A One-on-One Interview With Coach Croom

Mississippi State head football coach Sly Croom took time out of his busy schedule to do a one-on-one interview with Gene's Page/Dawgs' Bite to answer some questions presented to me by subscribers of our website.

Is your program about where you expected it to be at this time?
"I really didn't have any set expectations. I would like to be further along to be very honest with you. Even though you come into a program knowing about how long it's going to take you to get where you want to be, I don't really know exactly where we are right now because the freshmen signees have not come in and practiced. That is going to be a key for us this fall because we are thin at a lot of positions going into the spring. I think we got a lot of things done as far as putting discipline in the program and letting the players know what our expectations are, but we have a long way to go with our talent level. And that is not going to change drastically until those freshmen get on campus. Then, we have to get them trained as to what to expect, but we still expect them to play."

What are your main priorities for spring practice?
"The main priorities for the spring are going to, again, be learning fundamentals, becoming tougher and being more disciplined. We want to improve on some of our schemes, but more than anything else we have got to be a more fundamental team. We have to be, not a lot different, but some different. Last spring, we were into fundaments, discipline and making sure we didn't beat ourselves, but we also had to get the basis of our scheme in. Now we have a lot of the scheme in with these guys, so the scheme won't be as much a focus this year as the fundamentals will be. We will build on the schemes, but we are not going to add a lot of new things this spring. That's because we have to spend more time on getting fundamentally sound. We want to get tougher, physically and mentally. We want to get more disciplined in the little things. More than adding new things to the schemes, getting the details of the schemes that we already have in place is more important."

How much more of your offense do you expect to install this spring?
"We will continue to expand, but I think we already do enough offense in practice. A lot of it we haven't shown in ballgames. But I think we have enough to win games. We will do some things in our schemes to take advantage of the skills that some of the players coming in have."

You made the comment at one signing day function that once spring practice starts, some players will not just look at you as being "old school" but possibly even "prehistoric." What did you mean by that comment?
"What I meant by that is we are going to the core of what wins football games. It won't be anything pretty. It will be blocking and tackling. That is what it is really about. We will do blocking and tackling over and over and over again. This spring will be less teaching and a lot more contact that what we have had."

During the period between the end of the season and the beginning of spring practice, is there a way to gauge the improvement of your players as far as their overall skills and better understanding the offense and defense?
"As coaches, we haven't seen the players. The only evaluation that we get is from our strength program, but we will start seeing them (Tuesday) morning because the coaches will now be involved in the 6 a.m. workouts on Tuesday and Thursday with our Football 101 classes."

With Fred Reid now graduated, who do you expect to be Jerious Norwood's backup or backups?
"We don't know right now. We have some candidates; Demarcus Johnson, Brandon Thornton. We have a freshman coming in, Brandon Hart. We have (walk-on) Derek Ambrose. Those are some guys that we have right now, but we don't know who it is going to be. A lot of that will be taken care of in the spring."

How did sophomore-to-be QB Mike Henig progress this past fall?
"I probably expected too much out of Mike. Last fall, he was just a freshman learning the system. I thought he did well as the season and practices went on. We expect a lot of things out of him this spring."

When a coach leaves your staff to go to a competitor, do you have to make any kind of adjustments?
"We will make some adjustments with our signals for routes. Those will change, but beyond that, we won't do a whole lot different. It still comes down to blocking and tackling."

What do you require of your players on and off the field?
"To be the best they can be at whatever they are trying to do. Just try to do the right thing as best as you possibly can."

Is there anything that colleges can do to help prevent student-athletes from getting involved in drugs? Does the NFL have any kind of drug policy? And, in your opinion, would it help if the NCAA had the same policy?
"There are already a lot of drug awareness programs. We have a random drug testing policy which is pretty much like the NFL testing procedures.

"In society it is something that we have to deal with. I just wonder when the players are going to learn that it is not worth the risks that they take or the sacrifices that they make if they get caught."

Do you have any plans on adding more high profile schools to your schedule in the near future?
"I don't know how much more you want to get high profiled than the schools that we have to play in the SEC. I'm sure not going to add any to the schedule because it is tough enough now. I would like to win some of the games that we already have than look for more."

Do you feel your recent recruiting class will give you the overall depth you need at all positions? If not, what positions still lack the necessary depth?
"We are not as deep as we need to be at linebacker. I think our depth at all positions improved, but the linebacker position is the one that I'm concerned about going into the fall. We would have liked to have signed more linebackers, but with the depth problems that we had last year, you will still come up short somewhere when you can only sign 23 guys. Recruited walk-ons will have a chance to make an impact if we can find the right guys. We are still trying to finish that out."

Since WR and OL were your two most important needs positions, how many of your incoming wide receivers and offensive linemen do you realistically expect to compete for playing time this fall?
"All of them."

You signed what appears to be an outstanding class of defensive backs. Do you expect all of them to play cornerback in college or is it possible that, due to their type skills, one of more of them will play safety in college?
"Some of them may end up at safety. What we are going to do this spring is move Mario Bobo to safety. He was a corner. It is very unlikely that we will recruit guys just to be safeties. We will recruit corners that may end up playing safety."

Have you moved Fred Akines, who came in as a safety, to linebacker?
"Yes, that is for sure."

Your player hosts were players who played the same position as the recruits who they hosted. In some cases that meant a player was being hosted by a player he would be competing against if he signed with State. Considering you signed a very good recruiting class, do you think that was part of the reason for your success?
"We just put people with people. We were not worried about them being at the same position. Some were with players from their same position, but not all the time. (MSU starting QB) Omarr (Conner) worked very hard on (QB recruit) Ryan Perrilloux, even to the point of saying the most unselfish statement that I have ever heard a player make at any level. I heard him say it myself. Nobody asked him to say this. I heard him tell Ryan Perrilloux at dinner if he beat him out, he would move to wide receiver. That is the perfect example of leadership and teamwork to me. I was shocked when I heard him say that."

