Well, the subject was inevitable even now. But at least it came in the context of whether that line of questioning, about being the SEC's first African-American head football coach, is finally giving way to queries about what he is getting done with Bulldog football. So there has been progress. "It still comes up occasionally, but it's a lot better," Croom agreed.
"I'm glad it's not about me now. I knew that was part of the first year, that I'd have to answer the question. Now we can talk about building the program."
So, since the coach raised the subject…what about the Mississippi State program? How will the 2005 Bulldogs be different, or better, than the 3-8 team of Croom's debut year? More bluntly, will it be better? On this topic he had plenty to say, nearly all positive and often outright optimistic.
"We are really looking forward to the season this year. It's a lot different for me and our entire team, we have a better understanding of who we are and where we are headed, in stark contrast."
Not much of the assembled media in Birmingham cover State full-time, but even reporters from the farther reaches of the SEC—and a handful of national writers there Wednesday morning—should appreciate after hearing Croom's comments just how stark the contrasts will be from first season to second. In 2004 the new staff was racing to establish some sort of system on each side of the line before kickoff, while coaches and players were learning all about each other literally on the job.
"Going into this season I know the players' names," Croom said, not entirely in jest. Now the players—those veterans who survived the transition process or those recruited by the new staff—are familiar faces, as well as better-known quantities to their coaches and to each other. That is the first piece of program progress.
The second is in club confidence. "I feel we're much improved over the end of last season," Croom said. "I base that on our attitudes, spring practice, and what our strength coaches have told us about of off-season program. I think we're closer to being a team, I think we have a better idea of the concept of oneness of team. Last year we didn't, we were trying to find our way, we were a group of individuals looking for a way to win.
"The latter part of the season we started thinking we could win. As we go into this season I believe our players think they can win now."
This doesn't mean Croom is promising scoreboard success just yet. "We do have some weaknesses," he acknowledged, pointing to continued concerns in the offensive line and the conference schedule State has drawn for '05. But the coach is convinced the Bulldogs are not the same intimidated bunch that stumbled through the first half of the '04 campaign. "Our players do have a better attitude. We're not selfish like we were last year, there's no better indicator of that than the number of position changes we had in the spring."
Also, "I think our players believe in our philosophy now, and that was a hard sell. Doing things the Bulldog way, playing as a team, playing tough physical football, playing smart football, never giving up. It has taken some time for some guys to buy into that, and some chose to go elsewhere. But the ones who stayed believe in our way of doing things."
The position moves Croom mentioned weren't just casual changes. The defensive scheme is the same as last fall but many numbers are in new places this time around. Croom specifically pointed to switching outside linebacker Quinton Culberson to middle. "He's probably the heart of our defense (now)." End Deljuan Robinson, who Croom had once considered putting at offensive tackle, is now a true defensive tackle and blossoming. Rookie linebacker Titus Brown is now a sophomore end, somewhat small by SEC standards but the epitome of the type competitor Croom wants in his lineup. "And for a guy who was an All-SEC freshman to move to that spot was a tough decision," the coach admitted. "We moved Mario Bobo from corner to safety to give us range and speed in the secondary, plus we have some young corners coming in that we want to give them a chance to play."
These switches do make for a smaller defense on the whole, but a faster one as well. "Speed is a key ingredient in our decision-making," Croom agreed. At the same time this second year the coach ranks intangible factors just as highly as physical ones. "Overall we're trying to get them in the best position, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, that gives us the best chance to win."
The offense didn't see as many spring moves, other than making a H-back of tight end Dezmond Sherrod and a tight end of wideout Jason Husband, the most-improved player in camp according to the coach. Husband makes for a faster matchup at that position while Sherrod can play a hybrid role of blocking back or big eligible receiver from this new spot.
Naturally tailback Jerious Norwood, voted preseason first-team all-SEC by league coaches, was the offensive name most mentioned. "He's our best football player," said Croom, "particularly on the offensive side. And definitely one of our leaders right now. I expect a great season out of him." As well as a pro career next season. In fact Croom reported that he has been trying to convince the senior to think of himself as the president of ‘Jerious Norwood Inc.' "I've had some scouts call and ask, they're very impressed."
