Considering both how they looked the first five days of spring drills, as well as how consistently the coach has commended the Dog defense, such words might have been music to offensive squad ears. Certainly that half of the roster had its work cut out for it during a two-and-a-half hour session, all in full pads and a goodly portion in real contact. Up to this point that was a formula for total domination by the defense.
Objectively the defensive team still had the better of things Thursday. But this time the other guys weren't pushovers. "It was better," Croom agreed, before qualifying "But anything would look better than it's been being."
The offensive Dog drawing the most direct compliment was sophomore quarterback Mike Henig, who picked up where he'd left off on Tuesday's session. The #1 triggerman was clearly in charge of his unit, appeared to make most of the correct decisions, and did not either fumble or throw the ball away in an 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 work.
"Henig has had two good days in a row," Croom said. Redshirt freshman Tray Rutland wasn't as effective working either with the first or second units, yet he too looked sharper as well as more decisive even when pressured. And there usually was pressure.
"We threw the ball better today," Croom said. "We worked on some of our third-down packages and things looked pretty good." However he wasn't as impressed with the catching half of the passing equation. "We still dropped too many balls," the coach noted. "Some of the guys are anxious and they're trying to get the ball up the field." It did not help that chilly conditions made catching bullets from Henig and Rutland a painful problem for the wideouts, either.
That corps was short one body Thursday as first-team flanker Tony Burks was held out after tweaking a hamstring Tuesday. The first unit in multiple-receiver drills usually had Keon Humphries and Omarr Conner—back from a groin injury on the first day of camp—in combinations with other varsity challengers such as Tyler Threadgill, Aubrey Bell, and Lance Long.
Though this day's offensive drills were still strongly oriented to the passing game, there were more plays run on the ground including some full-team hitting. One of the best licks of the session came in short-yardage work as lineabacker Gabe O'Neal met combo-back Brandon Hart head-up at the line, and Hart went down hard. With starting halfback Brandon Thornton kept out of contact following his winter shoulder surgery, senior Derek Ambrose continues to get more work with the first unit and he even took some moderate hitting himself to test the repaired knee.
The offensive line had a different look Thursday, partly due to the absence of tackle Calvin Wilson. He and #2 defensive end Charles Burns were both excused to be home in Hattiesburg after the death of a friend. For this day Michael Gates switched from right tackle back to his old LT spot, where Wilson had been working. Wilson actually was on the second team Tuesday with Roland Terry supplanting him. Thursday Terry was back in second-unit green, with redshirt Craig Jenkins newly-promoted to varsity maroon and running #1 at right tackle.
The first- and second-unit guards did not change, though late in drills #1 right guard Brian Anderson flipped over to the left side after starter Anthony Strauder had to leave early. Dio Herrera got to take snaps with the first unit at guard in those drills.
The defensive line was also shorthanded, not only missing Burns but starting tackle Andrew Powell who was home in Florida with his ill father; and backup end Quinton Wesley with a class conflict. This likely was some help to the offensive front of course, but Croom did not notice much of a drop-off.
"Our defense is really, really better," he said, comparing the unit to last year's camp. "And I like the way our linebackers are playing. Gabe and Quinton (Culberson) and Jamar (Chaney) are really playing better. We're tackling better, we're not missing tackles." This was why the coach was so willing to compliment the offense for making some ground against a stout group. "Every inch we gain offensively you've got to earn it."
There were no changes in the first defense Thursday. The second unit, without those missing linemen, got by with Solomon Ona and Anwar Phillips as the tackles. Jimmy Miller, Carlton Rice, and Anthony Littlejohn are still the second linebackers though Littlejohn is getting to work with the first unit more often. While David Heard and Derek Pegues are set at first corners, backups Adron Chambers and Anthony Johnson put in plenty of work with the second group covering first-unit receivers.
Perhaps it was the energy everyone showed during the first 14 periods, or maybe it was the increasing chill and the need to keep all hands healthy for Friday's practice and a Saturday scrimmage. But Croom cut the afternoon short by a period, moving up the daily placekicking challenge for varsity booters Adam Carlson and Keith Andrews to match legs. Given the brisk breeze both hit the ball well, except when it ‘counted.'
"We missed two situations, one to beat Alabama and the other to beat Ole Miss with five seconds left," Croom said. "We lost both of them, we missed field goals from 47 yards twice. Our kickers ‘lost' us our two rival games today." Which meant everyone paid a price by running two extra wind-sprints.
With two more working days in the week, including the first scrimmage of the spring, Croom is generally pleased with how things are developing. He's particularly proud of the leadership being shown by the upperclassmen.
"But the biggest thing today was I liked the way we're working. There's some enthusiasm, we're competing against one another. All in all we're getting better."