State Revamps Quarterback Depth Chart

Yes, it is the Homecoming game, and the opponent comes not just from another league but from a lower NCAA Division of the game. But if any Bulldog is caught taking the upcoming contest with Jacksonville State lightly, Coach Sylvester Croom will clarify things quickly.

"Every game for us is an important game, we take nothing for granted," Croom said Monday morning. "At this point when you're trying to build a program you don't look past anybody. This is ‘the' game for us."

That's not simple coach-speak either. Mississippi State begins the second-half of the 2006 season with a 1-5 record and a 0-for-4 mark in home games. Thus the Bulldogs have not earned the right to take anyone lightly, including a Gamecock team (3-2) that has put up some strong numbers at their level.

JSU ranks 16th in Division I-AA (or the ‘championship' division in the NCAA's new jargon; I-A is now the ‘bowl' division) in rushing, netting almost 210 yards each game. And the Gamecocks have been putting up points with tallies of 38, 28, and 49 in their three wins. They torched Murray State for 35 in just the first half this past weekend with halfback Clay Green scoring three times. He has already rushed for over 500 yards in five games.

Croom is more impressed with the Gamecock defense. "It's very good. The kid playing outside linebacker is a transfer from Auburn, they have a cornerback who transferred from Auburn as well. Those are big-time players. The rest of their defense, they really fly to the football. The scheme is something similar to what West Virginia did, it creates some problems. And they're very confident in what they are doing and they have a couple of big-time athletes."

Such confidence should only fuel the natural motivation JSU players will have at their chance to knock off a vulnerable team from the big old SEC. "I'm sure they're having a lot more fun now than our players are having," Croom said. "And I'm sure they feel good about themselves. But I'm not worried about them, I'm worried about us taking care of business and getting ready to play."

There's plenty to worry about at State today following a 42-14 loss to #4-ranked West Virginia. The Bulldogs not only lost another game but two quarterbacks, including game-starter Omarr Conner and previous starter Tray Rutland. This presents the somewhat-ironic situation that Mike Henig is back in the starting job he had on opening-day…until he was knocked out for a month by a broken collarbone in the second quarter.

Now Henig is back in charge of the offense starting the second half of the schedule, just like he was for the first half. But the depth chart has been ravaged. Conner (3rd-degree groin strain) is out for several weeks at best and possibly the rest of his senior season. Rutland (torn knee ligaments) is done for the rest of the season and possibly spring as well.

"Mike of course will be our starting quarterback," Croom said. "Ty Evans our number-two, and we have a walk-on, Zach Harrington. We'll up his work today, he'll be our third guy. Anthony Summers is our emergency guy if we get down to a fourth guy."

Evans got in a couple of fourth-quarter snaps Saturday after fellow redshirt freshman Rutland was hurt on his only play of the day. It was Evans' first college appearance; now he is the primary backup. Harrington is a walk-on, who came to State after a year at Southeastern Louisiana where he redshirted in 2005. He is a Hattiesburg native and Oak Grove HS product. Though Harrington did not even appear on any August practice roster, Croom says he fits into the current plans.

"He played in the shotgun in high school, a lot of things we do now is in the shotgun. He's been in our quarterback meetings since day-one and he knows all the terminology. We'll get him ready to be our third guy." There are other walk-on quarterbacks as well, but getting them ready would take snaps from the guys who are more likely to play. And once back in SEC play the dress-out roster is restricted anyway. That is why an athlete like true freshman like strong safety Summers will get a crash-course on offense. "We'll make sure he knows the snap count and do some handoffs. All we figure for an emergency quarterback is just that. Finish the football game, keep the ball in his hands."

State also has a number of regulars who played at least some quarterback in high school. The problem with using them is all already have primary jobs and play regularly; thus they need to stay with their practice units in both position and team drills. That's why an athlete like, say, Derek Pegues can't add another duty to his cornerback and kick-return roles, said Croom. "No, we can't take him away from playing cornerback. We've got to make sure he knows what he's doing." As a backup Summers is freer to spend time with the first offense. But not much.

"When thinking about a cadence, different snap times, that in itself is a lot of time. You can't get that done in a week. Anthony hasn't even been in the quarterback meetings at all this year. At least Zac knows how to communicate to the team and get everybody on the same page."

