There is still much to be proven on the field, and the schedule is not conducive to radical turnarounds. But Mississippi State finally has a chance to make the only sort of progress that counts. In the record.
OFFENSE - After two unproductive years with just 39 total touchdowns and consecutive NCAA yardage rankings in the 110s, there truly is no direction for this offense to turn but upwards. The third year in this system is when Croom expects to see much better results on both scoreboard and stat sheet. "Our offense made tremendous strides this spring."
There was noticeable progress in key areas. Mike Henig was handed the quarterback job in November when two-year starter Omarr Conner was struggling. The move didn't pay off instantly but Henig's third start was a success, a 35-14 win to end the season, and the third-year soph looked like a much older hand in spring. "Mike is going to make plays for us," Croom said. He has to, of course. A couple of redshirt frosh are Henig's backups and in a serious pinch Conner could take over.
Otherwise Conner stays where his sure hands and ability to take and give contact made that unit much better. "Moving him was a tremendous plus," Croom said. And, "Our wide receiver corps will be better." Because senior FL Will Prosser is healthy after taking spring off to rest. He and Conner are 'possession' catchers; juco Tony Burks will do things after making catches, an element clearly missing in 2004-05. The other lack was a true deep threat, which remains a question. Keon Humphries had some good spring moments and Tyler Threadgill stepped his game up.
The wild card is juco Ryan Mason, another tall target fitting the air-game theme of sharp patterns and quick throws. That certainly suits the talents of TE Eric Butler, with seven touchdown grabs in just two varsity seasons. Add Dezmond Sherrod and Jason Husband as receivers and Jeremy Jones for blocking, and tight end is this unit's deepest position.
The list isn't quite so long at halfback, where All-SEC Jerious Norwood has left a huge void. Still, "We lost our stud runner but we're going to be alright," said Croom. "Even though we're still counting on freshmen to give us some help we'll be a little more running back by-committee." Brandon Thornton had his moments as Norwood's backup and is a bit stronger if not so speedy. Derek Ambrose has been given an extra year due to a knee injury he has come back from faster than hoped, and offers a good combination of muscle and movement. Brandon Hart can be a short-yardage blaster, following Bryson Davis who Croom calls the best fullback in the country. Croom also likes freshmen runners Anthony Dixon and Courtney Jones, and Tulane transfer Christian Ducre, predicting they will offer instant aid.
Yet what matters most isn't throwers, catchers, and runners. State's offensive downfall has been blocking, or lack thereof. 2006 is the first chance for a reliable line, and thus a successful season, in years. "If we're good at quarterback and good in the offensive line then we'll have a chance to win," Croom said.
Three starters are back, though two are in different slots. Senior Brian Anderson has moved from left tackle to right guard yet remains the best all-around blocker. Anthony Strauder is still the left guard while junior Royce Blackledge has moved back to center where he belongs. They provide 90% of the starting experience, and Croom has put it all in the middle of the line to open up the interior ground attack. This shows the faith being invested in young or new tackles. Redshirt frosh Craig Jenkins was the surprise of spring, taking over right tackle from true soph Michael Gates. On the other end Calvin Wilson, forced into freshman duty, moved to left in spring and practiced reasonably well…just not well enough to keep Croom from declaring the job still available. This is where incoming juco J.D. Hamilton will challenge Wilson in camp.
For that matter the entire front is being challenged by a coach who knows what it will take for this offense to get moving at last. "If our offensive line gels and Mike continues to play like he has, then I'm not worried about the other positions," said Croom.
DEFENSE - No surprise, the stronger side of State's lineup is again the defense with more experience, more depth, and just more confidence. Ten of the defensive Dogs who started at least once in November are back and their backups-or in several cases alternates-have been through the SEC wringer as well. "We were solid there last year and we feel we'll be even better," said Croom. Better, because the coach has targeted specific areas to be upgraded in 2006.
"Defensively we've got to continue to improve on some things. We played very well 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." Oh, and one other item: turnovers. In fact the best boost an unproven offense could get is fine field position via a defensive takeaway, and that's something State has been practicing. "So I expect us to get more opportunities offensively this year because our defense is going to give us the football," Croom said.
