Bulldogs Shifting Focus From Camp To 'Cocks

The Bulldogs have unofficially been preparing for their opening game for a couple of weeks already. For that matter, given how many times the name came up, Mississippi State has been practicing for the South Carolina matchup since spring drills. Still, according to Coach Sylvester Croom, Thursday's practice was another August benchmark.

"Officially, based on our practice schedule, this sort-of ends our training camp today," the coach said after the two-plus hour session. "And the direct emphasis on South Carolina starts tomorrow, even though indirectly we've been working for them the whole camp. The players didn't know it but that's what we were doing."

Then again, the State staff could have been trying to catch the team's attention by declaring a ‘start' to game week. Because after 23 practices, including three two-a-day-dates, camp has begun to take a natural toll on these Dogs. Croom noticed some mental and physical wear Thursday.

"There wasn't a lot of enthusiasm, it was more workman-like. But if you can still get something done I guess that's a good thing. After as long as we've been in it I guess they wouldn't be bouncing off walls anyway, they're a little tired."

To that end the day's drills were trimmed by a few minutes, and the second hour was run indoors to prevent further heat stresses. Certainly fewer players were taking advantage of the cold-tubs afterwards than any day so far. Croom will cut things back a bit more Friday afternoon, and both the Saturday and Sunday sessions will start at 5:30 and finish under lights.

Speaking of game planning, Croom said he now "has a tentative idea" of the 80 players who will dress for the opener and home SEC contest. "It could change," he said, adding "There are still a couple of areas as to who is going to start, particularly offensive tackle." Make that both tackles, because each end of the line will be filled according to how three candidates compete in the remaining practice days.

"I know three guys in the offensive line," Croom said. "Brian Anderson, Anthony Strauder, and Royce Blackledge will for sure start. Beyond that I won't make official comment until next week." Because, while center Blackledge and left guard Strauder are not only assured of starting but know where, Anderson could end up in any of three spots depending on said tackle competition. The first line looked the same today with Anderson at left tackle, Craig Jenkins at right and Michael Gates at right guard.

Jenkins' challengers are J.D. Hamilton and Calvin Wilson, both who have worked at first-tackle this camp but who lost first-team status after the first scrimmage. Yet they have responded to setback with better efforts, to the point that where a week ago Croom was resigned to the current lineup he now sees a chance to get Anderson back at guard (right guard, specifically) and go with bigger bodies on the ends. Still this is all to be determined.

"We'll just see," Croom said. "But whoever it is we'll be in good shape there. I feel a lot better about the offensive line now than I did a week ago, they've made tremendous progress and if they continue working like they are we could have a good line before the curtain closes on this season." The second line today, right to left, had Hamilton, Gates (doing double-duty in team drills), Johnny Carpenter, Anthony Dunning, and Wilson.

Another offensive situation to settle is the running back depth chart behind starter Brandon Thornton. After seeing some freshmen come on strong, senior Derek Ambrose has responded and climbed back into the mix at #2. Still at least one and maybe another freshman will be on the field next Thursday as Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth take their turns. And of course the wild card remains transfer Christian Ducre, who is still awaiting word from NCAA if he can play this season.

"We've gotten Ducre a lot of work but still haven't gotten the waiver, I don't know," Croom said. "We can't count on him for preparation in a game if we don't get it today or tomorrow. I feel comfortable with that whole group. Some are better at some things than others so we may have guys in there in situations. Brandon Thornton is the only one who knows how to do everything."

The injury list saw LB Gabe O'Neal still in a red limited-work jersey, meaning he is closer to resuming a normal regimen after three weeks nursing a bruised shoulder nerve. "Based on what the doctors tell me I'm going on the assumption he'll play. But knowing Gabe he might not play very long!"

WR Will Prosser also was in red, the result of twice hurting the left shoulder this month, but unlike O'Neal he is participating in all but full-contact work. In fact Prosser remains in the #1 receiver grouping, though not a first-snap starter like Omarr Conner, Lance Long, and Tony Burks. The red-cross crew had one addition as #2 DE Charles Burns had a tooth pulled and was allowed to take it easy. Meanwhile LB Jamon Hughes (hamstring), WR Ryan Mason (thigh), and CB/S Demario Bobo (hamstring) are still being held out in hopes they can be ready by game week.

As the days count down the practicing is being focused on personnel who will suit up and play, which allowing for injuries also serves to confirm the two-deep at all positions and in some cases the three-deep. There are more than a couple of quarterbacks but essentially only starter Mike Henig and backup Tray Rutland are getting serious work in the offense now. With Ty Evans on the scout offense, this is further evidence that in a pinch Omarr Conner would be the third quarterback.

The first defense has been the same for over two weeks and shows no signs of changing until O'Neal is back. Titus Brown and Michael Heard are the starting ends, backed by Rodney Prince and (with Burns out today) Avery Hannibal. Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson start at tackle with Antonio Johnson and Quinton Wesley their backups. The third-team tackles are Kyle Love and Reggie Odom.

In O'Neal's absence the first linebacker trio remains Quinton Culberson, Jamar Chaney, and Anthony Littlejohn. Hughes' injury has allowed former safety Jonathan Hill to move to and move quickly up as an outside linebacker, joining Timmy Bailey and Carlton Rice on the second unit. Veteran Brad Horton was getting snaps today with the second team, too, as State put a variety of combinations together in relief of the starters.

That was also true in the secondary, where freshman Anthony Summers and vet De'Mon Glanton are the backups to starters Keith Fitzhugh and Jeramie Johnson. Now healthy again, Marcus Evans alternates with Summers. In some packages Jarvis Kyles got turns with the twos at safety also. Working against the scout offense, starting corners Derek Pegues and David Heard are backed by Anthony Johnson and Adron Chambers.

Each day special teams get an increased number of practice minutes, and Thursday's focus shifted to kickoffs, both coverage and returns. Pegues is the #1 return man with Chambers now his backup, ahead of Anthony Johnson. Punting teams still put in a period with Conner, Long, and Pegues taking turns fielding kicks. Pegues was back in the mix after Keith Fitzhugh worked there Wednesday.

Croom did have one small surprise Thursday, announcing that Adam Carlson will be the starting placekicker next week with Keith Andrews kicking off. "Carlson is it, long, short, whatever, he's the guy." Still, based on practice observations, Croom's Wednesday comment that the two kickers are essentially both tied as "number twos" still holds.

Thursday's indoor drills focused again on red-zone work by offense and defense alike. There will be more of that Friday, but not as much. "We'll go in shorts tomorrow and work every kicking and special situation again just to make sure we've got our personnel."

Which can only mean, it's officially game week.


Gene's Page Top Stories