Croom Meets Media To Talk Spring Practices

So what if his right arm is in a sling, the aftermath of recent surgery to repair damage done a quarter-century ago when he was playing the game? Coach Sylvester Croom won't be getting in a stance anyway. It's his Bulldogs who will be put through their spring training paces as Mississippi State opens camp Monday.

Croom took time Thursday morning to meet with a group of reporters from the Northwest Mississippi Daily Journal, the Starkville Daily News, and Dawgs' Bite, and discuss the outlook for this 2006 spring session. He began with a lengthy overview of camp priorities and the respective squad units, then answered more specific questions.

Opening Comments: The biggest thing is a continuation of a lot of things we've been doing. Focusing on our mental and physical toughness, and on ways to get us to play with confidence. That's something we've got to have entering the season when we play South Carolina the first game, we've got to go into that game expecting to win that football game. And the only way to do that is diligent and consistent preparation, so when you walk out there you play with poise and play with confidence. Now that being said, as always with spring practice we start over again. Nothing new. It's very boring, very repetitious, we start over from square-one.

Now, as our units go, defensively we've got to continue to improve on some things we improved on last year. The year before we were a very poor tackling team, and we tackled a lot better last year. We played very well on defense at times against some good opposition, but we've still got to do better on first downs, on third downs, and in the red zone. Those were pretty much the same things we were trying to do last spring, and we did get better and our defense was much-improved. That's something that starts to lend some confidence to you from a coaching standpoint going into spring, because we know we can play some defense now. Now we have to improve our depth on defense.

We should be solid in the defensive line, we did lose the SEC sack-leader though. So we've got guys like Titus Brown and Michael Heard who really, really have to step up there. The good thing about it is, they have played an we know they have the ability to get it done. We've got three good players on the inside in Deljuan Robinson, Andrew Powell, and Antonio Johnson, that's solid down the middle. Those guys have had a year together, they know what we're doing.

The one area I'm still not thrilled about is our linebacking situtation. We've got a solid player in Quinton Culberson who makes a lot of plays and we expect him to have a great year in the middle linebacker spot. And I feel very good about Jamar Chaney, he came in and really helped us last year as a freshman and he's had a heck of an off-season program and I expect him to be an outstanding player for us. Now, after that… Gabe O'Neal has played a lot but he's beat-up all the time and sometimes he moves around like Fred Sanford. He's got to get healthier, he's got to get in shape, and he's got to play a heck of a lot better for us, give us more consistency. If he plays up to his ability we'll have three solid linebackers.

But then there's a big drop to the next level. Now, we've got two guys coming in here. Tim Bailey we expect to come right in and have an immediate impact for us. We expect Jamon Hughes to come in and have an immediate impact. Those guys are going to have that opportunity. Chasman Davis was a guy we were counting on to have an immediate impact but he's injured and if we get anything at all out of him in fall it's going to be a bonus. But we have to find out about Anthony Littlejohn, we have to find out about Jimmy Miller. We know Carlton Rice will be a solid backup there, we know what Brad Horton is. Those guys are solid special teams players but they have some limitations. All we ask of those guys is they give the best they've got. If Littlejohn gives the best he's got, because he's got some talent, and Gabe gives us the best he's got, and then Quinton and Jamar play up to their level of ability then we'll be OK there. And if those two guys coming in fall play up to their ability then we'll have a solid unit. But getting those guys in the right spot, getting Littlejohn in the right spot, making sure we've got Jamar in the right spot… We're not going to move Quinton, he's going to be our middle linebacker. He's going to stay where he is, we've moved him around every year and are not going to move him again. We've got to get him lower, get his pad-level down, and help him make more plays, but I thought he had a solid year. And hey, he's the heart of our defense. We've got those three big guys in the middle with him, if they play well we'll be alright there.

We should be stronger in the secondary this year. We're counting on Derek Pegues to play up to his abilities. We've got David Heard coming back, he's been through three years in the conference, so we expect solid play out of him, this is his third year starting. We have Jeramie Johnson back at safety, DeMario Bobo is injured and probably won't do much this spring. But we've got some competition back there now, we're going to put Keith Fitzhugh at safety and we'll have Anthony Johnson coming in from Hargrave at corner. Hargrave has done wonders for him, his maturity, his athleticism, all that. And just his personality, he's developed so much. I guess that's what happens when you go to a military outpost, football and go to school is all he did. He probably thinks he's on vacation around here! But we're excited to have him back, he's going to really help us at the corner position, also in the return game and cover game.

