Croom Points To Progress By Offensive Line

It wasn't quite a Dawn Patrol. But Monday's morning practice came quite early enough for the Bulldogs, thank you very much, as they were lined up by 7:30 for the start of almost three hours of work.

For that matter Mississippi State players and staff must leave their alarm clocks set for the ayem-hours from now until the start of school, as Coach Sylvester Croom has settled on an early-morning practice schedule on most workout days this August. The days they don't do so…are two-a-day practice dates. "If we just go one time we'll go in the morning, now that we've got exams out of the way," Croom explained. "And we moved it up thirty minutes, to 7:30, to try to get some relief from the heat."

‘Relief' being a relative term in Croom's gridiron dictionary. In fact, he added that if there is any detected slacking in collective A.M. effort the penalty will be moving practices to the hotter hours. But he doesn't expect this to happen on the revised '05 schedule.

"It works out pretty well, having half a practice in the cool part of the day. And the team part, at the end when they're tired, will be in the hottest part of the morning. That the way it's going to be in the games, so we get to test ourselves, what kind of character we have, every day without pushing ourselves over the edge. It's a schedule I like, pretty much the same schedule we used at Green Bay. I know it works."

This Monday morning the coach was reasonably pleased with how his team worked, in helmets and shoulder pads for the fourth of five ‘no hitting' days to open camp. Though at times that label seemed ludicrous, because even without full-gear on the Bulldogs were making plenty of contact. Whether in individual segments or full-team drills the offense and defense went at each other right to the point of knocking each other to the ground…intentionally, anyway.

And if anyone was careless, such as one passing-game drill when a young wideout incautiously thought he could jog after a sideline catch, well, the shoulder pads rattled. Safety De'Mon Glanton reminded the receiver to stay alert with a wicked flying lick. "The defense is still flying around," Croom said, yet by the same token he was pleased with some signs of confidence on the other side of the line. Most particularly, on the line itself.

"I think out offensive line is starting to get a little bit better," the coach noted, and given well-documented concerns about Bulldog blocking this was encouraging music to MSU ears. Certainly the #1 offense had a bit more time to get a play run and done this morning as the first line gave quarterback Omarr Conner better protection, with most of the full-team work in passing plays. What happened at the other end of the throw wasn't as praiseworthy.

The first line was back to normal as RG Anthony Strauder missed Saturday's practice due to a death in the family. But there was a first sign of possible changes to come. OT Calvin Wilson got rid of the yellow shirt for the first time and donned a second-team green jersey. The true frosh not only worked with the #2 unit at right tackle, he even took a couple of snaps with the first team in place of #1 Avery House.

"Calvin has still got a little tendonitis and some stress on his hamstring after that surgery," Croom said. "He was better today than he has been. But compound that with all the stuff you have to learn as a freshman and still not in tip-top shape, that's slowing him down. No question he's going to be a fine player in time."

The sooner, the better. "We're still not solid at the right tackle spot, we miss too many assignments over there," Croom added. "Brian Anderson is doing pretty well on the left side and Michael Gates is going to be alright." Gates spent some minutes late in the morning on the exercise bike with an unspecified problem. His #2 job at LT was regained by James Redmond, who had missed two days with a lower back problem.

Freshman Johnny Carpenter, who was handed a maroon shirt Saturday in the absence of Strauder, got to keep the first-team shirt for Monday. With Wilson almost a co-#1 right tackle with House now, the second line sets up, right to left, with Roland Terry, Carpenter, Royce Blackledge, Dio Herrera, and Redmond.

At the skill offensive spots, Jason Husband continues to hold his #1 job at tight end, but veteran starter Eric Butler made some more strides towards regaining that status in Croom's eye Monday. "He's starting to pick it up. He's working on up to 75 (cents) now, he's going in the right direction anyway, but I'm still going to call him 50 Cent." Jeremy Jones is running at #2 tight end.

Croom is not happy with the pass-catching so far. "Our injuries at receiver are slowing us down, Tay Bowser was doing well until he got that hamstring." Split end Keon Humphries (summer cartilage surgery) is in a yellow shirt but getting lots of first-team snaps. At flanker Will Prosser is still in a red-cross jersey and wearing a boot on his right, stress-fractured foot. And H-back Dezmond Sherrod missed another day with a hurt hip flexor. So the catching crew is far from full-strength starting the week.

