Thursday Practice Report

The way Coach Sylvester Croom sees it, most of the big jobs have been done. Now it's time to give the Bulldogs a few final checks before Mississippi State kicks off the 2004 season.

"I guess the hay is pretty much in the barn right now," Croom said after Thursday's practice. "So I guess we'll get a little rest, get our minds right, and get ready to play."

Play Tulane, that is. The lid lifts Saturday at Scott Field so preparation time is running out fast for the State staff. The Thursday session lasted a bit longer than expected, close to two hours, but it was not a physically demanding afternoon. Instead the coaches focused team attention on a few specific plans for the Green Wave, both offense and defense, with the Bulldogs in shorts and helmets.

Friday's final tune-up will be in similar gear, since there is no point in having players hit each other any more. Tuesday and Wednesday were contact sessions, but no new names were added to the injury list. And limiting some first-teammers has paid off as on Thursday both Will Rogers and Johnny Wadley were moving much more like game-speed. The two starting guards might be on shaky wheels but each ran briskly and at times were well downfield on passing plays against the scout defense.

The varsity defense, meanwhile, went through just about every sort of passing play Tulane is expected to throw at them. Coordinator Ellis Johnson is still settling exactly who will be starting behind the line and is mixing a number of candidates in-and-out. The #1 linebacker group has changed some this week with Kenny Kern moving into first middle and Rico Bennet strengthening his grip on the weakside job. Clarence McDougal remains at strongside linebacker. The second unit now has Marvin Byrdsong on the outside with Brad Horton moving to the middle, and true frosh Gabe O'Neal the other outside LB.

On the corners Kevin Dockery and David Heard remain first-teammers, ahead of Jamaal Johnson and Brian Staley respectively. Quinton Culberson is still battling listed #1 strong safety Jeramie Johnson for the start and senior all-purpose DB Slovakia Griffith is back in that mix as well.

Earlier in the week Croom said he would not name the starting team until Saturday, but Thursday he seemed more inclined to make the call(s) sooner. "It's according to how I feel when I wake up in the morning!" he quipped. Either way, he will have a Friday practice before the team eats the evening meal and leaves for an overnight stay in Columbus.

"We'll just do a mock situational deal, get our substitutions, jog through things that might come up. More than anything else it will be our first plays, and see our substitutes run on-and-off the field, to get as close to a game-like feel as possible."

In many ways the coach himself has gotten game-type attention all week. Every step has been dogged by TV crews taping for Saturday shows, and the interview requests demand more minutes than there is on his schedule. Croom understands the interest in his debut as a college coach at Mississippi State and in the Southeastern Conference. But he also understands the potential distraction this could be for his team, and is taking steps to keep their eyes on the real prize.

"I don't want them to get caught up in all the hype about my first game," Croom said. "That has nothing to do with this. What I want them to do is focus. I want to play fast and I want them to play physical, and I want to finish every play.

"If we do that and protect the football then we've got a chance. If we don't do either one, Tulane can go ahead and start the celebration right now."

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