"We'll scrimmage tomorrow, it will be a very short scrimmage," said Croom. "We're going to close practice tomorrow and it will be closed all the way up to the Murray State game."
The State staff has good reasons for a shorter second scrimmage. Most obviously, to avoid risking new injuries or aggravating existing ones now that preseason is to the point of game preparation. But there is another motive to an abbreviated contact day. The Bulldogs worked in shorts and helmet only Thursday and Friday, and the results were thoroughly encouraging to the head coach.
"Overall we had two good days," he said, and Croom meant both physically and emotionally. "I think the guys are starting to get a little enthusiasm." Besides, some first- and second-team Dogs are starting to get healthy again after injury setbacks which has improved the whole team's attitude as much as their efficiency in drills. There will be full-pads and full-contact Saturday, but within reasonable limits.
"We have some guys that won't scrimmage," Croom said, mentioning limited players such as halfback Jerious Norwood and flanker Keon Humphries. Both can go in non-contact, they just won't be hit at all. "And beyond that we'll limit it, we'd like the guys that have been out to get just a little bit but not a lot. We don't want to risk anybody getting hurt so they can't practice next week."
Ironically it was just a week ago the head coach openly questioned if his players could even get a decent day's work done when wearing less than full-gear. Croom even said all future practices would be in pads. By Thursday he'd backed off the hard stance and Friday afternoon he acknowledged that practicing in the lightest gear possible was the right way to go.
"I think in the two days in shorts we got a lot out of it. And it gave us a chance to get six or seven guys in who wouldn't otherwise have practiced. I think we've learned how to practice without killing each other, because we're pretty beat-up. We don't have a lot of guys who are going to play the games in our starting unit, so we've got to learn to practice in shorts and shells most of the season so we keep guys healthy."
That is a longer-term concern and Croom wonders if some Dogs will be 100% at any point this year. Certainly a good portion of the first-team roster is day-to-day. "We've still got a lot of walking wounded, if we had a game they'd play. But we want to get them feeling good, as good as you possibly can after a hard training camp like we've had."
Just how hard camp has been can be judged by the numbers of players in limited-contact yellow and puple jersies, or no-work red cross shirts. Plus, a pair of first-teammers were excused on Friday. Norwood, who is protecting the knee strained ten days ago anyway, was with family following the death of an uncle. And defensive tackle Deljuan Robinson was also given the day-off with a family emergency.
Co-#1 tight end Eric Butler was having a knee examined after hurting himself Thursday. And by practice time the State staff had gotten word that James Redmond's surgery had gone well. The backup offensive tackle has not practiced since the first day of camp with a bad back, caused it turned out by a ruptured disc in the lower back. The operation by Dr. Al Sills in Memphis cleaned up the loose material that had pressed on a nerve. Redmond could be back in as few as three weeks or as many as six weeks.
Not practicing on defense were middle linebacker Brad Horton, wearing purple a second day with a hurt groin, and reserve tackle Solomon Ona.
With Robinson out the interior defensive line depth chart changed. Junior transfer Antonio Johnson had been wearing first-team white already, Friday he was officially the #1 tackle. Avery House practiced as his backup, while Corey Clark spelled Andrew Powell at nose tackle. At linebackers, starting MLB Quinton Culberson was backed by Carlton Rice this day with freshman Jimmy Miller slipping to the third team. Now that Gabe O'Neal is back in practice he is trying to regain his #1 outside job that is being held, and held well, by redshirt Anthony Littlejohn. Clarence McDougal is being backed by freshman Jamar Chaney.
Freshman Derek Pegues and Keith Fitzhugh got almost as many snaps with the first unit, at left and right corner respectively, as #1s Kevin Dockery and David Heard. The third team corners are now Jamaal Johnson on the left side and Leron Yarbrough right. Mario Bobo and Jeramie Johnson are secure as the first safeties; the competition is behind them for second-unit jobs which Friday were taken by De'Mon Glanton and Marcus Evans. Jarvis Kyles and Aubrey Bell are the third pair.
One way to judge the success, and the depth, of the defensive squad through preseason is that over half of the players lining up on the #2 unit are wearing first-team white jerseys.
But as the week wound down Croom has found things to compliment in an offensive team that has taken a beating most of camp. Even a downtrodden and injury-riddled group of blockers is making progress. "Our offensive line the last two days has gotten better from a technique standpoint because we've had a chance to go back and teach a lot of little things."
