Opening Statement: I'm going to give a brief rundown of where I think we are, the strengths and weaknesses and what we have to do to change that over the next few weeks. In general, right now, we're trying to develop some fundamentals and get ready to play the game. As much as anything else we're continuing to work on our mental attitude, developing our character as a football team and our mindset as a football team. I think the only chance we have to be a good football team this year is toughness has got to be a key part of our character. We've got to be mentally tough and physically tough.
We have some areas that we are strong in, areas that we are weak in. One thing is definitely clear, we're not going to have a great deal of depth. So we have to play the guys that are capable of playing, they have to be some mentally tough individuals. We continue to work on our discipline as far as developing habits and doing things right. We are not going to be a football team that can make mistakes, we have to minimize those, some things we have to totally eliminate. We can't turn the football over or have pre-snap penalties. On defense we have to be in a mode where we create turnovers and get those in order to score on defense or to put our offense in better position to score. We have to win the turnover ratio each weak, we have to win the ‘explosive game ratio' to give ourselves a chance. Those are really the only stats I care about, and the final score of the ball game. Beyond that we don't worry too much about statistics.
We're definitely further along than we were this time last year. Our attitude is better about ourselves, about the University. Our work ethic is a lot better, our leadership is a lot better. This time last year we had zero-leadership and it didn't get much better as the season went along. Much past David Stewart there wasn't a whole lot of senior leadership. But we've got some guys now in our senior class that have gone through the fire and are starting to believe in the way we're doing things and trying to help each other a lot more than we did last year. We have more potential talent than we had last year. And I qualify that with ‘potential,' we are not ready to win right now. We've got some young players with a lot of talent but they're not ready to play the kind of schedule we have, right now. Thank God we don't have to play this week. We understand our schemes a lot better, overall our team speed is better. Our experience on defense is a lot better.
DEFENSIVE OVERVIEW: Defense is our strength. And I hope I'm not being misguided by the way the defense is performing in practice. If I am being mislead then it's going to be a long season. I think we're pretty good on defense, I won't know until we play somebody.
Defensive Line: It starts with our guys up-front. We've got three defensive ends who are battle-tested and we know they can play. Willie Evans, Michael Heard, and Titus Brown, those guys have been in ball games and made big plays and are working extremely hard. Willie did not have a very good spring, but he's come back this fall. I think the fraternity has taken second to the football team and he's Alpha Phi Bulldog now. We've got two freshmen out there, Quinton Wesley and Charles Burns, who have been pleasant surprises so far. They've got nice ability but they're further along than I thought they would be.
Then inside we're a lot stronger than we ever were last year. Deljuan Robinson and Andrew Powell are playing well and I expect both those guys to be two of the better defensive linemen in the conference this year. I'm very pleased with Antonio Johnson, he's definitely the best junior college player we've signed since I've been here. His worth ethic, he's lost about 15 pounds in summer school. His technique, his ability to use his hands, he's powerful, and he's come right in and given us leadership and fit in like he's been around here all the time. Corey Clark is starting to make a move. I've said before that Corey can and should be our best defensive lineman. Corey does not understand yet just how good he can be, I think he can be a top draft choice one of these days. I think he's starting to make a move and believe he can be a good player. If he does we'll be very good in the middle, for a while. If he doesn't he'll be just another guy that didn't live up to his potential. Avery Hannibal is doing well. So we've got four big guys in there and one small guy that doesn't know he's small. We should be solid inside. Our front four, we should be pretty good there.
Linebackers: We don't have any depth. (Clarence) McDougal, (Quinton) Culberson, (Anthony) Littlejohn, and (Gabe) O'Neal. Littlejohn hasn't played, the other three have. McDougal and Culberson will be two starters, who starts the other spot we don't know. Gabe and Littlejohn are fighting it out for the other. Carlton Rice has given us a little depth, he can play two outside spots. Jamar Chaney has done well, he's a fine athlete and I can see why he was recruited as highly as he was. He's definitely going to be a fine player in the future. Jimmy Miller has done some good things, he's out with a concussion right now.
Secondary: We're definitely better at corner than we were last year. Kevin Dockery is doing well, David Heard is the best right now that I've seen him. His quickness is a lot better, his confidence is up, and those are our two starting corners at this moment. (Keith) Fitzhugh and (Derek) Pegues are going to push them and they're playing well. Pegues had his best day, all the hype about the athleticism and talent is true, he does have that kind of ability. He's a little too cocky right now, he's going to get smoked I promise you, the first time he goes out there he's going to get toasted because he's too cocky. But he does have the ability, and to play at that spot you have to have a little of that. He's got enough for two or three guys, though.
