The Bulldogs hit the practice field for their opening day of this spring session Monday, just after 3:00 with gloomy skies and wet grounds. Croom did admit it would have been nice to have the previous day's weather, but the actual conditions were a much better setting for kind of camp he has in mind.
"This serves a purpose just as well. It's a little adversity right from the first day. And we've got to learn some mental toughness and be able to deal with whatever situation we face and be able to overcome it, right from the start."
Some might wonder if the coach should be more careful what he asks for, because for the very first afternoon State was without the starting quarterback. Instead of going under-center, junior Omarr Conner found a seat on the exercise bike, sidelined with his sprained left ankle in a protective boot. The injury reportedly resulted from a stairway slip, and Conner's status this first week is day-to-day.
Then again, this was just another challenge for a Bulldog squad Croom intends to push to their limits before the April 9 spring game. "We're just like the Marine Corps; we're looking for a few good men. It doesn't take that many, there are only 11 on the field at a time. But those 11 are going to be some tough sonuvaguns. That's what we're going to get done this spring."
And here the Bulldogs who made it through last spring's session and the fall season were thinking things had been tough already. According to the coach, though, the testing and tempering has only begun now that Croom and staff have a full year's worth of experience with the returning players. Not to mention a whole lot of game tape as reminders of what individual players and entire units could and could not do in 2004.
"I know now where our strengths are," Croom said. "I know where our weaknesses are. I have a better feel for exactly what we need to do in spring practices, and it's geared around getting those things done. We're going to get a whole lot tougher, a whole lot more physical, and we're going to get fundamentally sound. Those are the things that I want to get done."
The '05 Bulldogs will be doing their duties with several faces missing. A number of varsity players are no longer on the roster, having either left the program voluntarily or being dismissed by the coach…which to him is essentially the same thing. Asked about the defections, Croom turned blunt again.
"We didn't have defections. We had quitters. We had guys that quit. And that's fine, this is what we do and how we do things at Mississippi State. It's not for everybody. I'm just looking for guys that want to be here, the guys that want to pay the price and want to win the way we feel like we need to do it. And when we find those guys we'll start to win."
Until then, the weeding-out process continues. Croom said he was not at all shaken by the number of departures. "Oh, that's no surprise. Anytime you come into a situation where you've been losing that way and you change things, you start demanding more of people, some people are just not willing to do that. That's not to say they're bad people or anything like that, it's just that our expectation level is a little bit higher."
And the first expection is just to be tough, and then tougher still.
"That's just the way it is," Croom said. "And if you're going to succeed, we've got to learn to overcome things. We did it sometimes last year but it's got to be second nature. It has to be expected, and we're going to get that done this spring."
Of course there are the more technical things to be done over the course of 15 practice days. Teaching is just as key as toughness and the assistant staff has plenty on instruction planned. A quick look at the opening-day depth chart also shows that some players are working in either new or adjusted places from where they played or practiced last fall.
Most obviously, the linebacker corps has shuffed. WLB Quinton Culberson opened camp at middle LB, former middle-man Titus Brown is now a defensive end, and defensive back Fred Akines a linebacker. Up front end Deljuan Robinson is at tackle. Former cornerbacks David Heard and Adrian Griffin are safeties. And so on.
Croom said these are not just spring experiments, either. "We just made some commitments to getting some things done," he said. For example:
"We knew all along Quinton was better getting him up close to the line and in the box. It was a tough decision moving Titus because he's had some success at linebacker, but we felt when we recruited him he'd be a big man in time. Last year he kept his weight down to play linebacker, but we want him up on the front where he has some natural pass-rushing skills.
"We're trying to get them into positions to give them a chance to contribute, and get our best people in positions to make plays. We feel linebacker is Fred Akines best position because he's a big man, a tall frame. Once he realizes where the weightroom is he might get some muscles in his arms, it's going to take a lot of work on his part." And on and on it goes in the secondary, with redshirt freshmen fitting into the mix. Croom sees plenty of potential from the young athletes he's collected on the defensive side of the ball.
"I don't think they've scratched the surface of their ability at this point. It's our job to get them in positions where they can make plays."
Offensively there are plenty of priorities, such as further developing the wide receiver positions (before some talented pass-catchers arrive in fall), and finding a #2 tailback. "Right now there's nobody there but Jerious Norwood," Croom said. "We're trying to make something out of the rest of them out here to see if they can play. Because we're going to take care of Jerious this spring. We might let him go hunting!"
State is certainly hunting better blocking, and the losses from both graduation and off-field misbehavior can't be easily made up in a group that was already unproven. For the first day the #1 line was, right to left: James Redmond, Donovan Davis, Chris McNeil, Brian Anderson, and Brad Weathers, back after a two-year absence with a shoulder condition. RT Redmond is in a yellow jersey, signaling he is still not full-strength after off-season knee surgery. James Cochran is his immediate backup. Redshirt Dio Herrera was already the #2 center as Avery House moves to tackle.
With Conner temporarily unavailable, Mike Henig (listed now as a redshirt freshman on appeal) and Brett Morgan got all the Monday snaps. Conner will definitely be back for the second week of practices, since next week is spring break.
Bulldogs wearing yellow jersies the first day, as they recover from off-season surgeries, were: OT Redmond (knee), DE Brown (knee), DE Rob Walker (shoulder), DL Jeremy Jones (knee). Brown and Redmond are able to run all non-contact drills and could be in full action by the second week.
Croom would rather not interrupt camp for the student break, but otherwise he and the staff will maximize all 15 practice days. "We're not out here just because the NCAA we can come out and we want to fill in some time. We intend to get something done every day we come out here, and clarify the goals to them. As I said, we want ot get tougher, physically and mentally. We want to be in the best condition we can be in, we want to do the fundamental things.
"But more than anything we want to get our attitudes right, get our hearts and minds right, come together as a team, and decide to make a total commitment to being the best we can be, so we can line up and compete this fall. I've defined to them what I feel like it's going to take for us to win, and now we have to set about getting that done on the field."
Which means the second year of the Croom Era will be more demanding than the first, so that hopefully the second season will be more successful than the 3-8 debut campaign. That is why the coach's priority is not so much setting depth charts or adding plays to the book. "It's not just one thing," he said.
"We want to be tough. I want to know that we are a physically tough team. I also want to know we're mentally tough to handle adversity, like bad weather, heat, being tired, injuries. Everything that can go wrong, I want it to go wrong this spring and I want to see how we handle it."