Tuesday Football Practice Notebook

Mississippi State moved into full-speed preparations for the upcoming road game with Alabama-Birmingham (6:00 at Legion Field) with a two-hour practice Tuesday afternoon. All Bulldogs were in full-gear, unlike Monday when the varsity works in shorts and the reserves scrimmage briefly at the end of the session.

*A few regulars are still slowed by injuries, though as of today only DT Quinton Wesley and HB Brandon Thornton (both with sprained ankles) and QB Mike Henig (broken collarbone) are definitely out. TE Eric Butler (toe) remains in a red-cross with his right foot in a boot; he missed the Tulane game but as of today Croom said he expects the junior to be available by Saturday. "That's what the doctors tell me."

DT Deljuan Robinson (leg) is improving. He wore limited-purple Monday and again today, but at least on Tuesday was taking some practice snaps with the first D-line. And FB Bryson Davis (foot) reported Tuesday in normal maroon, though he went down after a bad step an hour into work. His status is probable for Saturday.

*After missing practically all preseason and three games with a nagging hamstring problem, S/CB Demario Bobo has been working in first-team white this week. Or he had been, as Tuesday he was demoted to a blue shirt. Bobo did dress out for Tulane and did not play.

Also slipping to blue status Tuesday were freshman DBs Marcus Washington and Anthony Summers. Still they should be on the weekend roster.

On offense, OT Calvin Wilson was in green Monday but back in varsity maroon today. Also, WR Ryan Mason—who after missing weeks of work with a leg problem was being considered to redshirt—was working in green both in receiving and punt-coverage practices.

*One reason several Dogs are being worked as ‘gunners' is that Croom has removed CB Derek Pegues from this duty. Not because he can't do the job; Croom said Monday Pegues might be the best downfield coverer and tackler on the squad. It's because Pegues is in danger of being overworked. "We'll take him off punt coverage team to get him some rest, except in certain situations."

The coaches think so highly of Pegues that as of this week the defensive back comes to practice in the same hands-off red jersey worn only by quarterbacks. He will continue to start at corner, return kickoffs, and field punts. The true soph had a breakout effort returning kicks Saturday, and was so effective at changing field position Tulane stopped kicking off deep in the second half.

"He did well, but there were a lot of people out there helping him," Croom said. "We're more aggressive in our kicking game, and we still have a lot to improve there."

*After two weeks splitting practice time either catching or throwing passes, Omarr Conner is back to one full-time job. His old job of quarterback, that is, where he started 17 games in 2004-05 and took over in the second quarter of last Saturday's game. After this many changes over his career Conner isn't fazed a bit with one more move.

"I'm just getting ready to do what I do best, make plays," Conner said. "At quarterback now." In his three quarters back under center Conner was 15-of-25 for 241 yards, the second-best effort of his career. He also had a bad-luck interception, a throw that went off WR Keon Humphries' hands; and another toss into the end zone that TE Jason Husband couldn't get entirely set to jump for.

Conner was clearly comfortable in practices Tuesday. When he was backing up freshman Tray Ruland he got about 30% of snaps; now that ratio has reversed. "We're getting Omarr totally integrated into the offense," Croom said. Of course Conner has a better grasp of the air game than anyone now, having worked both ends of those plays all spring and August. Yet it was his fast footwork against Tulane that dazzled, and Croom says Conner is running better than ever.

"With the conditioning at wide receiver he ran the ball better. He's ten pounds lighter than last year, and he's a whole lot quicker than anytime the last two years."

*While he's back to #2, where he spent all spring and preseason behind Mike Henig in drills, Rutland has not been eased out of the picture at all. Even when Henig returns to duty in mid-October the youngster will be contending for live snaps.

"We've talked about it, about the things he did well and things he did poorly," Croom said. "We assured him we're not giving up on him. He's our #2 quarterback, he's still in our plans. He has to buckle down and we'll see how he responds."

Meanwhile Henig is tossing balls on the practice field every afternoon, some even in passing-squad drills along with Rutland. This does not mean the opening-night starter is in the mix for playing time; even though it was the left collarbone that was broken on the right-handed passer, the injury is a six-week matter. "He can't have any contact on that shoulder. He's got four weeks left."

And to keep the active passers from overworking the arms, walk-on Robert Ambers is also tossing some balls with the varsity while Ty Evans runs the offense in ground-game practices against the scout defense.

