"I think it lifted the spirits a little bit. Plus it gave the chance to teach and learn some stuff."
The non-contact day marked another sort of change, in the coach's opinion of how the Bulldogs are handling the rigors of this preseason. Through the first two work-weeks Croom openly questioned team toughness, especially on the offensive side of the roster. Now? The opinion has taken a turn for the better, in general. "Right now I've got a pretty good feel for who's tough and who needs a little more seasoning before they play," Croom said.
No group has had a tougher camp than the offensive line, which looks a lot more at the moment like a team battered over the course of a full season instead of a couple weeks' drilling. But Thursday did see the most-frequently practiced #1 unit back together, as left tackle Brian Anderson returned after missing Wednesday for the death of an uncle. And while he was still wearing a yellow jersey for a hurting shoulder, redshirt freshman Anthony Strauder found himself promoted back to the first team, as left guard.
The rest of the #1 line was center Chris McNeil, right guard Johnny Wadley, and right tackle Avery House. The second line also had a yellow shirt, with freshman Michael Gates (ankle) at left tackle. He was joined by left guard freshman Anthony Dunning, who seems over the shoulder injury of a week ago; center Royce Blackledge, freshman guard Johnny Carpenter, and tackle Roland Terry. There were three other healthy blockers left for the third unit, all on the left side; tackle Chris Spencer, guard/center Daniel Kennedy, and center/guard Dio Herrera.
Of the three tackles sidelined in red crosses one is about to be worked on. Croom confirmed Thursday that James Redmond will have surgery tomorrow, in Memphis, to correct a herniated disc in his lower back. The operation will remove material pressing on a nerve and causing sufficient discomfort that the junior has been unable to practice almost since camp began. "They said he's going to be out three-to-six weeks," Croom said, "with a back I'm figuring at worst six weeks and we'll go from there."
Meanwhile freshman tackles Calvin Wilson (knee, nerve) and Craig Jenkins (knee) did not practice again. Jenkins is out for a couple more weeks with a meniscus tear; Wilson has been limited or sidelined with the after-effects of both a June meniscus tear of his own in an all-star game and, now, an affected nerve. No further surgery should be required if medication does the trick, and Croom made it clear he has no contingency plans for the talented rookie tackle.
"Calvin is going to get used this year, as soon he gets ready he's going to get used a lot. It's just a matter of getting him ready to play. But Calvin is in the two-deep and if he'll get himself well he'll be in the one-deep."
A Bulldog who is getting well at last is linebacker Gabe O'Neal. July knee surgery has slowed the sophomore down for two weeks but Thursday was the first time O'Neal took the field in a normal practice jersey, first-team white. He will still have to hustle to get by redshirt Anthony Littlejohn who has taken advantage of O'Neal's absence. The only defender unable to go full-speed was middle linebacker Brad Horton with a groin pull. His #2 spot at MLB was taken by freshman Jimmy Miller.
Croom has praised the defensive front-four, starters and backups alike, regularly this month. Of late the coach has taken more notice of the guys backing the line or in the secondary, and Thursday he singled out cornerbacks Kevin Dockery and David Heard, as well as end Titus Brown and LB Littlejohn. "Some guys are really practicing well every day and getting better, so that's exciting to see."
Offensively, the coach pointed to consistent work by first-team wideouts flanker Joey Sanders and split end Tee Milons. And some second-team skill players are stepping it up of late. "(Quarterback) Mike Henig has gotten better every day. (Halfback) Demarcus Johnson, if we had to play today he'd probably be our #2 back. Right now I think we're going to be a little better there than I thought because he and Jonathan Lowe are battling it out to see who backs up Jerious. We'll see Saturday, but those two guys have done some nice things.
"(H-back) Dezmond Sherrod is practicing well, he's the x-factor for us, a guy who can play a lot of different positions. We move him around where we need him. And (walk-on) Taurus Young is really stepping it up and helping us at fullback." Sherrod does still wear a yellow jersey due to a lingering hip flexor strain, but his work load in non-contact days seems to increase daily. Fullback Bryson Davis (groin) and flanker Keon Humphries (shin splints) wore yellow Thursday, while Norwood (knee) did not come out to the practice field. Backup fullback Brandon Hart did return to full status for today.
There was more extensive work on punting and protection Thursday. Returning starter Brooks Crabtree is still holding to the #1 job with freshman Blake McAdams now clearly the second punter. Redshirt Adam Carlson was given a series of punts as well this day, but nothing changed on the depth chart. The punt-block team is taking shape also with athletes such as freshmen Derek Pegues and Aubrey Bell, or sophs Jason Husband and Carlton Rice alternating as the outside rushers. Pegues and fellow frosh cornberback Keith Fitzhugh got to practice as the outside containment men slowing down the ‘gunners' on punt coverages.
Fielding the punts were Tee Milons, Jonathan Lowe, Dennis Little, and Adron Chambers, but returns were not practiced. Placekicking practices were held after media members had to leave following the one-out observation period allowed.
When discussing Wilson, Croom commented that the young tackle is not the only first-year Bulldog expected to fill a real role this season. In fact, he said, "We're not worried about redshirting any freshman this year. They'll probably all travel right now. After about game five or six if they haven't played then I'll try to figure out redshirts. We're not going to stick them in the game one play, if they're not going to play a significant role or aren't in the two-deep. We'll play it game-by-game and see."
The first game is still over two weeks off, so practice remains the order of the day. Since State will scrimmage this Saturday at Scott Field the Friday practice will again be in shorts to keep—or get—as many Bulldogs as healthy as possible. Croom said tomorrow's afternoon session will include a healthy amount of work on red-zone offense and defense, as well as more routine drills.
"Saturday will pretty much be the last time we go in full pads again. We'll try to get them healthy and get some stability, particularly in the offensive line, with everybody knowing what we're doing and then getting them to feel like doing it so when gameday rolls around everybody is excited about about playing the game." Of course, with the fall semester getting underway today, there ought to be some excitement anyway, the coach added.
"With school starting, the girls back on campus, when they hear the band practicing over there, it'll make everybody feel better anyway."