That was good news, in light of the obvious questions about how well State can replace the rushing punch provided the last two years by Jerious Norwood. It's been hard to gauge this aspect of State's offense since for the first seven practice days most of the work was instructional and by the distinct units. Only the depth chart could be judged with veteran Brandon Thornton keeping a good grip on his starting halfback job and running behind fullback Bryson Davis.
Day-eight saw much more ‘squad' work, though, whether 7-on-7, 9-on-7, or even full teams against each other. And Croom liked what he saw. "The offense did run the ball better, we blocked better in the offensive line." More good news, considering the number of injuries the blocking unit has suffered since camp opened. Justin Williams remains the #2 halfback with freshman Arnil Stallworth third in line, but after a day in a green shirt senior Derek Ambrose returned to maroon status and got back into the rotation. Frosh Anthony Dixon (ankle) remains sidelined and missed.
Of course Croom had to provide a qualifier to the successful ground-pounding. The defense isn't quite as sharp in this aspect of their game. "We've been working so much on our blitz package that we're not stopping the running game right now. We've got to tighten things up because if you can't stop the run you're not going to get a chance to blitz!"
Yet even State's passing had a solid afternoon. Initially passing drills did not start well with the typical dropped balls by practically every wideout. But the receivers settled down and that let quarterback Mike Henig have a very good day.
"Mike threw the ball extremely well and I know completed at least 70% of his passes," Croom said. "He was real sharp, knowing where to throw and take what the defense gave him." Tray Rutland remains the #2 quarterback, ahead of Ty Evans.
What might have been most encouraging offensively was that things ran so well without the blocking being 100%. The tackle positions are especially depleted by injuries to J.D. Hamilton (ankle) and Calvin Wilson (groin). Both spent each Thursday session in limited-contact yellow shirts, and in unit drills they were in reserve. But when it came to squad work Hamilton was back at first left tackle, and his presence showed.
"We got J.D. back out and got a little work," said Croom. "He was out there trying today. We need to get Calvin back out because if he doesn't practice then he starts gaining weight and all the conditioning will be out the window." These aren't the only hurting linemen; backup tackle Roland Terry (back) is in a red cross jersey and guard Michael Gates (rung bell) in yellow. Despite the successes of the day Croom is anxious here. "We need all hands on deck. That could be a serious problem if we don't keep the offensive line intact."
Another offensive player was added to the injury list Thursday as wideout Ryan Mason strained a thigh in the morning session. He did not practice in the afternoon. The junior transfer had quickly worked his way into the six-man rotation of top receivers. Also on offense, backup FB Casey Rogers (shoulder) and TE Brandon Jones-Henderson (hamstring) were in red crosses again. The defense was missing only LB Gabe O'Neal (shoulder) and CB/S Demario Bobo (hamstring).
The offense didn't run, or pass, all over a helpless defense. Dogs on this side showed up enough to keep things entertaining in small-squad or full-team drills. One in particular stood out. "Quinton Culberson had an outstanding day," said Croom. "In the blitz package he was bringing the heat and in individual drills he made good rushes. Both practices he had an outstanding day."
With O'Neal out for the moment the linebacking groups have adjusted. Anthony Littlejohn is running on the first team with Culberson and Jamar Chaney; the second group is now Timmy Bailey in the middle flanked by freshman Jamon Hughes and Carlton Rice.
For the first time this camp the kickoff return teams worked as a whole. Tyler Threadgill was first in the deep return roster, ahead of Derek Pegues and Keon Humphries. Croom has threatened to use starting players on these units, but as far as blocking for kickoff return everyone was a second- or third-teammer. The runback crew featured TE Jason Husband, WR Joey Sanders, S Marcus Evans, CB De'Mon Glanton, LB Bailey, TE Dezmond Sherrod, LB Carlton Rice, FB Brandon Hart, RB Christian Ducre, and RB Derek Ambrose.
"We keep getting a little bit better," Croom said of the day as a whole. It was the second of three two-a-day sessions planned, the next on Monday. The Bulldogs will have another morning practice on Friday, though how hard they will be pushed given the upcoming Saturday scrimmage remains uncertain.
"I haven't decided yet," Croom said. "We're not going to go in full pads, I know that."