Croom definitely expects the Bulldogs to be ready for prime-time TV this Saturday, when ESPN2 broadcasts State's spring game to the nation. "I told our players they should be excited," said the head coach, who has devised a format to maximize not just the entertainment value but the intensity of the intrasquad squabble. Essentially, the Maroon team is made of the #1s, both offense and defense; with everyone else on the depth chart wearing White.
Obviously that should make for a mis-match, but Croom has his reasons. "I want our starters to play together as a team and get a little bit of a feel for each other before we go into their summer training," he said. But, there will be some minor tweaks of the respective rosters, partly for injuries and partly to give some evenly-matched second-teammers more turns. "We'll see how it goes," Croom said. "We swapped some guys on different teams because I still want to get a real good look at them. We definitely didn't want (running backs) Brandon Thornton and Demarcus Johnson on the same team."
That is because #1 back Jerious Norwood will not risk a spring game injury. "Today was his last practice," Croom said. Most first-teammers will play, though naturally quarterback Omarr Conner is off-limits to tacklers when he is on the field. And to keep things moving the clock will run almost non-stop for the four shortened periods.
Croom will not be on the sideline, but in the press box as part of the ESPN2 broadcast crew. He has thus assigned offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey to direct the Maroon team, assisted by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson; while cornerbacks coach Shane Beamer and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens have the White side. McCorvey certainly doesn't mind having the varsity to work with, though he claims no deals were cut in advance. "Coach Croom made that decision," he insisted. Besides, McCorvey added, "Shane and Freddie said they're going to kill us!"
Beamer said the staffs, and their rosters, were presented in a staff meeting early this week. "Coach said ‘Shane you're the coach of the White team, here's the roster; Woody is the coach of the Maroon team, and here's the roster.' I think Coach McCorvey was a lot more excited right there!"
But if the White head coach doesn't have the starters on his side, he expects the White team to be energetic. "We've got a good group. And Coach Kitchens and I worked some trades with the Maroon team already this week to kind of shore up some of our skill positions on offense." He would not reveal specific deals, not wanting the dealt-Dogs to know who got swapped for whom. "We'll keep that quiet!" Beamer laughed.
"But they're eager. We've got some young, hungry guys that are eager to get out there and show what they can do. And Freddie just told them that this will be the only time some of you guys will be on national TV, so make sure you make the most of it!"
That is the attitude the entire staff is taking to this unique opportunity, according to McCorvey. "I think it will be a lot of good publicity for the program. It's what we've talked about ever since we've been here, we want to have publicity but we want it in a positive manner. And for ESPN2 to pick us to be on is an honor, so we want to come out and have a good showing."
This does not mean Mississippi State will reveal all the playbook, however. Normally only the opening-game opponent can scout a spring game; with ESPN2 showing this event every school on State's schedule will have the recorders turned on and tuned in. "We're not going to show much," McCorvey said. "I mean, we're going to do the basic things in our offense and maybe do a few other things, but there is a lot that we're not going to show."
Besides, Beamer pointed out, "We're limited on defense, five-man pressures is all we can do so we won't be bringing a lot at the offense. Coverage and front-wise we didn't have a whole lot of that in this spring anyway, we tried to keep it simple. But everything else we'll throw at them, and who knows, we may come up with a couple of things before Saturday."
In fact, Beamer said ‘offensive coordinator' Kitchens was already scheming up some gadget plays to throw at the Maroon defense. Certainly the second team has more liberty to experiment in public than the varsity. Not only that, but they will probably have to do so.
"We're working on a couple of things," Beamer said. "We're going to have to generate some points in more ways than offense, we've got to get some points on defense and in the kicking game too. So we'll come up with something."
By the same token McCorvey said the overall emphasis will remain on execution. It would not do to have several pre-snap penalties or lax turnovers in a spring game, not just for the national impression but also because they don't want to risk the head coach's temper while he is in the broadcast booth. "We don't want to do things that will beat us," McCorvey said. "We've been doing a good job of that this spring, and if we can finish up strong like we have in the first two scrimmages I think we've got a chance to be alright."
Friday's shortened, and soggy, session went alright, though a number of players were either late or did not report due to class and lab schedules. That included defensive starters MLB Quinton Culberson and DT Deljuan Robinson. Their absence let others work with the first unit, such as LB Carlton Rice (until Brad Horton reported to the field later) and DT Avery Hannibal. The defense spent lots of time practicing third-down and long-down coverage plays with the nickel package that had either LCB Kevin Dockery or RCB David Heard moving in as the third safety. Titus Brown spent considerable time at #1 defensive end in the two-minute drills, for his pass rushing expertise.
Several Dogs wore yellow- or red cross-jerseys again Thursday, including LB Gabe O'Neal, OT Johnny Wadley, DE Rob Walker, DE Stephen Arant, SS Marcus Evans (ankle), OL Jeffrey Farr (shoulder). WR Jonathan Lowe (neck) did not practice. Most if not all of these will not participate in Saturday's game, which has caused some further tweaking of the respective rosters.
Regardless of who can or can't, or will and won't, play, the Maroon-White game is designed to let the Bulldogs break camp on what McCorvey hopes is a positive not. "What we want is to come out with some confidence, and hopefully not get anybody hurt," he said.
"The biggest thing is we would like to see some enthusiasm. Last year at times when we played good we played with enthusiasm, and early in the season that's what we didn't have. We want to see the guys out here enjoying the game a lot more. We want to see that they have confidence in what they are doing and how they handle things, and hopefully that will carry over."
Note: We will post the Maroon and White rosters on Friday, after final adjustments are made by the coaching staff.