There are only three scholarship quarterbacks (four if Conner is counted) on the 2006 roster. At February's Signing Day press conference Croom explained why there were no quarterbacks in the '06 recruiting class. He had to repeat it again this morning. "I would have liked to have signed another, we looked at a bunch," Croom said.

"But we were unable to get one that we felt was exceedingly better than what we had, and because they (Henig, Rutland and Evans) were young quarterbacks." Plus, Croom pointed out, the staff was already looking ahead. "We're recruiting two quarterbacks, and we didn't want to bring another one in (this year) to cloud the picture for the guys we're recruiting."

As it is, the current QB picture is clear enough. Henig is the man. "Believe me we'd really be in trouble if we didn't have Mike," Croom said. Henig took over on immediate notice in the third quarter Saturday and directed three solid drives. But the first two ended in interceptions, one in the end zone off an on-target and accidentally-deflected ball. The other pick came when Henig was hit on release. But Henig ended up taking less contact than Conner, mostly because he worked out of a shotgun set with State throwing almost every down trying to rally.

Croom expects JSU to come after Henig, too, but with a different goal in mind. "Everybody wants to keep Omarr in the pocket. Now they're going to try to get Mike out of the pocket." And Henig is not one to throw on the run, or just run period, the way Conner could. Yet Croom points out that a different triggerman doesn't mean wholesale switches of strategy.

"It's not so much change as what you put in the gameplan. We didn't change a whole lot when Omarr came in (in the Tulane game) because everything is already there. There are things we had for Omarr we won't do as much with Mike. We won't ask Mike to do anything he's not capable of doing. That's the flexibility of the offense. We have enough flexibility in there that we can adapt to whatever kind of athletes we have."

Yet State will struggle to replace Conner's athletic gifts whether throwing or catching. And to have his senior season possibly end at this point is all the more poignant because, Croom says, he was playing his best football as a collegian. He made some mistakes and wrong reads against WVU, such as looking the wrong way when WR Tony Burks was open down a seam; or delaying on screen-tosses under pressure when the ‘hot' receivers were in position to make gains.

"But he didn't do anything to really hurt us," Croom said. And Conner did throw a TD pass/fumble/recovery play in the first half, as well as a perfect strike in the end zone that was negated by a holding call. In fact, Croom praised Conner's ability to shake off that emotional 180-degree turn and come back with another big completion and score.

"Omarr was playing so much better than any time previously," Croom said. "So to have this happen this happen at this juncture is so disappointing. No question he'll still be around, still being Omarr. It's good to have him around because he's a team guy. He needs the team, and the team needs him at this point."

The team also needs the Dog defense to pick their game up. The unit has faced stout challenges the last two weeks against the then-#9 and #4 teams in the land in consecutive weeks. Still they have allowed 11 offensive touchdowns (the other was a punt return by WVU), and by different means. LSU shredded the secondary while the Mountaineers ran all around the field. The group will probably still be without senior DT Deljuan Robinson, recovering from a hurt knee at LSU.

Even in losses senior MLB Quinton Culberson is thriving. He tallied a dozen tackles Saturday, his third double-digit day of the season, and is making a strong case for post-season honors.

"He's continued to develop," Croom said. "This is his second year at middle linebacker, he's settled there. And the scheme is designed to the middle linebacker run and make a lot of plays. I think he'll be even better the second half of the season."

But will the second half be better for all Bulldogs? Croom believes so, if only because several key pieces in the lineup are getting experience. Evaluations show that something the coach fretted in August has indeed come to pass. "Almost every missed assignment has come from a first-year player. I've known this in the back of my mind but this reassures me.

"One of the tough things in the process we're going through is you have to play new players. When you do that you make mistakes. I'm talking 80% or more of our missed assignments, on both sides of the ball, have come from first-year players."

Now those rookies are half-year players, and lessons learned the hard way so far should pay off the rest of the way. Still the price has been high. "I really thought we would have and was hoping to have one or two more wins under our belt," Croom said. "And looking back we should have had them." But those missed chances are in the past, and there are six dates left to get it right. Of course the coach won't think even that far ahead now.

"I look at every game now as a one-week season."


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