SEC MEDIA DAYS: Sylvester Croom - Miss. State

Year three of the Sylvester Croom rebuilding project officially kicked off Friday morning as the Mississippi State head coach met with the media at SEC Media Days. Croom talked at lentgh about his depth issues and the growth of the struggling SEC West program.

COACH CROOM: Good morning, Ladies and gentlemen. It's good to be here. Again it's time to play a little football.

I'm excited, looking forward to the season, and am here ready to answer any questions you might have. We brought with us -- you'll be probably meeting them during the course of the day -- Michael Henig our quarterback and Jeramie Johnson, our strong safety. We're very excited Jeramie made the all SEC second team at safety on defense.

We're excited about the season, looking forward to playing South Carolina on August 31st, on Thursday night. We get a chance to play on ESPN, national spotlight. That's a great opportunity for our players and our program.

We feel like we've made a lot of progress over the off-season and looking forward to that game and just excited to see what we really got coming into the season.

Right now we feel like we know who our starting lineup for that game will be except for we've got three additional junior college players, Tim Bailey at linebacker, JD Hamilton at left tackle, and Ryan Mason at wide receiver, who we feel will have an immediate impact on our football team. We just haven't been seen them practice, but based on what they looked like in junior college and the work they've done in the summer program, we do think they will have an immediate impact for us.

With that, I'll begin to take your questions.

Q. Talk about how you replace a Jerious Norwood and how your offense will change this year. We're talking about the west coast offense, are you closer to having that installed in the way you had envisioned it?

COACH CROOM: Yes. We are very excited about -- we can finally run the offense now, do the things that we like doing. Basically we withdrew into a shell last year, became a very conservative football team, because we didn't have a lot of receivers and because of inexperience in the offensive line.

Last year we played with only one returning offensive lineman playing his position from the previous year. That was Chris McNeil at center. Brian Anderson was our other returning offensive lineman. We had to move him to left tackle. I can tell you Brian Anderson is not a left tackle, but that's all we had, so that's what we had to do.

The other offensive lineman we played, Calvin Wilson and we played Anthony Strauder left guard. We played Anthony Dunning at right guard some. We were playing freshmen guys that never played. I never forget standing on the sideline in the LSU game and Anthony Dunning is out there playing, I was just waiting, worried somebody was going to come arrest me for putting that guy out there.

I mean, this kid played on a high school team with 17 players, and then third or fourth game of the year he's starting against LSU. That's not fair. That's not fair to the young man. We played some freshmen offensive linemen who in a normal situation those kids should have been redshirted last year.

I also reminded myself, we're playing a lot of freshmen, 23 of them between true freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Those guys are not freshmen anymore; they're sophomores this year. In all things, when you're in tough situations, my mom always used to do, this too shall pass. Thank God it's passed. Now those guys are seasoned players. They've been through an SEC year. We're going to be a lot stronger in the offensive line.

I mentioned a couple of those receivers earlier, Burks and Mason, the mood of Omarr Conner from quarterback to wide receiver. We will definitely have a stronger wide receiver core than we have had at any time.

Replacing Jerious Norwood, you don't do that. He was an outstanding back. But we do -- we think we will be solid, very solid, very good at runningback with the return of Brandon Thornton who was Jerious's backup this year. Derek Ambrose got a waiver, he's coming back. He's a very talented runner. Then we have a couple freshmen coming in. We're going to be okay at runningback. I know we may not have the explosiveness that Jerious gave us there early, but at the same time we will be able to run the ball effectively. We will always be able to run the football at Mississippi State.

Our passing game, being able to run the West Coast system as it's supposed to be run, be able to stretch the field vertically, also horizontally, get the ball to people in space where they can run, they will be more like what we intended to be from day one. We're in the situation now where we can spread the ball out and do a lot more things than we were able to do in the past. The key ingredient to that will also be our tight end, Eric Butler.

Q. Could you talk about Michael's injury, what your strategy will be with him through camp leading up to the opening game.

COACH CROOM: Right now the doctors have released Mike. They told him to get out there and practice, quit milking the injury. I think he's trying to get him a date. I think that's what's happening with this thing, trying to get a girlfriend out of it (smiling).

You know, except for the running test which we will have next Wednesday when our conditioning tests -- when our players come back, except for that, we expect him to do everything. I'm not going to require him to do that, but beyond that we expect him to start in practice.

We'll probably limit how many reps he gets in practice early, but we're going to do that anyway because we know Mike knows what to do, he knows how to run the offense. We had an excellent spring this spring. Tray Rutland and Ty Evans as our backup. We want to find out which one of them is going to be No. 2. They'll get a lot of work early. The first couple weeks of practice, we'll just be working on getting our offense rein stalled, things we worked on this spring, then we'll start our final preparation for South Carolina.

