We can delve into features on individual players, we can project depth charts based on what we see, and we can break down strengths and weaknesses of the roster all day and night. But with a new coaching staff, with an experienced team and with a new scheme on both sides of the ball, the biggest question around Mississippi State football this spring is a pretty basic one: how’s practice going?
After all, this is the first look at the Joe Moorhead Era, a sneak peek at the laying of the foundation, offering a preview of what’s to come not just this fall but for years to come. Naturally, the level of anticipation is high, and certainly, MSU fans hope for a good answer to the question of how exactly things are going out there now that the intros are over, the contracts are signed and real football things are happening.
Entering the final days of practice ahead of the Maroon-White Spring Game on Super Bulldog Weekend, Moorhead was asked just that.
“With a week to go,” a reporter asked Moorhead after Saturday afternoon’s practice, “are you pleased with how they’ve retained everything and where you are right now?”
Deep breath, the answer is coming.
“Very much so,” he began.
Deep exhale, and the explanation builds.
“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna and come in here every day and tell you it’s sunshine and rainbows,” Moorhead continued, “but they’re taking the information from the meeting room and going out and playing hard. We’re seeing the precision improve every practice. From that standpoint, there hasn’t been a day where you look at the film and say, ‘Man, we didn’t get better today.’ It hasn’t been by leaps and bounds, but we’ve been improving every practice.”
Nothing against “sunshine” or “rainbows,” but the key word in Moorhead’s explanation is “precision.” The base schemes are completely installed as of Saturday, though they’ll add more to them in fall camp and in the season. It’s for that reason that Moorhead says the challenge for his players at this point is more mental than physical.
Within literal minutes of his plane landing in Starkville for the first time, Moorhead greeted a handful of players and told them they would need to learn their ring sizes for the championships they were about to win. Having strength and size and endurance are all important factors in being a good football team. But to be a great team that wins said championships, Moorhead believes, one must have that all-important quality: precision. That, as you would imagine, is what MSU is working on now.
“We talk a lot about the effort we give, but football is a game of precision,” he said. “Right now, I like to say we’re in the right church but the wrong pew. We’re doing the right thing, but we’re not doing it with enough precision that we’re going to win the SEC. We’ve got a long way to go. We don’t need to be [now] where we’re going to be September 1. We’ve just got to improve every practice and keep stacking good days on top of each other.”
And that’s why these final days are about fundamentals and techniques. They are about not just doing the right things, but doing them the right way and knowing why they do them.
Senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald offered a review similar to that of his coach, saying he’s both pleased with the progress and intent on improvement. With the offense fully installed, he knows where the responsibility now lies.
“It’s just on the rest of us to really master it,” he said. “It’s going well. We hear him talk every day that you’d be surprised this team is running these installs and these plays for the very first time. For the most part, our people are doing really well. We’re running fast, playing hard. I think it just has to do with everyone buying into it.
“We kind of know what to do,” Fitzgerald continued, “now we need to know why we do it and how to do it effectively. That’s the big thing. We all have to be in the playbooks.”
And the good news, Moorhead says, is that it’s an approach embraced by the whole of the team. As individuals improve, so do entire position units, entire sides of the ball and the entire team itself. After their last scrimmage before the spring game, Moorhead noted he was most pleased not with individual performances or dominating play by the defense or offense. Instead, he was thrilled to see a competitive back and forth battle between the two sides, an example of how practice has gone all spring.
“As the head coach, you want to see a good give and take throughout practice; offense making plays, defense making plays. I think we did that,” he said. “I think it’s a great battle. I think it’s a microcosm of what we see every day in practice. I tell our guys, if one side is constantly kicking the other side’s butt throughout the course of practice, you’re in for a long season. We want our practices to be like a 15-round heavyweight bout that goes to the card. That’s how it’s been, either by period or by day. Guys have been competing and getting after each other, but ultimately realizing it’s more about the team than it is about one side of the ball or the individual.”
If the competition continues well, Moorhead’s Bulldogs expect to be ready for their next string of heavyweight bouts when the 2018 season begins.