Including coach-turned-commentator Sylvester Croom. "I thought the game went well," he said, after assisting with ESPN2's telecast. Croom spent his second State spring game in the press box broadcast booth, instead of on the sideline, as for the first time MSU's intrasquad camp-closer was shown on national cable TV. The live telecast was to be followed by a full replay on the new ESPNU network.
"No question it was great for our team to have the TV exposure," said Croom. "I think it was great for Mississippi State to have the ESPN exposure." Indeed, Croom and the MSU administration thought the chance to play for the cameras important enough to alter the afternoon's entire format and put on a game, of sorts.
The outcome was practically pre-ordained. The Maroon roster was made of the the current first-teams, offense and defense, with a few adjustments for injured or limited varsity Bulldogs. The second, third, and walk-on units wore White, and were coached by assistants while the two coordinators ran the Maroon sideline.
Yet as things played out it was a closer affair than most expected. "We didn't score as many points as I would have thought we would have," Croom admitted. The Maroon team, with #1 quarterback Omarr Conner directing, notched that lone score on their opening possession. The drive went 71 yards in nine plays, with freshman running back Brandon Thornton crashing across the goal line on 1st-and-one.
And that was it as far as points. The Maroon did advance as far as the White 21-yard line on the second turn with the ball, before Conner tried to hit tight end Eric Butler in the end zone. Linebacker Fred Akines got between the thrower and catcher for an interception. Conner sat out the whole second half and with Brett Morgan at QB the varsity team did not threaten, or even manage more than three snaps in any ensuing series before punting.
The White, with #2 quarterback Mike Henig in charge, netted one first down in the first quarter and did not mount a drive again until very late in the day and after getting a short punt. Advancing from the Maroon 41-yard line to have first-and-goal at the three, with reserve back Kentrel Brooks running around left end for 14 yards on 4th-and-1, the drive was ultimately halted. Henig's first-down pass for Brooks was low, the quarterback fumbled and fell on a snap for loss of one, and on third down was blitzed by linebacker Carlton Rice and end Wille Evans, the latter batting away Henig's attempted throw practically as it left the hand.
On fourth down from the four-yard line Brooks tried to catch the #1 defense napping with a draw run, only to be stuffed by Michael Heard for loss of two yards to preserve the shutout. It helped that save for TV timeouts and some called stoppages the clock was run almost non-stop each quarter. Thus there were only 56 total plays run from scrimmage, not counting kicking. "I didn't realize it would go that fast," said Croom, who was actually glad it did because the broadcast was done standing up. "That wasn't great on my knees!" the former center laughed.
It was not surprising that defense dominated the day anyway, because this was the trend of the entire spring. The Maroon managed 140 yards on 29 plays; the White just 47 yards on their 27 snaps, a 1.7 average. Conner had a productive half, hitting four of eight throws for 118 yards with one interception. He was ‘sacked' twice, though not actually tackled either time; the whistle stopped play before Conner could be hit.
Linebacker Brad Horton pushed his luck twice in that regard, bumping Conner down after a throw and later shoving him out of bounds after a four-yard scramble for first-and-goal. Fortunately Croom enjoyed the aggressiveness, and Conner was not damaged.
Flanker Will Prosser had the day's two biggest offensive plays, snaring a 43-yard throw down the right sideline from Conner on that opening series. He later pulled in a 38-yard toss in double-coverage on the drive that ended in the end-zone pick. Those two balls netted Prosser 81 of the 122 receiving yards for the Maroon. Fullback Bryson Davis had two catches for 21 yards and split end Tee Milons one reception for 18 yards. Morgan was 2-of-4 for four yards, three sacks, and an interception by cornerback Keith Fitzhugh on the last play of the day.
Henig was 6-of-12 for 43 yards, the longest completion for 15 yards to walk-on end Lance Long. Tight end Blake Pettit had two grabs for 14 yards, and Rashad Smith, Britt Cross, and Ellis Burns each caught one pass.
The ball was in the air a lot Saturday, partly for entertainment purposes and partly because neither squad made much ground by running. #1 back Jerious Norwood was held out of play entirely, so young backs got all the work. Brandon Thornton had 49 yards on 11 rushes for the Maroon and scored on the one-yard dive following a stacked two-tight end set of Butler and Jason Husband.
