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August 29, 2011Kickoff for the 2011 season for Mississippi State just days away leaving head coach Dan Mullen anxious for his new squad to take the field.
The 20th ranked Bulldogs begin the year Thursday night on the road at Memphis.
"I guess it's finally upon us in a couple of days," Mullen said. "We're excited to get this season started. I think everybody is. You see the excitement around campus with the frenzy this weekend selling out of student tickets. The student body is ready and our fan base is ready. Our guys have gone through 15 spring practices and by the time we get to game day, 29 practices of fall camp going against each other. We are ready to play somebody else, take that next step and see what type of season we're going to have."
MSU dominated the previous meeting last year with the Tigers in a 49-7 victory. Memphis' roster has changed drastically since the two teams met in the 2010 opener in Starkville.
"I haven't seen them play at all so a lot of it when you get into the first game has to be focused on you," Mullen said. "Our personality on offense, defense and the kicking game is going to be different from last year because we've got different people. Even though we have a lot of returning starters we will have a different personality. I view Memphis the same way."
The Tigers have switched their offense during the offseason from a pro-style into the spread and are also breaking in a new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Andy Summerlin.
Without having any film of Memphis' new offensive scheme, Mullen hopes his defense can rely on it's own knowledge of the spread from practice each day.
"The benefit is our guys have gone against it," Mullen said. "Even though it will be a different variety, there will still be some carryover and some similarities that it's not a foreign offense. It's something our guys have gone against on a daily basis. That will make it easier to adjust."
Unlike the Tigers, State does have experience returning at quarterback. Chris Relf comes back for his second season as the starter behind center. The senior completed 58.6-percent of his throws last season for 1,789 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions as well as rushing for 713 more yards and five more scores.
"It's good having a guy early in the season, especially game one, that has played games when the lights come on," Mullen said. "He knows how to prepare for a game. It's not a new experience for him stepping out there on the field. Hopefully he'll pick up right where he left off or maybe at even a higher level."
Relf is the only starting quarterback returning in the SEC West during week one following the suspension of LSU's Jordan Jefferson. Mullen credits Relf's work ethic for his improvements over the past two seasons.
"I think one of the things Chris understands is how he got to where he is now is because he took those steps to continually improve," Mullen said. "He bought into the program and bought into what we asked him to do. We've seen an incredible improvement over the last two years. I think he understands what where he wants to go that he still has a long ways still ahead of him to be that successful."
During last season's tilt with the Tigers Mullen rotated both Relf and backup Tyler Russell throughout the game. It was Russell's first collegiate snaps and this year could also mark the debut of another former Parade High School All-American in Dylan Favre.
"It's a lot more fluid because Tyler has that experience," Mullen said. "I can throw Tyler in the game at any point and not feel like 'uh oh, this is his first snap in a college football game'. He's been in the game and had a great week of practice this week. He looked like he was ready to go start yesterday. That's when you really feel comfortable in the backup position.
"If we do go with Dylan as the two or the next guy in the game, we are going to have to at some point early in the season get him reps so he can take those first college snaps so that it's not a shock and he gets thrown into a game and expected to go make a play."
Mullen also had some question marks going into the 2010 opener in the backfield replacing Anthony Dixon. Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins had never played in a game at that level before and the duo finished the year with a combined 1,534 yards.
"I felt good about the situation going into last year but we hadn't seen them do it in games," Mullen said. "Now I've seen those guys do it in games. We feel pretty good about that situation with Vick and LaDarius taking reps. Robert Elliott has a lot of experience in there. It's good having that experience after those few it gets young in a hurry again. We've got to stay healthy at that position throughout the year."
One of the biggest question marks concerning the defense was who would emerge as the leader of the linebackers with three senior starters departing. The answer appears to be former walk-on Brandon Wilson, who is atop the depth chart at mike.
"He's done a great job," Mullen said. "Brandon hasn't changed. You know what you're getting with Brandon from day one since we've been here. He's a guy that works hard and gives you everything he has out there on the field. He has a nose for the football and a natural football player out there on the field and loves the game. That kind of demeanor is what you want from your middle linebacker. He's a guy who just absolutely loves being out there in the game."
The Bulldogs return nearly every member of its secondary including standout corner Corey Broomfield. Broomfield enters his junior season with nine career interceptions putting him on pace to break Walt Harris' school record of 16.
"It's still taking those steps forward for Corey to be an elite corner and continue to improve," Mullen said. "Corey knows our defense. He's a good technician. He knows what a receiver is going to do before they do it. He has such an understanding of the other side of the ball and why things are happening that he will make even more plays this year."
Mullen also feels good about where his special teams kicking units are. With Heath Hutchins graduated, Thursday will mark the debut of Baker Swedenburg at punt while Derek DePasquale returns as the school's most accurate kicker.
"It's coming along," Mullen said. "Baker Swedenburg has done a nice job being consistent which is a key component to me. The punting game has been very consistent for us. Derek has been a little bit shaky but you don't get nervous because he's made a lot of big kicks in big game situations. That experience that he has settles you down. The pressure of running out there on game day is not going to get to him. He's just got to be more consistent and in a better groove right now."
How ready is Mullen for Thursday's 7:10 p.m. kickoff at the Liberty Bowl?
"Me? I'm fired up," Mullen said. "I can't wait."
On the injury front, Mullen stated that defensive backs Taveze Calhoun and Ivan Muniz along with wide receiver Ricco Sanders were all doubtful for Thursday's opener while linebacker Chris Hughes was considered questionable.
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