Croom: "This is Year One."

Mississippi State head football coach Sylvester Croom is exuding a lot of optimisim about this year's team. He explains why in this Q&A.

How does this year compare to your first two years?
"It's like daylight compared to dark. I'm having fun now. The relationship that I and my staff have with these players is totally different now. It is one of trust and familiarity. I love them. And I think they feel the same way about me. I couldn't have said that for these last two football teams. These kids understand what we are trying to do. And they are willing to do it. The senior class is the only class that we didn't recruit, but they bought into it. That says a lot about those guys. That's what the first two years have been about. It's been about pushing them to the point to find out who really wants to be here and who really believes in what we are doing. Everybody that is left does. Now, we can build a football team.

"This is where we start. This is year one. The first two years we cleaned up what was already here. This is the first season that we start building a football team. Anybody who even thought we had a chance to win the last two years were fooling themselves. Now, we have a chance going into this season. This is the first time since I've been here that we have a legitimate chance to go into a season and win. We expect to win football games this year."

What are your thoughts about the offensive line?
"I think we have gotten a lot better, but I think we had a lot of room for improvement because we weren't very good last year. Our talent level on the offensive line is better now. We have got guys in positions where they are very stable. Right now, we have good depth in the offensive line. We just hope the injuries don't get us down the line."

Talk a little more in-depth about your O-Line. Who will play where?
"We have Calvin Wilson at left tackle. We have Craig Jenkins at right tackle. We have J.D. Hamilton who can come in. We know those three guys can play. They are big enough, athletic enough, strong enough. There is no reason that they can't play well at tackle. We made a great move in moving Mike Gates to guard. He is playing very well. We know that Gates and (Anthony) Strauder can play guard. Then, we have Brian Anderson. So, we have three guards. And, if by any miracle Mike Brown can play, then we will have four tackles. At center, we have Blackledge and (Johnny) Carpenter. We have Chris Spencer. Plus, Brian Anderson, if we needed to, could play there."

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes has always had faith that Blackledge would become a football player. Now he has.
"He is a good football player, at center. He was an ok football player at guard. Certain guys can play certain positions better. And Royce is a lot better at center than he was at guard."

What are your thoughts about your defense?
"Right now, we are two-deep across the board at every position on defense. And, particularly at our linebacker crew, we are working a lot more quality people there than we did last year. We just didn't have the bodies last year. Our defensive front is in good shape. We have some young kids like Rodney Prince and Kyle Love that we hope can give us some depth."

What do you like about those two freshmen?
"Prince is a natural pass-rusher. When I saw Kyle Love on a high school film, I went over to Coach McCorvey and asked what is wrong with this guy? He said, 'what do you mean?' I asked him why is nobody else jumping all over this guy because he may be the best athlete on the board based on what I saw from him as a noseguard? He is an old-fashion two-gap run-stopper. You put him on the nose, and when he really gets good, he's one of those kind of guys that I don't expect a center to block one-on-one."

With so many seniors on the D-Line is it important that you play a few of the freshmen linemen?
"Of course, and I hope we are in situations in games where we need to play some freshmen. When the game is over and we are sitting on top and we need to get some (young) guys in the ballgame. That's what I'm hoping for this year. But we aren't going to play a guy that's not ready to play. But I think that Love and Prince will be ready to play. I really do."

You mentioned in your press conference that you really like the play of freshman linebacker Jamon Hughes. He wasn't a highly recruited player. What did you see in him that other coaches may not have? "We look at the talent. I don't know what other people are looking for. When we are recruiting, we look at film, we see the guy we like and we go after him. In fact, we hope nobody else recruits them, then we don't have to fight for them (laugh)."

We've talked about your defense and offense. What are your thoughts about your kickers?
"I am very pleased with our kickers so far. They are kicking field goals well. (Wednesday) morning, we had a kickoff return drill and (Keith) Andrews kicked the ball off the field every single time and (Adam) Carlson kicked it into the endzone. If we can get that kind of kicking in the kicking game we are going to be in pretty good shape."

Other newcomers that you like in addition to Love and Prince are Hughes and Anthony Summers. Keith Mills is a wide receiver who has earned the right to wear a maroon jersey. Has his play surprised you?
"He hasn't been a surprise to me. We were recruiting another kid and J.B. (Grimes) said we might want to offer this kid later. I said, 'let's go visit him now while we are down here'. When we did the kid pulled out some more film. When we left I told J.B. that we have to have this guy. One, the guy was one of the top low hurdlers in the country. Two, I saw him run routes and catch the football after playing just a year playing wide receiver. I saw size, hands and a good kid who is intelligence. And his dad played college football and I knew he had been a tough guy. So I knew he had been taught about toughness. And that is what I look for in kids."

How tough has it been on your newcomers having to adjust to your expectations of them?
"I can see that it has been a big adjustment for our freshman and junior college players. We work extremely hard. We expect an all out effort on every play. As far as we are concerned, any one play can be the difference in the ballgame. Plus, we have the philosophy that you do it in practice the way you do it in games. I see a little bit of a mentality from the new players that they will do it on gameday (and not practice). I don't buy that. I never understand how you think you will wake up on Saturday morning and do something that you haven't done all week. I want to see them practice exactly the way they are going to play in the game. Our new guys are having to learn that."


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at swindoll@genespage.com.

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