Happy to Have Redshirted

Two seasons ago, most remember the decision Anthony Littlejohn faced, and the Mississippi State coaches for that matter. In Sylvester Croom's initial season in 2004, the Bulldogs knew they had a sleeper in Littlejohn. But the top priority was not to rush the true freshman linebacker. Littlejohn and Croom both went back and forth with the decision of whether or not to burn a year of eligibility.

After much discussion and thought, Croom and Anthony Littlejohn decided it would be best to use a redshirt season, prepping Littlejohn for the speed of Southeastern Conference offenses and life in general.

"I see that as a blessing," said Littlejohn. "I don't feel like sophomore but I am a sophomore. I feel like I have been here for years but I am just a sophomore. You know, if I had to play that year, I would have done it because of the team needing me.

"But because Coach thought I wasn't ready, I just redshirted. For me, redshirting was the best thing I could have done. It got my mind and my heart ready for what Coach Croom wanted to do. All he did at that time was prepare for me to be a man."

And Littlejohn has continued his preparations as he goes from a back-up role to starting at outside linebacker.

During last year's redshirt freshman campaign, Littlejohn admits he was still somewhat lost. He did earn eight starts and tallied 22 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss.

But in his mind, he needed that year on the field to experience things only an actual game can produce.

"Well last year, I didn't know what to expect," said Littlejohn. "Every game I was going into the game really not knowing how it was going to come out or how to play certain teams. You have to approach different teams different ways.

"Now I got the feel of how SEC football is and how the speed of it is and how quickly it goes by. Now my mind is right and I know what to expect. Now I am ready to play at the level Coach Croom and the coaches know I should be at."

The Jacksonville, Fla., native is set to open his sophomore season again as a starting linebacker, albeit he received the starting nod in a different way. Former starter Gabe O'Neal has been limited during preseason practice due to a pinched nerve in his shoulder.

In stepped Littlejohn to offer aid to State's defense.

"Gabe got hurt and it was timing," said Littlejohn of starting the season opener on Thursday. "You are always only one play away from starting. When Gabe got hurt, I had to step up and I had to do it. We were prepared for it. But we have Gabe back and he will play some. But I know I have to play the majority of the game. So I am ready and I am up to the task."

Littlejohn notes that having that type of experienced depth will only benefit the entire defensive effort. The Bulldogs are two deep at middle linebacker with all-SEC member Quinton Culberson and juco product Timmy Bailey.

Jamar Chaney roams on the outside as well, with Carlton Rice and rookie Jamon Hughes expected to get their share of reps.

"Well, that's great," said Littlejohn of the linebacker's depth. "We have a 1-2 punch at any position on the football field. That makes the whole situation better. If I have somebody backing me up and I am backing somebody up, you never get tired.

"That's one thing you have is two consistent people at one spot. You have one guy that can go out and put up some of the same numbers. That just makes the whole situation better, knowing you always have a healthy guy coming in fresh."

Another key factor to the linebackers' success in 2006 is the big bodies up front.

State has experience, depth and NFL-type talent along the defensive line, and they've done nothing to prove otherwise during preseason camp.

Having that type of pressure up front against opposing offenses only makes Littlejohn and his mates even better. Littlejohn also admits State's defensive line helps the linebackers to simplify their roles on defense.

"The defensive line makes everything even better," said Littlejohn of Deljuan Robinson, Andrew Powell, Antonio Johnson and company. "As linebackers, if you can keep offensive linemen off a linebacker, there is no limit to what you can do.

"All of us linebackers, myself, Culberson, Gabe, Chaney, Timmy Bailey and Hughes and Carlton, all we have to do is run and make plays. You can run and not have to worry about an offensive line getting up on you. That's when you can make the plays."

Littlejohn and the Bulldogs anxiously wait to unveil their deep and talented linebackers' corps against South Carolina in a highly-anticipated Southeastern Conference opener.

With the kickoff to the 2006 season now down to just hours, Littlejohn believes the Bulldogs will face a bevy of talent in the Gamecocks at Davis-Wade Stadium.

But he also believes the defense has prepared mentally and physically for the challenge.

"We have to defense them," said Littlejohn of South Carolina's 'Cock-n-Fire' offensive attack. "Everything they throw at us we have to defense it. Our whole defense is based on schemes and all we have to do is go out there and be physical and run to the football. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

"They have good players. They are going to make plays. But we have to keep our composure, keep our heads in the game and it will be unlimited to what we can do on defense."

Paul Jones is a staff writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus (MS.) Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at pjones@cdispatch.com.

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