McCorvey Seeks Ways To Make More Plays

There is no game to prepare for this week. That doesn't mean Mississippi State is taking things easy…especially everyone involved with the offensive squad. These Bulldogs are as busy as ever, using the three practice days to find fixes and even add options that might put some punch in the attack for the final two contests of 2005.

Thus coordinator Woody McCorvey and staff find themselves coming at the issue from two distinct off-week angles. The coaches are both brushing up on old basics, while testing just a couple of new wrinkles with personnel. The work began Tuesday afternoon with State's first practice of the week. The Bulldogs were off Monday while Coach Sylvester Croom was speaking in Huntsville.

Today, the head coach was also out of town for an engagement in Mobile. But just because the boss was away the pups were not free to play. Not with so much to get done, according to McCorvey.

"The biggest thing is we're trying to get back to fundamentals and techniques," he said at the end of a two-hour session. "The things that have been beating us has been a technique problem here and an assignment problem there. So that's what we're trying to get back to, sometimes you get so much into schemes and forget the basics. This is a good week to do that.

"The other thing is we've got to find some guys outside who can make some plays and make some things happen for us. We've got nobody but Norwood." Certainly Jerious has done his part during a record-setting rushing season. But one big-play Dog hasn't been enough to light up SEC scoreboards with State held to just four touchdowns in six league losses. So the offensive staff has looked for ways to help the halfback out.

The first noteworthy move came this past week when redshirt freshman Mike Henig was promoted to starting quarterback in place of junior Omarr Conner. Tuesday's practice showed that Conner will not be entirely confined to backup duty as the veteran quarterback was lined up in a variety of slot and split positions. And for the first time since he moved to quarterback full-time, in spring 2004, Conner was not wearing the position's red jersey but a regular offensive-Maroon.

McCorvey confirmed that Conner's role is being expanded somewhat. "We're moving him around some," the coordinator/quarterbacks coach said. But McCorvey also stressed that too much shouldn't be read into this.

"He's not a wide receiver. He's meeting with me every day. He's going to stay in the quarterback rotation. But it's going to be some things we're going to put in there trying to generate things and help give us a spark."

It is similar to how Norwood is already being taken out of the backfield in some sets and lined up as a slotback or split end, without changing his primary role. This also is in keeping with Croom's strong statements last week that Conner would not move to wideout, as many speculated, either for the Alabama game or the rest of this 2005 season. Nor did Conner line up anywhere Saturday except under center for a number of scattered series in relief of Henig. McCorvey said the second-year freshman handled the situation well on the whole. "The good thing about Saturday is it was one of the better protection days we've had, we didn't give up sacks and Mike got the ball out quick—which helps!"

Now apparently the younger triggerman played well enough against Alabama's elite defense that the coaching staff is comfortable with at least practicing Conner for the first time in other positions. At the same time the older Dog remains the undisputed #2 quarterback, not only just one play away from taking over but in need of the regular number of practice snaps in game-plan preparations. He did that Tuesday, mostly running the second-offense but also getting some work with the #1s.

"We still cannot move him to receiver because it means wasting a redshirt on one of the other kids," McCorvey said. "We can't do that now. Omarr still has to be a quarterback. What happens this spring, happens in spring. But right now we can't do that. He is not a receiver yet." Brett Morgan remains the #3 quarterback.

State has another good reason this week to give Conner some looks at pass-catching positions. Two of the primary receivers, Will Prosser (hip) and Joey Sanders (hamstring), did not play against Alabama and did not practice Tuesday. Their status for next week isn't certain, either. "I hope we'll have them for Arkansas," McCorvey said. So not only did Conner spend half his day running routes, tight end Jason Husband worked exclusively at wideouts. Aubrey Bell and Tee Milons ran most of the passing plays as the first-team wide receivers, with Husband and Lance Long the #2 pair and Conner in the mix as a third receiver in multiple sets.

Bell has moved into the starting job opened by those injuries. "Aubrey is doing alright but he's a freshman, he still made mistakes Saturday," said McCorvey. "There's a lot of things he's got to work through." Such as a mistake the rookie made against Alabama; instead of making a quick cut on a pattern he kept running straight and thus Henig's pass to the planned spot was intercepted, albeit on a remarkable diving pick play. What looked to reporters and fans as a quarterback error was actually a young receiver's lapse. Still Bell is part of the plan. "There are specific things we've got to get the ball to him," McCorvey said, "but it's going to be in a limited role."

Something else non-participants likely don't realize is the trouble State is having making use of tight end Eric Butler. The sophomore, who had three touchdown grabs in September, caught only one pass all October and had a single grab last Saturday as well. It's not that the coaches have forgotten the talented tight end, McCorvey explained; it's that defense are giving him far too much attention.

"The thing with Eric is they are lining a ‘sam' linebacker over the top of him and every time the ball is snapped they've got people jamming him at the line of scrimmage. So we've got to get somebody outside to make some plays." That's where Bell and Milons—now, Conner also—can help. But the best thing that could happen right now is getting all the active wideouts healthy, and keeping them that way.

You come out here in practice with guys you don't play with on Saturday because the other guys are injured," said McCorvey. "We've got to get some consistency going to get any kind of throwing game."

As for the rest of the offensive lineup, this is a timely off-week for junior Brian Anderson as the tackle has a tender hamstring. Yet even in a yellow jersey Anderson was still working first-team LT and will have no trouble being ready for next week. The rest of the starting line remains LG Anthony Strauder, center Chris McNeil, RG Royce Blackledge, and RT Avery House. The second line, left to right, is Michael Gates, Johnny Carpenter, Dio Herrera, Anthony Dunning, and Calvin Wilson. Carpenter is being redshirted, but veteran guard Johnny Wadley was in a red cross shirt again Tuesday with the old leg problems that have hampered his whole career. James Redmond is running #3 right tackle.

The defense has a few health issues as well, particularly at end where Michael Heard who has a hairline fracture of his leg and did not practice. It will be a close call if Heard will be able to play against Arkansas. Titus Brown wore a purple shirt as he is slowed by a minor knee strain. And freshman Charles Burns has a sore shoulder. This resulted in true freshman Quinton Wesley getting plenty of work Tuesday, though Croom has no intention to burn the rookie's redshirt year.

Freshman outside linebacker Jamar Chaney, who got his first college start last Saturday, remains with the first team along with Gabe O'Neal and ILB Quinton Culberson. The secondary depth chart has been adjusted some with backup right cornerback Keith Fitzhugh now working as the second safety.

The Bulldogs will be back to practice Wednesday afternoon, with Croom back on the field also. The coach has also scheduled a 6:00 am practice for Thursday to end the work week.

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