Tuesday Football Practice Notebook

Mississippi State got into specific preparations Tuesday for this weekend's matchup with #9-ranked Louisiana State with a full-pads practice session. The coaching staff took advantage of the day to have the Bulldogs hit more than usual for this point of the season, including some periods of ones-vs.-ones in both running and passing drills.

Notes from both the afternoon press conference and practice:

*OMARR CONNER cemented his status as the starting quarterback by leading State to the season's first win, scoring the game-ending touchdown in overtime on a 21-yard keeper. His stats weren't eye-opening but the senior's efficiency was to the coaching staff. "He made one error, the delay penalty," Croom said. "He made no mistakes throwing the ball." Croom credits the steady performance not just to Conner's talents, but careful game-planning. State only ran plays that the quarterback was entirely comfortable with in workouts.

"The only play he hesitated on last week, we took it out. It was one of my favorite plays, too." Since Conner moved up to #1 in the Tulane game Croom has noted how much fresher and faster he seems after the stint at wide receiver. "He's making plays with his feet and he's making good decisions." The arm certainly has plenty of life, a problem last year when Conner got over-worked in camp.

Moving Conner back under-center has taken a quality target from the air game. Or as Croom said, "He can't throw it and catch it both!" But at this point Conner give State the best chance of moving the football and scoring points and he remains the starter. "I don't see any reason why that should change," Croom said.

*OR AT LEAST not yet. Because this week season-opening starter Mike Henig not only will be throwing the ball in practice, he will be running an offense again for the first time since breaking his left (non-throwing arm) collarbone in the second quarter against South Carolina. Henig has been able to toss with no pain for a week-and-a-half. It is normally a six-week rehabilitation from the clean break.

But Tuesday the third-year soph was working back into the rotation. "He may be released (by the medical staff) for this week," Croom said. "If he is he'll probably go into the game as our number-three quarterback." That is well-ahead of the original schedule, and there is still some hesitation about risking contact on the healing shoulder. So redshirt freshman Tray Rutland, the starter in the Auburn and Tulane games, is still the backup…but the competition will resume soon enough.

"We'll make a decision when Mike is healthy," Croom said. The coach also gave a vote of confidence in the younger triggerman, who struggled against Tulane trying to be too perfect in decisions and actions. Croom still sees a bright future for the southpaw.

"You won't find a better talent than Tray Rutland. You just have to give him time."

*THE FIRST offensive line remains as it was for the first snap Saturday. And for every offensive snap that evening, because State stuck with the same starting fivesome all the way through overtime. Croom has praised the whole team's physical conditioning but the blocking Bulldogs have come in for special commendations lately, having played every snap without substitution in two consecutive games.

"Not many teams are in the same condition we are. I'd like to play more offensive linemen but those five are holding up very well. There are no more fat guys." That includes redshirt freshman tackle Craig Jenkins who the coach said has "lost 50 pounds" since coming to college and has been able to put in two entire games without a break. Or anything breaking. Croom still wants Jenkins to trim another five or so pounds but otherwise he likes the look of the first-string blockers.

"The other night they were playing better at the end. And those five are starting to act as a consistent unit."

*IT'S A DIFFERENT five from the Tulane game, though, as true soph Michael Gates was moved into the starting lineup for UAB at left guard. He took over for Anthony Strauder, snapping a run of 14-straight starts for the third-year soph.

Today, Strauder was back in a maroon shirt after practicing Monday in backup green which meant he was part of the late-day scrimmaging. Also in maroon were OC Johnny Carpenter and OT Chris Spencer. The second line, left to right, is Michael Brown, Strauder, Carpenter, J. C. Brignone, and Spencer. Brown has still not been granted a waiver to play this transfer season and the State staff has just about quit asking, though with last week's withdrawal from school of Calvin Wilson having Brown would be a needed boost to depth.

*THAT GATES is starting is a welcome development; that he is even on the roster this fall moreso. Because after getting caught up in the well-publicized spring incident when he and five teammates were arrested and suspended. While missing half of spring camp the frustrated true soph was thinking of leaving school.

"That was a real rough time for me because I'd never been in trouble before and I really didn't know what to do," Gates said today. "I talked with my parents and met with Coach Croom, and talking to him eased my mind about the situation. I felt if I could stay here and overcome everything it would be better."

Croom said the incident left a bitter taste with Brown and "it was off-and-on for a period of weeks." But even before Gates was somewhat shaky; signed out of high school as a tight end, and with only one full prep season of football to his name, Gates was thrown into freshman action as a tackle last fall. Naturally he struggled in a role that didn't suit his experience or his physical skills.

"He had a tough time learning his assignments at tackle," Croom said. "We'd promised him the first chance we'd move him inside, it's obviously his natural position." That chance came in August and Gates has made the most of it, finally earning a starting job last week. Gates says he graded out at 78% for his first starting job; Croom is sure the soph will progress quickly..

"He has a nasty attitude about playing the game at offensive lineman. He's just going to get better, I only wish we'd redshirted him last year."

*CROOM HOPED halfback Arnil Stallworth would be able to get some work in Tuesday, after injuring an ankle Saturday. Stallworth did show up but only in the 11th period, over 90 minutes after drills began; and with a boot on his left leg. The freshman is still expected to be cleared in time for play this weekend. He has started the last two games and alternated with fellow frosh Anthony Dixon, who got more snaps on the first team in Stallworth's absence.

The halfback depth chart is not so deep any more. Tuesday saw walk-on Justin Williams running second to Dixon with backup fullback Brandon Hart third in the order. Senior Derek Ambrose has been held out in a red-cross jersey for two weeks with a minor injury; he had been expected to participate Tuesday but only spent the afternoon running laps of the field. Freshman transfer Christian Ducre, in a backup green jersey, is the reserve halfback.

At least soph Brandon Thornton was on the field, but in a red cross as well recovering from an ankle sprain in the Auburn game. "Brandon is a long shot right now," Croom said. Of the three Stallworth is closest to ready for action. "We hope to get one of these guys back because it's getting thing back there," Croom noted.

*OTHER INJURED or limited players Tuesday included TE Eric Butler in a red cross and S Jeramie Johnson in purple. Johnson hurt his foot in the UAB game but is merely being held out for protection; he will start at LSU.

Butler has been restricted for over two weeks with a toe injury, missing the Tulane game entirely. He played at UAB and made one clutch fourth-quarter catch on State's touchdown drive. But that wasn't what caught the coach's eye. "He had a couple of blocks where he was very physical," Croom said.

The junior has only two catches this season, far off his average the first two years. Where Croom has critiqued Butler's intensity in the past, he says this is not a lack of effort. "He just needs to get well. I've been hard on Eric but I've been impressed with him."

*THE DEFENSIVE front looked somewhat different Tuesday but not because of changes. DT Deljuan Robinson was excused for the day's practices and DE Titus Brown left early. The starter's places were taken by freshman DT Kyle Love and redshirt frosh DE Charles Burns.

Love is one of two true freshmen who made their college debuts at UAB, joining LB Jamon Hughes who played on special teams and according to Croom played very well.

*In team work, Gabe O'Neal moved up to first team in place of Anthony Littlejohn at strongside linebacker. Neither started at UAB as State came out in a ‘nickel' set, but O'Neal was the first to come in when the Dogs lined up in their 4-3 base.

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