Veteran Issues Continue Trimming 2005 Roster

It's probably just as well now that Sylvester Croom's rebuilding of the Bulldog football program is still at a foundation level. Because further first-year developments mean the Mississippi State coach and staff will need even more time to assemble any sort of solid superstructure.

Monday evening, another senior Bulldog player joined the list of veterans dismissed, suspended, or voluntarily departed before 2005 spring training could begin. Defensive back Darren Williams, a senior-to-be, was removed from the roster by Croom. The coach would only cite a violation of unspecified team rules in a brief public comment.

And while Croom has not publicly used the word ‘dismissed,' which would mean no possibility of return, the coach has said Williams will not be on the team this fall, which would have been his fourth at State. Nor does it appear that he will be allowed to sit out a portion of the '05 season or redshirt and play as a 2006 senior.

Williams played all 12 games, with eight starts, as a true freshman in 2002, and in three varsity seasons played in 32 games with 24 starts at either free or strong safety. In 2004 he was the team's fourth-leading tackler and started eight of 11 games. His dismissal leaves him with a full year of college playing eligibility remaining, and he could still redshirt a season if necessary after enrolling elsewhere.

As is his proven practice at State, Croom will not explain the disciplinary action or comment further on either the player or the offense. Rumors have swirled around campus for weeks that Williams might not make it to spring training, and in fact it was reported Tuesday that the Clarksdale, Miss., native had spoken to his coach of possibly turning professional. Williams turns 22 on March 27and is three years out of high school.

But this was not the apparent reason for removal, and no sports agents appear to be involved. Nor does there seem any sort of NCAA rules involvement, which would make this strictly a matter of internal team discipline.

This was the second incident involving a Bulldog starter in the spring semester. In late January senior offensive tackle Richard Burch was arrested by Starkville police after a three-month investigation involving marijuana. Burch is considered just suspended from the team at this point, pending developments in the legal situation. But he is not expected to be on the spring practice roster when camp begins March 7.

While Burch's situation has the offensive staff making pre-camp adjustments, the loss of Williams directly affects plans for the defensive secondary. Williams, a free safety his first two college seasons, moved to strong safety last August and was the opening-game starter. He lost that top job after just one game and played as a backup the next three contests before regaining the starter's role the rest of the season.

Williams finished the season with four of State's ten interceptions. He was not promoted for any postseason honors. Going into spring, with the graduation of Slovakia Griffith, there was a chance Williams could return to free safety. At the same time the staff was not completely satisfied with his tackling skills and a starting job was not entirely guaranteed, particularly as younger and more aggressive defensive backs developed.

Purely by coincidence, this removal came just days after Croom presented his recruiting class of 2005 with comments that none of the newcomers are to plan on redshirting. This continues a program ‘youth movement' that has partly been forced on the staff by dismissals and departures of veterans; and to at least some extent because many older Dogs aren't fitting well into different offensive and defensive schemes than what State ran when they were signed.

Williams and Burch are also the latest losses from the touted recruiting class of 2002.That group was perhaps the most-celebrated collection of prep talent ever to sign with Mississippi State, featuring no less than four Parade All-Americans drawn from across the South and a host of other all-region and all-state prospects.

The class marked a major turning point in program recruiting emphasis, as 27 of the 28 signees were high school seniors. This change in philosophy was partly due to the near-total letdown from a 2001 class dominated by junior college players; and the pending impact of NCAA ‘progress' rules that now make juco recruiting less promising.

But three seasons, eight wins, and one coaching change later, little has turned out as anticipated for both the signing class or the program. Going into 2005 spring camp only half the 28 signees remain on the roster. The lone juco recruit, cornerback Odell Bradley, played his two years, and LB Corvelli Haynes was not eligible, going the juco route before signing with Mississippi.

The survivors are: PK Keith Andrews, OT James Cochran, FB Bryson Davis, CB/S Kevin Dockery, DE Willie Evans, CB David Heard, DL Marckell McKinley, SE Tee Milons, DB Brett Morgan, TB Jerious Norwood, TE Blake Pettit, OT James Redmond, OG Otis Riddley, and DE Deljuan Robinson.

The casualty list would have read in '02 as a prep all-star team, headlined by three of those Parade stars. (Norwood is the lone remaining member of the quartet.) Williams was the third to go, two months after LB Marvin Byrdsong opted to transfer after the 2004 season rather than play defensive end as a senior. And tailback Nick Turner was the first Dog dismissed by Croom, in January 2004, for not meeting the more demanding standards of the new regime. Turner, probably the top all-around talent on the team, was already on shaky ground after a 2002 counterfeiting charge.

Byrdsong was the only one to voluntarily depart; Williams and Turner were dismissed without chance of return. No other '02 recruits have fallen into that category, though Croom has told a couple of younger Bulldogs to leave.

And in the case of OL Monte Collins, health concerns over his continued weight issues led to his leaving the game. Collins made every effort asked of him on and off the field. Other '02 players decided for their own reasons not to play by Croom's rules or fit into his plans. QB Aries Nelson transferred and became a starter at Mississippi Valley State. WR Brandon Wright and LB Kenny Kern are leaving in search of playing time.

Some '02 signees did not get a chance to prove themselves to Croom. OL Roosevelt Tate failed out of school last spring. QB Justin Tyler was gone for grade reasons before the 2003 season. QB Ken Topps redshirted and left for juco ball, and State will see him—and Turner—this fall on the Murray State roster. PK Scott Shurden was signed, then basically let go for numbers reasons.

By no means has it been just 2002 signees who have failed to mesh with the program's new ways of doing things, both on and off the field. Last summer Croom also suspended then-senior WR Antonio Hargro, who left to play his last year at Grambling. RB Jason Jude, a '03 recruit, left midway of the season because of depth chart issues. RB Rickey Wright (signed 2003) left for personal reasons in November, and converted DL Devrick Hampton (2003) also left in the fall, impatient after his move to offensive guard.

Fifth-year senior backup QB Kyle York, who has graduated, has enrolled in seminary as planned. So far the only Bulldog signed by Croom to leave is DB Brian Staley, a late-summer junior college pickup used mostly on special teams.

Staley would have been a senior this spring, on a roster that once again is going to be thin at the top. Of the 14 remaining 2002 recruits only five are seniors, joining five surviving fifth-year Bulldogs inked in 2001—LB Rico Bennett, OL Avery House, LB Clarence McDougal, OC Chris McNeil, and OG Johnny Wadley.

It's hardly an ideal situation for a rebuilding program, to list such a small group of true upperclassmen. At the same time Croom has made it clear he does not wish to plan a season using parts that, in his mind, have not proven themselves reliable by off-field actions. Besides, losing someone with a starting or top backup role should be easier to cope with in April than in August.

One further consolation is that this should be the last year Mississippi State has a ‘hole' in the roster created by previous reliance on junior college transfers. And with Croom's demonstrated willingness to give pups a chance to play immediately, future rosters ought to be increasingly balanced with legitimate hopes for long-term stability.

Which is another way of again saying that work will continue a while longer at a foundation level as Croom tries to recruit a roster and rebuild a program first, then start putting up a structure he intends to last.

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