Confidence abounds as Mississippi State opens camp

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 has returned, including quarterback Chris Relf

and running back Vick Ballard. The duo was among the biggest

surprises in the Southeastern Conference last season. Relf threw

for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Ballard ran for 986 yards

and a school-record 19 touchdowns.

”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

1/2-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 on the team in

tackles.

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.”