Bulldogs Open Camp With 'Average' Day

All summer Mississippi State players have said they are expecting special things from their 2006 season. But now that the preseason is underway all that counts is action on the practice field, and one day into camp Coach Sylvester Croom has yet to see anything remarkable.

"It was an average first day," Croom said at the conclusion of Wednesday's workout.

All that was out of the practice-ordinary was the length of opening day. The session was scheduled to run from 5:00 to 7:00, but not until 7:45 did Croom leave the field…with the team still there meeting with their position coaches. "I'm sure it will be some tired legs," Croom said looking ahead to day-two after this lengthy session.

Actually, the head coach could have been evaluating the first day just by ‘averaging' out the results. He liked the defensive work as a whole, and found offensive aspects to praise as well. But Croom also saw some old mistakes, such as mis-handled footballs, and was unhappy that not all players met their targets for times and conditioning. So overall, "It was very average."

Looking at the positive points, Croom wasn't surprised by the defense's efforts, just pleased. "They did some good things, ran to the ball well. (Tackle) Deljuan Robinson picked up where he left off in spring, he dominated the guys he lined up on. I thought our retention was good, (OLB) Jamar Chaney and (SS) Keith Fitzhugh did some good things competing for the football."

Offensively Croom was pleased with quarterback Mike Henig, who came out for day-one as he'd promised with only a bit of extra tape on his left cleat to show he is still recovering from a broken toe. Croom said Henig got a little sore and was clearly rusty on deep balls due to the layoff, but "looked a lot better than I expected for the first day. He made some nice throws." The backups, Tray Rutland and Ty Evans, were not as sharp and other than Omarr Conner the pass-catching left much to be desired.

"The best thing on offense was Omarr, he caught the ball," Croom said. "He made his times but he still needs to drop a little weight. Bryson Davis did some good things and Eric Butler looked quicker. But we had too many drops today, way too many."

Then there was the matter of a trio of offensive linemen who displeased the head coach in their pre-camp testing. While on the whole the blocking Dogs, much like the entire team, worked well in the summer and toned up as planned, it only took a few misses to spoil the average.

"We had a couple of fat guys who played like fat guys," Croom said. "(Tackle) Craig Jenkins, (guard) Mike Gates, and (center) Johnny Carpenter were the only guys that didn't make their times." In their defense all three had minor hamstring ailments over the summer that set them back a bit. And earlier in the afternoon, before practice, Croom told media that the summer program had been a success. Still Croom made clear that there are no excuses now. "We'll keep pushing them, give them a little extra running, and get somebody else in that position we can count on."

Otherwise the roster was healthy for day-one with only freshman tight end Brandon Jones-Henderson wearing a red cross jersey due to a hamstring problem. Nobody was in a yellow ‘limited' jersey Wednesday. A welcome change, at least to media, was that every player came out with uniform numbers on making identification far easier than in spring. Unchanged is Croom's policy of putting the first-teammers, and some few alternate starters, in maroon (offense) or white (defense) with the second and third groups in green and blue respectively. Quarterbacks still wear hands-off red.

Workouts began with the same total of players who had been reported Tuesday at check-in. Croom said that neither of the two un-certified freshmen, running back Courtney Jones nor receiver Alex Carpenter, has yet been cleared. "No, nothing has changed on that. Hopefully it will change before the week is out but right now everything is as it was."

When spring camp ended Croom said the players who held first-team jobs in April would begin August the same way. That was almost entirely true Wednesday with one expected exception. Junior college transfer J.D. Hamilton, on his first day wearing practice gear, was the #1 left tackle. The full first-team line, left to right, was Hamilton, Anthony Strauder, Royce Blackledge Brian Anderson, and Jenkins. They all wore maroon shirts, as did second-team left guard Anthony Dunning. Calvin Wilson, who checked in at 346 pounds and in the best shape of his young life, was the second left tackle.

The rest of the second line looked different from the last time it assembled for a practice. Wednesday saw Chris Spencer now working at center, after practicing at tackle in spring; with Gates now moved to right guard and Roland Terry at right tackle. In reserve, transfer Mike Brown was practicing at right tackle; he is not eligible for competition this fall, though, as he must sit out a year. Mark Melichar was at left tackle, Gunner Boykin at left guard, and Carpenter at center.

On defense, the first line was unchanged from spring with Michael Heard and Charles Burns at ends and Andrew Powell and Robinson at tackles. Veteran starter Titus Brown is the second end behind Burns, having been slowed in spring by injury, so this is one position where there will be good camp competition. The backup tackles were Antonio Johnson and Quinton Wesley, and former tackle Avery Hannibal was running #2 end behind Heard.

Middle linebacker Quinton Culberson is flanked by Gabe O'Neal and Chaney on the outsides, and the second unit OLBs were Carlton Rice and Anthony Littlejohn. A new face, transfer Timmy Bailey, opened camp as the backup middle LB ahead of Brad Horton. There were no changes in the safety or corner slots from spring at either first- or second-squad.

Croom has promised since winter that State special teams would be improved this season, and the first day showed some early emphasis on these areas with work by the kickers and block teams. Most of it was in punting practices, with Conner and Derek Pegues taking turns in fielding the kicks from Blake McAdams. Adam Carlson opens August as the number-one placekicker ahead of Keith Andrews.

Thursday will show what sorts of depth-chart changes could come from Wednesday's debut. Practice resumes at 6:30, on the second of the NCAA-mandated days of once-only practices. The first two-a-day session is next Tuesday. And by then the coaching staff will be demanding more than just ‘average' results from everyone. Despite the comments on some not-quite-conditioned Dogs, Croom is actually content with the Bulldogs' bodies. It is inside the helmet that has him bothered after just one workout.

"I'm not worried about us hitting people, we'll do that. But we're not a mentally tough team, between now and South Carolina we've got to get a heckuva lot more mentally tough than we are. If we do, we'll have a chance."

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