Defense Dominates Tuesday Practice

At least there was one group of smiling Bulldogs coming away from Tuesday's practice. And no wonder. The Mississippi State first-team defense turned in such a consistently strong effort that Coach Sylvester Croom allowed them to leave one period early.

Nobody else dared even hint at any degree of happiness over the morning workout, on this fifth day of preseason camp. Not with the head coach glowering at everyone else, remaining onfield to finish out the nearly three-hour session. "We lost today," Croom said, flatly. "We had no chance to win today, absolutely none."

Fortunately Mississippi State did not need to win a game on Tuesday morning. Still Croom was openly and loudly displeased with how the bulk of his ball club worked in their second morning session of camp, and their first day in full pads. Not that it was this added armor that dragged the Bulldogs down.

"All that stuff that makes it tough to practice football, we gave into," said Croom. "We had no mental toughness from anybody, except those eleven guys in white shirts. They came to play and they got after it."

That was almost an understatement. When practice turned to full team-on-team work the #1 defense took control and never gave it up. Whether against the run, the pass, anything, the white jerseys dominated. Croom's decision to let the defense leave five minutes early might have been in reward…or maybe to limit the damage to the #1 offense's shaky psyche.

"They just kicked everybody's butt, and they enjoyed doing it," said Croom. "They whipped the guy in front of them, ran to the ball, looked like they knew what they were doing. There were a few busted assignments but that's OK, as long as they keep running and battling."

And the offense? Croom expressed this evaluation as harshly, and accurately, as imaginable. "That's the way we looked in the Ole Miss game. That's exactly what it looked like."

Instead the coach said it looked as if the guys in maroon or backup-green shirts reported for a working shift and nothing more. "Nobody on offense did anything, it was just wasted time. The offensive linemen, just in their normal walk-through before practice, they were just on the time-clock. They punched in at 7:30 and were punching out at ten, that's how they approached everything. That's how you get beat."

It didn't help that their defensive counterparts were having, under the conditions, an enjoyable morning. But what irked Croom most was the lack of response, physically or emotionally, from the offense. "We didn't have any leadership." #1 right guard Anthony Strauder certainly picked the wrong practice to let the heat and strain get to him, forcing an early ride to the training room. "Everybody else got hot, too," Croom said. "He just wasn't tough enough to gut it out." The only offensive guys permitted to exit before post-practice ‘gassers' was LG Johnny Wadley and wideout Keon Humphries, both walking to the training room on their own steam.

The fifth day of saw a new face finally on the practice field. Wide receiver Corey Gardhigh had his freshman eligibility certified at last by the NCAA's clearinghouse, allowing the Cedartown, Ga., product to get to work. Gardhigh had spent the first four days of drills watching from the sidelines in street garb. Tuesday morning he jogged onto the field in a green backup's #85 jersey, carrying his helmet. This was different from his teammates, as all healthy Bulldogs and even some physically-limited players got to wear full pads for the first time this month. Gardhigh will have to go through the same five-day acclimation process that the rest of the team is wrapping up Tuesday. That is, the frosh won't get to put on full gear until Saturday.

Gardhigh was instantly put into drills with the other receivers. "He can run around, he's got the skills. But he's missed four practices and we have to get all that caught up, that's tough. He's been sitting over there four days while we figured this thing out that should have been figured out a month ago."

The first-team offense remains the same as Monday, with a line (right to left) of Avery House, Strauder, Chris McNeil, Wadley, and Brian Anderson. Freshman OT Calvin Wilson, who alternated a good bit Monday with House at right tackle, had the yellow jersey back on Tuesday as his repaired knee and hamstring were hurting.

Other Maroon shirts were running back Jerious Norwood, fullback Bryson Davis, tight end Jason Husband, and split end Tee Milons. With Will Prosser still sidelined by his stress-fractured foot, no flanker has yet been given a Maroon shirt; and quarterback Omarr Conner always wears don't-touch-red.

There has been a change on the quarterback depth chart, though. By the end of Tuesday's session senior Brett Morgan was taking most of the snaps as the #2 triggerman, working with the first offense. He had no better luck than any of the other passers, yet Croom seems to want to remind listed #2 Michael Henig and true frosh Ty Evans and Tray Rutland that this is when jobs are earned.

"Brett knows what he's doing. He may not have the biggest arm in the world but he does know what he's doing and he sure is a tough guy."

Joey Sanders and Lance Long are backing up Milons, while yellow-shirted Keon Humphries leads Adron Chambers and Tyler Threadgill at flanker. Wideout Tay Bowser is still slowed by a weekend hamstring pull. Besides Prosser, the offense is again without OL Anthony Dunning (shoulder) and H-back Dezmond Sherrod (groin pull).

The #2 offensive front was, left to right, freshman Michael Gates, Dio Herrera, Royce Blackledge, freshman Johnny Carpenter, and freshman Wilson; the third line is Roland Terry, freshman Chris Spencer, soph juco walk-on Daniel Kennedy, freshman Craig Jenkins, and James Redmond.

The defensive coaches are a bit more liberal with starter-color shirts. Besides the actual first-team, primary backups such as DE Titus Brown, MLB Brad Horton, OLB Anthony Littlejohn, DT Antonio Johnson, and S Marcus Evans.

There were no starter changes on defense either, with a front of Willie Evans, Andrew Powell, Deljuan Robinson, and Michael Heard; Quinton Culberson at MLB with Clarence McDougal and Littlejohn flanking him (OLB Gabe O'Neal is still restricted in a yellow shirt); Jeramie Johnson and Mario Bobo at safeties; and corners Kevin Dockery and David Heard. However, for the first time the defense showed the ‘nickel' look used last season on passing downs. As expected Dockery moved in as the extra safety. But instead of Jamaal Johnson moving into the open corner, freshman Derek Pegues was taking the snaps with the #1 team. Also, DT Robinson steps out so a smaller, faster lineman can be used on the front.

The second D-line remains Brown, Johnson, Quinton Wesley, and Jeremy Jack. When freshman Wesley was off working on special teams, in punt-protect, Marckell McKinley took his #2 place at tackle. Working on the third group were Anwar Phillips, Solomon Ona, Avery Hannibal, and Corey Clark. In an early period Brown had to go to the sideline to have an icepack put on his right shoulder.

As the rundown shows, Mississippi State coaches are counting heavily on new talent this fall, and not just to fill gaps in the depth chart. The kids are going to be playing, fully-ready or not, and there aren't enough practice days between now and September 3 for the coach's comfort.

"We've got a long, long, long way to go," Croom said. "We've got some freshmen that have some ability but it's going to be a long haul trying to get them ready to play soon enough to beat Murray State. But we don't have a choice."

The first-team specialists are as expected this early in camp: PK Keith Andrews, SN Russell Cook, and P Brooks Crabtree.

Wednesday cranks up the preseason intensity, with the first of three two-a-day sessions. State is scheduled to be back on the field by 7:30 tomorrow for a morning set somewhat shorter than the almost three-hour sessions of once-a-day drills. The afternoon session begins at 3:45. And the pressure will be on everyone to do more than just show up.

"I tell you what," Croom said, "the way we practiced this morning, I sure hope I don't have to look at that twice tomorrow."

Note: reserve offensive lineman Erik Watkins has left the Bulldog roster. Watkins had gone through spring camp and was running with the third team at right tackle.

Gene's Page Top Stories