PREVIEW: Bulldogs looking to turn the corner

Entering year four under head coach Sylvester Croom, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are looking to get back on track this fall.

The Bulldogs, who are 9-25 in three previous seasons under Croom, will be tested out of the gate when they play host to LSU in the season opener August 30.

 

A year ago, the Bulldogs finished the year with a 3-9 record, but are finding reasons to be optimistic about the year ahead, as Croom has experienced a feeling of confidence about the upcoming season.

 

"This is the first time that I have had confidence since I have been here", Croom said in a recent press conference posted on mstateathletics.com. "My personal plan was to grind it out for three years and get in a position to compete in the fourth. I thought I knew what it was going take when I stepped in but it is really, really tough. For two years we could not get a receiver. We couldn't get a guy to come into this program… Right now, we have six receivers out there that can play."

 

LSU, a consensus pre-season top five team who many feel will make a run at the National Championship, is perhaps the biggest foe on the Bulldog schedule in 2007, and will be looking for a repeat of last season's outing where the Tigers routed MSU 48-17.

 

"They're one of the best teams in the country," Croom said in an SEC media interview, "Hey, we got to play ‘em. They're in the SEC West."

 

Since taking the reigns back in 2003, Croom has gone winless against the Tigers, as LSU has won the last seven meetings between the two teams and nine of the last 10. Overall, the Tigers hold the series advantage 64-33-3.

 

Last year, MSU won just one SEC contest, finishing 12th in the conference in rushing offense and 11th in total offense, while the defense had the conference's worst turnover ratio at -0.42.

 

The good news for Croom, who is 9-25 in his three seasons at MSU, is the return of offensive experience, as the Bulldogs will welcome back nine players to the attacking side of the ball in 2007.

 

The defensive unit will have a tougher time putting experience on the field after losing six starters from last season.

 

On the attacking end, Mississippi State will bring back starters at four of the five offensive line positions, including guards Anthony Strauder and J.D. Hamilton, center Royce Blackledge, and right tackle Craig Jenkins.

 

Filling the gap at left tackle will likely be junior Mike Brown, who started in five games to close out last season after missing the first half of the year due to ineligibility.

 

In the backfield, last year's leading rusher returns in sophomore half back Anthony Dixon, who carried the ball 169 times for 668 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman.

Dixon will be backed up by fellow sophomore Arnil Stallworth. Last season, Stallworth started in three games and ran for 137 yards and one score.

 

The fullback position will see a new starter this season, with the apparent front-runner being junior Brandon Hart, who had played in 21 games during his career; serving primarily as a blocking back.

 

The Bulldogs' offensive leader at quarterback is still questionable following last season, when the first and second string signal callers went down with injuries, though it appears Junior Michael Henig, who suffered a broken collar bone last season, will get the go ahead to retake the reigns of the offense come August 30.

 

"Mike is having an extremely good camp," Croom told the media recently, "He can throw the football as good as anyone in this conference. What I want from him is to make good decisions. One of the things we have to do, particularly in our offense, is to have a high percentage of completions."

 

In the seven games he played in last season, Henig threw 1,201 yard and seven touchdowns, including a 384-yard performance against Kentucky. He also allowed nine interceptions on the year.

 

The Bulldog receiving corps will be headed by senior Tony Burks in 2007 after his team-leading five touchdown, 850-yard season last year.

 

Also looking to contribute in the receiving game are sophomore Brandon McCrae, junior Jamayel Smith and junior Aubrey Bell. Smith was third on the team with 335 receiving yards a year ago.

 

Tight ends Dezmond Sherrod and Eric Butler will both be back to help in the air attack as well, both of whom played a role in the MSU offense in 2006.

 

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs will have to replace three of four starting linemen from last you, with end Titus Brown being the only returnee to the trenches. Brown led team with 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season.

 

Joining Brown on the defensive front this season will be senior Avery Hannibal at the other end, while juniors Cortez McCraney and Jessie Bowman, a JUCO transfer, and sophomores Kyle Love and Quinton Wesley will compete for time at the tackles.

 

Hannibal saw action in 11 games last season and tallied eight tackles, but the remainder of the line will be inexperienced, with Bowman's work in junior college to only real time any has seen apart from special teams.

 

The Bulldogs will welcome back more experience at linebacker, returning senior Gabe O'Neal and junior Jamar Chaney from last year's crew. Chaney was MSU's third-leading tackler with 66 last year, while O'Neal pitched in with 40 tackles of his own.

 

Sophomore Jamon Hughes will help complete the linebacker trio, after managing 17 tackles and one pass deflection as a back up his freshman year.

 

Half of last year's Bulldog secondary will be back in action in 2007, as MSU welcomes the return of strong safety Keith Fitzhugh and free safety Derek Pegues, though the spring may have indicated that Fitzhugh's job is not a lock.

 

Pegues recorded four interceptions to lead the team last year, while Fitzhugh managed one interception and 59 tackles.

 

New starters in the defensive backfield will likely be sophomores Marcus Washington and Anthony Johnson, both of whom saw time in all 12 games as freshmen.

 

Junior De'Mon Glanton may end up starting over Fitzhugh at strong safety after coming out of spring practice at the top of the depth chart.

 

Glanton had 24 tackles and two interceptions in 2006.

 

On special teams, kicker Adam Carlson and punter Blake McAdams, both juniors, will retain their starting roles for the third season.

 

A year ago, Carlson connected on six of his 12 field goal attempts, and was a perfect 27-27 on extra points, while McAdams handled all 68 punts for the Bulldogs and averaged 38.2 yards per kick.

 

Derek Pegues is slated to handle both kickoff and punt return responsibilities once again this year, after accumulating a 14 yard return average and one touchdown on punts and 23.7 yard average on kick returns last season.


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