- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- An iPhone App said that it was 84 degrees on Mississippi State's campus Tuesday afternoon, which could only be true if Starkville was located at the bottom of a lake. It's only a few minutes into the start of practice and you can see the players struggling with the humid, sapping conditions. Coaches shout at the medical staff to "Water the O-line!" as if the assembly of 300-pound men were a patch of wilting dandelions.
One of the team doctors takes issue with the readout. Robert Collins, a white-haired holdover from the Jackie Sherrill era, says it's at least 5-6 degrees warmer on the practice field most days, and that's not counting the radiant heat, a measurement he argues is a much more accurate gauge of how hot it actually feels. Inside the players helmets, it's a good 20 degrees warmer, he says.
It feels hot watching the Bulldogs run through individual and team drills. There's no shade for onlookers and even less relief for the players trying to catch their breath. Rick Ray, the school's basketball coach, wears a oversized bucket hat to keep from burning. He's here to watch 6-foot-5 freshman wideout De'Runnya Wilson, who came to school this summer with intentions of playing both sports, though it looks like football will keep him from doing so.
"They're killing the sled," said Ray, craning his neck to the far side of the field where the defensive linemen are working. "You can hear it all the way over here."
A few minutes later, players break from their position groups and begin to practice live action. What happened next should have looked familiar to Ray. It wasn't basketball, but the tempo sure looked like it. All that was missing was the high pitch of sneakers screeching on hardwood floor.
Mississippi State has long been a team that likes to run the football and control the clock, but today both sides of the ball are working at a full sprint. The NASCAR offense, as coaches call it, is in full effect. There's almost no break between plays. The first series is over before there's even time to measure it by hand. Ready for the second series, the average time between the blow of the whistle and the snap clocks in at roughly 19 seconds.
Players aren't the only ones running. Coaches are, too. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins waves his hands like a man possessed and screams at his cornerback to, "Crank your a-- up!" before he's dropped to the scout team.
Time, you see, is of the essence.
Oklahoma State and its high-octane offense await Mississippi State on Saturday. The Cowboys, who finished seventh nationally in passing a year ago, averaged one play every 20.3 seconds. Fifty-eight of their 69 offensive touchdowns came on drives that lasted 3 minutes or less. Under the direction of coach Mike Gundy, they scored 19 touchdowns in under 60 seconds, good enough for third in the country.
"Once their tempo gets started, it's like a train rolling downhill," Collins said earlier in the day, "it's kind of hard to stop it."
For more than seven months, Mississippi State has been preparing for Oklahoma State and its no-huddle offense. Collins has stressed to his players that the best way to stop it is to never let it get going in the first place. Negative plays and pass breakups, he says, put the offense at a disadvantage. Throwing off the tempo is the only real option, because once the Cowboys have a defense on its heels, it's lights out.
Collins has seen the tape. He knows what Tracy Moore can do at receiver, comparing him favorably to former Oklahoma State greats Justin Blackmon and Dez Bryant. He needed only a few games worth of film to understand what fifth-year senior Clint Chelf brings to the table, calling his arm "great" and his decision-making "poised."
Mississippi State's admittedly young defense, the one replacing its top linebacker and both of its starting cornerbacks, faces an enormous challenge, likely the most significant of the season on Saturday.
Energy, Collins said, will be of the utmost importance.
"When they get a first down, it's on, they're moving at a fast pace," he said.
But rather than ask his defense to play under control in the face of such quickness, he's having them try to match the energy and deliver even more. He's hoping his guys will play with reckless abandon. Jumping, shouting and dancing on the football field is encouraged, if not mandatory. Talking smack is condoned and acting like a lunatic is rewarded. Collins doesn't want a spark -- he wants fireworks.
It's all part of a program he and a quality control staffer started this summer. "Juice Points," they call it, measures the amount of energy each player brings to practice. In the same way tackles and interceptions are measured, so are high-fives and fist bumps.
"We're just trying to create a little excitement, a little energy at practice," Collins said, "We wanted to find a way to reward the kids who brought some juice to practice."
The results on tape: more turnovers, more big plays and less loafing on the football field.
"All of us love the game of football," Benardrick McKinney said after practice, wiping the sweat away from his eyes. "It's a passionate game. We fly to the ball, we talk between plays like brothers, we get along. It's a good environment."
