Defense Again Dominates At Wednesday Practice

As Mississippi State wraps up the ‘camp' portion of preseason and moves into a fall semester routine of school and practicing, the coaching staff appears to have three teams to work with. There is the defensive team that has dominated the first two weeks of drills; and the offensive squad that is still struggling to find a lineup and learn a gameplan.

Then there is the third group, the athletes unable to participate either partly or fully in daily segments due to injuries. If Coach Sylvester Croom occasionally catches himself looking at that bunch of Bulldogs, well, it's understandable. "Hopefully we get some of those guys back soon," Croom said after Wednesday's afternoon practice session. "If we don't we're going to go to Plan B."

There isn't a whole lot of practice time left for any planning, much less installing it. Between now and the September 3 kickoff the entire team really, really need to get some of those battered Bulldogs back ASAP. Especially on an offensive line that for a second day could barely find ten healthy bodies to line up in two groups…and due to a devastated tackle roster there wasn't even two true ‘teams' in blocking drills.

At least this day it was not another injury forcing first-team shuffles. Junior left tackle Brian Anderson had to be excused due to the death of an uncle. Still there were only four blockers wearing first-team Maroon for this days work: right tackle Avery House, right guard Johnny Wadley, center Chris McNeil, and left guard freshman Anthony Dunning. They were joined by freshman Chris Spencer at left tackle in a second-team green shirt.

"Brian was out today so that knocked another hole in our offensive line, so we have two freshmen on the left side today," Croom said. "Same song, another verse." The coach didn't need to reprise the list of other linemen, all tackles, who were on campus but wearing red-cross jerseys again. For the record though they were Calvin Wilson (knee), Michael Gates (ankle), James Redmond (back), and Craig Jenkins (knee).

The second line Wednesday had Roland Terry at right tackle, freshman Johnny Carpenter at right guard, Royce Blackledge at center, and Anthony Strauder at left guard in a yellow limited-contact shirt after missing some work with a sore shoulder. There was no true tackle on the left end due to absence and injuries, so Spencer did a double-shift in many drills. Dio Herrera and walk-on Daniel Kennedy were thirds at center and guard.

Lack of being able to put the same first-five on the field at the same time for any more than a couple of days at a time has taken a toll on offensive practices through the first two weeks of work. The problem now, Croom notes, is the impact this will continue to have as the season draws closer and chances to gel get scarcer.

"Until we get some of those other guys healthy I'm going to really reduce what we're doing," the coach said. "Because we have to play with those young guys, make sure they know what they're doing. It doesn't do any good to have schemes that they don't truly understand and can't execute."

The offensive backfield also continued to work short-handed, with the fullback position missing both starter Bryson Davis (groin), freshman Brandon Hart (shoulder), and Casey Rogers (ankle). H-back Dezmond Sherrod is still wearing the yellow shirt after an early-camp hip injury.

There was a good sign though as halfback Jerious Norwood was upgraded to yellow status Wednesday, a week after suffering a tackle-drill knee strain. Norwood is still not doing any serious work in the offensive backfield but this day got back into punt-return practices. He took turns there with Jonathan Lowe, also his replacement as #1 halfback, along with Tee Milons, Dennis Little, and when possible freshman Derek Pegues who was usually busy with secondary instructions.

The wide receiver positions have almost the full roster to work with now, as only flanker Keon Humphries is limited. The knee he had repaired in spring is doing well but the redshirt has had some shin problems lately. Still he is able to run patterns in unit drills and even in some non-contact team segements. For contact days the flanker lineup begins with first-teammer Joey Sanders followed by freshman Tay Bowser, Jamayel Smith, and Tyler Threadgill.

At split end Milons is still the only one in Maroon; the rotation from there has freshmen Corey Gardhigh and Adron Chambers practically even followed by Lance Long and Rashad Smith. The differences in positions or even teams does not matter much for now because there is extensive practicing with three- and four-receiver sets all through the sessions, a trend likely to continue until next week when the rotation is narrowed down to game players.

There have been a few encouraging signs from the skill positions, yet overall Croom can't find much that makes him happy about that side of the ball. Wednesday was no exception. "I'm going to start writing this script," he said, "our defense keeps getting better every day. The only thing I'm concerned about is I think we're getting better but I'm still trying to assess exactly where we are because we're not performing very well offensively."

Setting aside offensive woes there is good reason to think the Dog defense is in strong shape. Croom said there are a few things still needing polish, but other aspects are solid and a few outstanding. "When we get in pass-rushing mode we're pretty good on defense."

Defensively a couple of regulars who had been limited Tuesday with after-effects from heat stress were back in first-team white, middle linebacker Quinton Culberson and safety De'Mon Glanton. The latter was promoted to the #1 team when Mario Bobo was hurt in the Saturday scrimmage; Bobo is back in action and on the first team but Glanton gets to keep that status for the moment.

The alternate group added a member, too, as backup defensive tackle Corey Clark exchanged his blue shirt for white when practice began. Clark now rounds out a four-man rotation in the interior of starters Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson and alternates Antonio Johnson and Clark.

The defense is essentially back to full-strength now, as only linebacker Gabe O'Neal is still limited due to a summer knee operation that is slow to heal. Still O'Neal is working in more drills now and to avoid colorful confusion when the teams square off he wore an unnumbered purple shirt Wednesday instead of yellow.

Croom could not be blamed for wishing that if there had to be injuries they could have been distributed a little more evenly across the roster. Having the tackle positions decimated daily is especially frustrating because a couple of true freshmen—Wilson and Gates—could have won the starting jobs outright by now, and need all the technical teaching they can get before kickoff. Now they, and other hurting pups, have not only missed priceless preparation time but will have to be somewhat protected when they are cleared for contact work.

"I'm hoping we get a few of them back next week," said Croom. "But they've got certain injuries, and we're talking about real big guys with nagging pains. You don't want to get them out there and make things worse. But you've got to get them back sometime."

With the start of fall classes State has switched to afternoon practices. There will be a closed scrimmage on Saturday as well. Croom says despite the injuries the staff has largely been able to go by the preseason schedule and get most of the planned work done. "But the quality of what we've done offensively isn't anywhere near where it needs to be. As I've been saying all along we can be pretty good on defense, that's a positive aspect and where you start.

"But right now our offense is going to have to play defense and not turn the ball over and put a lot of pressure on our defense, because we're not moving the ball very well right now." Hmmm. Would that happen to be the ‘Plan B' that the coach was speaking of earlier? Sorry, no such scoop today.

"I'm not going to refer to Plan B," Croom said. "Because we're going to use it in a game."

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