Obviously, the state of Mississippi has to be your bread and butter state as far as recruiting is concerned. Originally, you didn't expect to sign players that are academic question marks. With so many Mississippi players on the borderline academically, did you have to revise your policy on signing players that were academic question marks?
"We didn't sign guys that were question marks. We signed some guys that we knew weren't going to make it. We signed them because we were committed to them. They wanted to come and committed to us. We knew during the recruiting process that anytime we offered a scholarship it was in the recruiting letter that the acceptance of that offer is based on academic performance. So, when they committed to us and wanted to come, we then began to work on a plan whereby they could come to us. The guys who were academically eligible could come in September. Those who were not, we committed to them where they could use the grayshirt policy, then we would bring them in the next January. If they did not get eligible, we had an alternative plan for them to go to either a junior college or to a prep school."

MSU has always recruited the states of Georgia and Alabama. However, you also signed players from Florida, Texas and California this past season. Do you have plans on becoming even more active in those states?
"Yes, we will definitely expand into east Texas and recruit in California to get great players who are not academic question marks, particularly when you have position concerns that you need to zero in on. As an example, in this state, there were very few wide receivers of the caliber we were looking for who qualified academically, so we had to go out of state."

How difficult is it to recruit the top out-of-state recruits like the Suh's, Lucky's and Perrilloux'? Is there anything that can be done in the future to give MSU a better chance to sign more of those type players?
"I think the thing that we are doing is getting into these areas and starting on them earlier. And improving our facilities is a big part of it. Of course, success on the field will play a huge part in our chances. To be considered by those three guys, when you consider our 3-8 season, I think we are moving in the right direction."

How will having new state-of-the-art dorms, a huge indoor practice field and a new state-of-the-art addition to the Shira Fieldhouse help your overall program, recruiting or otherwise?
"It will be huge. The facilities are huge. If you don't have good facilities, you can't compete, especially with a program like ours which doesn't have the reputation of winning traditions of the Alabama's, Tennessee's, Nebraska's and Southern Cal's. First of all, when you have qualities facilities, that will get the top players to come to your campus. We have to keep up with the competition. We won't, necessarily, match them step for step, but we have to be competitive. It's all about being competitive and a lot of that is image."

I noticed a new trend by MSU and Ole Miss of offering scholarships almost immediately after signing day. Why the new trend?
"The guys you know you really want, you go ahead and offer scholarships to. It was a big change to me from the way we recruited previously. My biggest concerns were a player not performing in the fall or a player not keeping up with his academics. But we worded our recruiting letters in such a manner to cover that. We are very clear with our prospects during the recruiting process. As they are open, we are still open. If they are still in the market looking for other schools, then we continue to be in the market looking for other players. When a commitment is totally made and they decide to come, then that is a different situation. There is a general trend of players making commitments and continuing to visit and interviewing other schools. I don't look at it that way. And I try to explain that to the players. To me, those are not commitments; those are reservations."

The NCAA changed recruiting rules prior to the past recruiting season. Now that you have a year's worth of recruiting under your belt, what is your opinion of those rule changes?
"It didn't cause us a lot of problems on the plane changes. It created one situation where it was tough getting in. Really, where it was a problem was after a (high school) basketball game. This year, we didn't have that problem, but it was a problem for a lot of schools. We are very fortunate that we have an airport near by (the GTR). We are only two hours (drive time) from Memphis, Jackson and Birmingham, so it's not as bad on us as it could be. Plus, most of the players that we signed are within four and a half to five hours drive time anyway."

What about the kids that you recruited from Texas and California?
"Most of the kids from Texas drove. I think it is eight and a half to nine hours from Houston. The family drove from there. It is six hours from Dallas. We are in a very good location.

"California is a little different. Even from California, they can fly into Memphis, then drive two hours from there."

You mentioned when you became MSU's head football coach that you wanted to develop strong relationships with high school coaches in Mississippi. Do you feel you are where you want to be as far as that is concerned?
"That is an area that we still have to work on. I think we are trying to make ourselves accessible with our clinics. We are trying to really improve our clinics. We are bringing in high school coaches from Texas, California, Georgia. Each of the areas that we are heavily recruiting in, we will have a high school coach.

"The coaches who attend our clinic will be in for a treat this year. Coach Pat Dye will be our featured speaker at our clinic this year."

How many of last year's seniors do you expect to be drafted during the upcoming draft?
"David Stewart and Ronald Fields will definitely get drafted. I think both of them will have very successful pro careers. There are a couple of other guys who may get drafted late. McKinley Scott is a definite possibility as a receiver."

At one time you mentioned that you wanted to get former players more involved in your program. How is that coming along?
"This is an area that we want to continue to improve on. We will always have them in for the (spring) game. We also want them to come to practice and a lot of them did take us on that offer."

You seem to be in ok physical shape despite the demands your job puts on you and the demands you put on yourself. Are you able to do regular exercise and get regular physical checkups?
"No, I am not in good, physical shape. I have to get in good shape. I have to lose some weight."

What can fans do to make sure they do their part to help your program be successful?
"I just want our fans to be patient, be positive, fill the stadium, support the program with their loyalty, their financial support by buying tickets to games and coming to games. I would like to see them continue to be positive with our players by writing positive comments to them. Buying tickets to games and their financial support to the Bulldog Club would be a tremendous help to us as far as our facilities is concerned, which in turn will help our recruiting efforts. I think we are headed in the right direction and we have a lot that we can get accomplished here."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at swindoll@genespage.com.

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