"We're not going to take the approach of wait-and-see if we're going to redshirt them," Croom said. "We're going to get them ready to play just like we do rookies in the NFL."
And the State staff is indeed getting the new kids ready to play their part in 2004. Not that all or maybe even most will actually see a varsity snap this fall. But during preseason every rookie is being pushed to show their stuff, to make a case for a spot on the active roster.
Because, Croom adds, Mississippi State welcomes instant aid. "Anybody who can line up at a position and help us," the coach emphasizes.
A week into camp a number of newcomers are positioning themselves to lend a hand in '04. Naturally the ‘fast' track to rookie playing time is dominated by the faster pups, who play in the so-called skill positions. That's a misnomer; these are actually talent positions where raw physical gifts can be developed more quickly.
And with full-contact drills underway some rookies are showing the kind of talents to contribute. "Some of our freshmen have done well I think up to this point," Croom said. "There's been some very pleasant surprises."
On each side of the football, too. There are freshmen looking to climb the preseason depth chart on both offense and defense, as well as the special teams.
That latter aspect of the game is one big reason why State recruited the smallest member of the rookie class, Jonathan Lowe. The Phenix City, Ala., native was a superb high school running back that Croom's staff projected for other roles. "We signed him primarily to be a punt returner," the head coach said, and Lowe has already demonstrated a knack for that role. "He has the ability to escape punt coverage off the line of scrimmage."
But Lowe is revealing other gifts. "He has shown to have excellent hands as a receiver," Croom said. Lowe is already in the regular receiver practice rotation—wearing the #80 jersey he took over from a certain dismissed wideout — and making a case to make the game roster.
So is another Alabama native new to State. Keon Humphries was an interesting signee, having played only one season of high school football. Fortunately the MSU staff got some game tapes of this relative unknown. "We saw some things on film we really liked," Croom said, "and we're not disappointed. He has excellent hands, excellent quickness and ability to release off the line of scrimmage. He has ‘burst' and a great work ethic."
This ethic, shared by Lowe, is further fueled by the opportunity to participate right now. "Those two guys we are trying to get ready to play as fast as we can," said Croom, "and we'll not hesitate to play them in the first game if they are ready to go."
It is less likely offensive linemen Roland Terry and Jeffery Farr can be ready to play as true frosh, but that is normal. Ditto for quarterback Mike Henig, though Croom likes what he has seen of this kid already, particularly his strong young arm. "Of course the massive amount of information that we've given him, he's bogged down in that right now and we don't expect him not to be. But we'll continue to bring him on and continue to prepare to get him ready." Running back Demarcus Johnson is slowed by a hamstring right now.
On the defensive side the coaches are encouraged by the early efforts from some new bodies. Anthony Strauder, for one. The freshman is already showing talent on the defensive line, an area where the Bulldogs can definitely use depth. He has a very good chance to be on the sidelines come opening Saturday.
"We have three freshmen linebackers — Anthony Littlejohn, Gabe O'Neal, and Titus Brown — who we are working and trying to get ready to go," Croom said. This could also involve kicking team roles in coverage and protection, a great way for any rookie to make an impression on both coaches and teammates.
Croom's first signing class included four defensive backs, pointing up State's need for true cover-men. One is not available for at least a month, as Corey Spells is wearing a cast on his left foot for a stress fracture that the team doctors say was going to crack sooner or later. This was as good a time as any for the freshman to take care of the condition, but his status for the entire year after the delay is obviously in question.
Mario Bobo is another matter, as Croom sees immediate possibilities here. "Hopefully Mario can help us, we've got to get him ready to play. We've got to be at least two-deep on the corners." Depth is being developed at safety also, though it will be next year before partial-qualifier Fred Akines can play. The Clarksdale, Miss., native was finally cleared to join the squad for the start of two-a-days, but he has to go through the same five-day, partial-pads initiation period under NCAA rules. For the next four days he can only watch workouts.
Also, running back Brandon Thornton is still awaiting clearance. He too would have to run through the five-day break-in period while the rest of the team practices, full-contact. Croom certainly wants his freshmen going full-speed along with the varsity, and not thinking about taking their first year easy. This offer of instant playing time is genuine.
It also has to be earned, and obvious. Croom is not looking to use a rookie just in here-and-there situations. He is looking for players.
"We won't play them until we know for sure they will play 20 or 30 plays a game. Special teams may be involved in that. We will not play any of our freshmen if they're not ready to play 20-30 games, if our coaches cannot tell us going into a ballgame they will play 30 plays, they will not play. We will redshirt them and move on into the next year."
At the same time the coaching staff doesn't want the kids waiting for the future. There are games to play this September. "If they're ready to play against Tulane we'll play them," Croom said. "If it's the next week against Auburn we'll play them then.
"And if they're not ready to play week-by-week then we'll pull back on them from there."
David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.