Tuesday Practice Starts Slow, Finishes Faster

Maybe it was the extra weight of putting full pads back on after a day in shells. Or maybe it was the extra demands being made of the Bulldogs as spring drills reached the two-thirds point. For whatever reason, Coach Sylvester Croom said it took a while for Mississippi State to get up to a serious working speed in Tuesday's practice session.

"Practice started off a little slow today," Croom said afterwards. The coach was talking generally about the entire team, and particularly an offensive side that, in his words, "Sort of came out with their union card." In fact part-way through the 9th of 15 schedule segments Croom called a halt and made everyone start that period over.

Yet when the entire day's work was done, Croom was reasonably satisfied…even with that late-arriving offense. "We picked it up as we went on. And that was good because hey, some days you might have a slow start to the game, and you need to pick it up and finish strong."

Just how strongly State ended the two-and-a-half-hour practice day would be decided after all position coaches finished reviewing their respective tapes. Still even sideline observers could see some of the better aspects of the afternoon. Working in full-gear, and occasionally hitting full-speed, the Bulldogs did appear to get some things done on both sides of the ball.

For the 10th of 15 practice days Croom expanded the checklist, including more attention to red-zone situations for both offense and defense. Considerable snaps were run by 1s-vs-1s starting from the 30-yard-line and going in, and each unit made plays. Quarterback Mike Henig completed several crisp tosses downfield against the first defense, spreading the ball among both the split and tight ends when possible and if pressured dumping off to fullback Bryson Davis.

Not that Henig had his way all the time by any means, and if not for the no-touch rule on quarterbacks he would have been sacked a few times by rushing ends. And there were the usual mis-communications with his targets though this time for different reasons. "We put some new things in today," Croom said. "Mike has been throwing the ball very well, we had some new stuff today and he made some bad decisions. But he made some good ones, and overall I'm very pleased with where he is right now."

Though wearing no-contact yellow, both halfback Brandon Thornton and tight end Eric Butler participated in more segments than usual, and their presence made the offense more effective.

The second units also squared off in red-zone work, with redshirt Tray Rutland getting all these snaps at quarterback. The first group of split ends was unchanged Tuesday, with Omarr Conner, Tyler Threadgill, and Lance Long opening each series. Keon Humphries, Aubrey Bell, and Joey Sanders are the second grouping in multiple receiver sets.

This isn't an absolute reflection of where everyone stands or what they are capable of, according to Croom, who noted Humphries and Threadgill are both doing good things. Conner has been the most impressive receiver these two days, now fully over the groin bruise from week-one, and Tuesday he was allowed to wear numbers on his jersey again. All in all, the coaches are finding more players capable of making plays.

"We've got a couple of guys who can help us," Croom said. "But they scare me to death because they aren't protecting the ball well enough right now. If they learn to protect the football, which we'll constantly work on every day, they could help us in some areas this fall."

Though the coaches are serious about ball protection, the work of the guys attacking carriers and catchers had to be acknowledged again. "The defense continues to cause turnovers and get turnovers," Croom said. "Defensively the front seven continues to work well, I thought (end) Mike Heard had his best day. And the linebackers are doing very well."

This despite being shorthanded again Tuesday, especially in the middle where Quinton Culberson and Jimmy Miller both wore red-cross shirts due to hamstring problems. Brad Horton ran with the first unit at middle, and walk-on Carvell Jones handled much of the second-group work between Carlton Rice and Anthony Littlejohn.

Croom commented on how pleased he was with starting OLBs Gabe O'Neal and Jamar Chaney. For that matter every area of the first defense earned praise, such as the safeties. "Keith Fitzhugh had a really good scrimmage, Jeramie Johnson is doing well. And (left cornerback) Derek Pegues did some things today, he handled some double-moves stuff well and his technique is getting better."

Pegues has responded well to the presence of junior transfer Anthony Johnson pushing him from behind. Tuesday, though, starting RCB David Heard did not participate. Adron Chambers ran with the first unit on this corner ahead of Leron Yarbrough. Marcus Evans and De'Mon Glanton are the second-safeties with Jarvis Kyles and a variety of walk-ons on the third unit.

Up front defensively, Avery Hannibal returned to end after a day at middle linebacker backing up Michael Heard. Charles Burns was in limited-purple, behind Titus Brown. Quinton Wesley worked at both tackle and end in contact drills.

On the offensive line Craig Jenkins continues to hold the #1 right tackle job he was promoted to last week, ahead of Michael Gates. The second line has altered a bit this week with Chris Spencer now the second LT behind Calvin Wilson, who had to leave midway of the day for a Tuesday evening class. Roland Terry stepped up to second team at tackle then.

A couple of the early segments were devoted to portions of kickoff receiving and coverage. A half-dozen candidates took turns fielding the kicks, from PK Adam Carlson, including Pegues, Conner, Threadgill, Long, Anthony Johnson, and Bell. A variety of linebackers and defensive backs practiced the downfield coverage, though without any real tackling. And with Keith Andrews being excused early, the end-of-practice placekicking challenge was between Carlson and walk-on Todd McGee. Each got four tries from the set distances, with veteran Carlson hitting three times and McGee two with one blocked. And while State ends most days running wind sprints, Croom let Carlson try a 50-yarder that would excuse the squad from such duty. He nailed it.

This likely contributed to Croom's good post-practice mood, despite a sluggish start. "And we're playing hard, we keep getting a little better every day," he said, adding "But after 3-8 seasons back-to-back you can't hardly get much worse.

"But I love our attitude, I like the way the guys are working. So we've got a long way to go. Fortunately we're staying healthy so far and if everybody comes out every day and keeps working like we're working we'll be better."

The Bulldogs will have their 11th practice on Thursday, in full pads, and scrimmage for the second time on Saturday.

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