Q. You said last year that you wouldn't compromise your beliefs to save a scholarship player. You wanted to get your kind of guys in the program. If you had to go to Korea, you would do it. Are you having more success in identifying the kinds of guys that buy into your plan or have you had to get a passport?

COACH CROOM: Well, with what's happened recently over there, the testing of nuclear weapons, Korea is off our recruiting charts now. They're out. Not going to be any guys from over there. I promise you that. I'm not going.

But we've had a lot better -- we've had good recruiting year last year. We're in the midst of another one right now. We've got the kind of people in our program -- our team looks like what I hoped it would be at this point. Our senior class that were freshmen when we got there in the program, the guys that are still there, have adapted to our philosophy very well, have embraced it.

Have done an outstanding job this year of giving us leadership through the spring, through the off-season, and through the course of the summer. For the first time, our entire football team has been on campus the entire summer except, of course, for our freshmen who just came in the second semester. That's been a huge plus for us, because we've had these seniors and even our younger players who were there last year, they have served to support each other in the conditioning and doing things the Bulldog way and also teaching our new freshmen exactly the way we do things at Mississippi State.

Yeah, I like our football team. I like everybody on it, from Mike Henig, Omarr Conner, all the way down to the guys who are walk-ons. All of them are important to our success. I told the team the other day, we had an academic meeting, the walk-ons, I wanted them understand, some of them probably won't make trips, we try to do everything possible to reward those guys that stay out there, I have a great deal of respect for walk-ons, I probably wouldn't have been tough enough to do what they have to do. But every last one of them is very important to our program, otherwise we wouldn't have them on the football team.

Q. One win in the SEC last year. Has progress been slower than you hoped it would be or thought it would be? How difficult have you found this league thus far?

COACH CROOM: Well, the league is tough. I knew that coming in. You remember, I played in it and coached in it for a long time. It's not the first time I've been around through it.

From our standpoint, it was just building our talent level back up to where we could compete in this conference. I think I said here last year we'd be a better football team last year, but I wasn't sure our record would indicate it.

We played, in the course of our schedule last year, five of the top-10 teams in the country. And at the time we played them, three of them were in the top five. We held our own with them. We were not a very good football team for reasons that I explained earlier. We were very, very young. We come back again this year still a very young football team, even though we have about nine starters returning on defense.

We're still very young offensively. Those freshmen I mentioned last year, a lot of those guys are going to be starting, a lot are going to be playing a lot. We're going to be a pretty good offensive football team over the next couple years because those guys are going to be around for a while.

Coming into this program, we knew that there were some -- we were missing some talent in some classes. Last year's senior class in particular. You think about the guys that have the heaviest impact for us. Norwood, we only really had two starters that had key impacts for us: Norwood and Willie Evans. So That class did not have a lot of depth and quality in it.

Now we begin this senior class this year with some quality football players in it. It has a good, solid group of not only talent but good people. That's a huge plus for us.

We're right about where I thought we would be. Now we get a chance, I think we got a chance to start to make a turnaround and move forward and give us a chance to compete with the better teams in this conference and have a chance to have some success.

Q. You say you didn't have the receivers to make plays for us last year. Can you talk about what the receivers can do this year. How tough is it when you come in and take over a program at the bottom of a division to try to move up in this conference?

COACH CROOM: Well, it's tough because it all goes back to recruiting. The hard part about it is when you're on the bottom, you're recruiting the same athletes as a better team. Why would you want to go there? You're going to get beat. They don't have facilities. Why would you want to go there? They've never won the SEC championship.

Well, all that's true. But the thing I was telling some of our alumni the other day, we can do things. The idea in recruiting is, as a player, we try to look for players that want to go somewhere and build something, be a part of building something special. There's players that want to be a part of building something. There's players that want to go somewhere where it's already built and they have an easy ride. That's the question.

They built a national championship program at Miami. When I was playing at Alabama, Miami was a homecoming team every week. They built a national championship program at Florida State, built one at Clemson, built one at VPI. Why can't we build one at Mississippi State? No difference.

The key is, you got to get players. That's the key. You have to get guys that believe and want to be a part of believe something special rather than being just a part of walking in and hanging on somebody else's coattail. That's why I went to Mississippi State. That's why I took the challenge. I wanted to be a part of building something special.