Norwood ran for 1,050 yards as a junior…"and he should have had three or four hundred more," Croom added. "But that's par for the course when you first get into a new offense. It's the little things, I expect him to have a better feel for the blocking scheme and know where the holes are."
That's if there are holes to find. By now the entire SEC media corps knows how great a question Bulldog blocking is supposed to still be. "Right nonw that's probably our biggest weakness," said Croom, "as far as offensive tackle. But we're going to do some thigns to shore that up." Indeed, after a summer to evaluate spring tapes the staff is about to make some more preseason changes. Croom hinted in April that guard Brian Anderson, just voted second-team All-SEC by the coaches, could move to tackle; Thursday he said it outright, confirming what had been reported in Dawgs' Bite on Tuesday after Anderson was observed lining up at left tackle in unsupervised post-workout ‘drills.'
Johnny Wadley, who practiced in spring at right tackle, returns to his career position of guard, this time on the left side, leaving veteran reserve Avery House at right tackle. Along with center Chris McNeil and new right guard Anthony Strauder "gives us the five that I have the most confidence in that will compete, practice hard, and gives us the best chance of winning ball games."
And Croom repeated another spring theme, that this fall even true freshmen will get early and long looks at blocking jobs. Michael Gates was signed as a 260-pound tight end; now he is over 290 pounds and looking like a left tackle to his coach. True frosh lineman Calvin Wilson, his right knee healing nicely after clean-up work this month, will open camp as a #2 right tackle. "Those two young men developing will be key," Croom said. "Anthony Dunning and Johnny Carpenter we think have the talent to be very good players in this conference."
Tight end Eric Butler is already a very good player in this league, and Croom says he should be one of the best in the country. "Right now he's playing at about 60% of his ability, he's got to play a lot better. He should be the most explosive guy for us." Along that line of offensive-thought Croom also anticipates more from the wideout corps. Flanker Will Prosser (whose stress-fractured foot is healing on schedule) and split end Tee Milons are competent quantities but State needs some real game-breakers to emerge from the younger receivers.
"We didn't stretch the field enough (last year)," Croom said. "Which is something we have to do because we have a great running back. There are going to be eight or nine guys at the line of scrimmage and our receivers are going to be out there with single-coverage, and we need the speed to run by people. We've got that speed now, we're going to stretch the field more. If they are going to load up on Jerious go right ahead, we welcome that opportunity."
Croom is also glad to welcome in his second recruiting class, or at least those who have been cleared for freshman eligibility. "We signed some that we knew were not going to get in, we thought they were good people and wanted them in the program. We have alternate plans to bring them back at some point. We had two others that are going to miss it by a point or a grade, that's the chances you take sometimes." Croom did not name those two players but presumably meant linebacker Archie Sims and defensive back Anthony Johnson.
Still on the whole Croom likes the results of the first full-year recruiting campaign. "Our talent level, particularly at the skill positions, is much improved. The downside is we're counting on freshmen to come in and play, but we don't have a choice. They give us some depth and improve our talent level, and we're going to give them every opportunity to play. It's going to be a great challenge for me and the staff to bring those young men along as fast as possible without putting them in a situation where they lose their confidence."
And confidence is the preseason theme with Croom. He admits now that his first year was far tougher than imagined in December of 2003. "To be honest I don't know how I survived last year," he said. "It's a 24-hour job, last year I was working 36, there was never enough time. My staff did a great job handling the football part of it. Now I can get more involved in that and spend more time with our players and coaching the game."
The coaching starts for-real on August 4, the first day of preseason drills at State. Coach Croom still isn't promising wins just yet, but he likes this second team's chances of being more consistently competitive—and thus successful—now that a philosophical foundation is finally in place.
"We're excited about it, looking forward to it despite that a lot has been mentioned about our schedule. Hey, that's playing in the SEC. If you want to run with the big dogs that's what you've got to do. Our players are not afraid of it and I know I look forward to the challenge. At some point they (the opposition) will be worried about playing us instead of us worried about playing them."