Saturday Scrimmage Report

After breaking the post-practice huddle, Coach Sylvester Croom was headed for the west sideline until he realized he'd left something behind. Specifically, a pack of reporters hungry for instant analysis of the day's scrimmage results. "I thought I'd got away from y'all!" the head coach quipped.

Not that Croom was dodging media, or the questions. In fact the Mississippi State coach was glad to talk about a number of things the Bulldogs showed in Saturday's game-type session at Scott Field. "We've come a long way," he summarized, adding, "We've got a long way to go."

But there is only one week and three practices to go in 2005 spring camp, which concludes next Saturday with the Maroon-White Game at Scott Field (see posted article for game details). And with Croom now planning to put on a real ‘game' on April 9, today's scrimmage was all the more important to a coaching staff with lots of things to work on. So after a half-hour of warm-ups and work in small groups, the Bulldogs went at each other for 90 minutes of full-contact plays. Just as in the first scrimmage, held a week ago Thursday, this session primarily pitted The first teams against each other, then the second teams in turn.

For the opening minutes it looked as if the offensive team was going to set the day's tone, with the #1 unit driving the ball and moving the chains. Eventually, though, the defensive units took charge. Only one touchdown came in open-field situations, as Omarr Conner hit a well-covered Will Prosser in the end zone for a 39-yard scoring strike. The day's other two TDs were in red zone situations, and both (scored by freshman tailbacks) came only after repeated failures by both the first and second teams.

The only other scoring came off the toe of Keith Andrews as, aided by a gusting breeze, he coaxed a 52-yard field goal just over the south crossbar. The punting and return teams did take the field but that same wind made fielding kicks a gamble at best and unfairly benefited the kickers with 10 and 15 extra yards' distance.

Conner threw the ball with excellent accuracy…when he actually was able to throw, that is. The junior triggerman was credited with completing 15 of 18 passes for 147 yards. Conner also got through the day without an interception, though one tip-and-pick was negated by a fast whistle due to a ‘sack.'

In fact, Conner had plays blown dead due to defensive pressure at least eight times, as when a would-be tackler got in arm's reach it was ruled a sack. Defensive end Michael Heard in particular gave the #1 quarterback a hard time with an observed five sacks on either Conner or other QBs. Mike Henig completed just four of his 12 passes for 36 yards with a deflected interception by an unidentified backup safety. Brett Morgan worked almost as much with the second offense as Henig, though Morgan generally handed off or scrambled on his own keepers instead of throwing downfield.

Prosser had four catches in all for 71 yards, while Tee Milons gained 42 yards on his four receptions and Joey Sanders had a pair of grabs for 30 total yards.

The ground game got its share of snaps also, whether in open-field or red zone sets. #1 back Jerious Norwood, who skipped the first scrimmage with a minor concussion, saw limited action this time with two carries for 11 yards. Both came on the opening series of the day and Norwood was excused afterwards to let a couple of redshirt freshmen carry the ball and take the hard hits. In a reversal from last week's scrimmage, Demarcus Johnson got the bigger share of gains with 19 totes for 86 yards and a touchdown on a seven-yard sprint off a backfield hit. Brandon Thornton had 21 carries but netted just 38 yards, scoring on a 1-yard dive in red zone drills.

Defensive statistics were not kept, but Heard was the day's dominating tackler. The interior D-line performed well on both first and second units, particularly after the opening two series, with sharp support from the linebacking units. Coverage was generally consistent from both units and after a lackluster first scrimmage the safeties, especially first-teammers FS Mario Bobo and SS Jeramie Johnson, had better showings. Adrian Griffin and Marcus Evans worked at #2 free and strong safety, respectively.

The first-defense had to adjust for a pair of sidelined starters, as DT Andrew Powell and OLB Gabe O'Neal wore injury jerseys Saturday. Corey Clark was promoted at tackle for the day and seemed to play well with the first unit. The second team had Titus Brown and Jeremy Jack at ends, Avery Hannibal and Marckell McKinley at tackles. Hannibal also took snaps with the first unit at times, such as in short-yardage sets, and Mike Evans took the place of McKinley at DT often.