When I played at Alabama, no matter how much championships they win at Alabama, the '61 national championship team is always going to be the national championship team, the first one. That was the whole time we was there. We were always trying to surpass them, the first one. I tell our players at Mississippi State, the first time we win the national championship, those guys will be immortalized in the history of Mississippi State football. They will never, ever be forgotten. They will take special satisfaction out of building a conference championship.

When we get in position to compete for the national championship, those guys will be immortalized in sports history, and that stays forever.

Now, do you accept the challenge of being part of that? We look for those kind of guys. The guys who want to come in and take a free ride and build on what somebody else did rather than doing it themselves, they go somewhere else.

Q. Based on everything you've said here this morning about building Mississippi State into an SEC contender, is it your belief that opening game against South Carolina is a must-win game for your program?

COACH CROOM: I don't believe in must-win games unless you want to count 12 of them must-win games. Regardless of what happens in that game, the season is not over. It would make it easier. I sure would have a lot more fun that night and the next day when I go recruiting. It will be a whole lot more fun. My wife might even make me some biscuits for breakfast.

But a must-win game, the first game of the season, no such animal. You got 11 more games to play.

Q. I see where you guys have so many commitments already. Why have you been able to do that to get this many early commitments?

COACH CROOM: First of all, now I know where Philadelphia, Mississippi is. I know where Charleston, Mississippi is. You get those commitments when you know how to get there. That's helped. It's taken me two years to figure out how to get to these places. Going to Houston, I thought they were talking about Houston, Texas.

So what I'm saying is myself, our coaches, we're more familiar with the high schools there. We haven't done anything different this year except we know, our coaches have been in the area, they know the high school coaches, they know the players. These kids that we're recruiting right now, we've been recruiting them for two years. We evaluated them two years ago. We already know the juniors. I know 10 juniors right now that we're going to offer the first day you can offer a scholarship to, we're going to be ready to offer them a scholarship.

When you come into a program as late as we came in, that first year of recruiting, that's a wash. You hope you get somebody that will say, I do. That's pretty much what happened. And in doing that quite often, you end up taking a chance or reaching for some players, and they don't quite turn out because you haven't evaluated them.

You need to evaluate a kid over a year to a year and a half to truly understand what kind of player you get. Not just from a talent standpoint. You want to know what kind of person they are. That's why when I go in their homes, I get to know mama, I get to know the little brother, I get to know the relatives, the neighbors. I know what kind of person we're getting.

I know if when we get out there in two-a-days I'm pushing that kid out of his comfort zone, pushing him to the edge and I think he's going to quit. I go in there and call mama and say, I think he's about ready to quit. She goes, okay, Coach, do what you have to do, because he ain't coming home. I need to know that.

In order to build a championship program, everybody has to get out of their comfort zone. We have to push these guys to the edge a little bit every day, and it ain't comfortable. It's not comfortable when you're doing that. At some point someday, they may not like that. If you know they've got a solid background at home, you know that you've got support of mama and daddy, then it makes your job a lot easier.

Q. Coaches are held accountable for everything the players do academically and off the field as well, yet it seems that more and more you're getting legislated away from your players, you're allowed less time. Do you think perhaps the athletic directors, the powers that be, need to reevaluate this and give the coaches more time? It is your job on the line if your kids screw up off the field.

COACH CROOM: Exactly. I totally agree with you. In fact, we're going to put you in charge of making sure that happens, okay? I totally agree with you. The worst thing that's happened to football is eliminating the athletic dormitories, in my mind. The idea was supposed to eliminate the idea that eliminating athletic dorms was going to prevent bad conduct. That's not true. What it's done is put us in a situation where we don't have as much contact with our players as we used to.

Not like when I was in college, living. I enjoyed the idea of living in an athletic dormitory, where the coaches came over and visited with you, might come to your room. When players live everywhere on campus, it's pretty tough to go visit them all the time like you'd like to. You don't have the meals with them all the time like you used to. That's just my opinion. If you want to go be the champion for that, I sure would love for you to do that.

We're trying to do some things where we can try to get -- within the rules, where we can end up, you know, building a new academic facility. Hopefully we can work where we can get us a training table type situation where we -- our coaches and players can spend more time together. That's one reason in our new facility, our weight room, we put a players' lounge right across the street from our offices so we can go over there and spend time with our players.

We are held accountable for everything players do. Everything. Even in football, our coaches in this conference tried to get to where we could spend some more one-on-one time with them. Yeah, it's going to be some training time with them in the off-season. They do it for every other sport, but they don't let us do it in football.

There seems to be a mistrust of football coaches in the NCAA. They allow every other sport to do little things and spend time with their players, but not football coaches. They don't trust us right now. I don't know why.