So all in all I feel good about our defense. We've got to get a heck of a lot better on offense.

We ran the football well (last season), which is good, and I expect us to continue to do that. And that's where you start on offense, you have to run the football. We lost our stud runner but we're going to be alright there. Brandon Thornton will be solid for us. Derek Ambrose is going to be back (in fall), I feel good that that's going to happen, that we'll get the medical year. That will help us tremendously. Then we're going to work Brandon Hart there to give us a power guy. Then we have three freshmen coming in the fall and we'll be counting heavily on them.

Where we're definitely ahead of, and we're still young, but this time last year we didn't have the bodies to work out there on the offensive line. We've got a two-deep offensive line to work with this year. We've got some guys that have to step up and play, we're very young. And going through the off-season program ain't but one of them earned a jersey and that's Brian Anderson. Not a single other offensive lineman has earned his jersey for spring. But we'll see at the end of spring if they showed enough to get that number back. They've got a whole of work to do there, but we're going to have competition. That's good.

We're solid at tight end, we've got all those guys back. Where we have to have improvement, and where we definitely will be improved, is at the wide receiver position. We've got Omarr Conner and Tony Burks there, those two alone make us better. Tony Burks has had an outstanding off-season program to this point, if he plays up to his abilities that alone is going to make us better in the passing game. And it was very obvious those last two ball games what putting Omarr out there and having guys who can make plays at the wide receiver position can do, how much it changes your offense. In this offense if you don't have receivers you're not going to beat anyone. But now we've got some competition out there. Tay Bowser looks improved, Aubrey Bell has shown some abilities, and Keon Humphries is healthy now. We're going to look at him at wide receiver and I expect him to step it up, if not then we're going to move him over to corner. We're going to give him this spring and then make a decision on him one way or the other at wide receiver. But he's a great kid, he works hard and we're going to get him on the field some kind of way.

Beyond that, Will Prosser won't practice at all this spring. Joey Sanders has had a good off-season program, he looks healthy. Tyler Threadgill, we're going to find out once and for all if he can help us, in the kicking game or somewhere on offense. He works awful hard, he's had opportunities to leave and decided to stay here and keep fighting and keep battling, I respect that so we want to see if there is a way for him to contribute to this football team this spring.

Special teams-wise, the big thing we have to do there is get the best people on the field. We're going to have a lot of starters on our special teams, backup players will not be starters on special teams unless they have earned it. Because our special teams were not what we expected them to be last year. A lot of that is because we had some mis-matches in talent because we didn't have depth. We'll have better depth and better competition out there. And even if we don't, if we need to rest people we'll rest them on offense and defense. The best people will be on the field in every kicking situation, whether they are starters on offense or defense or not. If they're the best we've got they'll be out there for kicking situations.

We've got a solid punter, we've got to find out who will be our placekicker. Right now Adam Carlson is number-one, and Keith Andrews has to fight his way back from injury. And we'll have a field goal challenge every day after practice to see who can handle the pressure. At the end of the spring whoever does the best is going to be declared our starting kicker going into the season.

Q: Besides Bobo and Prosser who else is doubtful or limited for spring?

Croom: There are several guys that are going to be working on a limited basis, they had shoulder surgeries in the off-season. Brandon Thornton, Eric Butler, Jason Husband, David Heard, and Charles Burns.They'll be participating on a limited basis, we expect them to practice every day but probably they'll miss most of the full-speed contact work.

Q: At least those guys are known quantities.

Croom: We know what they can do and what they contribute. They need the work but we know the can play, it's a matter of getting them healthy. Days we're in shorts it will be no problem, they will do everything everybody else does. But when we put the shoulder pads on they'll work on a limited basis. Prosser and Bobo will have no work at all, those are the only two definitely out for the entire spring.

Q: According to the pre-spring depth chart, (left guard) Anthony Strauder is the only offensive lineman in the same position he ended the season, the other four have moved around.

Croom: Yes. Again what we're trying to do is create some competition there and get guys in the spots that we feel like will give us a chance to have the best offensive line. We switched Michael Gates and Calvin Wilson--Gates may end up being a swing-guy--just because we think their pass-sets will be better on the opposite sides. Those are the kinds of things we thought about during the season, you just don't make that kind of move during the season. But we worked on it and told them after the season was over we were going to do that so they had a chance to work on their own as far as pass-sets in the off-season program.

