Bulldogs Begin Second Week of Camp

Sure, preseason practice is about positioning players, defining depth charts, and teaching schemes. But at Mississippi State, in August of 2004, Coach Sylvester Croom has a more fundamental goal in mind. "What we're really trying to do in this camp, we're trying to find the guys who are going to be winners for us," Croom said.

Just how many Bulldogs look like, much less play like winners after the first full week of camp, only the head coach can say. And Croom isn't telling, not yet. What he has said is that he doesn't know what would happen if Mississippi State was playing Tulane today.

But at least after week-one Croom is saying nicer things about his first MSU team. "We've got some guys starting to emerge, starting to take charge. But you never really know until you step out on the field and play games. We'll know who the real leaders, the real men are when things get tough."

Some Bulldogs might be surprised to hear their coach talk about things getting tough, after a demanding debut week on the practice fields. But Croom is as much about attitude as athleticism, and he wants everyone—both inside camp and outside looking in—to understand: the work is just beginning.

Certainly Croom has been sparing of his compliments thus far. "You're going to find it's very rare that I say I'm pleased," he acknowledged. Still as the first week wore on the coach saw more signs of progress from various players and units. Most of all, State's willingness to work. That I am pleased with. We're way ahead of where we were. They're trying. They're working hard, they're finishing plays. And at the end of the day that's all we know."

Of course at the start of week-two coach and team alike know the days are running out before Tulane arrives at Scott Field. In two weeks the Bulldogs have to put what they've practiced into play. Croom does point to some promising overall trends on each side of the line. "Our defense continues to run well to the football, I'm pleased with that. On offense we continue to install new stuff. "We continue to improve. Every day we're coming out and working hard. And we're trying to get a little better every day. We're not trying to go leaps-and-bounds but just something every day."

This slow-but-hopefully-sure approach is most evident on offense, where Croom and coordinator Woody McCorvey are taking a deliberate approach. By necessity, since there is no way to install an entire West Coast scheme in one year. "We've had to narrow down what we want to do," Croom said. "I've had to myself be patient and be cognizant that we can't put the volume in that we did at Green Bay." On the brighter side, the Bulldogs did retain most of what they were taught in spring and little time has been spent in review, allowing the coaches to introduce some new aspects.

Particularly in the passing game, an area of clear emphasis in week-one. Omarr Conner has easily maintained his #1 quarterback status and continues to absorb aspects of the pro-style plans. "I think Omarr's drops are a lot better, his decision-making is better," Croom said.

Kyle York, now able to throw the ball unlike in April, has strengthened his position as well. Croom likes the veteran's footwork and decision-making in the passing game, but is still limiting York to about half the passes others throw to protect his repaired shoulder. "We're in no rush. The arm is not as strong as it needs to be and I'm hoping that will come with lifting and conditioning as well."

Soph Aries Nelson is a bit more consistent than in an erratic spring and is making better decisions. His challenge is to produce every day if Nelson wants to climb the depth chart. And all these underclass quarterbacks have to worry about the talents shown already by rookie Mike Henig, who has a very strong arm and a whole lot to learn. But Croom has not committed to redshirt this rookie just yet.

Work in the passing game has been somewhat hampered by injuries as senior Ray Ray Bivines has yet to practice. His repaired hamstring is still healing slowly. And fellow senior McKinley Scott was held out almost the whole week with a tender hamstring that is being protected, as Croom has confidence in Scott's ability.

In their places other receivers have performed promisingly, though Croom still professes great concern about this area. He likes what a maturing Will Prosser has shown, and sees good things from Brandon Wright, Joey Sanders, Jonathan Lowe, and Keon Humphries. Croom would really like to see consistency from Tee Milons, the most gifted and most frustrating of the elder pass-catchers. The tight end positions, a major spring question, now looks to be an unexpected stronger point, and will get even stronger with the late addition of Jeremy Jones.

But the throw-and-catch game is still far from polished. "We're still not consistent in our ball placement and ball location," Croom said.