*In the third game of the season State's starting offensive line played every offensive snap without a break or a substitution. Most of the line also worked the majority of punts and placekicks, but the extra duty seemed to cause no problems. Despite some sacks allowed and problems running inside in short-yardage plays, Croom likes how the line has developed. "They've gotten better," he said. "Because they've played together."

Still the State staff isn't committed to an iron-man act by all linemen. Croom says some depth is available with OT Wilson and OG Michael Gates, and redshirt freshman OC Johnny Carpenter. "We intended to play them the other night. We've got to get them some game experience. But we have established who are our guys, there are eight now. And still some others we're bringing along."

The backup O-line is, left to right, Mike Brown, Anthony Dunning, Carpenter, Gates, and Wilson. But Brown still has not been granted a waiver to play without sitting out a year after transferring from Florida this summer. So Wilson is the backup at both tackle spots.

*With Thornton out another weekend, a true freshman is likely to get the starting call at halfback at UAB. Will it be Arnil Stallworth, the surprise starter against Tulane; or fellow rookie Anthony Dixon? The first is faster, the latter stronger. And of course transfer freshman Christian Ducre is in the three-man group; he has done almost all his work to-date on kickoff return teams.

Croom seems to be favoring Stallworth at this point. "We were hesitant to play him in the first game. He is still not totally ready but there are some good things he can do. And he seems to play quicker than his actual 40-yard time. He's a playmaker."

*With Conner out of the receiver rotation a job is there for the taking. Tony Burks will stay a starter and after a four-catch, 130-yard performance Croom expects to see more. "Tony still has not scratched the surface of what he is capable of doing. No question he's a guy we're going to get the football to."

Keon Humphries and Lance Long are other starters while Will Prosser will be mixed-and-matched for the best situations. Croom still wants to protect the oft-injured seniors as much as practical. "Jamayel Smith and Tyler Threadgill will get work behind Prosser this week."

*The Bulldog defense certainly hopes their flat-footed start and third-quarter breakdowns which led to Tulane taking a 32-7 lead was a one-week anomaly. Certainly State can't afford to give up touchdowns often, or early. Croom still calls the first series of the evening critical to how the rest of the game played out.

"It started with poor tackling," Croom said. "It opened a window for Tulane to get some confidence."

State's own confidence is in for another and very different challenge this week. Tulane did run a multiple style of offense, but not nearly so varied as what Alabama-Birmingham presents in their playbook. The Dogs are having to practice for something of everything this week.

"They run an option offense, but they'll throw the ball and spread the field at the same time," said Croom. "We have to be disciplined handling the option reads." That's not easy for a squad that hasn't had to prepare for a real option threat for a long time. "The last time we saw a similar offense was at Vanderbilt two years ago, and we had some breakdowns."

*The defensive lineup showed one possible change Tuesday, but not because of schemes. Veteran LB Gabe O'Neal was sharing first-team duties on the strong side with Anthony Littlejohn. O'Neal was slowed all August by a shoulder problem; he has played increasingly the last two weeks and could be about to regain the starting job he held last season.

*The other switch for State this week is taking things on the road after three home games. "It will be an adjustment for the new guys," Croom said. He's not worried about the older Dogs, despite the fact that State has not won a true road game, played on the opponents' home field, since 2002 at Memphis. The only time any of these veterans has returned home after a victory was last September when State defeated Tulane on a neutral field in Shreveport.

*Following practice Croom spoke with Clarion Ledger reporter/columnist Michael Wallace regarding comments made by University president Dr. Robert Foglesong today to the newspaper's editorial board, in support of the coach's long-range program to rebuild Bulldog football. Dr. Foglesong has spent a portion of all three home games on the Scott Field sideline and was also a frequent visitor to preseason morning practices, sometimes participating in warm-ups with the student-athletes.

"He's seen, he's been on the sideline at games and he knows, he understands where we are and what we're trying to do," Croom said. "And I appreciate his sentiments on that."

Croom is also entirely aware of criticism over the slow pace of the process begun in 2004. He is not ignoring it, but neither is Croom letting this change his long-term plans. "I hate it for the players. I can deal with it, I hate it for the players. My heart is with these players. At the same time there are a lot of things happening as we try to build this program that are out of our control." By which the coach also includes things on the field as simple as a turnover or bad call, such as when State staff and players were convinced a Tulane touchdown should have been a MSU takeaway.

"I had a player ask me why do things seem to always happen? I told him I can't tell you why it happens, l I can tell you is the most important thing is how you respond. We have no choice but to respond in a positive manner. I think we've got character on this team, our players and our coaching staff. The only way to get through the process to continue going through the difficult times and I think we'll come out of it. I really do."


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