Wednesday Report: Conner Likes Added Duties

Mississippi State ran through the second and last afternoon practice of the open-week, as the Bulldogs spent over two hours both working on some aspects of the gameplan for Arkansas while also brushing up on a few more fundamental aspects of their play.

After skipping Tuesday's session for a speaking engagement, Coach Sylvester Croom was back on campus and running Wednesday's show. Even though the players were allowed to work in partial gear, with just helmets and shoulder pads, several of the drills fell just short of full-contact as the Bulldogs tried to impress the coach. On the whole, they did.

"I thought we did some good things," Croom said. "I thought we have very good enthusiasm. Some of it wasn't as sharp as I'd like it to be, but we're trying some different things to see if we can improve. No big deal."

Maybe. And maybe not, as the obvious focus of attention this week is the adjustment on offense unveiled Tuesday with quarterback Omarr Conner expanding his duties from throwing passes to catching them. Conner, who reported to work Tuesday in regular offensive maroon instead of the no-touch red worn by quarterbacks, was doing the same double-duties again today.

"I'm loving it," said Conner, who started the first eight games this season under center. "I like my new role, quarterback and receiving, whatever we have to do to win."

The change at quarterback, with redshirt freshman Mike Hening getting last Saturday's starter after running all but the opening two offensive series at Kentucky, didn't win the Alabama game. But the coaches came away sufficiently satisfied with Henig to keep him as the #1. They also have no intention of leaving Conner entirely on the sideline in reserve, thus this week's developments. As Croom and offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey have made clear, this is not a ‘move,' only additional duty for the veteran athlete. It's no accident that Conner described himself as both quarterback and receiver in that order, either.

"They want players out there that can make plays," Conner said. "Coach tells us to be a playmaker we have to be dependable so now I'm trying to let him know I can make plays, and to give me the ball."

Croom liked the film from Tuesday and what he saw first-hand today. "Omarr did some good things. He can catch the football, now, he has excellent hands. The trick is that our wide reciver is still our second-team quarterback. We're trying to keep his hand in one while getting all the details of the other. And we have to be very careful about overworking him."

That's a definite danger because Conner was involved in over 75% of the offensive snaps today, alternating between the two positions. In one-on-one passing drills Conner only worked as a receiver, taking throws from Henig or Brett Morgan. But when the segment had full team-on-team plays Conner shared the quarterback job with Henig, getting as many snaps as the younger Dog. As a lovely deep strike over the middle to tight end Eric Butler showed, Conner isn't ready to give up on his favorite position yet.

Another reason for potential overwork was that the wide receiver positions were still shorthanded on the first- and second-teams. Will Prosser and Joey Sanders were back out today, but in red-cross injury shirts and not participating. So Conner got plenty of chances to run and catch, which he did quite handily most times. He even had some fun at defensive backs' expense. "I had to talk some trash over there," he admitted. "I think I'm still as fast as my freshman year, I gained about ten more pounds and I'm 215 now but I think I can run about a 4.5. I could be better if I got some of the weight off."

The offensive line was also short a starter as tackle Brian Anderson, who did some limited work Tuesday on a sore hamstring, was held out entirely this day. Freshman Michael Gates ran first-team at LT with James Redmond his backup. The first-team snaps at right tackle were split between Avery House and Calvin Wilson, with the latter seemingly back on top of the depth chart this day. Roland Terry got a good bit of second-squad work as a result. Guard Johnny Wadley was held out a second day to rest his bad ankle, and fullback Bryson Davis was dressed in yellow with a hamstring problem.

More notably, halfback Jerious Norwood made a brief practice appearance in a red-cross and wearing a boot on his left leg, just to take care of a aching ankle. Norwood would not have gotten much work anyway, having run plenty of drills Tuesday already.

The defense was intact except for one position which was very short on experience. At one end two players are hurt; starter Michael Heard out with a leg hairline fracture and alternate Titus Brown with a knee strain. Freshman Charles Burns has a sore shoulder and redshirting rookie Quentin Wesley, who got lots of Tuesday work as a result, was out today to attend a late class. So by the end of the day Stephen Arant was the #1 right end opposite Willie Evans.

Also, placekicker Keith Andrews made a late appearance in a red cross as his groin pull still doesn't allow him to do much. Adam Carlson got in lots of field goal practices and was hitting with some consistency from 35 yards out, while Keith Gambrell kicked off.

Though this was not supposed to be a hitting day, the session ended with goal-line drills that looked an awful lot like the real thing. Such as the last two plays with the offense trying to attack right in the center with Demarcus Johnson. The first time he was stuffed at the line for no gain; the second he tried to leap the line only to be hit, have the ball stripped and Carlton Rice recover and take off the other way as the proud defense howled.

Conner's added responsibilities highlighted the week's afternoon work, but State's offense has been honing a few other items for the end of this season…which obviously cannot be reported in any detail. Croom doesn't mind everyone knowing that the staff is running some off-week experiments. "For the Arkansas game there are some things we may want to adjust and change and look at. Any time during the open week the first couple of days we look at the gameplan to see if we want to do anything new.

"But when we come back Monday whatever we're going to do for Arkansas will be finalized. We actually get an extra day-and-a-half on the actual gameplan, and anything we don't like today and tomorrow won't be in the gameplan Monday."

State will have a 6:00 am Thursday session which not only will be short, 90 minutes at most, but will be indoors. For the first time the Bulldogs will practice in the Palmeiro Center, and not for any current weather reasons. "I want to see what it's like in there," Croom said, "and the logistics of just getting in there. The week of the Ole Miss game we'll probably have to be in there (for weather) so we want to be sure what to do."

One Bulldogs has a few things in mind for himself and the team to get done not just this week but before the 2005 campaign ends. This is why Conner is so willing to double his load if necessary. "Whatever we have to do to get this thing going right. We've got two games left and like Coach tells us, they'll remember what you do in November. So we've got the Egg bowl and Arkansas and we have to play ball and see what we can do."

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