Croom: "Nothing To Dampen That Optimism"

One week down, and three more to get ready. And if Mississippi State can perform and progress through the remaining practice days before kicking it off on August 31, Coach Sylvester Croom believes the upcoming season could turn into something worth watching.

"At this point I feel very optimistic," the head coach said Wednesday at MSU's annual preseason Media Day press conference. "Nothing has changed since we started practice to dampen any of the optimism that at some point we can be a good football team."

That might qualify as ‘cautious optimism' in some quarters. But those who've covered Bulldog practice and play in Croom's first two years can tell the difference in his current comments. Certainly there has been a fresher flavor to this August's camp. So much so that Croom threw a curve at his club in Wednesday's morning workout. He had missed both Tuesday practices to take care of an impacted tooth that had become infected. "I wanted to pull it myself," Croom said, "or make it to an off-week." Instead he had the canine removed Tuesday. Then he arrived at Wednesday's workout a bit late and disguised in helmet, shoulder pads, and a red-cross jersey worn by injured players. Croom even ‘participated' in a couple of drills with the offensive line and quarterbacks. Asked about the new ‘walk-on' member of the team, Croom quipped "He must have looked pretty good because nobody knew who he was when he came to the field. I must look better than I even thought! It was all about fun."

Fun has been hard to find through early camp, with typically grueling high-summer conditions. One unconfirmed anecdote claimed a disposed player mouthpiece left on the artificial practice field was found the next day melted and stuck to the plastic turf. True or not, few would argue the real point. "It was hot," Croom said.

"We've been through seven days of practice and no question our summer conditioning has been very valuable to us. I think we've handled it well to this point." Still the State staff is taking no chances. On two-a-day dates the afternoon practices will start outdoors before moving into the Palmeiro Center. "That will be smart about getting the work done and at the same time allow us to get some mental toughness in the heat."

State has to play it smart in camp with anything related to health, because the injury roll (discounting the disguised coach) keeps growing (see morning practice report for list). Croom is particularly concerned about a depleted offensive tackle roster with first-teammers J.D. Hamilton and Calvin Wilson and backup Roland Terry sidelined for the moment. The top two should be ready to go by Saturday's scrimmage; the hope is that nobody joins the red-cross ranks after the full-contact, heavy-duty weekend session. It's a necessary risk.

"We're going to get some good full-speed work Saturday putting people on the ground, which we don't do normally," Croom said. "I hope we can get through it without serious injury, because if we can stay healthy through the course of the season I feel we can develop into a pretty good football team."

Even with those hurting Dogs the starting lineup has taken essentially the same shape as in April, other than the expected addition of Hamilton as a new first-tackle. Spring transfer Tony Burks and new juco Ryan Mason have immediately impacted the wide receiver rotation, also as planned; and JC linebacker Timmy Bailey is not just a backup but almost an alternate with senior Quinton Culberson at middle linebacker already.

It is on the second units where changes have shown up as camp progressed. Last week Croom said there would be no absolute redshirt decisions until the season got underway; but already some choices are being made in the other direction. There are true rookies who are going to play early and often, at receiver, linebacker, and defensive back.

Such as OLB Jamon Hughes. "He's not a normal freshman," said Croom, "he has it all. And safety Anthony Summers, who was promoted to second team in the morning, is changing plans all around the secondary. "We expect Summers to play every game," Croom said, noting he has better coverage skills than veteran De'Mon Glanton. "We were even considering playing him at corner." Instead the freshman's prowess has confirmed the move of Demario Bobo to corner. Bobo has been hampered all camp by a hamstring problem, but once healthy he looks to be a potential nickel safety as well as a primary backup corner and strong safety.

Offensively, Burks and Mason have gotten the headlines but true frosh Keith Mills has jumped into the mix. Still a relatively raw football player of limited prep experience, Mills has great speed and athleticism. "We thought at one time we'd have to grayshirt him, but that quickly changed," Croom said. "He could very well be our #2 receiver."

The wideout corps is a top topic every practice, because it is the key to expanding State's offensive repertoire. Croom has criticized the pass-catching often through the first week, he adds that the potential is there for the developing.

"We brought in some talent. Tony Burks is as talented as you can get, Ryan Mason has a lot of talent, my only concern is they've got to learn. I'm sure it's far more complex than they're used to and far more intense. I think they thought they were in shape but they weren't in Bulldog shape."

As for the passer himself, Mike Henig continues to get solid reviews for his arm and ability. Croom said the focus is on refining the third-year soph's technique and recognition. "He's got to get better in his drops and let his feet carry him to his second and third outlets. When you see him bounce back there it means it's time to go to the second and third receiver, he's learning that." Tray Rutland continues to run #2 ahead of his fellow redshirt Ty Evans, but Croom said the backup is not ready to win yet.

"At some point we're going to get Omarr Conner back in the mix of things. He's for sure going to be our emergency guy and he may be our third quarterback." Conner is the #1 receiver and will stay there with Burks and others. Croom said former #1 flanker Will Prosser might not actually start games this senior year—"He's already a member of the Alumni Association," the coach joked--but he will be even more productive playing in specific situations and fewer total snaps.

After one week Brandon Thornton remains the #1 halfback; after that things are less settled. "We're looking for 2-3-4," Croom said. "We do have some talent there, I've been very impressed with Anthony Dixon, he is a talent. Christian Ducre, we don't know if he's eligible but we sure do hope we can get that because he is a talent. Arnil Stallworth has done some good things up to now." The challenge is that those newcomers have to be able to do much more than take a handoff in this system.

"They've got to learn the pickups, the routes, where to be on the checkdowns and on ‘hots.' Those things that don't happen overnight. Our backs are key to our passing game and protections." And, the coach added, they all have to protect the ball better.

That is just one aspect to stress through the rest of camp. Yet while the calender shows three more weeks to work, in Croom's mind the next ten days and two scrimmage practices will settle most lineup questions.

"After the second scrimmage we're going to pull off (the first-two teams), get them rested and ready to go into the season and win football games. Everybody else we're going to keep working until their tongues drop."

Those workers could include the two remaining freshmen who have yet to be cleared for fall, back Courtney Jones and receiver Alex Carpenter. Croom had no update on their status from the NCAA as of today, and even if/when cleared they must run through the mandatory five-day acclimation period…putting them that much more behind those who have been practicing. It might be too much to overcome for the season, and "They're not going to play against South Carolina, that's for sure," Croom said.

The Bulldogs are back to practice Thursday for both a morning and afternoon session, then have a single practice Friday before the weekend scrimmage. The long-range forecast shows milder temperatures by then; for now, everybody on our around the practice field just has to keep sweating it out. And that, too, is a preseason tool, Croom says.

"It's a necessary evil. The thing I like about it though, the longer you go the more you find out who is mentally tough."

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