Monday Practice Revises Starting Offense

It isn't marked on any official public schedule but Monday, August 21, marked another preseason benchmark for these Bulldogs. Their training camp is over and game preparations have gotten underway for Coach Sylvester Croom and his team.

Mississippi State moved into the next phase of preseason with a standard ‘game week' session. No, they don't play until a week from Thursday, yet Croom was ready to get this team into a competition rhythm. He signaled this by bringing the designated starters and some top alternates or backups out in shorts, with the rest of the backups and all reserves in full gear. Just like they'll do every Monday from here on out.

"It was just a Monday practice," Croom said. "We didn't do a whole lot today, we just got the blood flowing of the guys we know are going to play and then we kept the rest out there to get a little scrimmage work." The entire session lasted less than 90 minutes, again standard for the first day of a game week.

The first order of business was checking on team health following this past Saturday's full scrimmage, the second and last of camp. "We came out OK," Croom said. "We just hope we can get through the next two weeks healthy. We probably won't go full pads any more between now and gametime except for these guys, we'll scrimmage again on Saturday like a normal Monday." That is due to the opener being on a Thursday night and accelerating game prep.

The real news Monday was yet another revision to the offensive line. It wasn't as dramatic as last week when two #1s were replaced and three positions changed in the shuffle. Still it was somewhat surprising to see Brian Anderson in his third position of preseason. The senior practiced all spring and two August weeks at right guard, then last Monday moved to right tackle following a bad blocking day by the whole line in the first scrimmage. Today? Anderson was back at his 2005 job of left tackle.

Redshirt freshman Craig Jenkins earned a return to the #1 unit and was back at right tackle. The interior of the line remained the same as last week with Royce Blackledge at center between RG Michael Gates and LG Anthony Strauder. Dropping down was one-week #1 left tackle, J.D. Hamilton. However, in his case this was not necessarily a demotion because Croom indicated that a handful of expected regulars were to be on the second unit, and thus scrimmaging more, because they can benefit from the additional snaps.

That notion was amplified by the look of the other side of the line, with DE Charles Burns and DT Quinton Wesley both in backup-blue instead of their usual first-team white. So were CB Anthony Johnson and De'Mon Glanton. All are going to play, so this was to give them further practice.

The second offensive line was, left to right, Calvin Wilson, Anthony Dunning, Johnny Carpenter, Chris Spencer, and Hamilton, all in green. So were a couple of running backs who had gotten used to practicing in maroon. Freshmen Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth, along with Christian Ducre and Derek Ambrose, were all in the second group. In fact the only halfbacks in first-unit maroon were starter Brandon Thornton and Justin Williams. It's an ongoing battle for who gets to join them on the opening-night roster.

"We know Brandon Thornton is going to be the starter," Croom said. "Who the next two guys are it's still questionable, it goes up and it goes down." Dixon, who toted the ball 31 times Saturday, is certainly in the picture, and his green status is more a matter of missed work last week with a minor injury. So is the speedier Stallworth, though as his coach noted "He's a little bit of a mystery, his stock goes up and down like Wall Street. I don't know whether to buy or sell!"

That is not a reflection on the kid's talents, but more an indication that the staff is still weighing decisions on who to play this year and who to sit. Stallworth is this week's exhibit-A. "Oh, we love him but I don't know about this first ball game," Croom said. "The big thing is I don't want to waste a guy this year that is going to be a good football player in time. We've just got to decide if he's a guy to get ready."

The decisions in other areas are easier at the moment. All three fullbacks—Bryson Davis, Brandon Hart, and Casey Rogers—were in maroon, with Davis and Rogers coming off injuries last week. The maroon receivers were Omarr Conner, Tony Burks, Will Prosser (without a sling for the first time since the previous Saturday), Joey Sanders, Lance Long, and Keon Humphries. Croom still has high hopes for rookie Keith Mills to be activated, while JC transfer Ryan Mason has been slowed by a leg problem over a week now. Eric Butler, Dezmond Sherrod, and Jason Husband were the varsity tight ends. Only two quarterbacks, Mike Henig and Tray Rutland, were in shorts Monday so Ty Evans and walk-on Robert Ambers are running the second offense.

The first defense was unchanged from last week, as it has been excellent all preseason. Only two alternates, DE Avery Hannibal and DT Antonio Johnson, were in first-team white on the line, while Carlton Rice and Timmy Bailey are the backup linebackers booked to play behind the three starters. Croom hopes to get Gabe O'Neal back this week from his two-week-old shoulder injury.

Work resumes Tuesday afternoon with the designated starters to be held out of any risky hitting while most everyone else goes at it. This isn't a punishment at all, Croom stresses, but an opportunity. "As much as anything else the new guys need more work. Some didn't do quite as well in things (Saturday) they needed to get reps on.

"We just have to give a little more work to them. We'll keep scrimmaging the young guys Monday to get them ready. Some we won't make a decision on for the South Carolina game but guys can mature a lot in a month and it's a 12-game season. So we have to keep getting them ready to play."

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