Well, perhaps a few feelings were hurt during the Maroon-White scrimmage. And a couple of egos likely were left bruised after the mostly-varsity Maroons wrapped up a 14-3 win over the backups and reserves wearing White. Otherwise, though, the mid-day skirmish went both as planned and hoped.
It was fast, with the clocking left running through each ten-minute quarter. And while both sides didn't shy from banging bodies with zest play no one had to be helped from the field. A media-estimated crowd of 4,500 got to see a handful of entertaining plays, plenty of good contact, and then leave for the baseball yard.
Obviously the Maroons, made up of the first offense and defense and many of their primary alternates, was supposed to dominate. And they did, but not without a challenge or effort. In fact the Whites, playing with energetic abandon, got on the scoreboard first. Running no-huddle offense, they moved the ball in their first turn—helped by a pass interference call on Maroon CB Adron Chambers—inside the Maroon 36. When walk-on back Marshall Brown was stuffed for a loss on third down, they lined up for a 55-yard field goal attempt by Keith Andrews. With a bit of help from the wind the senior hit it straight down the middle and cleared the crossbar for a 3-0 White lead.
Stung, the Maroons responded with their best drive of the day, going 65 yards in nine plays. Quarterback Mike Henig found wideout Keon Humphries on a down-and-out pattern for 29 yards, down to the White 23. Henig then bootlegged-left and threw for nine more yards, and on first-and-goal he found wideout Tyler Threadgill slanting in hard from right-to-left in front of cornerback Tay Bowser. Threadgill made the catch a step inside the goal line for the only offensive touchdown of the day.
The other touchdown, also coming in the second quarter, was provided by the Maroon defense, and almost immediately after the other score. White quarterback Ty Evans tried to throw to WR Aubrey Bell on an out-route, only to have his target fall down on the cut. The pass went right into the hands of cornerback Anthony Johnson at the 50-yard line with nobody in front of him to slow his touchdown return.
Henig was 5-of-10 passing for 60 yards and the score. Robert Ambers got to run one series for the Maroons, completing his one throw for ten yards. The Maroons rushed 13 times for a net of 27 yards, 17 of those by walk-on halfback Justin Williams on five runs. Brandon Hart and Derek Ambrose ran three times each for 8 and 7 yards. Humphries was the top catcher with two receptions for 45 yards and four other Maroons had one catch.
For the Whites, Evans was 4-of-10 for 30 yards with two catches from Jamayel Smith for 15 yards. Brett Hyatt had one series on offense and did not throw. Walk-on backs Adrian Yelding and Brown both rushed four times, for 13 and 10 yards.
The same group of players held out of camp contact over the last week, whether for spring injuries or semester rehab, were on the sidelines in red-cross jerseys. Most will be first-teammers when August camp starts: MLB Quinton Culberson, WR Will Prosser, RCB David Heard, TE Eric Butler, RB Brandon Thornton, S Demario Bobo, and juco transfer WR Tony Burks. The latter was one camp injury as Burks pulled a hamstring after one week. Also, backup MLB Jimmy Miller hurt a hamstring in drills, and reserve DB Adrian Griffin injured his shoulder.
After the scrimmage, which concluded spring training, Croom met with reporters briefly. Following are his quotes, as well as comments by several Bulldog players regarding spring and the outlook for 2006.
Croom's opening statement: "That winds it up. There's no question we won the game today, because we got nobody hurt. I thought we did some good things out there today. But overall it's been an excellent spring from my standpoint. I'm very pleased that our defense continued to improve.
"I think we've already released it but our Most Improved guy on defense was Antonio Johnson, on offense it was Mike Henig. And our Bulldog Award for courage and the way he went about things went to Derek Ambrose. He came back off a very serious injury and participated in the spring and did an excellent job.
"The most impressive thing about our team right now is that we understand our schemes. We've been in it two years now and the young guys have grown up in our systems and they understand what we're doing from a technique standpoint on offense, defense, and in the kicking game. One of the big emphases of the spring, we wanted to really pay attention to the details and do the little things right. But we continued to work on being physically and mentally tough, and on being a team that finishes plays and plays physical football. I think you saw some of that out there today.
"The plus going into the season is we've got good leadership from our seniors ,and even our underclassmen. Everybody here has bought into what we're doing and that excites me more than anything else. We are a football team. We will play as a football team this year. I'm not going to make any predictions because I never do believe in that. But we go into the season, we go into the games this year feeling like we can play anybody on our schedule and have a chance to win. And that will be the first time since we've been here that that has occurred."
Q: Did you learn anything about your team today?
