"We're looking forward to the season with great anticipation," Croom said. "A lot of that is because I feel like we're much improved over the end of last season. I don't think there's any question that we're better than we were at the end of last year. I base that on the attitudes of our players through the off-season, through spring practice and through the course of this summer based on where our strength coach has told us has taken place in our off-season program.
"I think we're closer to being a team," Croom added. "I think we have a better idea of the concept of oneness of team, whereas last year we didn't. Not at any time last year did I feel like we were a football team. We were trying to find our way, trying to develop into a team, a group of individuals looking for a way to win. We didn't believe we could win. The latter part of the season we started thinking we could win. As we go into this season I think our players believe they can win now."
Led by the strong play of running back Jerious Norwood on offense, the Bulldogs should have better skill players than last season thanks to a solid recruiting class. Still, the offense will center around the talents of Norwood who rushed for over 1,000 yards last year as a junior. Croom said that he expects Norwood to become an even better player in 2005 for MSU.
"Jerious is our best football player right now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball," Croom said. "He's definitely one of our best leaders right now. I expect a great season out of him. I think he was right around or a little over 1,000 yards last year and should have had 300 or 400 more yards, but that's par for the course when you first get into a new offense. Ahman Green had the same problems in Green Bay, little things on plays as far as understanding blocking schemes. I expect him to have a better feel for the blocking scheme and anticipating where the holes are. He will be a lot better this year than last year."
Defensively the Bulldogs made a lot of off-season moves in an effort to put more speed and talent on the field and Croom feels like it will pay off in the long run. The biggest move was Quinton Culberson, who made the move from originally a cornerback to safety to outside linebacker and will start this season at middle linebacker for Mississippi State. Croom said that he's been very pleased with his development since making the move.
"He's probably the heart of our defense," Croom said. "That's a big transition convincing him that (MLB) was the best spot to help us and also give him the best chance to move to the next level."
Other moves on defense are Deljuan Robinson moving from defensive end to defensive tackle and outside linebacker Titus Brown moving to defensive end. Croom said that both players responded well to the moves in the spring and should help the Bulldogs become a more aggressive defense. Croom also said that while the moves may seem necessary because of a lack of talent in Starkville, this is something he believes in and will keep doing in the future.
"It's part of our philosophy as far as in recruiting," Croom said of moving players around. "We like to recruit the best possible athletes and guys who we feel like can compete. Then we're going to put the best 11 guys on the field regardless. When we were recruiting we tell players we try to recruit as many two-position players as we possibly can, guys that can play defense or offense. If you are an offensive lineman I like to recruit guys that can play tackle, guard or center so we can get the best 11 guys on the field at all times. We're not going to sign many guys that can only play one position. If that's the case he better be the best at his position."
When the Bulldogs begin fall practice in one week many people will overlook them in the SEC Western Division race. While they may not finish in the hunt and may not even make a run at a minor bowl game, teams may want to tread lightly around Croom's troops this season because the man running the show knows what it takes to win and feels like his team is getting closer to that feeling.
"We're not the most talented team in the world now, but we're going to win some games," Croom said. "People don't think we can win, but our players think we can win. Part of that is in my terminology, they have been through the fire now. The off-season program and our spring practice was very intense. They are going to get a little heat here in the next two weeks to pick it up right where we left off in the spring, but they know it's coming. They are actually looking forward to it. I can see the look in their eyes, the smile on their faces, that work doesn't scare them any more. They embrace it now. They are willing to pay the price.
"They have got confidence in themselves when they look around that room. They know those other guys got something too because they all went through it together. That's what is different about us now. I don't know what our record is going to be, but I know we're going to be a better football team than we were last year."