Even though the positions are a little bit switched around it allows us to get Anderson back to his best position, which is at (right) guard. Brian and Strauder give us two solid guys there. And I think Strauder has made some improvement during the off-season program, but we'll find out more next week.

Q: How does quarterback line up for spring?

Croom: Going into spring Mike Henig is our quarterback and everybody else is chasing him. We won't work Omarr at quarterback this spring, he'll work all at wide receiver. Now when we start the camp in fall he'll be getting some work as our #3 quarterback. We're going to work him entirely at wide receiver this spring, we don't want to take any reps away from Mike, Tray Rutland, and Ty Evans. And we've got a couple of walk-ons that we really want to take a look at.

Q: Did Tray and Ty get any work in the offense last fall or were they just scout team?

Croom: Exactly. They had some work in the offense in the scrimmages and in the Monday workouts. But now we get a chance to take a full look at them in spring?

Q: You talked about Anthony Johnson, could he challenge David Heard or Derek Pegues for a starting job?

Croom: If he's the best. Pegues has gotten through a year and he and David will go into spring as the starters, but there is nothing in stone. I mean, as far as positions I listed those guys who are starters and who played, but hey, there is nothing in concrete right now. We don't have a single player at any position that right now I can guarantee, for sure, is going to start open day. It is wide-open. There's no Jerious Norwood out there. The closest thing we've to a guy that I'd say is definitely going to start is Bryson Davis. He is our fullback. He is the guy at fullback. And as far as I'm concerned he's one of the best in the country, one of the best I've seen. I expect him to have a great year.

Q: The first two springs Ellis Johnson made some surprising moves on defense; could we see that again this year from either coordinator?

Croom: I don't see a lot of position changes right now. Littlejohn might be swinging at the two outside spots. Keon Humphries is a question mark, we definitely got to find where we want to put him. We know Brandon Hart is a fullback but with Bryson and Casey Rogers it gives us the luxury of working Hart at halfback some, so we know we have a power runner. Eventually he'll go back to fullback. But really as far as major moves…we've got to find out about Keon because he has speed, quickness. We've got to find out does he have a future at wide receiver or corner? We've got to find a place for him to play. But beyond that I don't see a lot of position changes, which is great.

And the thing is this time last year, to be very honest with you, there were a lot of days in spring practice I'd stand there, look around, and think we might as well go fishing. Because except for the guys on defense we can't win with these guys. We were looking forward to the freshmen coming in. well, that's not the case this year. The guys that are going to start the South Carolina game, they're here already. The guys that we are going to beat South Carolina with are here already. They're on campus already. That's huge. The big thing this year, when we went into our first off-season meetings we were talking about getting ready for South Carolina right then, where in the past it was strictly fundamentals, trying to figure out who goes where, it's a huge difference. As soon as we came out of the Ole Miss game, the next meeting we were getting ready to go to battle with South Carolina.

Q: What kind of receiver is Tony Burks?

Croom: One that can catch the football! First thing, he is a big guy with excellent feet. That's the thing that has impressed me. The first thing you want is big receivers, but you want big receivers that can come out and ‘cut' like little receivers. You want big receivers because the quarterback can see them, he can throw the ball over there. Think about this, even a lot of NFL quarterbacks are in that 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 range. You don't find those 6-5 (receievers) that can move every day, and mobility is as important as height. We throw a lot of slants in our quick game and you need big receivers because they're going to get hit some. The other thing is they've got to block in the running game. And when they do get hit in the passing game they can bounce off of stuff and stay healthy, they won't be in the training room all the time. Last year we thought we'd throw the ball well, and early on we did, we threw well against Tulane and some early teams. But as soon as Joey Sanders and Will Prosser get down it's over. Burks is physical.

But the thing we're excited about is we've got Burks on one side at 6-4, 215 pounds; and we have Ryan Mason coming in on the other side at about 6-4, 220; and if Aubrey Bell plays up to his ability he's 6-3, 6-4, 215; Bowser is 6-3 and not as heavy as you like but he'll be about 190 and can really run. We have tall guys that can go after the football. We've got Alex Carpenter coming in. All our receivers are starting to look like the guys that you want.

Q: Who are the ‘speed' guys at wideout?

Croom: Right now, of course Keon can run. Bowser can run, those guys have flat-out speed. And Bell runs faster than people think. Another guys is Mason, he's a big guy that can run.

Q: How is Calvin Wilson health-wise?

