"If that's what it takes, for them to be quiet and practice well, that's fine. And we got some things done, on both sides of the ball."
There was some reason to be concerned, after Monday's last set of two-a-day drills left Mississippi State players exhausted in body and spirit. Along with the long list of players officially injured, or limited, practically the whole roster was looking worse for a dozen day's wear. No wonder Croom was alarmed at a lack of life this morning. Yet some two hours, fifteen minutes later a livelier group left the field along with a satisfied coach.
"I thought we got a little bit better today. They pushed themselves a lot harder."
Perhaps it was just the mental relief of knowing double-day drills are done. Certainly two-a-days could not end soon enough for a State training staff kept busy since camp opened, and the best part of an intact team could be lined up from the roster of Dogs wearing either sidelined-red cross jerseys or no-contact yellow shirts.
No area has been harder-hit this month than the offensive line, and each end of that line most of all. As the players assembled for their unit drills there were literally not enough healthy blockers to field two complete lines. Only by letting freshman Anthony Dunning, garbed in yellow, take a stance at #2 left guard could the linemen alternate line-by-line. Blockers unable to do any work at all Tuesday were tackle Calvin Wilson (knee), tackle James Redmond (back), tackle Michael Gates (ankle), guard Anthony Strauder (shoulder), tackle Craig Jenkins (knee), and guard Dio Herrera (heat stresses).
After a series of Monday-morning shuffles were negated by aggravated hurts to Dunning (shoulder) and Gates, the #1 line today was, left to right, Brian Anderson, freshman Johnny Carpenter, Chris McNeil, Johnny Wadley, and Avery House. That was the line that finished up Monday afternoon, and something must have clicked in the process because Croom liked Tuesday's efforts.
"Offensively our protection was better. I guess it helped that we had the same group up there two days in a row." The second line, such as it was, had freshman Chris Spencer at left tackle, Dunning at left guard, Royce Blackledge at center, walk-on Daniel Kennedy at right guard, and Roland Terry at right tackle. The first unit is settling in as Croom noted, but he certainly can't wait to get a few tackles back on active duty. "If we can get those hurt guys back and everybody practicing at some time, I think we'll be alright."
It wasn't just the line missing personnel, and in the backfield both starting backs were in red crosses again. Halfback Jerious Norwood is resting the knee strained a week ago, but not wearing a brace any more; while fullback Bryson Davis strained a groin Monday morning. In fact there is a lack of fullbacks at the moment as backup freshman Brandon Hart (shoulder) and spring standout Casey Rogers (ankle) are also sidelined.
Still there were more good signs from backup halfback Demarcus Johnson, who had fallen behind converted wideout Jonathan Lowe and fellow redshirt Brandon Thornton. "Right now Demarcus and Jonathan are our two backups to Norwood," Croom said. "The ball is moving up the field a lot more when Demarcus has it, and I know he's tough. He's just got a lot to learn, I think he's starting to focus on the game better so he'll be coming around."
Fortunately there have been no injuries to the top quarterbacks, as Omarr Conner and Mike Henig are set as 1-2. As in Monday afternoon's session, the other triggermen (Brett Morgan, Tray Rutland, and Ty Evans) are now getting minimal turns running the offense in team work because the offensive staff is now focused more on getting ready for the season than setting a depth chart.
Hening, who had a tough scrimmage on Saturday with low throws and missed patterns by wideouts, has responded with two solid days of work and solidified his status again. "Mike continues to improve, he threw the ball well again this morning," Croom said. "It's all about protection, our two quarterbacks if we can protect them can throw the ball. I'm not worried about them, we just have to get our protection squared away and that comes from getting our linemen well. When that happens we're going to be alright."
And the wide-receiving corps is getting back to strength again. Flanker Keon Humphries is still wearing the yellow shirt but doing almost everything a healthy player can do short of full-contact. Freshman Tay Bowser, slowed for days by a hamstring, was back in a green second-teammer shirt Tuesday and in the rotation. Veterans Tee Milons and Joey Sanders are the only receivers in first-team Maroon at the moment, but that should change by next week Croom said.
"Getting Prosser and Keon back is going to make a big difference. Will is supposed to be back out Monday, we're not going to push him or Keon. Those two with Tee and Joey give us four solid guys that know what they're doing. Keon has really come a long way and if Will picks up where he did in spring we'll be fine. Joey has picked it up tremendously, he's practicing hurt but he's pushing through it. Tee is having a good camp so far.
"And the kids, Tay Bowser has shown a lot of talent and skills and the speed we're looking for. You can see him starting to grow up each day, but he's got a long way to go. All the work Corey Gardhigh missed means he looks like a freshman, we're just waiting on that. But I expect them to play, we're not going to try to hold them out."
During the three sessions held Monday and Tuesday, the head coach has spent the great majority of his time observing the offensive team. There are far fewer defensive issues for now, as the scrimmage showed. A handful of D-Dogs are wearing yellow at the moment; linebacker Gabe O'Neal is still slowed by the July knee operation, and both middle LB Quinton Culberson and #2 safety De'Mon Glanton were limited Tuesday after suffering from Monday overheating. O'Neal's job has been held all camp by Anthony Littlejohn, and Brad Horton ran first MLB this morning with rookie Jimmy Miller as backup.
Still Croom has noticed a few things on that side of the ball lately, especially how a couple of veteran defensive backs are setting a tone for the whole unit. "Two guys that stood out that I haven't talked a lot about are Kevin Dockery and Jeramie Johnson. They've practiced well every day, they have a lot of fun and compete all day and enjoy playing the game. The whole camp they've given us a lot of leadership, if everybody worked at it like those two we'd be fine."
The first few segements were spent in punting practices, with Brooks Crabtree still the starter but freshman Blake McAdams improving his consistency every day while showing impressive hang times. Milons, Lowe, and walk-on Dennis ‘Stuart' Little took turns in return work Tuesday.
Camp is half-completed and the coaching staff are making some mid-month decisions related to how much of the schemes can still be installed by kickoff. The number of newcomers in the two-deep is obviously impacting the amount of teaching that must, and can, be done at this point, particularly because the kids wear down quicker than older Dogs. "We've got a lot of young guys still learning how to work, how to push themselves through adversity," Croom noted. "This is tougher than anything they've ever been through."
What is tough for Croom and assistants this August is figuring how much more the team can be pushed, physically and mentally, without doing further damage. If there is any benefit to all the injuries it is that the staff does at least know what sort of backups and reserves are on the roster. But obviously everybody would rather have the best talent on the practice field as soon as possible. And that is the guessing-game Croom & Co. are playing this and next week.
"It's a thin line between getting them out there and getting them ready to play, and aggravating injuries," Croom said. "That's what you have to decide. Now if it's anywhere close we're going to follow the advice of the trainers, because we need them out there for a length of time. It will definitely hamper how much we're able to do offensively but that's just the way it is."
Tuesday also marked the end of scheduled morning practices. Wednesday's session is set for 3:45.