Bulldogs Shift Focus to Opening Week

Practice is over. Now it's time to play a game.<P> That's the evaluation from Coach Sylvester Croom as Mississippi State wraps up the preseason and turns total attention to the real season. A week from now everything Bulldogs do on a field counts on the statistics sheet and the scoreboard.<P> And it's about time, the coach thinks. "I think our players are looking forward to it. I think they're tired of hitting each other."

A few minutes after 5:00 p.m. next Saturday the Dogs will get to make full contact with someone else, as Tulane will be on the opposing sideline and Green Wavers on the opposite side of the line. Line of scrimmage that is. The players' anticipation arises from more than natural excitement about playing an opponent, too. Croom indicates that his team now needs to put all they have practiced, physically and mentally, into play at last.

"We've demanded a lot from them," Croom said as he turned the Bulldogs free to head home for a free weekend. "We'll get some rest, and I'm hoping they'll come back fired-up on Monday, really fired-up to start getting ready for Tulane."

Specific preparation for the season-opener does begin Monday, at least for the players. All they have done since preseason camp began back on August 6 was prepare for the 2004 season in general. So while designated assistant coaches have been putting the framework of a Green Wave gameplan together-and other upcoming opponents, too-Croom has literally stuck to the season-basics these past two-and-a-half weeks.

"The game was not Friday," he said on the last day of camp. "Being ready (for Tulane) last week was no good. The game isn't played until Saturday at 5:00 and that's the only time it is going to count."

Of course it would have been tempting to do otherwise, to invest extra days in working on the Wave. It is not only a season-opener, after all, but the first game of a new coaching era at State-and Croom's debut as a college head coach, period. A national audience will tune in to watch history made at State, in Mississippi, and in the Southeastern Conference.

So making an immediate impact might seem a professional priority, right? Nope, as Croom himself would say. Until now he has been getting his team, his program, ready for a season and a tenure. "We need every day, every minute, every rep we can get will be helpful to us as far as preparation. And we were playing that way." That latter remark referring to a closed Thursday scrimmage, the last full-contact practice day for the entire team. From now on the coaching staff will be selective, even protective, in how much game-regulars hit and get hit.

After reviewing scrimmage tapes, Croom was satisfied with some items and some players. The kickoff return team sparkled at full-speed with Fred Reid and Jonathan Lowe making strong runbacks. The first- and second-defenses didn't just make tackles but made plays, forcing turnovers on the ground and picking off a pair of passes.

At the same time the offense put up a better fight than in the first scrimmage and was not completely dominated. Croom also saw progress in the area that infuriated him most from the previous game-type session, pre-snap penalties by a tentative offensive team. He reported that Thursday there were only three, all by the same (unidentified) freshman receiver. "So we're moving in the right direction," Croom said. "The SEC official said we were in pretty good shape from the standpoint of our alignments and those sorts of things."

Besides, some errors and mix-ups are expected on that side of the ball. While Croom won't cut his offensive players any slack during drills, he does explain that in most cases, most camps, the defense is supposed to be somewhat better than the offense. That certainly has been the story for Mississippi State this August.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that," Croom said. "And that's as it should be any year you put in a new offense. It takes longer to put offensive football together, I've coached on both sides of the ball and I've always said you coach offense, you recruit defense."

On the whole a mostly-new offensive staff will rely on athletes recruited before they arrived. And veterans caught Croom's eye in the midweek scrimmage. "Fred Reid, Johnny Wadley, and David Stewart played very well," he reported. Wadley's performance was slightly surprising as he has been very limited all camp with a rehabilitating left ankle, but when allowed to hit his experience showed at left guard. Stewart has picked up his personal pace this last week at right tackle, and Reid has been steady at tailback though he is still behind Jerious Norwood.

One name that did not scrimmage Thursday but has risen to the top this month is wide receiver Will Prosser, who Croom called his offensive surprise. "Coming out of spring practice I barely knew Will Prosser's name. He's going to start for us at the ‘X' spot and has played extremely well throughout camp and is one of our most consistent players." McKinley Scott will start at the other wideout position.

On the other side Croom has been reasonably satisfied with the defense, though often he qualifies it by noting the unit hasn't been fully-tested by a struggling offense. He did like the last week's efforts. "Defensively we ran to the ball, our pursuit was better." And while nose tackle Ronald Fields is clearly the top defensive Dog this fall, another veteran has had a brilliant preseason according to his coaches.

"Kevin Dockery has had an outstanding camp," Croom said, "he has not had a bad day since we started. He works extremely hard and has really solidified that spot at corner." The other corner-spot is a bit less certain as, with Quinton Culberson moving to strong safety, David Heard, freshman Mario Bobo, and transfer Jamaal Johnson are all contending for a first-team job.

The prominence in camp reports of names like Lowe and Bobo, as well as others like Keon Humphries and a trio of rookie linebackers, shows that freshmen are going to have roles to play immediately. "Our freshmen have done well," Croom said, "this class so far is better than I expected it to be. I knew we had recruited good kids character-wise, but the talent is better than what I anticipated, we're going to have some good football players the next four, five years out of that group."

The group of freshmen dressing out will include quarterback Mike Henig, now the clear #3 behind Omarr Conner and Kyle York. Croom doesn't actually anticipate using the rookie right now, certainly not in the opening game. But he said Friday both Conner and York will play against Tulane. "I can't see a situation where we wouldn't. I just hope we don't have to play more than that! We'll always dress three and (safety) Brett Morgan is our emergency quarterback."

Obviously the hope is there are no opening-night emergencies. But there is the inevitable sense of pre-game urgency building for the Dogs' debut. By the time the players gather for Monday's practice the staff will have narrowed the gameplan, Croom said. "On both sides of the ball, and guys will be able to focus better on exactly what they need to do." The coach also says he expects to have the first-team lineup healthy, with right guard Will Rogers and Wadley in their assigned spots. Only wideout Ray Ray Bivines is definitely out for the opener.

"We've been very fortunate injury-wise," Croom said, "even though we've had some guys in-and-out we've had no major injuries. If that can continue through next week I'll be very pleased."

He'll be even more pleased with a successful start. Croom and staff have a few more days left for preparation, then the curtain goes up and the scoreboard is turned on. If Croom has one overriding factor he wants to focus on this week, it is the team's mentality.

"It really is," he said, "mental attitude. I really believe if we can not beat ourselves, and then we're mentally tough when things do not go our way and fight through that, I think we'll have a chance to win. Because I feel we'll run to the football and hit people on both sides of the football. I'll be real disappointed if that doesn't happen. But it's making sure we don't give the opposition anything and that we will perform when it gets tough."

Because, he added, things will get tough at some point, somehow, this first time out. Until then Croom & Co. will prepare for as much as practical and practice as often as possible. "Nothing should be unfamiliar to us going in," the coach said. "We've had a lot of situations (put) in and I think we're on the right track."

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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