For the White, Brooks had five totes and 23 yards while Demarcus Johnson had four runs and netted a negative six yards, losing lots of ground on a fumble he recovered.
While Norwood was held out for precaution, a number of injured or gimpy Dogs could not play. Those not in game-gear were DB Lance McKinney, WR/RB Jonathan Lowe, WR Keon Humphries (on crutches after knee surgery), LB Gabe O'Neal, DE Stephen Arant, OL Jeffrey Farr, and DT Jeremy Jones. DE Rob Walker, limited much of this spring, was back in action and playing right end for the White.
That team had more freedom to fool around, and coaches Shane Beamer and Freddie Kitchens took advantage. Fitzhugh, their starting cornerback, lined up several times at wide receiver. And in that goal-line stand defensive tackle Corey Clark lined up at fullback. The second-down play might have been spectacular, except Henig botched the handoff.
While there might not have been many highlight-type moments in the game, the event as a whole was a winning performance for the Bulldogs, who got to end their five week, 15-practice spring session having some fun. And Croom found he enjoyed trying his hand—or voice, rather—at another aspect of college football. Though, he added, he's not ready to quit his day job just yet and sit behind a microphone.
Speaking of which, Croom's complete post-game comments follow, including the question-and-answer portion.
Opening Statements: I thought the game went well. No question it was great for our team to have the TV exposure, I think it was great for Mississippi State to have the ESPN exposure. We didn't score as many points as I would have thought we would with the Maroon offense, we missed a couple of opportunities. I tell you what, with that clock running fast that game goes in a hurry! I didn't realize it would go that fast.
I was pleased that we didn't have a lot of pre-snap penalties. That's important for us, I can't overemphasize that. We stress it all the time, we cannot do anything prior to the snap of the ball to beat ourselves, because it's too much to overcome. We were better at that last year than previous years but it still wasn't good enough. We have to be perfect, we cannot have mis-alignments, we can't have (fumbled) quarterback/center exchanges, we can't have fumbles.
We had a couple of turnovers out there today when those young backs put the ball on the ground. If they fumble the football they're not going to play, it's just that simple. We're not going to put them in the ball game and they had better understand that.
But I was pleased that we didn't have a lot of off-sides penalties. I thought we did very well handling the clock.
We're capable of being a better deep-ball team, we made some plays down there but too many of them were close. Will Prosser had to make some big-time catches out there, and that's good because the ball is not always going to be thrown perfectly. He made plays today and in our last scrimmage that he did not make the previous year. That's huge for us, our receivers making plays, and we've got four coming in that we hope can give us an added bonus in the passing game.
Omarr Conner is definitely ahead of where he was at the end of last season. His footwork, knowing what to do, even when he makes mistakes now he understands where his mistakes are. And you have to understand what you're doing wrong before you can correct it. A lot of times last year he didn't even know where he was wrong, so we're ahead of the game there.
I think our defense made some plays today, I was pleased with that. Brad Horton definitely made a lot of plays. I want to wait until I see the film but it was obvious Mike Henig did some things that he had not been doing at quarterback. That's going to be interesting because we have two freshmen quarterbacks coming in and we're definitely going to redshirt one of the three. If we can get the year back on Mike that will take care of itself, and if we don't then between one of those two freshmen and him we're not going to play three young quarterbacks, because Omarr is going to be the starter.
A couple of those passes Omarr threw were a little short, he had to short-arm the throw because we had too much push in the pocket. Our biggest concern without question is still going to be at the tackle position. If we can get that squared away I think we can be a good offensive football team.
Our kickers did a pretty good job today. The coverage, we weren't really worried about that as much because the bulk of our special team starers were on the White unit and a lot of our guys on the Maroon team hadn't done a lot of work on special teams. But that will be a huge emphasis for us once we get those freshmen in here because they have a tremendous amount of speed and they will huge impact on us as far as our kick game, coverages and returns.
I told our players we've got a lot of work to do. What kind of season we have is going to be determined by what they do as individuals between now and when we come back in August. If nothing else, out of this spring I hope they have learned the discipline and the self-pride that it takes to push themselves during this time. I know from being on championship-type teams, coaching and playing, that this is the time for self-discipline, motivation, pushing each other, that that is the difference between winning and losing. I hope our players understand that, I think they've learned that.