Meanwhile, recruited wide receiver Corey Gardhigh continued to watch from the sideline in civvies, as he still awaits word of NCAA clearance on freshman eligibility. "As far as I know there's been no change," Croom said, with obvious impatience about the certification process.

The red-cross crew lost one member and gained one Monday. OLB Gabe O'Neal was in a yellow shirt, though Croom said the soph was "just out there watching." Meanwhile freshman OL Anthony Dunning put on the red cross, his right shoulder in a sling after a Saturday injury that shouldn't take long to get over. There were no changes on the #1 defense, but a number of alternate ‘ones' and even a couple of blue-shirted #2s got snaps with the first unit. Most notably, RCB Keith Fitzhugh and LCB Derek Pegues, who for several plays took the places of Kevin Dockery and David Heard, respectively. "We're rotating them in and out," Croom said. "If they play as well as we think they're capable of playing, at some point they will be on the first team. It's just a matter of time."

Senior Jamal Johnson is holding to his ‘nickel' corner role in that defense, wearing first-team maroon, but he definitely to watch Fitzhugh. Another freshman, OLB Jamar Chaney, took a couple of snaps with the first defense in place of Anthony Littlejohn.

DE Titus Brown, really a co-#1 with Willie Evans, alternated with the first group in full-team settings. Antonio Johnson already has a first-team jersey and is essentially a rotation-tackle with Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson. Freshman Quinton Wesley is sharing #2 status with Corey Clark at tackles but is also wearing first-team white, while rookie tackle Charles Burns is working to get a second-team job.

Veteran Brad Horton wears white and is the first #2 middle linebacker, with rookie Jimmy Miller coming on strong here. Fred Akines and Carlton Rice got most of the second-team OLB snaps, while newcomers Aubrey Bell and Jarvis Kyles are battling for the second spots as safeties with elders Glanton and Marcus Evans. The latter continues to earn the right to wear a first-team white shirt, along with Mario Bobo and Jeramie Johnson.

Croom really likes how Bobo is playing at this role, and the versatility the former corner provides. "He can come down and play corner if we need him to. His height, reach, he's long for a corner and can play both spots. It's easier for those freshmen to play corner and put Mario at safety, because the safeties have to ‘quarterback' the secondary. We made that move after we knew Fitzhugh and Pegues were coming."

The third defense is taking shape in several positions, such as freshman Blake McAdams at safety, Jonathan Hill at right corner, Terrence Beaman as an OLB. The #3 line has Jeremy Jack, Solomon Ona, and Stephen Arant.

Monday saw another phase in special teams installations, with downfield coverage practices by a host of candidates in all color-jerseys. The players filling ‘return' roles, though not actually fielding a ball yet, included Jonathan Lowe, Brett Morgan, Jonathan Hill, and Evans.

"We're going to spend extra time on special teams this year," Croom said. "We did last year, but the area that normally gets overlooked is kickoff coverage and return. Our team speed is better and we think we can get some field position by improving our kickoff coverage, and we can get some more points and field position by improving our kickoff return. We have people that can do that."

The State staff is convinced they have plenty of young people that can do all sorts of things. The need to work so many new faces into places is exciting but also at times a drag on the practice process, especially as rookies start to feel the effects of college-caliber work. Croom anticipated this. "It's all the freshmen. I knew this would be the case, the conditioning part, the pace of the work, all that stuff is slowing them down to some degree. We're just going to have to work through it, we don't have time to feel sorry for them."

Nor will the coaches feel any qualms about promoting or demoting from now to the start of the season. Yes, Croom did tell his '05 recruits that many were instant second-teammers upon signing. Achieving first-team stature is another August matter.

"Guys don't get to wear the Maroon and the White jersey until they've earned it," said Croom. The flip-side is that there are still two weeks to earn those coveted colors, starting Tuesday…morning.

"We've got one more day (in shells)," noted Croom, "then we put the pads on. We'll find out then."

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