After such a disappointing end to last season, any sign of energy around the program has been welcomed. The Bulldogs won seven straight to open the year before losing five of their last six games. All it took was one loss at Alabama to flatline, and when it did, the change was noticeable.
Whether Juice Points was a reaction to that drop in morale is anyone's guess. But the way Mississippi State took to the practice field on Tuesday, it certainly looked like 2012 had been forgotten.
Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs' fifth-year head coach, is anxious for the start of the season. He barely looked up from his computer screen earlier in the day to shake hands and say hello. Call sheets littered his desk. He was too busy scripting plays.
With fifth-year senior Tyler Russell back under center and LaDarius Perkins entrenched at tailback, Mullen feels good about his offense. What he sees on the other side of the football is encouraging, too. Collins, he said, is giving him exactly what he hoped for when he promoted him to defensive coordinator during the offseason.
"He knows what I want from defense," Mullen said. "When I turn on the film, I want to see 11 guys playing with a lot of energy, playing with a lot of excitement and running to the ball. I want to play an aggressive style of defense, and that doesn't mean we're just blitzing every play. An aggressive style of defense means we're running to the ball and getting there with bad intentions."
McKinney looks like a man with a mean streak. The sophomore middle linebacker burst onto the scene last year as a freshman, breaking the 100-tackle mark on his way to becoming one of just three underclassmen named to the Bednarik Award watch list this preseason.
How he goes, so goes the defense, coaches explained.
"He's the one that's got to provide the spark, Collins said. "He's got to get everyone lined up. He's got to be the Ray Lewis-type figure for the defense.
"He's 6-5. He's 246. He runs a 4.5. He jumps 38 inches. He's a great player, but he's a better person. He's intelligent, he's caring, he's energetic. He's the prototypical person you want to draw up to coach."
But the real question isn't about McKinney or what happens up front on defense this weekend. Their front seven is well built and has good depth. Instead, it's the secondary that's a major concern. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Johnathan Banks were both second-round picks and safety Corey Broomfield was picked up by the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. Senior safety Nickoe Whitley was the only starter in the secondary to return.
Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are slated to start at corner, and junior college transfer Justin Cox will likely come off the bench to start the season. Those around the program are optimistic about what they can do, but until the season begins, it's anyone's guess. Their motivation, though, is certain.
"Everybody has talked about Banks and Slay, Banks and Slay," Collins said. "So I think that position, that's going to be the challenge."
Said Mullen: "They've been told and heard all summer that they're the guys with big shoes to fill, they're the guys that don't have the experience, they're the guys that are where the mismatch is for Oklahoma State."
Jay Hughes, a projected starter at safety, said he's welcome to the challenge. While he stopped short of calling Saturday a statement game, he did concede that how it unfolds will impact the rest of the season.
"Throughout training camp, I just felt like everything was based upon that game instead of the season as a whole," he said. "I think because we put so much emphasis on this team and this game and the hype and all the negative things about the secondary, I think we're going to be good.
"To take nothing away from Banks and Slay, they were obviously great players and are in the NFL making an impact right now, but we've got some good young guys here. We still have some talent here. I think that's what people don't see -- we still have talent, we still have players who can make the same plays that Banks and Slay made."
And if there wasn't enough inspiration, Oklahoma State added more fuel to the fire. Parker Graham, a veteran offensive lineman, told a local publication that the SEC is "blown a little bit out of proportion."
"Sometimes those SEC defenses lose their breath against it," he continued. "They have big guys but they aren't very well conditioned."
Collins wouldn't take the bait when asked about the comments, though he did say that he would have some "choice words" to get his defense riled up before kickoff.
Hughes said the Cowboys' tempo won't be anything his teammates haven't seen before, citing schools such as Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M that run similarly paced offenses in the SEC. Let them say what they want, he said, it is what it is. Maybe it was the leftover excitement from practice, but he sounded ready to make his point right then and there.
"Anybody can say whatever they want to say and they're going to put quotes around it," he said. "We have the best strength and conditioning coach in the country. We never get a break from football around here. We have to have something to show for it. I feel like we can run with anybody.
"We can go right now, no pads on."
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