Saturday Practice Kicks Off Game Week

OK, so the August calendar said Saturday. The Bulldogs know differently. This was Monday, the first day of a game preparation week. Thus Mississippi State went about the late-afternoon practice just as if kickoff were only five days away. Because…it is.

"As far as our gameplan, we treated it just like we would have a normal Monday," Coach Sylvester Croom said.

The Bulldogs ran through a Saturday workouts as specific drills for next Thursday's contest with South Carolina got into a typical rhythm regardless of the calendar. It really was a ‘Monday' schedule lasting just 90 total minutes and less than that for the players designated to play or be available in the opener. Those Bulldogs reported in shorts and left early while the reserves were in full gear and had a full-contact period to themselves.

"We got a little team blitz with the ones and the twos," Croom said. "We worked on the run game, the screen game a little bit. Then we sent them in and scrimmaged the guys who are not on the first units and got something done."

The first- and second-teams, as well as alternates at deeper positions such as receiver and running back, are obvious enough to the public by now from all the lineups reported to-date. Those units match very closely with the official two-deep published by MSU this weekend, with only a couple of exceptions yet to be 100% settled. Such as, right offensive tackle and strongside linebacker.

The former spot has had the most August focus with repeated changes the last ten days. The current ‘starting' fivesome has been the same for five workouts now with blocker-of-all-trades Brian Anderson at his 2005 job of left tackle while Craig Jenkins was #1 at right tackle. Calvin Wilson and J.D. Hamilton were the second tackles at each end again today.

Where will they be tomorrow, or next week? That remains in contention. And as for who will actually start… "I still haven't finally decided," said Croom. "It might be Thursday morning when I wake up before I decide." The good news is that such indecision comes from positive reasons, with Jenkins, Hamilton, and Wilson coming back strong from a terrible first scrimmage and middling second one. All have improved their pass-blocking noticeably, even against the varsity defense, and since the number of pads and contact days have dropped their conditioning has correspondinly picked up.

Based on who wore shorts and first-unit maroon Saturday, nine blockers are booked for the 80-man roster. The starting group is tentatively Anderson, Anthony Strauder, Royce Blackledge, Michael Gates, and Jenkins. Four backups are in maroon; Hamilton, center Johnny Carpenter, LG Anthony Dunning, and Wilson. At the moment redshirt frosh Chris Spencer is the second right guard but still wearing green.

With quarterback and fullback, and the #1 halfback jobs all seemingly set there remains competition to back up starting HB Brandon Thornton. Derek Ambrose and Justin Williams did not have to scrimmage this day, while true frosh Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth did. Croom has liked both rookies this camp, and today was Stallworth's turn to shine. "We've got a big decision on him," said Croom, then "Well, not that big a decision, we'll probably just go ahead and play him and see what happens. He's very reliable and dependable player, I think."

This picture is somewhat complicated by the continued uncertainty over Christian Ducre, who still has not received the requested waiver for 2006 participation. With no news today, it is doubtful an answer will come from the NCAA committee that reviews these situations via conference call by gameday. The same is true for transfer tackle Mike Brown. Croom said he knew Brown's case would take longer to settle, though he had thought Ducre would have known something by this point. "If they get their appeals, they'll play," Croom said.

The official chart shows Omarr Conner and Keon Humphries as the top two receivers; but as has been the case for two weeks when the first passing practice plays are run in team work, Lance Long has been in the lineup with Conner. Humphries, Will Prosser, Keith Mills, and Tony Burks are in the receiver rotation, which is still missing the injured Ryan Mason (leg).

The defense was still without a pair of top backups. CB/S Demario Bobo and LB Jamon Hughes were in red crosses like Mason; and with ‘game week' begun both are close to missing the cut for dressing out Thursday. But one veteran body is back in normal practicing as LB Gabe O'Neal has returned to the lineup after missing three full weeks with a shoulder nerve bruise.

"Gabe was out in shorts today," Croom said. "The question is will he come out tomorrow when we put pads on. I think he will, if he does it's a big plus if he's healthy and ready to go." The staff must be confident the junior will be ready because he is being listed first at strongside LB. If not Anthony Littlejohn has practiced all this time with the first team and played well.

There are no such questions about the other ten starting positions on defense, and for that matter the two-deep has been consistent for weeks save for minor injuries. At the tackle positions the two-deep really is three names with Antonio Johnson able to relieve either noseman Andrew Powell and DT Deljuan Robinson. Still the progress by DT Quinton Wesley means there is a legit ‘two' deep in the interior. The staff will decided how many other tackles to dress this week, and it seems probable true frosh Kyle Love and Reggie Odom will be on the sideline Thursday.

Neither are there surprises on the ends with starters Titus Brown and Michael Heard backed up by Charles Burns and Avery Hannibal. Here two more rookies figure into the mix with a healthy Rodney Prince and Brandon Cooper getting good snaps in reserve.

Quinton Culberson and Jamar Chaney haven't really been challenged at middle and weakside ‘backers in camp. That is no reflection on the abilities and advancement of newcomer Timmy Bailey, who has more than lived up to billing and earned the #2 middle-spot he was given the first day of camp. Only a Culberson would have beaten him out this camp. Veteran Carlton Rice is designated second behind Chaney this week, because true frosh Hughes lost practice time due to that left hamstring pull.

It has certainly helped practice consistency that the first secondary has been on the field every day together, with corners Derek Pegues and David Heard around safeties Jeramie Johnson and Keith Fitzhugh. The backup corners are the same as on day-one with Anthony Johnson behind Pegues and Adron Chambers backing Heard, though frosh Marcus Washington is making a case for himself. Fellow rookie Anthony Summers has done even better, working up to #2 strong safety. De'Mon Glanton is backing J.Johnson and figures in the nickel safety plans, while safety Jonathan Hill has been practicing as a backup linebacker.

Before working as a team on blitzes and rushes, State devoted time again to special teams with an emphasis on kickoffs and coverage. Punting also got worked on with Conner and Long in return, and such first-teammers as Fitzhugh, Pegues, Humphries, and Anthony Johnson taking turns as ‘gunners' in deep coverage.

State will practice at 5:30 Sunday afternoon, in pads.

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