This defense has been built around a mature trio of senior interior tackles who are almost interchangeable. Andrew Powell is among the SEC's best nose men, and since moving inside Deljuan Robinson has thrived as a true tackle. Antonio Johnson proved he belonged as a junior transfer and can play both slots, giving three-man rotation at these two pounding positions. "We've got three solid players inside," Croom said. "They know what they're doing."
The top of the linebacking depth chart looks good. Senior MLB Quinton Culberson is an all-SEC candidate and true soph WLB Jamar Chaney is a star of the near future. To the strong side Gabe O'Neal and Anthony Littlejohn have both played but each needs to contribute more consistently to balance the group out. And Croom won't wait long for them or backup MLB Jimmy Miller to step it up, because Juco Tim Bailey and frosh Jamon Hughes report practically as #2s already. If they pan out some roles may shift during camp.
Backing up the linebackers are veteran safeties. FS Jeramie Johnson was second-team All-SEC with a position-best 64 tackles and four interceptions, and De'Mon Glanton has three starts to his credit. Strong safety has some fresh competition as converted corner Keith Fitzhugh ended spring first-team in the absence of a rehabilitating Demario Bobo. Whoever starts, there is depth in both spots though still maybe not quite the sheer speed Croom has been recruiting. On the left corner true soph Derek Pegues has all the potential. "We're counting on him to play up to his abilities," Croom said. Just in case, mid-year transfer Anthony Johnson is practicing RCB to keep pushing Pegues. Meanwhile senior David Heard just keeps re-winning his LCB job despite challenges from younger, faster kids. Former wideout Adron Chambers was moved to defense in spring and seemed sound.
State signed new blood, and bulk, for most defensive duties and they are the future here. For now, a mostly-veteran unit will set the 2006 theme. "That's something that lends confidence to you," Croom said, "because we know we can play some defense now."
SPECIAL TEAMS - How serious is Croom about better production from kicking squads? Enough so that he is promising-even threatening-to utilize a higher proportion of starters on these units. "We have to get the best people on the field. Because our special teams were not what we expected them to be last year. A lot of that is because we had some mismatches in talent." This means several regular wideouts and defensive backs will pull double-duties in downfield coverage while top tight ends and running backs take out tacklers. As to catching the kicks, Conner and Pegues are the top pre-season choices in both punt and kickoff return with Threadgill and Humphries getting good shots in camp.
The specialists are better-set. Blake McAdams averaged 41.9 yards as a true freshman and looks to have a full four-year career as the top punter. Croom is confident enough in the kid to let him play baseball next spring. Muscle pulls sidelined PK Keith Andrews the last month of '05 but he was back full-strength in spring and showing both better range and rise out of McAdams' holds. Russell Cook is back for a fourth and final season snapping for both specialists.
SCHEDULE -- There's always the chance stouter slates will be contested elsewhere. Still it's unlikely any other program in a similar building situation would willingly swap with State. Along with the regular round of Western Division road matchups-which this time around sends them to LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi-the Bulldogs draw a trip to Georgia where they have not won in fifty falls. Not only that, but State kicks off the entire campaign with a SEC game by hosting South Carolina. Somebody's overall dreams are likely to be dashed the first Thursday night of this college season.
The out-of-conference contests are a mixed bag to say the least. Jacksonville State is the standard sort of Homecoming guest, while Tulane and Alabama-Birmingham are better consecutive tests both for the first month of the season and coming off a two tough SEC battles. The Wave gave State all it could handle last fall on a neutral field and the Blazers won a 2004 meeting in Starkville. And anyone marking UAB as a 'W' should recall the Dogs have not won a true 'away' game since 2002.
But the 'headliner' is a visit from West Virginia. When this match was set up years ago nobody figured the Mountaineers would be a pre-season #1 for 2006. Now the Bulldogs have drawn as tough an inter-league assignment as anyone in the conference, as if they needed any further obstacles on the road to rebuilding.