A: He has no injuries. He's getting his weight down in the low 350s. If we can get him under 345 pounds I think he's… The thing I'm pleased with Calvin right now is, first of all, he survived the off-season program! I didn't think he would, I didn't know if he had guts enough to make it through.

Q: Other young linemen such as Chris Spencer, Johnny Carpenter, Anthony Dunning, is this their turn to take a step forward?

Croom: This is their chance to make a move. We redshirted a couple of them. Gates and Dunning we played, hopefully all those guys will step it up. Particularly Gates. He and Calvin got some game experience. Carpenter, we were fortunate we didn't have to give him game experience. But those guys have the ability to be good players. We've got guys to work with now. J.B. Grimes does an outstanding job with those guys, and going into spring as I said we've got about 14 guys that will work. So that gives us a chance.

Q: And the young tackles know a junior college tackle is coming in fall.

Croom: That's exactly right. We've got J.D. Hamilton coming in, we have Mark Melichar coming in. Chris Herrera can play tight end or possibly tackle or guard. So those three guys coming in fall will add depth even more to that group. We're at the situation now where we just keep adding to our offensive and defensive lines.

Q: How do you feel about progress with the roster after the first two years, bringing in the type of players you want?

Croom: There's no question it's better, because it couldn't get any worse!

Q: Talk about the staff changes made in the off-season.

Croom: That kept me nervous, we never could get a break because of things happening on our staff. But when you end up losing a guy like Freddie Kitchens and you still feel your staff is stronger than it was last year, then I think we did OK. We're disappointed to lose Freddie, he did an outstanding job for us two years working with tight ends and running backs. He's going to be an outstanding coach at the NFL level, he left with our blessings and he's working for a good organization, a good man and a heck of a coach in Bill Parcells. Bill was glad to get him, he was very cooperative with us in the process of making sure it did not interrupt some things we were trying to do at the time and I appreciate Bill doing that. And I appreciate Freddie as well.

But we're very fortunate to get Melvin Smith in here. Melvin has been here before. The great thing is we got a good coach and an excellent recruiter and a man who he and his family wanted to be at Mississippi State. And that's huge. When you get a quality guy who already knows the program, knows the people of Mississippi, this is his home and he wants to be here.

And the other factor that was huge in it was having a young coach with the talent and mindset of Shane Beamer. Because as soon as the running back job came open I had a lot of calls, but Shane was the guy I wanted to move to running backs. He worked with Ralph Friedjen when Ralph was at Georgia Tech, so he knew already a lot of things that we were doing on offense. Even though our terminology now is different from when I was with Ralph in San Diego, a lot of the plays are the same, a lot of my philosophy is the same, it's a blend of all those places that I've been. Shane had an awareness of what we were doing on offense already. Plus he's an excellent teacher, he's a studious individual, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to broaden his horizons as a coach. And with the personalities we have at running back, I felt he would be a perfect fit. Coaching that position, contrary to a lot of opinions that think you can get just anybody to coach running backs, no. The running backs has more than probably anybody on the offense to be aware of every facet of the offense. Running games, pass protections, pass routes, quarterback reads, all that stuff. That individual has to understand all that. And teaching running backs, so much of it is about instincts, where you have to be a very good teacher and able to incorporate a variety of concepts to fit individual players. I felt it would be very easy for me to work with him and he was the guy I had confidence in taking that position over. Because I expect a lot out of the guy coaching that position.

Q: Do you like going to the 12-game season?

Croom: It doesn't do any good if I like it or not, we're going to deal with it! It is what it is, everybody is going to do it, so I have no complaints. I never was for lengthening the college season any way, shape, fashion, or form, unless it meant we'd have a for-sure national championship or something like that. But that's the way it is, we're going to get the twelfth game, and it's an opportunity to have fun!

Q: Is this your best shot at having a winning season?

Croom: It's the first time we've had a shot here! The first time that we go into a season with a legitimate shot. I am a reasonable optimist, I guess you'd say. The competitor in me is always going to say we're going to win the football game; but from experience, being logical, being reasonable, the last two year we didn't have enough horses in the race to have a chance to win. We're still probably another recruiting class away from having the depth, the overall depth and total competitiveness, that you would like.

But at the same time when I look back at the last two seasons, even though we didn't have the horses if we had executed better in some games, if we'd gone into some games with the confidence, we had the chance to come close to having a .500 season. Even the last two years. If we don't fumble the ball against Maine we win that game. How we rushed for 300 yards against Houston with no turnovers and don't win, that should never have happened. If we make a play or two in the first quarter at Kentucky it may be a rout. So you're that close. Alabama's offense doesn't score a touchdown the whole ball game, you're (down) 3-0 at the half and think you have a chance to win and three plays, bang-bang-bang, the game is over.