The coach is a little bit more hopeful about the offensive line…as long as nobody gets hurt, that is. "We don't have any depth. If our first five are healthy we can compete in the SEC." The tenuous nature of Bulldog blocking was demonstrated in the first week, with left guard Johnny Wadley taking a limited number of practice snaps—none in full-speed hitting—to protect his healing ankle and problematic knees. Then right guard Will Rogers, a day after Croom called him the best lineman in camp, turned an ankle and missed two days of work.

Barring further problems both will be back soon. Right tackle David Stewart is his steady self, while center Chris McNeil and left tackle Richard Burch are being pushed daily by their coaches to pick it up. That is the starting five; the goal now is figuring out who can be the first substitutes and where, and that is a most serious matter.

"What's going to happen is we've got to hope we find three more guys who can play two or three positions," Croom said.

Immediately on the other side of the ball, the story is similar. Through week-one the #1 defensive line has been perhaps the best single unit of the entire team. Certainly it is the primary strength of the defense, coordinator Ellis Johnson says. Ends Willie Evans and Deljuan Robinson and nose tackle Ronald Fields have performed consistently, and at DT redshirt Corey Clark has edged ahead of Andrew Powell for a first-team slot. "I can live with those four," Croom said.

"I think our starting defensive line will be able to compete. Our depth there is probably worse than it is in the offensive line." Not that there is a lack of bodies here; State has three full line-units and a few spares besides. But the coaches want players, not bodies. Thus early in the week Avery Hannibal moved back to the line, at rover-end, after finishing spring and starting fall at linebacker. True frosh Anthony Strauder has already made an impression at tackle and is going to play his first college fall. Walk-on Solomon Ona has been an early surprise here.

Croom even convinced tight end Rob Walker to move to defense at the end of the week, and the juco transfer has fit in immediately behind Robinson at ‘big' end. It's a sign of how the staff is willing to experiment with anybody in the search for ‘winning' players.

The first-unit linebackers going into week-two are unchanged from spring with Marvin Byrdsong in the middle between Clarence McDougal and Brad Horton. Croom is pressing Byrdsong to turn his considerable potential into production and even play recklessly. Rico Bennett has had a strong camp and Chris Swain has improved his position as a backup.

There are also signs of developing depth from new faces. Frosh Anthony Littlejohn is pushing Kenny Kern at second MLB, while Titus Brown is right behind Horton. "We're very young in that group," Johnson said.

The secondary is somewhat older and hopefully improved, at least on the corners. LCB Kevin Dockery has been the most-praised member of this unit so far. Depth appears to be shaping up nicely on both ends as talented rookie Mario Bobo and a healthy David Heard have made up for the loss of spring #1 Adrian Griffin (academics) and half-season suspension of Eric Fuller. Late signee Brian Staley is still getting up to speed but will be a factor at RCB soon.

Croom felt good enough about the corners—or more likely concerned enough about the safeties—to make a major move. #1 RCB Quinton Culberson switched to strong safety and will battle Jeramie Johnson for the starting job. Johnson has been "pretty solid" according to Coach Johnson but Culberson is the kind of playmaker Croom wants at SS.

Free safety is more settled, though the coaches would welcome a little more consistency from brilliant athlete Darren Williams. Slovakia Griffith is running #2 and Brett Morgan #3.

There was no big news from special teams in the first week, though plenty of work was done with kicking units. Punter Jared Cook was back kicking by Saturday after skipping days with a hamstring problem, and Keith Andrews has kickoff and placekicking duties locked up. A host of speedsters are taking turns running back both types of kicks, with rookie Lowe and redshirt Rickey Wright making strong bids for jobs.

Having so many youngsters mentioned in this run-down is not just a sign that there is some fresh talent on tap. It reinforces Croom's theme that depth charts don't mean a lot at the moment and just about every job is open to the right kind of player. And, person. As the coach puts it, "Who are the guys who project to be winning players for us by mid-season."

Mid-season is still months away. Mid-camp is this week, and there are still more questions about the 2004 Bulldogs than answers. After Saturday's scrimmage Croom hopes to have found a few more of the latter as the preseason clock runs faster and faster.

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 dawgbite@ebicom.net.

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