At the safeties Jeramie Johnson is a lot better, Mario Bobo is better, so we're solid there. Jeramie is tackling so much better than he was last year, Bobo is learning the system and he's a lot more comfortable. That gives us a lot more range and speed back there because he can run very well. Basically we've got a corner with a good body playing safety right now, that definitely increases our speed back there. We've got freshmen, Jarvis Kyle, Aubrey Bell, Blake McAdams, a redshirt in De'Mon Glanton, they're all battling for backup spots right now, it's going to be some nice competition there.
So overall we're definitely better defensively. Except for Littlejohn, who right now is our starter at weakside linebacker, all have played and have played well at times. So I think we can be a very good defensive team. And if those backup guys continue I expect us to get even better. What makes us better is we can run better, our speed on defense is a lot better, and we are by far tackling better, I think that will be one of the most obvious things when we play our first game. And I think we're getting a little attitude, a nasty attitude, they're starting to believe in themselves and take pride and push each other.
Right know that's where we start. We have to not only try to stop people from scoring, we have to score on defense. We have to put up some points on defense and put our offense in position where our offense can score better, where we can kick some field goals, and we've got to get some turnovers for touchdowns.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Our kicking game should be better. We are faster, we have better athletes, our freshmen will play a key role into that. You figure guys like Chaney and Pegues and Brandon Hart, those kids can run and that will help us overall, give us more depth in our kicking game. Our kickers are back. Keith Andrews is kicking the ball well, Adam Carlson and Andrew Gambrell are behind him. Our punter, Brooks Crabtree, is getting competition from Carlson and Blake McAdams. We'll definitely be better in the return game, we're going to have a lot more competition there. This is where Pegues will figure in, Jonathan Lowe is back, Jerious Norwood is probably our best return man and if I've got any guts at all I'll put him back there on kickoffs. But I don't know how much guts I've got, the closer we get to ball-game time I chicken out. Dennis Little, a small guy back there, a walk-on from Tuscaloosa, we're going to try him to see what he does in the weeks coming up.
But whoever we have back there, in our kickoff return we're going to be in three-deep and have three guys where any one of them can take it to the house. I want our punt returner to be able to take the ball to the house; catch it first, make smart decisions. But we have got to have scoring potential out of our return game this year. We have to have better coverage, put pressure on the other team in our kicking game. We start with defense and kicking this year. Our snappers, Russell Cook and Britt Cross, are both back, we should be in good shape there.
OFFENSE OVERVIEW: Offensively, we've got problems. Omarr Conner is solid at quarterback, Mike Henig has made a lot of improvement but he's not ready to play yet. We've got two freshmen, Tray Rutland and Ty Evans, they're going to be good quarterbacks. Tray's got a pulled groin and is probably a little bit ahead of Ty right now but he's not getting the work he needs. It's not clear who our #2 is but Omarr is our starter. We've got to find a 2 and a 3 to give us some depth.
Offensive Line: We knew we had problems at tackle when we left the spring. We had problems when we came back, and we've still got problems now. We moved Brian Anderson to left tackle, he's learning the spot, he's got to ‘punch' better on his pass protection. But we put him out there because we know he will compete. Inside we're OK. Johnny Wadley is playing better, he got his weight down to 326 pounds, we're talking about a young who came here at 400 pounds. I want to say this, too, to the people who helped us get the Holliman Center here, Johnny Wadley would not be playing well now if we didn't have that treadmill pool. He doesn't run outside after we practice, we send him in to get running and it takes the pressure off his knees and ankles. That allows him to practice and still get that weight room. So the improvement in our facilities is having a direct impact on our performance already. We've got a couple more players that would not be ready for game-time.
Anthony Strauder is our right guard, he's got a lot of growing-up to do. He's got to make a decision on how much football he wants to play. He can be a great player, he's got all the ability, he still doesn't know exactly how much he loves the game yet. But he's finding out. We're going to push him. A lot of our football team, but particularly our offensive linemen, we've got to get out of our comfort zone. That's the mental toughness I'm talking about. We've got to get where we play when we're tired, when it's hot. We're not mentally tough in the offensive line right now. We know it's hot, we live in Starkville, Mississippi and it's going to be hot every day. We might play Murray State at 1:30, doesn't make any difference. We're going to practice when it's hot, as long as we need to practice, because we've got to get our minds right. Because we're not going to be deep in the offensive line, and nobody is going to feel sorry for us. If we feel sorry for ourselves we're going to get our tails beat. So we've got to get to where our best guys can play all day long at a winning level. That's what some of our guys have to learn.
We've got some new guys here. Calvin Wilson, Johnny Carpenter, Michael Gates who was a tight end moving to tackle and has all the ability in the world. All these guys, all these freshmen, Anthony Dunning, Royce Blackledge, all these guys can be outstanding players. One of these days we are going to have an outstanding offensive line. That day ain't today and it ain't going to be next week, either. But one of these days we're going to have a great offensive line, if these guys stay they're going to be a group to remember around here for some time. They can be as good an offensive line as there is in the country, but not now. We've got a lot of work to do.
