Not that the first half of this camp was some relaxed stroll on springtime turf, at all. In the initial eight sessions, necessarily spread around school breaks for the semester and Easter holidays, Croom & Co. put the pups through a pretty aggressive regimen of meeting-room teaching and practice-field testing. Not surprisingly the results have been mixed all around, and few if any units have earned unqualified praise from the head coach. To put things mildly.
Then again, the only ‘mild' aspect to this spring is, occasionally, the weather. Everything else falls into the ‘intense' category. And judging by the coach's comments last week, expect the thermostat to be turned up even further.
Last week, prior to the first of three scrimmage dates, a few of us had a casual sort of chat with Croom. No notebooks or recorders, and presumably all specific comments off-the-record. I'll stick by that unwritten rule and just relate the general tone of the talk.
Which was, for everyone who thought Bulldog football bottomed out last October in losses to Maine, Vanderbilt, etc., be advised: this spring should be the true low point. The extreme swing of the program-pendulum, if you will. Barring injuries and other unpredictable setbacks (we don't include dismissals as that's almost become predictable lately), by mid-April of 2005 things should start—repeat, start—swinging in the other direction. Now, just how quickly is an entirely ‘nuther issue and will require a second full pre- and regular-season to gauge. In fact, to pull the classic truism out of MSU mothballs, the '05 team is certainly going to be a better ball club that might have no better a record. Privately, I'm thinking four wins this fall would be a serious step up. Five, and Croom is consensus Coach of the Year.
What I feel secure in saying today is that Croom is the Coach of the Moment. The right man at the right time in a completely critical juncture for this program. The more I watch practices, the more I see of how the (surviving) Bulldogs are responding, the more I'm convinced. Yes, you deserve an explanation of this impression.
First, though, let's deal in a few on-the-record spring specifics from two weeks of practices. There is improvement to report, most obviously on defense. This already has the potential to be a pretty competitive first-unit in the front-seven. A few shuffles on the line have paid off. At tackle, Deljuan Robinson seems now to appreciate his potential, and combined with Andrew Powell they can get things done in the middle. We knew Michael Heard could play; now converted LB Titus Brown is giving Willie Evans the motivation a senior sometimes needs, and putting some zip in the pass-rush as well.
We're also seeing some depth. Avery Hannibal has hit an inevitable plateau for a young player and will be pushed to take the next step before camp breaks. And at last Corey Clark is making some strides; that big body would be really handy to have in a rotation. Giving up Brown hasn't hurt linebacking at all. Quinton Culberson and Gabe O'Neal are coming into their primes and redshirting was perfect for Anthony Littlejohn, but what I like best is how Clarence McDougal and Brad Horton have turned it on this spring. Give Fred Akines time, he'll be OK.
Safety(s) is another issue entirely, at least according to their coaches. Jeramie Johnson is #1 strong on experience but hasn't shown a lot of improvement from fall so far. Nor is he getting a lot of competition, though Marcus Evans is taking plenty snaps on the second unit. At free safety Mario Bobo, Adrian Griffin, and De'Mon Glanton are in a tight race at a slow pace, so to speak. Thank goodness corners Kevin Dockery and David Heard are both capable ‘nickle' safeties. Heck, if a certain incoming freshman cornerback is as good as expected, I wouldn't be averse to making one of the vets a full-time safety. Besides, redshirt Keith Fitzhugh has made a few plays at #2 right corner and Jamall Johnson can handle himself on the left end.
Yep, overall I like how the defense is shaping up, and like even more the potential for fall improvement with a couple of key additions. Better yet, the unit seems to have a much better grasp of what it is supposed to do, situation-by-situation. And best of all, I see clear signs that this Dog defense is earning some of the ‘strut' we used to take for granted at State. Heck, at the first scrimmage Croom let Horton get away with a wicked lick on red (no-hit) jersied quarterback Brett Morgan. Even in partial-pad, no-contact days the defense pushes the limits, and I like it. A lot.
I just wish I liked developments on the other side of the ball as much. But to be fair, and encouraging, there are some good signs out of the offense. Omarr Conner might have an issue with stairs, but there is no question who is the physical, mental, and emotional leader around here. He's also a steadily-sharper playmaker in this setup, while allowing for frequent lack of help. The first two weeks showed this camp is emphasizing adding more facets to the controlled passing game, with wrinkles and routes not shown last fall.
Upon which word the wise-guys out there will pipe up that it's only because State has no deep air game. And that is still mostly true. Please, lord, let those fall freshmen be ready to play by September…and just to stir the pot, don't be entirely shocked if that aforementioned rookie pass-defender gets his chance to catch passes, too. That's how badly State needs sheer speed at wideout. OK, back to the current varsity. Croom's caustic comment last week that flanker Will Prosser and split end Tee Milons are the "only receivers" the team has is essentially fact. And Milons is still erratic, though his ratio of good-to-bad plays is getting better to my eye.
Keon Humphries had some nice catches in the first scrimmage, and still got berated for technical aspects. These two weeks are big for the futures of guys like Joey Sanders, Jonathan Lowe, et.al. At least the tight ends seem to be on the right playbook page, and Dezmond Sherrod has found himself useful both as a tight end and fullback. Well OF COURSE Jerious Norwood is being protected, mostly, though I saw him take a few shots last week. Brandon Thornton has the look of a workhorse back, though Bryson Davis better pick it up if he wants to hold off fullback challengers.