Croom: "Did I learn anything today? Nah, not really. (laughing) All I know is we got out of the game today with nobody getting hurt. And for us to get through spring practice with as much as we hit and not have a serious injury right now… Tray Rutland's non-throwing shoulder was injured in the off-season program and he's going to get that done this week. Other than that I don't know anything we've got to do from a surgical standpoint going into the summer. That is a great blessing for us, we're excited about that."
Q: You mentioned leadership. It seemed to be ‘louder' at practice this year with guys talking.
Croom: "Yeah. The thing is, football is a hard game and practicing football is very hard. Playing the game on Saturday, if you like to play, that's different. But going out to do the work in practice and doing it, it gets to a point where… The last two years the coaches and myself, we've had to push-push-push and prod and motivate just to get guys to practice. Now we're at a point where guys are working because they're taking personal pride in it. And no matter what you do as a coach, it's still a players game. And it comes to a point where the players have to take the responsibility themselves for the success of a practice, the success of a play, the success of a game, for the success of a season. They have to accept that responsibility. Our seniors have done that. The first two years we have had individuals—David Stewart, Jerious Norwood, Brett Morgan, guys like that who have accepted that responsibility. But as a whole, the entire senior class accepting that responsibility that ‘hey, we've got to set the tempo, we're the ones that have to make sure things are right', they've accepted that responsibility. And that's huge."
Q: Who had the best spring?
Croom: "Well of course the guys who got out Most Improved awards probably made the most impact as far as improvement. But we had a lot of guys who had excellent springs. I always start with our defense first, Jeramie Johnson had an excellent spring. Here's a guy who in the first year-and-a-half here dropped a lot of balls. Then those three interceptions against Ole Miss, this is a guy who never drops a ball now.
"And that's one of the things our defense did, they did an excellent job of getting turnovers and they had another one today. Those things are not by accident, we practice those things about getting turnovers and doing the little things it takes to get turnovers. So I expect us to get more opportunities offensively this year because our defense is going to give us the football. I think we're going to have better field position because our special teams will be better, our return games will be better. I have more confidence in our punt return game than at any time since we've been here because Omarr (Conner) is back there. Because I know he's going to catch the football and I know he's going to make decisions and he's going to make winning plays back there as a punt returner for us. Our coverage units are going to be better, our kicking. Everything about our football team, I expect it to be better."
Q: What is your assessment on Tony Burks?
Croom: "That's another reason I think we're going to be improved. Because we have some big guns that did not practice. Tony Burks proved in three days he could make a huge impact in our passing game. But we did not want that hamstring to become a chronic problem that we have to deal with this summer. Eric Butler didn't practice a whole lot, he had very little contact work there. Brandon Thornton did not practice.
"So we're talking about three guys we expect to have. Our offense made tremendous strides this spring and three of the guys of the big guns didn't even practice. Then we have a guy coming in, Ryan Mason, who we think is going to be just as much of an impact player as Burks. So we know right now we have three guys who are going to be not just good SEC receivers, we think we have three guys that can be as good as there are in the conference this year. We know they have that ability. Then you throw in the improvement of Keon Humphries and Tyler Threadgill; and when Will Prosser and Joey Sanders get well we're going to have a solid receiving corps this year that we have not had in the past. That is going to be a huge, huge plus for us.
"Then the offensive line is better. And having a triggerman in Mike Henig that is going to make some plays for us, we're going to be a lot better there."
Q: Talk about the play of Derek Ambrose.
Croom: "He was a lot better. Derek gives us two solid running backs going into the fall and we're very pleased about that."
Q: So his sixth year has been approved?
WIDE RECEIVER OMARR CONNER: "I made plays all spring, just picked up where I left off last season at receiver. They put a lot of plays in for me and I just tried to make plays every day at practice."
Q: Where is the offense compared to last spring? "We're a totally different offense. We just have to make sure to fill the gap of Jerious Norwood. We get that role filled, I think Mike Henig is going to lead us in a good way. We've got a lot of good receivers, plus the guys coming in from high school, so I think the offense is going to be totally good."
Q: Does the offensive line seem more confident? "Oh, man, totally. Everybody knows what they're doing now, everybody is in one accord. Everybody believes in one another now. We're just going to try to take one day at a time and things will go good for us."
CORNERBACK ANTHONY JOHNSON: "Everybody is picking it up and we're coming together as a team. We know we have to come back this summer and work hard in the weightroom. We can be a pretty good team."
Q: When Derek Pegues comes back, there will be a lot of competition at cornerbacks. "Yeah, because Derek is a good corner. We both push each other and don't take any plays off. When he's there I'm pushing and when I'm out there he's pushing. So maybe we'll both be splitting time at left corner."
