Kickoff Game Gets Wednesday Attention

If any Bulldogs have forgotten that in ten days they kick off the 2005 season, the Wednesday practice plan should have reminded them of upcoming kickoff as Mississippi State worked on…well, on kickoffs. Getting the football off the tee and in the air, as well as caught, returned, and covered.

But for anyone trying to read a message into the day's drills, Coach Sylvester Croom spoiled the easy impression. "Today was just a kickoff day," he said afterwards. "It wasn't anything special, we rotate different phases of the game each day, and we really spent a lot of time today on kickoff coverage and return. It was another day in that cycle."

Maybe so. But that does not lessen the importance State's staff places on the kicking portion of their game this season. Or of the demands made of special teams members, many of whom are still battling for assured spots on the first 11 that will take the field September 3 to either return or cover the season kick-off. So in the first half of Wednesday's work the ball was being booted steadily.

Not surprisingly, the most impressive aspect in this area was the strong foot of Keith Andrews, who consistently crushed the ball. "Keith is definitely kicking off better than he did last year," Croom agreed. In fact he hit the ball so well from the 35-yard line that ‘return' men had to let the ball go and settle for catching a ball flipped to them by a manager before taking off upfield.

Freshman Derek Pegues got the first shift in deep kickoff return, with Jerious Norwood and Jonathan Lowe next on that particular depth chart. By no coincidence these are the same speed-guys who work on fielding and returning punts, joined by Tee Milons. Norwood appears to be first choice on punts return at the moment. And in State's three-deep kickoff return setup Demarcus Johnson and Brandon Thornton were flanked to either side of the deepest Dog. Fullback Bryson Davis and H-back Dezmond Sherrod were the second-deep group in case of shorter or pooched kickoffs.

Kickoff coverage was stressed and while much of that ten-man line is made of second-team regulars some starters, such as Quinton Culberson, Clarence McDougal, and David Heard are sprinkled in.

Of course there were plenty of periods spent in regular offensive and defensive drills, including offense-vs.-defense work. For the most part the #1 teams on each side went against their second-team counterparts, and since this week State is working in ‘shells' only there was no tackling. Not officially, anyway, though shoulder pads and helmets did frequently rattle before a whistle could stop the play.

For the most part Croom thought it was a productive afternoon. "Overall I thought we were practicing better today, our concentration and focus was better. We continued to hit some situational things, we backed up the offense and the defense, worked on going in on the defensive end and in special situations. We'll continue to do that this week to make sure we cover anything that might come up and be familiar with it in case it comes up."

The wide receiver positions are getting healthier day by day, and for the first time junior flanker Will Prosser came to work in a regular jersey instead of the yellow or red cross shirt he spent three weeks wearing while his foot stress-fracture healed. Prosser assumed his first-team place on the depth chart. Also, wideout Keon Humphries was wearing #1 Maroon for the first time, though the redshirt frosh has been able to do most non-contact drills while protecting a sore knee from contact.

"Will and Keon being out there in Maroon jersies, I hope it helped their psyches," said Croom. "It definitely helped mine seeing them out of yellow jersies." Still sidelined were first-team split end Joey Sanders, with a bad hamstring, and freshman Adron Chambers with a brace on his right knee, while Lowe wore yellow for another day with his healing shoulder.

But tight end Eric Butler, who had a knee exam last weekend, was back on the first team. Jason Husband missed Tuesday and returned Wednesday in second-team gear, but will be 100% by game week, while Jeremy Jones wears a red cross and has missed plenty of practice time lately. Fullback Davis seems over the tight groin of a few days ago, and today he was joined on the first team by walk-on Taurus Young who got to wear Maroon for his first time. Freshman Brandon Hart and walk-on Casey Rogers, his ankle now healthy, are the backups in green.

Though there were more split ends and flankers to work with Wednesday, Croom said there was not as much passing because quarterbacks Omarr Conner and Mike Henig are starting to get weary shoulders. These #1 and 2 passers have been tossing a lot of balls in all sorts of routes for the last two weeks and the strain is starting to show. "Which is normal for this time of year," Croom said. "We want to make sure they're good and rested by next week."

A starting member of the backfield who is plenty rested is Norwood. The knee strain of two weeks ago doesn't show at all now, though he does wear a sleeve on the right leg just in case. "It was good to see Jerious out there again, he's running hard and working well. That definitely makes things look better. He's got to fine-tune some things and knock off some rust."

There was nothing new on the first two offensive lines, either in units or where they take stances. The first group, left to right, is Brian Anderson, Anthony Strauder, Chris McNeil, Johnny Wadley, and Avery House. The second team in the same order remains Michael Gates, Dio Herrera, Royce Blackledge, Anthony Gates, and Roland Terry. But off that #2 team freshman Dunning, Blackledge, and freshman Gates wear first-team Maroon as going into game week Croom plans on a eight-man rotation up front.

"We're still breaking down some in our offensive protection," Croom said. "I think we've gotten better but we're still not paying attention to details and we've got to do that."

Of the injured linemen only freshman Calvin Wilson comes out for the start of drills, and after the calisthenics periods the rookie goes back to the training room to work on his healing knee. Fellow rookie tackle Craig Jenkins stays inside with his own knee rehabilitation. Junior James Redmond is recovering a week after his disc surgery.

For a rowdy group that has to be told not to hit even on no-pad days, the defense has gotten through August with amazingly few injuries. #2 strong safety Marcus Evans (groin) was in a red cross for another day, and this time he was joined by first-team safety Demario Bobo who tweaked a hamstring Tuesday. Both would have played in a game, though. And while MLB Brad Horton still wore purple (groin) he was taking snaps with the second defense anyway.

"Defensively nothing has changed," said Croom. "I thought our front is still putting on a rush. (DT) Antonio Johnson and (DE) Titus Brown really had good pass rushes today." The only addition Wednesday was in the backup rotation with Horton taking his old place and letting Carlton Rice go back to outside LB. Jamar Chaney is set at the other #2 outside spot, and Fred Akines took some turns with the second unit as well.

Three weeks on the practice fields have been demanding but the Bulldogs seem to be settling into the pre-game routine well. It helps that they are not in full-gear or hitting all-out this week, yet after some players were stressed by heat and humidity in the first two weeks everybody is handling the conditions well now with no apparent issues. And if it was very hot Wednesday, at least there was no lightning storms to interrupt the work.

"Overall it was a good day, it wasn't as bad as I thought yesterday," said Croom, who then summarized the state of State. "Not bad, getting better, still got a ways to go."

And, ten days to get there.

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