Q: How difficult is it to build that kind of confidence to win those games?

Croom: You can't give it to them. Because if I could give it to them they'd already have it, I can tell you that. It takes time. We've worked through two years of that, our whole process, everything we've done over the past two years has been geared more to changing the mindset. And I think you saw us beginning to make that move in the Ole Miss game, the second half of the Arkansas game and the Ole Miss game. You talk about back-to-back ball games, we played the same people and no question Ole Miss' defense was the better of the two teams. Even at Arkansas, first half vs. the second half. It's all about the mental attitude and here that's what is has all been about, changing the mindset. Some of the mindsets were not going to change until the people changed, that was the first thing. Then getting some leadership.

The other thing I didn't mention earlier that is different this year, this will be the first time that I feel we'll get real leadership from our senior class. I'm talking about genuine leadership from the class as a whole. David Stewart and Jerious Norwood were great leaders, but those first two senior classes as a whole (it was) the negative side on leadership. They didn't buy-in, either one. This group—Deljuan Robinson, Antonio Johnson, Andrew Powell, Quinton Culberson, Brian Anderson, Omarr Conner, Will Prosser—those guys believe in what we're trying to get done. Jeramie Johnson, David Heard, we've got some real leadership now. That more than anything else makes me optimistic about the season.

Q: You say so much is different, what are some changes you've seen in your style?

Croom: I don't think I've changed. I'm about to change!

Q: What do you mean by that?

Croom: People think I've been intolerant before, be prepared. I'm fixing to coach like I used to coach when I was young. The mellowing is over. Two years of 3-8, this is the last time for that. I've been patient, my patience has worn out. When I came here I knew it was going to take time to build a positive attitude. Now, I'm tolerating nothing; anybody or anything that gets in the way of us winning is going to get eliminated.

Q: Does a lot of that have to do with most of the team is your players?

Croom: Oh, yeah. And I've been patient with some guys. A lot of people think I've been intolerant, I've been very patient contrary to what people believe. No more.

Q: Can this bunch handle it now?

Croom: It doesn't make any difference now. I don't care. Guys are going to go to school, and they're going to give the best that they've got. Every day at practice and every ball game, when they show up they're going to give the best that they've got or they won't put that jersey on.

Q: Has the implementation of the A.P.R. changed your approach?

Croom: It doesn't change it one bit. I won't keep a guy here or put a guy in a jersey because somebody tells me I've got to give up a scholarship. If I make a mistake and bring a guy in here and he doesn't pan out I'm going to be the first to say hey, I made a mistake, and he's leaving. And if cause us to have to play with 84 scholarships instead of 85 no problem for me. We've been playing with 60-something anyway, I'm used to being on the down-side of the deal! We haven't had full scholarships since I've been here.

I watch the teams in the NFL that win, if they make a mistake on a first-round draft choice they cut their losses and move on. Teams that sit around three, four years saying we're going to make a guy out of that…hey, if you make a mistake you make a mistake. And I'm talking about bringing in a guy that won't go to school. You might get fooled some times. This is not a perfect science. You bring a guy in you think is a great kid and all of a sudden he's testing positive on your drug test, he's going to be gone and if it costs us on our A.P.R. fine, I won't worry about it. That's the fallacy of some of this, that recruiting is a perfect science. It's not. Drafting in the NFL is not a perfect science and they spend a whole lot more time and money at it than we do. So you're going to make mistakes on some guys and I'm not going to try to hide it. The ones that are out of the program can't hurt us. I've made that very clear to the players. We'll give everybody a second chance with anything, but if it ever gets to where winning is not important, getting their education is not important, once that becomes obvious to me then we're going to cut our ties.

Q: Who on this team do you think can be all-conference?

Croom: All-SEC? Bryson Davis is capable of getting All-American. I don't know if they count fullbacks but the guy is the best fullback in my opinion, if there's a better one out there you guys need to quit writing and go be his agent! Eric Butler ought to be an All-SEC player. Quinton Culberson should be an All-SEC player. Any of our defensive linemen, all those guys have an opportunity if the play up to their abilities.

Q: Could Burk be All-SEC?

Croom: Yeah.

Q: Who is the one person, the total package, that you cannot be successful without?

Croom: Bryson Davis. You better believe it.

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