"Because it's fall break we lifted this morning and we'll meet today," Croom said. "Then we'll be out in shells this afternoon and work longer than normal. We'll also start into our Florida plans today, but we'll really get back on track Tuesday."
Actually, the State staff did some back-tracking last week before the break with most of the four practice days devoted to the kind of fundamentals normally stressed in August. The refresher course went well, Croom believes. "I thought we made some improvement," he said, particularly in the way the Bulldogs tackled. "We had everybody involved in tackling drills but offensive linemen, we wanted to give everybody a good look at what we have to do to improve our tacking. And we'll continue that the rest of the season."
At the same time the defensive staff is making some moves that might pay off in the second half of the season. Beginning this week, there will be three new faces listed as the first linebacker group. After two months at safety, Quinton Culberson stepped up to strong-side linebacker last week and Croom likes the potential. "He's the best tackler we have on defense, so we're getting him up to the line of scrimmage where he can make tackles instead of 10, 15 yards down the field." But the staff didn't stop at one spot.
Going into this week, true freshmen Gabe O'Neal and Titus Brown are first-team at weak side and middle linebackers. "I think those three will give us more speed and better tackling," Croom said. The rookies have supplanted veterans MLB Kenny Kern and WLB Marvin Byrdsong, and Culberson has taken over for SLB Clarence McDougal. Croom admits that the younger ‘backers may not have all the assignment experience of their elders, but "They're physical skills warrant getting them in the ball game."
Croom expects to welcome some familiar faces back into the offensive game this week, most notable quarterback Omarr Conner who missed two full games after an injury three snaps into the second half at LSU. Conner is practicing in a brace on his strained left knee, but threw with the same zip last week. "With the rest he had I hope he'll get back into normal activity today," Croom said. "If he's healthy, he'll start.
"It's a little easier calling deep throws and movement passes. Kyle (York) is limited by his shoulder, he did a commendable job. Omarr just has a stronger arm, more velocity. And his ability to move and create gives things we didn't have the last couple of weeks."
Croom is also looking to add some facets to the passing game in terms of the receivers. After a slow first month Tee Milons has put together consecutive positive weeks of work—"He's starting to look like more of a bona fide SEC receiver" Croom said. McKinley Scott's hamstring is still a concern but the senior should play this weekend in specific situations, though Croom isn't sure if he could start. What he does know, or at least hope, is that Conner should have more options in the air now.
"With the improvement of Tee it does give us some semblance of a receiving corps of three, where most of the season it's been a corps of one with Will Prosser. We got away from using three receivers except when we had to because we didn't want to take (tight end) Eric Butler off the field. Now we're more inclined to do those things, and some other packages that we haven't used we may break out this week."
Butler is still not entirely healthy with lingering effects from a high ankle sprain and other minor ailments. Croom hoped the tight end would be able to go Monday and manage any pain. The coach would certainly like to keep his best weapons on the field more often. "For most of the year Omarr, Jerious Norwood, and Eric have been our offense, then Omarr and Eric got hurt."
So the coaching staff was crossing fingers that every Bulldog used the free weekend to rest and recover from both the physical beatings of the first six games, and the mental strains of a 1-5 record after the first half of the season. Croom repeated that he can see improvement in the players and the team, just by reviewing tape from the opening weeks and comparing them to the last two games. "That's how I measure progress," he said. But he understands if the fan base can't see the same things he does.
"I think our fans are as loyal and patient as you can ask for. I'm sure they're not thrilled about the situation, neither am I. But it's something that we've got to work through. How we got to this point makes no difference, but we are at this point. The key is to work up from here."
Coach and fans alike are in complete agreement on one impression, though: the NCAA ruling on Mississippi State's case is a month overdue, and everybody is tired of waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. "I don't think it's affected our players," Croom said. "We don't even talk about it.
"We'll get the results pretty soon. There's nothing we can do abut it anyway. From my standpoint, as far as recruiting, I'd like to know as soon as possible so we can move on."