The first day of 15 scheduled this camp, which concludes April 8 with the spring game. By then Croom and his staff intend to have put most of the pieces in the places and be able to spend August preparing team that comes out of April to play the games. And in several aspects, this first day in shorts and helmet was an excellent first step.
"I thought the effort was good," Croom said. "We know what we're doing."
There were no noteworthy differences in Monday's two-deep from what the coaching staff had lined up over the winter, on either side of the ball. On offense, the backfield was exactly as expected with Mike Henig at #1 quarterback, Bryson Davis as fullback, and Brandon Thornton the halfback. However, because Thornton will be limited in contact drills this spring following a winter shoulder repair, fullback Brandon Hart worked as much with the first offense at halfback.
And there was one encouraging surprise for day-one as halfback Derek Ambrose, who tore a knee ligament last season, was not only dressed out but practicing. This was ahead of the schedule anticipated as late as two weeks ago. "Derek is out here, doing well, and we're glad to have him," Croom said.
The off-season moves on the offensive line were lined up as predicted, with Royce Blackledge at center flanked by right guard Brian Anderson and left guard Anthony Strauder. Calvin Wilson is now at left tackle and Michael Gates the right tackle, the two true sophs having swapped ends from fall. In all, Strauder is the only lineman in the same starting job he began 2005.
The second line, right to left, was Craig Jenkins, Chris Spencer, Dio Herrera, Anthony Dunning, and Roland Terry, with Johnny Carpenter the alternate backup center.
"I thought the offensive line was better in some things," said Croom, "but of course we were out today in our underwear so you really can't tell about that." Per NCAA rules, the first days of drills are in shorts only, and the Dogs won't make any contact until coming back from spring break.
But even in undies it was easy to tell how much better this offense can be at a couple of key skill positions. "It was good to see those two receivers out here," Croom said, of transfer flanker Tony Burks and split end Omarr Conner, who will only work at wideout this camp. "No question having Burks and Omarr is going to make us better."
Unfortunately the coach didn't have such encouraging comments about the players throwing the ball to those receivers. "Our quarterbacks did not play well at all," Croom said. It wasn't a matter of arm-strength, either, as Henig and #2 man Tray Rutland were firing bullets in drills. Ty Evans, like Rutland a redshirt freshman in his first camp, is running #3. None of them pleased the boss.
"Ball location was bad, decision-making was bad. And we didn't really do anything, we just put our base stuff in for the first day. So I wasn't pleased with our quarterbacks at all."
The wideouts and backs did make some plays at times. But the #1 defense made even more, which was not a surprise considering their superior experience and familiarity with the gameplan. They had a hand, or two, in the quarterback's problems when two periods were spent in 11-on-11 work. "The defense scored 14 points on turnovers and got some tipped balls, caused a fumble and picked one up," noted Croom. "We're picking up right where we left off last year."
There were no changes in the pre-camp #1 defense, with Michael Heard and Titus Brown at the ends, Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson at tackles; Quinton Culberson at middle linebacker flanked by Jamar Chaney and Gabe O'Neal; Derek Pegues and David Heard on the corners and Jeramie Johnson and Keith Fitzhugh as safeties. Fitzhugh is on the first team because Demario Bobo is sidelined in camp after winter ankle surgery.
Bobo and flanker Will Prosser were the only Dogs on the sidelines wearing red cross jerseys.
The second line featured Avery Hannibal at a new position, behind Brown at end, with Charles Burns on the other end. Antonio Johnson and either Quinton Wesley or Solomon Ona were the backup tackles. The second linebackers for day-one were Brad Horton at middle and Carlton Rice and Anthony Littlejohn outside.
There is a new opening on the #2 defensive line as junior tackle Corey Clark has left school, informing Croom only today. "Corey is no longer with the team, he has withdrawn from school. He came in and said he was going to withdraw and I didn't ask for a reason."
The first practice day began with placekicking snap-and-protection drills, with punter Blake McAdams the new holder. Adam Carlson opened camp as the #1 placekicker, wearing maroon, while veteran Keith Andrews was dressed in green after missing the last four games of 2005 with muscle strains. But the job is still open; at least until April 8 as Croom has set up a camp-long competition. "We had our kicking challenge today," the coach said. This means that at the end of practices, the entire squad assembles to watch the placekickers take turns at increasing distances.
For the first day of the challenge, Andrews came out on top. "He had no misses, Carlson had one," Croom reported. "But no question we kicked the ball better today in that one drill than any time last year."
Monday also marked the 'debut' of Croom's revised staff with former defensive backs coach Shane Beamer now in charge of running backs; and recently-hired Melvin Smith back on campus and coaching defensive backs, as he did from 1996-2001.
The Bulldogs will have their second practice Tuesday, starting at 4:00.