Q. Having been through two full years now, what is the biggest difference running a program in the second year as opposed to the first year?

COACH CROOM: Well, the first year, you know, when you get in, you don't know anybody. You have so many -- there's so many people that want to see your time. There's so many demands oh than your time. Whereas now we're organized. My administrative assistant knows what his functions are, Brad Pendergrass. Rocky Felker, who is our director of football operations., they take on a lot of duties that allow me now to spend a lot more time with our players one-on-one. I drop by their dorm some nights. I mention that sometimes. I think I was coming back from a trip somewhere, it was about midnight, I just dropped in to see what was going on.

I get a chance to spend more one-on-one time with even some of our alumni now. That's the biggest thing, is managing time. It's taken me a good while to really get a schedule down to where I can keep myself in halfway decent shape, get the football work done that I need to do, and also open up shop to where during the course of the day you can deal with all the brush fires that you have to deal with during the course of a day.

The first year I was there, I had this list of things that I was going to do every day. I'd go in the office, I'd be there 18 hours, get home at night, look at the list, nothing's done. What I found was that so many things happened during the course of the day that are not planned because there's so many demands on your time. I had to reschedule some things. That was the hardest part of it, is understanding all those things outside of football that have to get done and you have to budget time in order for them to get done.

Q. What is having a Timmy Bailey on your team, what does that add to your team having that experience? Looks like he's been a good player for you, picked up the defense pretty well.

COACH CROOM: As I mentioned earlier, all of the junior college players, but especially a guy like Timmy, because he's in a unique situation, maturity. As I said earlier, we were still a young football team. Our talent is a lot better. Those four junior college players definitely add to that. They also bring a maturity in leadership to us that we have not had in the past.

Those guys have come in this summer and just blended right in. I told them, I said, Guys, I don't want you to act like you're strangers. Come in here. You're a part of this football team right now. I want to make sure that your imprint is on this team.

What Timmy brings to us is just the age maturity, being in junior college, but also maturity that even a lot of us in here don't understand unless you've been in the military and been in a combat situation as he has been. He and I have talked about the experience. I have the greatest respect -- I'm sure we all do -- and appreciation for all of our people in the military.

To have the chance to coach one who has been in combat, trying to make life better for us and the entire world, as a matter of fact, having him come back and play on your football team, I think all of our players have a great respect for him and our coaches. Yet he comes back and he just wants to be a player and be a part of it. He's a good player. He's a talent. He'll push Quinton at the middle linebacker spot and give us a chance to give Quinton some more rests. A lot of times last year, we could not take him off the football field because we had nobody else at that position that could physically do the things we demanded of the position except him. He was one we owe a lot. We couldn't use him on special teams.

That's going to help our special teams because now we can use both of those guys on special teams, whereas last year we couldn't use Culberson, because if he went down, nobody could replace him at middle linebacker. We'll use starting players on special teams this year because we will have depth behind them. If they're going to rest, they're going to rest on offense and defense, not on special teams, whereas we had to take a different approach last year.

Q. Talk about recruiting Michael Henig and sort of how he ended up at Mississippi State, what you saw in him that led to you recruit him.

COACH CROOM: Woody McCorvey, our assistant coach, offensive coordinator, is one of the best recruiters around anywhere. Woody is a little bit older than I am, but he still recruits just like he was a young coach. Everybody in the country knows him. He's very well-respected. But he was recruiting Mike, was recruiting him when we got there. He knew about Mike. He's been around that area. He told me as soon as we took the job that we say we got to get a quarterback, he said he liked Mike.

I didn't get a chance to see Mike play in person. I wasn't sure when I did meet him that we were going to -- I was concerned about his height. If you think he looks young now, you should have seen him then. He had that little baby face. I said, this is going to be our quarterback of the future.

I was watching a film on Mike. I was pleased with his arm strength. I thought he was accurate with passing. There was one play that stood out for me in that game that I saw of him. He threw an interception. He chased the guy all the way to the one yard line and made the tackle to keep him from scoring. That stuck in my mind about Mike Henig.

I knew we needed a guy who had competitiveness, had heart, had some toughness about him, who was relentless. That's the kind of guy I wanted to lead our football team.

As we got toward the end and we hadn't signed a quarterback, I think Mike was going to take a visit to Louisville. We made the call, told him we'd like to have him come visit us. Sit down and talk, we were going to offer him a scholarship. They came back to campus, they prayed over it. His family, you know, is a real family of faith. They thought that would be the best place for him to come. That's how we ended up with him.

