Yep, the preseason is really here. The 2-1/2 hour session opened a month-long stretch for the Bulldogs to get themselves in football shape, as well as position, to go into the 2005 campaign. And any player who figured that after surviving the first season of Croom's regime and a grueling spring and summer they were in good, umm, shape, had best get ready for an even more demanding August.
Croom was typically blunt in his opening-day evaluation. "We came out today, felt sorry for ourselves, saw the sun and sort of hit cruise control there. I didn't think we had very much leadership out of some of our older guys. And I got soft today, too, I should have run them a little harder but I didn't want anybody to pass out."
Nobody did the first day, though freshman offensive lineman Anthony Dunning actually ‘went down,' suffering from cramps. Otherwise the team made it through on their own steam, still on their feet. Maybe that's why Croom added, "I won't be soft tomorrow, I can tell you that."
Even though the Bulldogs were in helmet and shorts only, as per NCAA first-week rules, they did go at some drills fairly hard. In the last few sessions the respective units, ones vs. ones and twos vs. twos, squared off against each other for some non-contact scrimmaging, mostly to get a look at the short passing game. In that and other aspects the team looked to be much farther along in terms of schemes, both offense and defense, than they were a year ago at this time.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Croom said, about the start to his second fall camp with State. "For one thing the coaches know what they're doing, that's a big plus in itself. And some of the players have a better idea what to expect, they didn't always do it today but at least they don't look at me like I'm crazy when I demand we do it right."
The start of any fall camp means the first real chance to watch freshmen compare themselves to varsity players. This year's opening-day was more interesting than usual, and not only because Croom's 2005 recruiting class featured some headline signees. When these recruits were announced the head coach proclaimed that many of them were automatically second on the depth chart at various positions.
Thursday, Croom was proved correct (see listings below). "They are second-teammers, and they've got to play." That didn't mean the newest Dogs received automatic praise, though Croom did like how wideout Tay Bower performed—"he was the best-looking thing today I saw, he caught the ball and did some impressive things"—and how rookie offensive lineman Michael Gates, bulked up to 290 now, ran the field. "Some of them are exceptional," Croom said. "We've got a lot of learning to do with those guys. It's a double-edged sword, we've got to push them fast yet we can't overload them and blow a fuse." That's a fine line to walk, and if Croom is going to lean either way it will be toward the pushing side.
"The thing I explained to them, and we'll talk more about it, is they don't get to be freshmen. We're not petting them, we're not bringing them along slowly. They've got to act like football players already. We haven't got time for them to be homesick and calling Momma and worrying what's going on back home with the girlfriend, they've got to get ready to play Murray State."
To begin fall camp, the first offensive line (left to right) was Brian Anderson, Johnny Wadley, Chris McNeil, Anthony Strauder, and Avery House. It's a different group than the one that came out of spring #1, with LG Anderson now at LT and RT Wadley back at LG, and senior House promoted to the top squad. But Croom insists the moves were made for practical, not technical reasons.
"Those are the five guys we trust, and until somebody breaks into the lineup that's the way we are going to play Murray State. Because I trust those five guys. If we have to play them the whole game, that's what we're going to do."
The second line had rookie Calvin Wilson already behind House at right tackle, even in the yellow shirt. The big frosh had minor knee surgery in mid-July for a meniscus problem, but was working every snap allowed. "He's got a twinge but at least he's trying to work through it now," Croom said.
The rest of the #2s, again left to right, were James Redmond, freshman Dunning, Royce Blackledge, and Dio Herrera. The third unit had four freshmen—Gates, Chris Spencer, Johnny Carpenter, Craig Jenkins—all to the left of co-#3 tackles Roland Terry and Erik Watkins. Gates did alternate a few times with Redmond as the second-team left tackle.
The first defensive line had two first-team left ends, with senior Willie Evans taking snaps with the #1 unit while Titus Brown wore first-team white but worked with the second squad. Michael Heard was the #1 right end, ahead of freshman Charles Burns. Deljuan Robinson and Andrew Powell were first-team tackles, while Avery Hannibal and Corey Clark were their backups respectively.
With O'Neal out the first group of linebackers had Quinton Culberson in the middle flanked by OLBs Clarence McDougal and Anthony Littlejohn. Backup MLB Brad Horton also wore white, while Carlton Rice and rookie Jamar Chaney—just signed last week—were the #2s.
Kevin Dockery and David Heard were the left and right corners, with Jeramie Johnson and Mario Bobo at safeties. Touted rookie Derek Pegues is already the #2 left corner with fellow frosh Keith Fitzhugh second on the right side. De'Mon Glanton was a backup safety, and in a surprise high school wideout Aubrey Bell was a backup safety.
Thursday's practice showed a new color-code at State. Maroon may still be all that matters, but as a team the Bulldogs were looking like a spilled bag of Skittles candies as Croom has added some hues to the depth chart. As has been practice policy for many years at MSU, Maroon is still reserved for the offensive unit and White for the defense. But starting this fall the school colors are reserved for the first teams on each side of the line.
Thursday, the second-team offense was garbed in blue jerseys, while the second defense wore green shirts. Of course there were still a few other familiar colors; quarterbacks continue to wear lose-your-scholarship-if-hit red, players sufficiently recovered from injuries to practice wear yellow, and those too hurt to work have numberless white shirts with red crosses.
For Thursday, flanker Will Prosser (foot fracture) and linebacker Gabe O'Neal (left knee surgery) were in red-crosses. In yellow were freshman offensive tackle Wilson (knee surgery), wideout Keon Humphries (knee surgery), and running back Derek Ambrose (shoulder).
Friday's practice will start at 6:30, as several players are taking final summer semester exams in the afternoon. The Bulldogs will work again Saturday afternoon, then have Sunday for church, a team meeting, and photos for the game program.