Tackle Job Still Up For Grabs With Week Left

Coach Sylvester Croom had planned to have the full starting offensive front for the opening set by this preseason-point. Now? With competition picking up at one unsettled end of the line? "It may come all the way down to next Tuesday or Wednesday before we decide who starts at tackle," Croom said following today's practice.

That might sound troublesome considering that a week from Thursday the Bulldogs kick off both the season and their SEC schedule. And certainly blocking has been a, if not the, prime topic of this August at Mississippi State. Both Mondays following weekend scrimmages Croom has put a revised line in the starting offense, and he thought the issue might have settled this week.

Not so. While the first-five Tuesday was the same as yesterday, Croom said a tackle job remains there for the taking. "I'm going to quit speaking so fast. I said the line was set, it's not 100% set who is going to start the ball game. Which is a good situation for us." Good because it means a couple of young tackles, demoted after the first scrimmage, are back in the picture.

Specifically, true soph Calvin Wilson and redshirt freshman Craig Jenkins. This day, Jenkins was still running first-team at right tackle while Wilson was second at left tackle, as junior transfer J.D. Hamilton has fallen behind Jenkins. But it is a race too close to call, Croom said.

"Every time it seems one of them moves clearly out in front the other one will bounce back. Which is good. I mean we've really got competition. Calvin and Craig are starting to make a move now. They had good practices on Saturday, J.D. slipped a bit and those guys made up some ground on him."

The competition is complicated since all three have worked at both ends of the line this camp, and Wilson started one game at RT as a freshman before switching in spring. One tackle doesn't have to worry about starting the opener, the only question for senior Brian Anderson is where he lines up. An 11-game starter last year at left tackle he has worked mostly at guard until moving to right tackle last week and again to left tackle this week.

Which pair will start next Thursday? "They'll make that decision the way they practice the rest of the week," Croom said. "All four will play and we know Brian will start somewhere, so if the other guy is going to be Calvin, J.D., or Craig is still a decision to be made. But at least whoever it is I feel a lot better about that position than I did a week ago."

For that matter the head coach was positive about most aspects of Tuesday's drills, which were conducted first outdoors and then in the Palmeiro Center. The players came out in shorts, as they will the rest of this week since the coaches see little need for hard hitting now.

"We had good work today," Croom said. "I thought we improved today, I know the effort was good throughout the course of practice.

"We worked on first and third downs basically all over the field, with particular emphasis on the red zone. So we got a combination of work done today, mostly team work, and I thought we got better. I really did. I hope that bears out when I watch the film."

Tuesday's first-line, left to right, was Anderson, Anthony Strauder, Royce Blackledge, Michael Gates, and Jenkins. The second unit was Wilson, Anthony Dunning, Johnny Carpenter, Chris Spencer, and Hamilton.

Only Spencer was in backup green this day of that group. With no hitting scheduled the depth chart was somewhat ‘deeper' in terms of players dressed out in first-unit colors, compared to Monday when only the designated starters and top alternates got to wear offensive maroon and defensive white. Thus players such as Wilson and Hamilton and defensive end Charles Burns returned to first-unit jerseys after a day in full-gear and different colors. So did a couple of young running backs very much in contention for opening-game duties.

The fullback position remains a bit understrength with starter Bryson Davis resting a sore shoulder. Brandon Hart assumed the top job this day with Casey Rogers now back from his own shoulder problem. By contrast the receiver corps is nearly intact, missing only junior transfer Ryan Mason who is still hobbled by a thigh pull. Senior Will Prosser is back in regular drills after a week to nurse his banged-up shoulder.

Going into the week Croom said the battle for #2 halfback was a close one, and nothing changed much Tuesday. Judging strictly by the order they took snaps behind starter Brandon Thornton, rookies Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth remain practically even. Both came back in maroon today, as did senior Derek Ambrose while transfer Christian Ducre—his appeal for 2006 eligibility still unresolved—was in green. LB Gabe O'Neal still is unable to practice with his left shoulder problem, so the starting outside linebackers remain Anthony Littlejohn and Jamar Chaney around Quinton Culberson. Converted safety Jonathan Hill has made the most of his move, and an opening due to injury to Jamon Hughes, and is now settled on the second unit along with fellow OLB Carlton Rice and MLB Timmy Bailey. In the secondary, CB Adron Chambers and S De'Mon Glanton were back in first-group white along with rookie S Anthony Summers.

The three-deep on the defensive line Tuesday had Michael Heard at left end backed by Brandon Cooper and Anwar Phillips, with right end Titus Brown ahead of Burns and Rodney Prince. Starting tackles Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson are backed by Antonio Johnson and Quinton Wesley, with Kyle Love and Reggie Odom on the third team.

Besides Davis, Mason, and O'Neal others sitting out the day were LB Jamon Hughes (hamstring), DB Demario Bobo (hamstring), S Marcus Evans (ankle), and TE Brandon Henderson (shoulder).

Productive practices are a welcome sign with barely a week until kickoff, and Croom said more players are stepping up to the demands. There are also some too-familiar mistakes, particularly by younger personnel, but that reflects the demands being placed on everyone as the preseason pace picks up.

"But we've got the whole playbook open right now," Croom said. "We'll start to narrow that down this weekend for South Carolina. That way some of the new guys won't have as much to concentrate on as they do now."

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