students are also ready for the season to start as they lined up in the Junction this weekend to purchase their season tickets in what Mullen described as a "frenzy". The "frenzy" mixed with all the other ticket sales shows how ready Bulldog nation is for the 2011 season.
Mullen, who is entering his third season, is one of the main reasons behind the resurgence of the Bulldogs and the excitement around the team. His first two seasons have the State fans just as excited or more excited than the team.
The excitement of the 2011 season can be credited to all the change that has happened at MSU since Mullen's arrival.Â
"I think I've been part of a culture change that we've seen throughout the university from the president on down," said Mullen. "We try to do our part in football which is to create an 'I can' attitude at our university and within our state in Mississippi."
Mullen believes that "I can" attitude has gotten the fans, students, faculty and players to change what they think can be accomplished and he isn't surprised by any of the changes that have gone on since he arrived.
"It doesn't surprise me, I'm just happy everybody has bought in," said Mullen.Â "If you change the way you think and everybody believes in what you're going to do, you can accomplish anything."
The Bulldogs hope to accomplish their goal of winning the SEC Championship and the first step of completing their goal begins Thursday night in Memphis. The game will be broadcast on SportSouth locally with a 7:10 p.m. kickoff.Â
Relf holds experience edge in SEC West
Chris Relf will lead the Bulldogs at starting quarterback, and he is the only starting quarterback returning under center in the SEC West after the recent suspension of LSU's Jordan Jefferson.
Although he is the only starting quarterback returning, that doesn't mean the SEC West is without other good quarterbacks.
"There is a lot of talented quarterbacks that have had playing time," said Mullen. "The kid at Arkansas got to play a lot last year and Alabama has some talented guys so it's not like there is inexperienced quarterbacks in the league."
Out of all the SEC West quarterbacks, Relf has the most experience.
"It's good having a guy, especially early in the season, in game one that has played games," said Mullen. "The lights come on he knows how to prepare for a game. It's not a new experience for him so hopefully he'll pick up where he left off and at an even higher level."
Mullen has options behind Relf
There has been a lot of talk about weather it will be Tyler Russell or Dylan Favre behind Relf. Russell has game experience which makes Mullen more comfortable.
"I can throw Tyler into a game at any point and not feel, uh oh this is his first college football game," said Mullen. "He's had a great week of practice this week and yesterday (Sunday) he looked like he was ready to go start a game.'
If they decide to go with Favre the comfort level will not be as high so some things would have to happen to get him ready.
"If we go with Dylan, we are going to have to get him reps early in the season so he can take those first college snaps," said Mullen. "That way it's not that shock where he gets thrown into a key moment in a game and expect him to make a play."
Both could see playing time early this season, but Relf has the starting position locked up.
MSU's kickers settling in
There has been some question with the kicking game coming into this season as there will be a new punter to replace Heath Hutchins. Baker Swedenburg has been selected to fill that role for State and so far Mullen likes what he sees.
"He has done a nice job," said Mullen.Â "He's been very consistent which is a key component in the punting game."
Handling the rest of the kicking duties will be Derek DePasquale, who has game experience. Mullen described DePasquale as "shaky" during Monday's press conference, but he still has confidence in the kicker.
"You don't get nervous because he's made a lot of big kicks in big game situations," said Mullen. "His experience settles you down a little bit from an inexperienced guy because the pressure of getting out there on game day isn't going to get to him. He just has to get more consistent and in a better groove than he is right now."
Bulldogs deciding on return men
One key to the game of football that gets overlooked at times is the punt and kick returners. Mullen and the Bulldogs take that position seriously and still haven't named who their guy is going to be this season.
On the depth chart, LaDarius Perkins will be handling kickoff returns and Chad Bumphis will handle punt returns. However, Mullen is pretty sure of who he is going to put back there but the game isn't here just yet.
"I've pretty much settled on it but we still have a couple of practices left before I roll somebody out there," said Mullen. "It's not like we have only this one guy that we hope can do it. We have a couple of guys that can do it."
Mullen has the job of selecting which guy out of the group fighting for the spot before Thursday.
"What I'm going to do over the next couple of days is make the decision of who is 'the guy'," said Mullen.Â
Trio to carry MSU's running load
The Bulldogs have a trio of running backs at their disposal in Vick Ballard, Perkins and Robert Elliott. All three saw playing time last year so Mullen knows what to expect.
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"We feel pretty good about that situation with Vick, LaDarius and Robert Elliott being in there," said Mullen. "They have experience, but after them it gets young fast."
Having youth behind those three shouldn't be an issue but injuries are common in football so State's goal is to keep all three healthy.