Bulldogs Get Back To Work Tuesday

Six games into the 2005 season, the Mississippi State staff knows exactly what they have to work with. More importantly, the Bulldogs coaches understand exactly what parts of the team needs working on if the second half of the schedule is to be more productive than the first.

"We've got to improve our offensive production," Coach Sylvester Croom said at the end of Tuesday's practice session. "So we're going to make some adjustments to do that."

Sooooo…what sorts of adjustments, specifically, could be in store for State during this mid-October open week? At that, Croom grins. "Just wait and see next Saturday!" As in, when the Bulldogs get back in action on October 22, hosting Houston in the first game of the second season-half and the last non-conference contest of the schedule.

Questions about changes are only natural this time of the year, as State can slow the pace for the first time since kicking it off six games ago. The open date does more than give the players a break both physically and emotionally, though there is no denying it is needed. Not only have they gone through six-straight games in all, but the past three were against SEC opponents ranked among the national elite. The overmatched Bulldogs lost all three and fell to 2-4 on the campaign, 0-4 in the league.

There are other advantages to a break from competition, such as rehabbing a collection of aches and ills, and allowing coaches to spend their weekend recruiting for future schedules. Yet after the example of 2004, observers know Croom sees open dates as prime time to adjust, adapt, or outright change things up. Last season, for example, it was in the free week that State made moves at all three linebacking positions which worked well the rest of the year.

This year? Croom isn't showing his hand yet, just making public hints. And while 2004 switched things around on the defense this time the focus is on the other side of the ball. "We'll make some changes now. We're going to see if we can improve the offense a little bit, a little tinkering there but not anything major."

Indeed, nothing jumped out Tuesday when the Bulldogs got back to practicing after taking Monday off. The closest thing to a ‘move' was keeping Royce Blackledge at #1 right guard. But Blackledge had started there at Florida, moving ahead of senior Johnny Wadley and basically splitting series. He reportedly graded well enough to hold on to the top spot on the depth chart opening this week, along with RT Avery House, C Chris McNeil, LG Anthony Strauder, and LT Brian Anderson.

The second unit, right to left, had Calvin Wilson, Wadley, Dio Herrera, Johnny Carpenter, and Michael Gates. Carpenter has yet to play this season and is still in line to redshirt barring injuries, as is Chris Spencer who worked some on the second unit at guard also.

An encouraging development on the O-line was the return of tackle James Redmond to the practice field, though in a red-cross jersey. The junior, who had August back surgery, played briefly at Auburn before straining a knee and missing three more games. He should be ready for the Houston game. State also hopes to have freshman guard Anthony Dunning back next week, after corrective knee surgery following the LSU game. Dunning had started that game at right guard.

As to other injury concerns, halfback Jerious Norwood was in full-uniform and running full-speed after tweaking a hamstring on his touchdown run at Florida. Norwood felt fine, he said, though this might have had more to do with a successfully Monday hunting trip. "I got a doe, about 80 pounds," veteran hunter Norwood reported, celebrating his first deer taken by bow. Teammate Deljuan Robinson was with him, recording the successful hunt and kill.

Quarterback Omarr Conner was more limited, still feeling after-effects from a helmet to the breastbone at Florida that put him out before halftime. Conner participated in some drills, mostly practicing ground-game plays, because handing the ball off was not a big problem. Passing was another matter. "I'm still feeling stiff," he said, "it still hurts and I couldn't raise my arm to my shoulder." This allowed backup Mike Henig and Brett Morgan to do the bulk of the passing work, while Conner and freshman Ty Evans operated the running plays. Rookie Tray Rutland ran the scout offense this day.

With the Bulldogs practicing in full gear there was a fair amount of contact in both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, especially when the first teams went at each other. There was even stiff, if unplanned, tackling at times. "It wasn't supposed to be," Croom said, "they just got a little feisty and I wasn't going to stop it either." The only casualties observed were wideout Jamayel Smith, who hurt a leg after being tackled hard by cornerback Kevin Dockery; and fullback Bryson Davis who took himself off the field suffering back spasms.

As Croom promised at Florida, young runners Brandon Hart and Brandon Thornton were being worked more and more into the first-offense plans and they did as many snaps as starter Norwood. By contrast the wide receiver rotation seemed shorter with six catchers taking care of the pass-drill work, though flanker Will Prosser was watching from the side in a red-cross as usual early in a work-week. The wideouts taking turns were Tee Milons, Joey Sanders, Keon Humphries, Aubrey Bell, Lance Long, and until his injury Smith.

The practice defensive lineup looked the same Tuesday, after State played most of the Florida game in a ‘nickel' package. Dockery was back on his corner opposite David Heard, though freshman Keith Fitzhugh and Derek Pegues took several turns with the first defense too. And safety Demario Bobo, under suspension and wearing second-team blue last week, was back in first-team white Tuesday and running alongside Jeramie Johnson as usual. At linebackers, soph Gabe O'Neal seems to have edged ahead of Clarence McDougal though the number of practice snaps was about even.

State also did the usual Tuesday punting practices, with Jonathan Lowe and Milons alternating in return.

There were no dramatic developments to report from this day's practices, and for that matter Croom agreed that radical changes are not likely. What the coach really means this season by change is essentially tuning, tweaking, and testing some adaptations that hopefully will put a spark in a struggling offense.

Or as Croom summed it up, "A little bit of personnel, a little bit of schemes."

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