The first-team linebacker threesome had Quinton Culberson in the middle flanked by Clarence McDougal and a healthy Anthony Littlejohn. The second team featured Brad Horton between Fred Akines and Carlton Rice. On the corners Kevin Dockery continues to start on the right end and move in to a ‘nickel' safety set with Jamall Johnson his alternate and backup both. On the left corner, rookie Keith Fitzhugh was splitting first-team snaps with David Heard.

There were no changes on the offensive line, though this is mostly because there are none to make with just ten true blockers available as LT Johnny Wadley is out with a shoulder separation. Around C Chris McNeil and guards Anthony Strauder and Brian Anderson, James Redmond is working at left tackle and Avery House at right tackle. Both had long, hard, and frustrating days, and late in the action Redmond began taking offense at Heard's series of sacks with some minor skirmishes after whistles. The second line, left-to-right, remained T Roland Terry, G Royce Blackledge, C Dio Herrera, G James Cochran, and T Eric Watkins.

Following the scrimmage Croom offered these comments, and answers.

We started off well early, we had a great tempo the first two drives and moved the ball down the field. But as the day went on we got sloppy. Our protection is terrible. And it all goes back to our two tackle spots. I mean, every breakdown in protection had to do with one of our tackles. We're just not very good at those spots right now, when you lose two guys like we had it's tough. If we can get those two spots replaced I think we've got a chance to be a decent offense.

On the offense: At times we threw the ball well, we made some plays. Will Prosser made some nice plays today, I thought Jerious ran early but we didn't want him to get a whole lot. Our two young backs did some good things, then they did some bad things, they're not ready yet for what we're going to have to do. Jason Husband has been the brightest spot of the whole spring, I think he is the most-improved player. And other than Jerious he's the most explosive player we've got on offense right now. He makes plays. That was a great move for us.

But hey, our offense right now is in the hands of our two tackles. And right now we're not even close to having one. Very easily we could have two freshmen offensive tackles, and if that's the way it is we're going to have to do a great job of coaching. We're going to put the best guys out there. I'll be glad when we get those freshmen receivers in there.

The defense's day: I thought the offense got the best of them early, but they defense made some plays. They made several 3rd-and-1s, 4th-and-1s. I thought our pursuit to the ball was better, there's no question we were tackling better. Our pass rush is better, we've got some guys with pressure coming off the edges and I'm pleased with that. So we've got a chance to be a good defensive team. I just don't have a good enough feel of our offense to tell whether I'm judging them accurately at this point, but I know we're tackling better and our pursuit to the ball is better. We've kept our schemes basis so they can understand what they're doing, we've got to continue working on our ‘fits' there.

Overall I think we're headed in the right direction. I think we've got a little more mental toughness. We're not making a lot of pre-snap penalties but we're still doing some things. When he was in there Brett's group was a little slow getting the tempo off, some of it was our fault from the sidelines.

On Special teams: Our field goal kickers were awful. They stunk. Keith Andrews did a couple of nice things but the rest of them just stunk. Every time they miss one they're going to do the grass drills. Hey, all they've got to do is kick all day, they should make them all. Nobody ever hit them. Maybe that's what we should start to do, put them in that gauntlet drill and see if they get a little tougher.

On Omarr Conner's passing: It's tough to tell with the protection he got. He's throwing the ball well when he gets a chance to throw it. The thing I'm worried is he's having to make some decisions so fast, that can get to him. The thing that concerns me is he may get in some bad habits, because of breakdowns in protection all the time he has to throw on the move. I know he can throw on the move, I want him to throw our drop-back stuff better. We're not giving him enough time to do that. The thing he's got be aware of is, if Keith is kicking as capable as he can, when we cross the 30-ya rd line we at least have three points. And we can never do anything inside that area on first down to put ourselves outside of field goal range and he did that a couple of times today. So he's got to play smarter, he's come a long way in that but he still has some progress to make in that area.

On Chris McNeil: Chris has done a good job for us, he's practiced well all spring in there. But he hasn't got a lot of help around him right now.

The final week's schedule: We'll practice Tuesday, skip Wednesday, go again Thursday, and at the end of practice that day divide the teams up in how we're going to play the spring game and go from there.

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