It was one of those situations where you would have liked for somebody -- I'd like to have a 6'3", 6'4" guy, too. I also remember a couple guys we signed in Alabama during my coaching stint there that were not blue chip quarterbacks. One of them's name was Steadman Shealy, I remember very well, the last player we signed that year, and he just took us to two national championships.

Q. Do you anticipate being able to redshirt more of your incoming freshmen this year than your first two years? Could you talk about another junior college player, Tony Burks.

COACH CROOM: Yes, one of the things that our program has reached a level now to where we don't have to play freshmen. Right now I think it's possibly -- I would think there's four or five that I think will probably play. I've instructed our coaches to get everybody. We going to approach it with the idea of getting everybody ready to play.

I don't want us to as a coaching staff just assume that a guy is not ready. We're going to try to get them all ready to play and we'll make decisions week by week as to who's redshirted and who is not redshirted.

But the wholesale playing of freshmen like we've had to do the last two years, I think that's over in our program right now. We're recruiting. We'll continue to recruit, particularly in the offensive line, adding guys every year so we can hopefully avoid what happened last year. But we have to play freshmen.

I really believe at quarterback and offensive line, those are two positions that are extremely difficult to play as a freshman in our conference because this conference is highly competitive as we all know. There's just so much technique work, so much knowledge of systems that it takes at those positions, that it makes it extremely difficult for our freshman, no matter how talented he is, to play those positions as a true freshman.

There's always exceptions to the rule. But my experience at this level and also even in the NFL, it's extremely difficult for first-year guys to play at a high level at those positions.

Q. Because of your experience in the NFL and the college level, do you have strong opinions about the 12-game schedule, how that affects open dates, takes away open dates from teams?

COACH CROOM: Well, it's definitely going to make the season a lot longer. I think the way we practice at this level, it's already changed a great deal from what it was in college. I think it's going to change even more with the addition of a 12th game. Every team decides, I think, the players you know are going to play, once they've established themselves, you do have to take a lot better care of them.

Of course, the ideal situation, I think all coaches would like to have an open date somewhere in the middle of the schedule. But obviously that's not happening. Hey, I'm one. I just like things to be even. I'd just as soon see everybody play 12 straight or shut it down for one week. I know TV's not going to allow that. We just deal with it as it is and just go on.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.

COACH CROOM: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.

Defensive Back Jeramie Johnson

(On the start of the season) "I'm very excited because it's a great start and will show how our season will go. It'll show how we've worked to get this far."

(On the improvement of the defense) "Yes. Our defense is better than last year. We're one unit now. More seniors are stepping up, we're watching more film, going out with each other to restaurants. It's a lot better than last year's defense."

(On the offense) "Our offense is going to be better. We have Michael Henig at quarterback. He'll be throwing more to Omarr Conner. We have two threats on the ends. We'll be competitive on offense. I have great confidence in the offense."

(On playing for Coach Croom) "Being under Coach Croom is like being a son to a father. He tells us things that will better us. He's always there for us like a father to his children. A lot of people can't have a father figure and coach on and off the field, so playing for Coach Croom is very special."

(On playing Ole Miss) "I'm looking forward to playing. It's a great game to play. You have two teams ready to play each other all season so we're looking forward to playing."

(On the overall improvement of the team) "I've seen major improvements. The guys that are no longer there, I think Coach Croom didn't put them out, he just gave them a choice. If you want to go your own way, you can. He got rid of the bad seeds and has planted great seeds now. He's done a great job with that."

Quarterback Michael Henig

(On injury) "I just went to the doctor and I am cleared to go. I am working out at normal, but not doing things that are as strenuous. I will be 100 percent when the season begins."

(On starting) "I have dream of playing in the SEC my entire life. I have to step up and show everyone that I can be a leader and win games."

(On playing at Jeff Davis high school) "Playing in 6A really helped a lot and gave me a better feel for the game. 6A has a lot more players that are bigger. Playing at a public school like that gave me a better opportunity to get noticed. It was the best move that I made."

(On last season) "I had my first start against Alabama. You can't get put in any tougher situation. We are still riding high against our win against Ole Miss. You can tell that in the locker room. The guys aren't dragging around like we were last year. We are excited and ready to play."

(On first game) "I couldn't dream of anything better than opening the season against South Carolina. We are going to have to step it up and play hard. We are exciting to start and to know that a lot of people will be watching."

(On this season) "We know what Coach Croom expects out of us and we will get it done. You have to prove that you are ready. He is through with the baby steps. I want to improve more on my footwork, my progressions and my leadership skills. Our goals are to win the division, go to a bowl game and just give the fans what they want."

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