We've got questions. James Redmond has a little back problem right now. If he plays up to his capability we'll be solid in the offensive line. If he doesn't we're going to struggle and have to play some of these freshmen, they'll have to get some on-the-job training. We're not going to wait on them very much longer. Roland Terry, Dio Herrera, pretty much the same situation as Redmond. They've been here a year and have got to grow up and step up and start playing. Two other guys, Chris Spencer and Craig Jenkins are going to be good players, I have no doubt about that. We're going to move Spencer out to tackle today and give him a shot at tackle. They may not play this year but they're going to be good players, so we've got a solid group of offensive linemen we signed last year. We're going to try to speed the process up but it's going to take some time.
Wide Receivers: Right now we're beat-up pretty bad. Will Prosser and Keon Humphries are in the pool every day so we're not getting a whole lot out of either of them. Tee Milons is having a very good camp, he has really matured and is way ahead of last year. This morning a walk-on, Jamayel Smith, stepped up and went from a green jersey to a Maroon jersey. He's made very play in practice, if we had to play the game this week he'd be starting at X-receiver. Joey Sanders stepped up this morning, he's worked tremendously hard. I was down on him in spring, he's come back and got himself in shape and is running better. He wasn't catching earlier because he didn't have confidence and wasn't looking the ball in. We asked him to focus on the little things and he started to have a better practice. If Joey and Jamayel step up we'll have a good receiving corps.
We've got three freshmen that are going to be good, but they're freshmen. They haven't figured out what is right and left yet, they're having a hard time lining up. They're going to be good players, hopefully in a couple of weeks when we play Murray State, but right now they're struggling, they've got to get in shape and they don't understand what it takes to play at this level. They're freshmen, we understand and are going to be patient with them, but they're going to have to work. We're not going to spoon-feed them, they have to jump in and get to it.
Running Back: Right now we've got one player and that's Norwood. Any running back prospects that read this, if they want to come in had possibly have a starting job, they can come right in because when Norwood leaves the door is wide-open. It changes every practice, in fact it changes every period in practice. One of them will look good this time, another the next time. None of the rest even look like they can line up and play for us with any kind of consistency.
I know you're worried about Norwood's knee, he got a little bit of a strain. But it's probably the last time he'll get hit in training camp because he's all we've got. We were going to move Brandon Hart to fullback, we've worked him as short yardage halfback, now we're moving him completely to halfback. One thing about him, he'll roll in there and hurt somebody. He might run over our guys, too, but I want a physical halfback. The rest of them are a bunch of guys who haven't quite figured it out yet, but we're going to give them plenty of opportunities and especially Saturday to find out. We're looking for one of them to step up.
We're very solid at fullback, I think Bryson Davis can be as good a fullback as there is in the country. He's practicing well, he's way ahead of where he was last year, he's running the ball, catching the ball, not missing assignments. And he's tough. We've got him for this year and one more year. A walk-on, Casey Rogers, is giving us some depth there. We thought he had a pinched nerve and he had surgery in the off-season and made it better, that allowed us to move Dezmond Sherrod back to tight end. Dezmond will play some fullback as well, he's sort of our X-factor; wherever we have a problem he ends up going there.
Tight End: We're solid. We have Jason Husband, Eric Butler, Dezmond Sherrod, and Jeremy Jones.
So offensively it starts with the offensive line and wide receivers. If we get that squared away and get a backup quarterback we'll be in good shape. But early on our defense and our kicking game is going to have to carry us. Offensively we have to hope we get some big plays from Jerious and our wide receivers, but our #1 thing is we can't do anything to get us beat.
So that's where we are. And I'll say this, I'm having a lot more fun coaching this football team than any time last year. I enjoy being around them because they're trying to get better. They think the can win, they believe in each other, and they're working extremely hard. They are trying to do what we ask them to do, and that's all they can do. Ill try to be very patient with them for the most part, we've just got to move them out of that comfort zone so they have total confidence in themselves and can be mentally tough when things go against them, and at some point this season we'll be OK. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us because of our inexperience early, but we're going to have a lot of fun.
W're going to work real hard the rest of the week and probably next week, find the guys that will start against Murray State and get them rested, well, and ready to play.
Q: Were the defensive moves in spring made to get more speed on the field?
Croom: We want to be a speed defense, we always want to be a speed defense. We recruit speed on defense.
Q: Does going with a lighter defense help compensate for depth?
