Offensive Line Shuffles Disrupted By Injuries

It didn't take long for the moves to begin after Mississippi State's coaches reviewed Saturday's scrimmage game. In fact, the staff probably did not even have to see the tapes again to know changes were coming when the Bulldogs got back on the practice field. On Monday morning, the shuffling began exactly where expected.

The offensive line that opened the morning practice had two new names, and two familiar faces in new places as Coach Sylvester Croom tried a wholesale new approach to improving Bulldog blocking. Unfortunately, by the end of practice, even some of these changes had to be changed-back.

The most obvious moves came from lack of production from the right side on Saturday. Right tackle Avery House and guard Anthony Strauder have been demoted from first-team, swapping Maroon jerseys for backup-green. In their place(s) at 7:30 a.m. were the guys who had been running #1 on the left side, with Brian Anderson taking right tackle and Johnny Wadley right guard. The spots they left vacant were filled by true freshmen. Michael Gates, who had worked at right tackle, was promoted to Maroon at left tackle; and Anthony Dunning to left guard.

Center Chris McNeil was the only #1 lineman still in his same job Monday morning. Given lackluster efforts by some blockers, and work-limiting injuries to others, all the moves seemed reasonable ideas.

"We made some position changes," Croom acknowledged. "All our tackles are hurt, so we started out today hoping Gates would practice at left tackle. We put Dunning at left guard, and Wadley and Anderson on the right side. That fell through early."

It did because the right shoulder Dunning separated a week ago (he did not work full-speed until Friday) flared up. And Gates, who only returned from an ankle sprain the day of the scrimmage, could not go full-speed. With freshman tackle Calvin Wilson (knee) and junior tackle James Redmond (back) sidelined Monday in red-cross jerseys, along with freshman tackle Craig Jenkins (knee), Anderson had to return to his left tackle job. Roland Terry tried to run first-team at right tackle the rest of the session.

The second line, right to left, was Terry, Johnny Carpenter, Royce Blackledge, Strauder, and Chris Spencer. Dio Herrera is now at #3 center. But really, there is no second offensive line at the moment and, to Croom's mind, not a full first-team able to get the job done. He had good words for McNeil, Anderson, and Wadley whatever their positions. After those three?

"The rest of the jobs are open." Croom said he now hopes to keep Wadley at right guard. "Because he's a better power-blocker on the drive and those other guys are better pullers." Certainly having Anderson and Wadley on the right side shows how concerned the staff is about being able to run to that favored side of the field. But the issue goes deeper than mixing-and-matching to Croom right now. First, the injury-absence of Wilson and Redmond has created issues all across the front.

And others are not rising to the opportunity. The coach is particularly upset with a pair of guys who could help the right side out greatly. "Terry and Strauder, they really don't act like they want to play, and it's decision time," Croom said. "I'm going to call their folks and talk to them. If they don't want to play I don't want them out here. Both of them have the ability to be starters in this conference, but they act like they don't want to play. They're good kids, they've got talent, but they've got some growing to do and they've got to get some mental toughness. I'm not going to quit on them if they don't quit on themselves."

Not all the attention was on the blocking, though some candidates for backup jobs in the backfield wished it had been. "We don't have but one fullback right now," said Croom. Bryson Davis has carried his weight there, but rookie Brandon Hart's progress of last week has leveled off and walk-on Casey Rodgers has a hurt ankle. Croom said walk-on Taurus Young will get a good look this afternoon. A brighter note was redshirt DeMarcus Johnson. "He looked like he wants to play for the first time," the coach said.

That made him an exception on an offense that continues to struggle. Yes, the injury-absence of halfback Jerious Norwood and flanker Will Prosser, and limited status of wideouts Tay Bowser and Keon Humphries have taken some tools from practice gameplans. But the coach isn't cutting the healthy Dogs any slack, and they are not responding well to the pressure.

"Our offense punched the clock again today. Except for Wadley, Anderson, and McNeil; they came out and worked but they do that every day. The rest aren't finishing plays. We slopped around today, and our coaches stood there and let them slop around for most of the practices. So we've got to get that corrected."

The corrections begin again this afternoon, with the last scheduled two-a-day session starting around 3:45. Croom is hoping some of the attitude shown by the guys in white and blue jerseys rubs off on their Maroon and green counterparts. "We've got leadership on defense. Our defense is trying to get better, they come out here every day and work hard." The Dawg D definitely worked hard Saturday, holding the #1 offense to just three first downs and nothing resembling points. There were no noticeable changes to either the first or second units on this side of the ball afterwards, nor none needed.

Why the offense doesn't show the same sort of effort baffles Croom as much as it bothers him. "We're on the same field, in the same heat, yet the defense runs to the ball every play and the offense doesn't. I thought the defense and offense went through the same off-season program. But it's sure not obvious because it looks like our offense is in whole lot worse shape than our defense.

"I don't think it's a matter of conditioning, I think it's a matter of heart and leadership and character. We're going to get some on offense from somewhere. Either that or everybody is going to be miserable. Because I'm miserable watching this."

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