Because they have gone through the fire this spring and they've come out better because of it. I think they have confidence in themselves that they did not have because they have accomplished something. The ones that are still here should take pride in themselves and in each other because they have gone through one of the toughest spring practices on record.
Q: What was the biggest accomplishment of spring?
Croom: We are a tougher team, mentally and physically. We're far more disciplined. We run to the football and we're a better fundamental team than at any time last year. That's what we were trying to get accomplished going in and we have done that. We will go into games now believing that we can win. Even though we may be at a disadvantage on paper from a talent standpoint, I do not think we will go into a game afraid to compete like we did when we went to LSU last year. I don't have any doubt that wherever we go—whether it's here, Gainesville, anywhere—this team will go in with head high and ready to take on all comers. I don't have any question about that.
How good we are, how many games we're going to win, I don't have any idea. As I said last year, all I want them to do is play their absolute best every time we go out there. But we're going out there with the idea that we're going to win.
Q: Keith Fitzhugh on offense, is that a spring-only thing?
Croom: Yeah, we hadn't done that. That was one of those things, Freddie Kitchens got a little creative with a couple of plays. And I wanted he and Shane Beamer to have that opportunity as young coaches because I think they've got the chance to be outstanding young coaches. I wanted them to be creative. I limited our offense to some things, there were things we did not want to show today. So since he couldn't do a lot of plays he switched personnel on us. And I'm glad it gave Keith a chance to have some fun and get involved. They went after Keith there a couple of times late and he made some plays.
We've still got to work on our deep balls, a couple of those plays if we put a little more air under them we should catch them on the run. But the improvement of Will Prosser was obvious today and that's going to do nothing but help our passing game.
Q: How would you assess the overall improvement?
Croom: I think we're better at every position than a year ago except offensive tackle. That's a huge, huge concern right now. James Redmond has got to pick up his play, he's got to get stronger. And I'm believing James will get it done. But if he doesn't, and if it's not done by that first scrimmage, then we're going to move Brian Anderson over there. We're going to get somebody at that left tackle position that I know is going to fight for 60 minutes. I'm going to give James every opportunity to do that, if he doesn't get it done we're going to move on. But when we line up to play Murray State we're going to have 11 fighters, one guy at every position I can count on to battle for 60 minutes.
Q: From the ESPN broadcast booth, was there anything interesting that you might not have seen from the sideline?
Croom: Just watching the guys play, I was pleased with our tempo in and out of the huddle. I heard some hitting from up there, and that was good, I was pleased with that. I thought our pursuit to the football was good, no question we're tackling better, we got good pressure up front. But again, it was pass protection, and that starts with our tackles.
Q: Who would you say had the most productive spring?
Croom: Our most improved players were Jason Husband and Avery Hannibal, I don't think there was any question about that. Both of them should have a profound effect on our success this season. Avery has gotten bigger, he was already a strong individual but he's gotten stronger. His technique as far as using his hands in creating separation from offensive linemen where he can use his lateral mobility, that's something he hasn't done in the past. Jason moved from wide receiver to tight end, we didn't expect him to be a good blocker but he has turned into a more than adequate blocker. His ability to grasp the offense from the tight end position, catch the football, make plays after the catch, has been phenomenal this spring. He gives us a weapon there and an ability to get up the field and make something happen with the deep ball. I'm surprised they didn't try to get the ball to him a little bit more today. But then again, some of those packages we didn't want to unveil today anyway.
Q: After the first week you said you weren't happy about the safeties, how are they playing now?
Croom: I think we are better. Mario Bobo and Jeramie Johnson have done some good things. Jeramie is not one of the fastest guys in the world but he's learned the position and knows how to maximize what ability he has. Bobo has come along there and we feel he will definitely be a good ‘roamer' back there. The guy can make some plays for us.
Q: Did you make your first critical comments of the head coach today as a TV analyst? How did that go?
Croom: It was enjoyable. I learned some things up there. Those guys stand up the whole time, that wasn't great on my knees! I thought I was going to be sitting down like those guys on Monday Night Football. But I guess those guys on ESPN work a little bit harder up there!
Q: So you're not considering a career change right now?
Croom: No, I've still got a little more ball in me right now and I'm liking that. But, it might be something later down the road!