As to the overriding offensive issue. Losing Richard Burch and Brad Weathers, and to a lesser extent Donovan Davis, did more damage to the area of the entire team that could least afford further losses. We'd all hoped to finish spring with the offensive line a question mark; now we're right back in the ‘concern' category. Thank good ness DT Anthony Strauder was moved to offense last November, that has helped speed his transition to guard. In fact the interior three spots are looking kinda OK Chris McNeil and Brian Anderson solidifying the center. Tackles? Ummmm…did I mention the better blocking from tight ends and fullbacks? It actually sorta hurts to observe a game, gimpy Johnny Wadley giving all at a new position. If only he had a healthy ankle to match the heart he's showing.
Ahh, well, you can only use the pieces available. The tragedy is that two, maybe three pieces Croom was counting on have removed themselves. Weathers had no real choice. Burch and Davis made bad choices, totally different of course but ultimately with the same results for them. And for their remaining teammates, who have to pick up that much more slack. No need to discuss a second-line; there isn't one right now. As Croom has said, we must hope Johnny Carpenter, Chris Spencer, and Calvin Wilson are busting their freshmen humps to get ready for fall.
Which leads the long way around back to that comment about Croom being the right man for these un-right times at State. The natural, if unrealistic, hope was that turning Bulldog football around would be the work of one spring and fall and maybe a couple of recruiting classes. Well, reality hit harder than any SEC linebacker could. There may be a remaining few out there still unable to appreciate the severity of the situation and how it got to this point, but not many by now. Almost all eyes are wide-open today.
Now, are our hearts equally open to what I've come to believe is the only, maybe the last, opportunity left for Mississippi State to establish a football program that can compete over the long haul? Because it's not going to be easy, or fun, for some time yet. We're reaching rock-bottom in the rebui…no, check that. Not rebuilding, but building from an entirely different sort of foundation.
See, in the casual conversation that sparks this mid-point commentary, Croom and we talked about how this job can no longer be done in half-measures or fast fixes. I even tossed out the phrase "no more Band-Aids" and the coach agreed. This is simply not a job for patching things together in hopes of scuffling through next fall, and then doing it again year by year by year by…you get the idea. As painful and time-consuming as it looks to be right now, I have come to grudgingly accept that this is the right moment in our history to discover, once and for all, if State can build and maintain a program by doing it the ‘right' way every day.
‘Right' as in demanding more from the players, as well as coaches and staff, than they might believe they are capable of. It's sad, even tragic, that for a portion of the roster the idea of regular class attendance, consistent daily efforts on the practice field, and just plain civil off-campus behavior sounds like extra-effort. Not all of ‘em, thank goodness. But it's the ones who think their coach is being unreasonable who have gotten the headlines. And as hard as it sounds to some fans who think Croom should lighten up on these youngsters, that kids will be kids, I have to agree with the coach, that he's doing what he thinks is best for the entire team.
Even if it means losing recruited prep All-Americans who don't give all-county efforts in practices. Not so long ago they'd have still kept their starting jobs just because they were the best available athletes on the roster. Now they lose jobs to guys without stars and clippings who are the most consistent practice performers, and a lot of them have not been able to accept the new way of doing things. I'm not proclaiming that the first way is absolutely wrong; just that it is not a healthy mentality for the long haul or for tough times.
It's also interesting that outside perceptions of camp are that this is an especially brutal spring session. It's actually not THAT much more physical than the past, and certainly within the same NCAA restrictions as any other. No, the stress is more on the team's mental makeup. Croom is pushing the guys ever-harder to get it done and do it right, to see who can take the strain now instead of having to find out in an October fourth quarter. He believes that most of these young men are capable of more than they realize and it is his job to show them their potential as players and as people. Oh, and that the two must go together.
By the way, the dismissal of Corey Spells over class attendance (or lack thereof) should answer a couple of popular suppositions: first, that Croom was ridding the roster only of inherited athletes; and two, that all dismissals were meant to reach a specific ‘target' number that would allow State to bring in the maximum freshman class come fall. Well, Spells was about as high-profile a signee as Croom had in his first recruiting class. And, by our unofficial media count, State was already down to the (presumed) level of 58 spring-scholarship players, leaving room for the allotted 23 new grants. Now it's 57and, well, we'll see if it drops further before April 9.
Or May 9, or June, or…you get the idea. I think more departures are forthcoming. And to any panicked over loss of so many ‘great' prospects and former starters, is it rude to note that those guys hadn't won very many ball games anyway? If we're going to lose for a while longer, let's at least do it with guys who understand what they're trying to do and represent the school with class on and off the field.
What I'm rambling my way around to is this: I don't like being at the bedrock level any better than you. But now that we're there, there is no direction left to go but up, right? And here is the chance we really needed but, at heart, dreaded. The chance to build from a fresh foundation, without patches and shims and Band-Aids or suchlike, and maybe, just maybe, get it right this time.
That is why I say Croom is the man for this time. Remember, the old juco pipeline is now more like a straw due to tightened NCAA academic standards. Those same grade rules also mean being pickier about who signs on out of high school. So what the heck, if we can't sign short-termers wholesale any more why not be picky and select the best available-and-willing youngsters and coach them in how to live and work and play the Croom way from day-one? That is also why from now on the player turnover ratio will drop dramatically after the painful but necessary weeding-out process ends…hopefully sooner than later.
But if there are only enough Dogs left for a two-deep in September, so be it. They will have earned the right to wear the uniform, something definitely new to this football program where for way too long we've had to compromise and bend and flex. Or, at least, thought we had to. And that again strikes to the heart of the issue. Can we really set a higher standard here at State and meet it?
Either way, we're going to find out.