Bulldogs Re-Start Slow, Finish Wednesday Well

The August calendar is winding down, the preseason pressures piling up, and Coach Sylvester Croom admits it will be difficult for him to be content with any level of preparedness for the coming campaign. "But, I feel like we're making progress every day," he says.

That included Wednesday's practice, as Mississippi State reached the one-week mark to next Thursday's opening game. "Overall we had a good day's work," Croom reported at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour workout in shorts. It was a split session, with the first hour run outdoors before the Bulldogs went inside the Palmeiro Center for another 90 minutes of team-on-team drills closed to media view. Croom said the decision to take the team indoors was a good one given the muggy conditions.

"The only concern, especially on offense, was once we got in and were working in our blitz period we started off slow. We had to repeat the period."

Even this turned out well as the coaches liked the last hour's efforts. "We finished strong," Croom said. "And we're finishing our practices strong, that's a good sign. But it bothers me we get off to a slow start, my concern is if we carry that over into a ball game we'll end up playing from behind. That would not be good."

What was good was the sight of LB Gabe O'Neal in a red jersey, not the red-cross shirt he has worn three weeks after bruising a nerve in his left shoulder. O'Neal still isn't drilling with the other linebackers but this is progress. The only other red-shirted Dog this day was WR Will Prosser, who is guarding a twice-banged shoulder until the season starts. Prosser worked with all the other first-group receivers.

Sidelined players today were WR Ryan Mason (leg), LB Jamon Hughes (hamstring), and CB/S Demario Bobo (hamstring). While both Hughes and Bobo are being counted on to contribute in the opener this is the shortest injury list in weeks.

The primary offensive concern of this week has been further revisions to the offensive line. Wednesday's first front in unit drills was the same as Monday and Tuesday; left to right, Anderson, Anthony Strauder, Royce Blackledge, Michael Gates, and Craig Jenkins. But when the offense worked on running the ball against a scout team, J.D. Hamilton and Calvin Wilson were given turns with the first team again at right and left tackles.

That was an encouraging sign, as the latter two had been demoted after Saturday's scrimmaging to second-team only. The competition Croom hoped to get among Hamilton, Wilson, and Jenkins is paying off, and while the staff would rather know what fivesome will start next Thursday there are benefits to continuing the contest a few more days.

"I've been patient and it's finally starting to come together," Croom said. "I've done that because I know there is talent there, good kids and they're working at it."

In the running game work all the halfbacks, save one, were in maroon. Brandon Thornton continues to hold down the starting job while the competition for immediate backup duty continues. Senior Derek Ambrose was promoted back to maroon Wednesday and was taking turns with Anthony Dixon, Justin Williams, and Arnil Stallworth. The lone regular runner in green was transfer Christian Ducre, as State still does not know if he will be allowed to play this fall. The NCAA committee that decides on such waiver appeals is to meet tomorrow.

While #3 QB Ty Evans handed the ball off in running game work, the top two quarterbacks Mike Henig and Tray Rutland were throwing it in extensive passing drills. Henig will start the South Carolina game, but today Croom said Rutland will play in that game also. First, because the redshirt freshman has made clear progress in his second fall camp.

"A lot of it is just like any quarterback, this is his first full season getting work in this offense," said Croom. "He has a technique problem, he drops the ball and sometimes it gets away from him in short and medium throws. He throws the deep ball extremely well, you couldn't ask for any better arm. But his touch and decision making has to get better. We're pressing him hard right now because he's got to be our number two guy. And we plan to play him."

There is another, practical reason for this plan, too. "I plan to use both quarterbacks the first ball game because I don't want the first time Tray has to play be the first time he's played. Plus he's far enough along we can do certain things in the offense where we won't have problems."

Omarr Conner and Lance Long are regularly getting the first snap in these periods and are the starting wideouts in a two-receiver set, with either Tony Burks or Prosser the third man for multiple formations. The list of receivers being practiced has not changed save for injury in over a week, with Keith Mills, Keon Humphries, Joey Sanders, and Jamayel Smith.

The first periods of practice focused on kicking, as well as catching and coverage. Keith Andrews took the first field goal attempt and Adam Carlson went second. Both hit about the same percentage of their attempts against a half-speed rush, though Andrews did show the longer range. As he went first this day, he got to kick out of Brooks Crabtree's hold with Russell Cook snapping. Punter Blake McAdams is the second holder and freshman Aaron Feld the snapper.

Afterwards Croom said there had not been a change atop this chart, as Carlson remains the official number-one kicker. "Then again, I'm not so sure they're not tied for number-two," he added.

"We've got excellent ability but the inconsistency is somewhat nerve-wracking to say the least. I wish I could do a lobotomy and pour about eight ounces of poise and confidence in them. But if I could do that I guess I'd be up there with Warren Buffett and Mr. Microsoft."

A new number was working on punt return as safety Keith Fitzhugh joined starter Conner and Long in those drills. A variety of Dogs are practicing as ‘gunners' in coverage.

There were no changes on the defensive lineup or depth chart Wednesday, nor does there seem to be any need during a relentlessly efficient couple of weeks. Still Croom hopes to have O'Neal, Hughes, and Bobo available soon to fit into the rotation for S.C.

After practice, Croom announced that four walk-on members of the varsity roster--WR Lance Long, RB Derek Ambrose, S Marcus Evans, and FB Casey Rogers--have been put on the scholarship roster.

With an August 31 kickoff, State's game week schedule is different and the Dogs will not get a weekend day off. Just the opposite, there will be evening practices both Saturday and Sunday, then work begins tapering the next three days as if it were a normal Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.

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