Q: Just how confident is this defense in itself now? "It's a pretty good confidence on defense, because we've got a lot more speed in the secondary. And with all those starters we've got a whole lot of ability in the d-line. We think we're going to be a great defense."
LINEBACKER JAMAR CHANEY: "The main thing is coming together as a unit and playing together once we get our other guys back. We're developing depth in the whole defense, we're two or three deep at every position."
"We got a lot of turnovers this spring and we were returning them for touchdowns. We need to do that a lot this upcoming season."
Q: Describe the attitude of the entire defense, they were so confident all spring. "I mean, that's the confidence you have to have. We have to come out and play together and believe we can shut any team out on our schedule this year. And that's what we're looking to do."
Q: With guys like Culberson and Miller injured is the depth at linebacker better now? "Yeah. Like Carvell Jones, he was playing real well this spring and making a lot of tackles. And Carlton Rice, Brad Horton, our linebacking has a lot of depth now, it's up there with the secondary and d-line."
Q: Does all the praise by the coach put any extra pressure on the defense? "Yeah, he puts a lot of pressure on us. But our defensive coaches make sure we don't get too big-headed, he tells us we can get a lot better. A lot better. And we know we've got South Carolina for a first game and then Auburn so we have a lot to do over the summer, get stronger and faster."
QUARTERBACK MIKE HENIG: "Having guys like Omarr and Keon and the other receivers helping make plays, that just makes you a lot better."
Q: Did the offensive line improve this spring? "The offensive line stepped up, too. They had their tough points last year, this year they have a lot of experience. And they have a lot of young guys stepping up, like Dio Herrera and Roland Terry, they'll play some this season. And Craig Jenkins and Calvin Wilson have to step up and they are so far. We looked pretty good, we're going to be alright."
Q: The last two springs the offense was almost shell-shocked by the defense. Are you more confident now? "You know, that's one thing about spring. Spring ball is set up for the defense, if your offense is ahead of the defense in spring you're in trouble! We started competing with them towards the end, which you're supposed to do, and we did some good things. The line didn't act like they were shocked, they came out and did what we asked them to do and did a good job."
Q: How much will it help getting Brandon Thornton back in fall? "Oh, he's a heck of a running back. If there is anyone I would compare to J-Rock it would be Brandon Thornton. He's going to run hard, he showed that in the Ole Miss game. And when he gets back I know he's going to be ready because he talks to me every day."
Q: How different are things now that you are the number-one quarterback? "It's a lot different. Last year I had the leadership skills but this year I had to make sure I had them, and let everybody know. Like when things don't go right in practice you have to let them know we're here, we're going to do it, we've all got to do it. And I enjoy being a leader, I enjoy having people looking at me."
PLACEKICKER KEITH ANDREWS: "The main thing I think about this spring is I was very fortunate to come off the injury I had and have the spring I had. I thank God for that, because I had doubts going into spring if I was even going to be able to play or not. By that fourth week I felt as good as I ever have. I feel very fortunate."
Q: Did you set a standard for the season by kicking a 55-yard field goal today? "Yeah, for the future…because I don't have another spring!"
HALFBACK BRANDON THORNTON: "I wanted to practice this spring but I wasn't cleared to practice. So I wouldn't have been able to. I feel pretty good about my position going into fall, I'm just going to keep coming out and practicing hard. The shoulder feels pretty good right now, I'd say in about three more weeks I'll be cleared."
Q: What were you doing while watching everyone scrimmage? "Mental reps!"
Q: So, are you mentally ahead of last year then? "Yeah, I'd say I'm probably ahead. I'm just trying to learn everything and be on top of my game. I'm going to spend the summer working out and getting ready, preparing for the season. I'll be here both semesters."
Q: You have the pressure of replacing Jerious Norwood, and there are some good freshmen coming in. "Well, I learned from the best! J-Rock was a good back and I'm just trying to follow in his footsteps and make everybody proud."
WIDE RECEIVER TYLER THREADGILL: "This is probably the first time since Coach has been here that we can probably score with anybody. Our offense is really coming along and Mike has really progessed well. Our offense has really come around and I'm excited to get back in the fall and start getting better again."
Q: Talk about your play this spring, you were under pressure to produce? "Yeah, I definitely was. They came to me like ‘we need more out of you, you obviously have a lot of talent and offer some things. I made a commitment in the off-season workouts and all-around, getting in the film room watching how I could get better and studying myself, things like that."
Q: And you get to go into fall first-team for it. "I guess so! It's going to be good for a change not to work my way up, I'll be there already. So I'm excited about it."