Line Injuries Impacting Drills, Concern Croom

That thin overcast that dimmed the morning sunshine? It didn't do much to mute on-field conditions as Mississippi State ran through the first of two practice sessions scheduled for Thursday. The Bulldogs, in full-gear, spent two hours and forty minutes in normal August heat and humidity.

"Hot again today," Coach Sylvester Croom said afterwards, adding "I thought we worked pretty well through it." Indeed only one Dog—defensive tackle Quinton Wesley—had to be helped off due to heat problems, and he should be back to speed quickly enough. How the team is handling these conditions physically is a good sign to Croom; but how they are coping mentally is even better.

"We're showing some mental toughness. I like the work ethic. Last year even though we worked hard there was a lot of negativeness about the work. We're not having that this year, guys are very positive and know this is what we've got to do to get better. Hopefully it will pay off in the long run."

In the shorter run, however, there is a growing concern. It corresponds to the growing list of hurting players, particularly where State's offense is most vulnerable. "The injuries are really starting to slow us down on the offensive line. And that's starting to hurt our continuity and cohesiveness some. So we're having too many mistakes there."

The latest addition to the sick-call on the blocking front is backup guard Michael Gates, with after-effects from a blow to the helmet yesterday. Gates came out in limited-work yellow today, as did tackle J.D. Hamilton. But in that case yellow is a good sign because the junior transfer has been sidelined by an ankle for five days now. Yellow is a step up the injury status ladder, and right tackle Hamilton should be able to hit by Saturday.

At the same time left tackle Calvin Wilson was in yellow with a Tuesday groin injury, and primary backup Roland Terry has been sidelined with back problems. The tackle dept chart is in poor shape and it is showing. In non-contact work the first unit may look the same with LT Wilson, LG Anthony Strauder, C Royce Blackledge, RG Brian Anderson, and RT Craig Jenkins. When it comes time to hit, though, the unit lines up very differently. The second group for unit drills is, left to right, Mark Melichar, Anthony Dunning, Johnny Carpenter, Gates, and Mike Brown. The only reserves for now are center Chris Spencer and guard John McMillan.

There might be some good news at tackle, however. Croom said for the first time that State has been pursuing an appeal that Brown, a transfer from Florida, have the mandatory redshirt year waived based on family matters. If allowed Brown would be a big help to tackle depth, and in fact he came out Thursday wearing first-team maroon for the first time.

"He's getting a lot of work for a guy who we aren't sure is going to play in the first game," Croom said. "Because we don't have a choice now. Hopefully we get some of these other guys back for the scrimmage."

State needs a healthy and consistent group of linemen to work with now because there are more contact and situation drills to be done. Thursday morning featured focus on third-down plays in the passing game. "We worked on our blitzes and pickups and the defense no question is ahead in that area," Croom said. "But I thought we made some progress there."

Such as how freshman receiver Keith Mills made "a lot of plays" this morning. Transfer halfback Christian Ducre also showed up in running drills well, having just today been promoted to a maroon first-unit shirt himself. "And our running back contingent is getting better," said Croom. "We worked hard on the running game and full-speed in our nine-on-seven drills, particularly in short-yardage situations." Those are plays where 235-pound halfback Anthony Dixon could shine, except the freshman is still sidelined by an ankle. "He was doing well early, now that's thrown him behind."

And while Ducre's status is still unsettled for this season, State is clearly expecting him to receive the transfer-waiver to be able to play immediately. Ducre is taking snaps fourth in the halfback order. Brandon Thornton remains the starter while former walk-on Justin Williams runs second and freshman Arnil Stallworth third.

Bryson Davis has had no problems holding the starting fullback spot, and two-way back Brandon Hart has only practiced at fullback this camp and as the #2 man. With Casey Rogers (shoulder) out today, walk-on Eric Hoskins, a junior college transfer, was up to third in the order.

Rogers joined the red-cross crew on the sidelines with freshman tight end Brandon Jones-Henderson (hamstring). Only two defensive players were held out; starting linebacker Gabe O'Neal (shoulder) and backup cornerback/nickel back Demario Bobo (hamstring). Bobo's absence is impacting the secondary, where Croom is pleased with starters Keith Fitzhugh and Jeramie Johnson and frosh Anthony Summers is moving up fast. But veteran Bobo is ticketed to play as the nickel safety and his absence is slowing work there.

The defense welcomed back end Titus Brown, who was excused the previous two days with a family emergency. Still having missed days meant Brown lined up as the second end behind Charles Burns, but that was also how Brown began camp and in a few days he was back up with the first unit.

On the defensive front the depth chart is clearing up for week-two of work. On his end Michael Heard is backed by Avery Hannibal, and freshman Brandon Cooper; while Burns and Brown are backed by freshman Rodney Prince and redshirting transfer Cortez McCraney. Behind starting nose tackle Andrew Powell were freshmen Reggie Odom and J.C. Brignone, and soph Anthony Smith; while co-#1s Deljuan Robinson and Antonio Johnson have Quinton Wesley and freshman Kyle Love behind them.

Croom wants Bobo back ASAP, but otherwise the secondary has performed well since the pads came on. And the work of true sophs Fitzhugh and corner Derek Pegues is more encouraging. "They were freshmen last year and played that way at times, but we knew they had athletic ability and now there's a lot more maturity to it. Derek is more of a technician instead of just playing on his athletic ability. He and David Heard are playing well, and the four guys in the secondary are a solid group."

Placekicker Keith Andrews, who had been in green the first week, is now in maroon though still kicking second after Adam Carlson.

The afternoon practice begins at 3:45 and should end around 6:00, though every session so far in camp has run a bit longer than planned. Croom has said the second session in two-a-days will be split with half of the work done outdoors before everyone moves into the Palmeiro Center to complete practices in cooler conditions.

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