Croom: Now, those guys at end are 260! We wanted speed. We want two big guys inside, other than that we want speed. In fact, every year we'll probably try to sign two big guys to go inside, and they still have to run so they can protect our middle linebacker. And then we'll go sign defensive ends. We're not going to sign a lot of big guys to just fill space that can't run, we like signing defensive ends. Even to the point where if we're ever short on tackles if we have to move a defensive end we'd rather do that. We won't give up speed for size ever on defense.
As head coach I have to get the best available athletes when we're recruiting and get the guys that can play winning football in a position where we can get them all on the field. In our schemes we have to get the players in positions to make plays. Whoever our best blitzers are, that's the guys I want blitzing. Whoever our best receivers are that's the guys I want catching the football. I don't want to run a go-route to a guy that can't get open on a go-route. We're going to have to be a football team that puts certain guys in positions to make certain plays, using every guy on that team. If they're a winning player we have to use all hands, and not ask them to do anything we can't do.
Q: How much more confidence do you have in Conner? Croom": I have complete confidence in him. I know he's going to make some mistakes but I know this, he has a lot better understanding of the offense. I feel very confident in him as far as if he gets some time and protection. He still has some fundamental things he's got to work on, and I want him to understand now he's got make sure he's doing everything from a read-standpoint, from a drop-standpoint, to make sure the plays are being run fast enough so he does not get in any undue pressure on himself, any more than there is going to be because of our offensive line situation.
The biggest thing is making sure nobody does anything dumb in practice, like get too close to his throwing arm, tacking him, or something like that. When you get in the game you play the game, you can't play football and stay healthy, you do that and you get hurt every time.
Q: You've said some of the offense doesn't ‘get it.' What does that mean?
Croom: Offensive football is a little tougher than defense, it's a lot tougher to put together. Because if you're running to the football, all eleven guys, a guy can break down and you can still have a successful play. On offense there can be no breakdowns, absolutely none. You have to run a perfect play to gain four yards on offense. Right now our offensive linemen have to grow up. I thought they made a move this morning when they realized when you get tired don't look to the bench because there is nobody else. Get it through your head, those first five guys are what we've got right now. They're going to have to suck it up, have to go and still going to have to win.
Q: Talk about Tee Milons.
Croom: Tee finally did get it, there's a certain way we want to do things and he finally decided he was going to do it that way. I've talked to him a lot about the details of things. And he's a good receiver, he's in better shape than he's ever been, he's starting to be a technician as a route-runner. He's very smart, he understands the game, he has good hands. But his work ethic has improved, he's matured. He goes out every day and doesn't feel sorry for himself. Think about it, he and Will and Keon are the three receivers on the first team; those other two go down and he just keeps right on working. It's amazing from last year to this time how much he's grown up, right now he's a go-to guy. Third down he's going to be a big weapon for us because that's where his skills really come into play where we can get him in one-on-one situations inside where he can make plays. He's made tremendous strides for us.
Q: Can the offense get where it needs to be by the first game?
Croom: Oh, anything's possible! I know we're going to work at it. The key is staying healthy, if we can stay healthy and work every day and nobody quits we'll be fine. And they're going to be pushed to the edge every day they're out there. Every day they're going to find out just how much they like playing football, because I want to test them right now. Somewhere in the season they're going to get down to the end of the game and there ain't nobody going to come for them, and we may have to drive the length of the field to win the ball game. It may take 20 plays but ain't nobody coming in to get anybody out. So they might as well get ready for it now.
Q: Is defense always ahead of offense at this time of the year?
Croom: A lot of people say that but hey, when you're good on offense it's not. The bottom line is we're just not very good right now. That doesn't mean we're not going to be, I think we can be good. I think we can be very good. If those five offensive linemen—Anderson, Wadley, McNeil, Strauder, Wilson—if they stay healthy that will be a good offensive line. Then you've got Gates, Dunning, Carpenter, they're going to be good players. Michael Gates has never played tackle, in fact he's only played one year of football. We moved him to left tackle and he has the potential to be a great tackle, not just a good one, a great one someday.
I was in the NFL for 17 years, we've got two tackles with as much ability as any offensive tackles that I coaches wth in the NFL, in Gates and Wilson. They've got that much ability. But they're freshmen. But, if that's what we've got to start, that's who we're going to start. They're going to make mistakes but ability-wise they're as good as anybody I've ever been around.
Q: How has Chris McNeil matured from his first spring with you, with what he went through?
Croom: He's come a long way. It was very obvious this morning when we had a little old-fashioned gut-check for the offensive line, he realized what was going on and hey, he took charge; OK boys, it's us five and let's get it done. That's part of the process. We want them to understand that it's on their shoulders. When the offensive line starts to accept the responsibility for the success of the offense, until that happens you're not going to be good offensively. Those five guys have to accept responsibility for everything that happens offensively. When they do start to operate with one heartbeat, we'll be fine. We'll be pretty good.