It's also helped that the same fivesome has worked as #1 for three-straight days, a noteworthy feat in itself given how the month has gone for this group. The first unit is not 100% as left guard Anthony Strauder still wears yellow after banging up a shoulder, suffering from heat, and being ill in the same week. But the redshirt has fought through and is back with the first unit, albeit on the other side of center from where he began camp. The rest of the first line is left tackle Brian Anderson, center Chris McNeil, right guard Johnny Wadley, and right tackle Avery House.
The backup group is still, right to left, Roland Terry, freshman Johnny Carpenter, Royce Blackledge, freshman Anthony Dunning, and freshman Michael Gates who is still slowed by an ankle sprain. That left half a third group made up of tackle Chris Spencer, guard/center Daniel Kennedy, and center/guard Dio Herrera. Freshmen tackles Calvin Wilson (knee, nerve) and Craig Jenkins (knee) were in red crosses again Friday, and of course Redmond is getting over his operation.
Also limited were fullback Bryson Davis (groin) and flanker Keon Humphries (shin splints), while fullback Casey Rogers (ankle) and flanker Will Prosser (foot) were in red crosses. Prosser has not practiced since a July operation for the stress fracture but should be ready to go the first of next week. Humphries has been able to practice everything but contact drills and is in the regular receiver rotation already. And there has been encouraging news as H-back Dezmond Sherrod, who has struggled for over a week with a hurting hip muscle, is back on the first unit.
A couple of backups have been promoted to wear first-team colors due to both injuries by others and their own solid camp efforts. Walk-ons fullback Taurus Young and wide receiver Lance Long were in Maroon jersies to end the week. And redshirt freshman halfback Demarcus Johnson, who Croom has complimented lately, was also in Maroon and alternating with Jonathan Lowe as the first-team ball carrier.
Croom says the passing game has made some welcome strides, and needs young pass-catchers to add their abilities to keep the momentum going. "We're throwing the ball better. We've got some guys that have to step up. Tee Milons and Keon Humphries and Joey Sanders are making plays but other receivers are not. They're getting there and running routes but not catching balls. But that's part of it when learning a new offense, I have to be patient with them because while trying to learn routes young kids think so much, they don't concentrate on catching the ball."
Now that there is more attention on getting ready for real games, special teams are getting much more work. Friday gave a first look at kickoff return teams, with Lowe and Pegues sharing the deep-back job while Dennis Little and Adron Chambers are the outside men in a three-back setup. Keith Andrews kicks off of course and at the moment is unchallenged for the placekicking job.
The other specialist spot has suddenly gotten more interesting. "Punting is going to be a nice race between Brooks Crabtree and Blake McAdams, both are kicking well," Croom said. "We had Blake playing safety but he's switching exclusively to punting right now."
Saturday's closed scrimmage will have more periods than usual invested in kicking plays. "We've got to find out exactly who will work on kickoff and kickoff return tomorrow full-speed," said Croom. "We're going to work on punt, punt block and punt return, and see particularly with our freshmen who is going to go into the game playing wide-open, and guys we may try to gradually ease in or wait-and-see are they ready before we waste a year on them. And some of our walk-ons, see how they fit."
Croom added that the scrimmage will be useful in settling some issues in the offensive line, though still allowing for the hoped return of Wilson and others. It is high time to settle on a regular receiver rotation, and some backup jobs remain open for the taking. Yes, the staff would like to set a depth chart as soon as possible, but the head coach doesn't want to close all doors just yet.
"Anybody that can help us win in any kind of role we've got to decide what that role is and how we can use them. Whoever can give us the best chance to win in anything, we're going to get them in the game."
Game day may be two weeks away yet it's clear Croom's thoughts are turning in that direction. To that end, when the Bulldogs leave Scott Field this Saturday the remaining work will be scheduled accordingly. "We want the enthusiasm that they can't wait to play, (so) we have to get them fresh and feeling good and so ready that they can't wait to get out there," Croom explained.
"And you can't do that in one week, so we have to gradually wind down. After today we'll cut practice back and try to be disciplined enough to have shorter practice and focus on what we do so they can get some rest and get enthusiasm back and get excited about playing again."