Wednesday Football Notebook

By this point of the season, after seven games in as many weekends, a mid-week practice in shorts would seem to become numbingly routine. But from what Coach Sylvester Croom saw, his Bulldogs aren't just punching the clock.

"We're practicing better," Croom said after the two-hour session preparing for this weekend's road game with Georgia. "From start to finish I think we had one of our better practices today. I liked our intensity."

Croom agreed that this might be at least partly due to these players coming off a victory, something they haven't enjoyed much of this season. Even then the Bulldogs have given consistent efforts in drills all season, regardless of the final score. In fact the coach expects the scores to show progress if the players keep up their practice paces long enough.

"The big thing for us right now is getting what we do in the week to the game. If we play like we practiced we have a chance."

*UPDATING THE health of a few key players, OT J.D. Hamilton was upgraded to limited-yellow Wednesday after taking a couple of days off with the sprained knee ligament suffered last Saturday. "J.D. is going to play, in a support capacity," Croom said. That would be in support of his replacement starter Mike Brown at left tackle.

DE Charles Burns is less likely to participate with a hurting shoulder that has bothered him off-and-on since August. Croom said Burns probably will not play at Georgia as the staff doesn't want to risk one good—or bad, rather—blow on the shoulder that might put Burns out for the rest of the season.

*NEWS THAT he was the SEC's special teams Player of the Week came as a surprise to Derek Pegues. "Eric Butler was looking on the internet and told me I'd got it," the soph cornerback said. "It was pleasing, a great honor and everything." Pegues was honored for a 81-yard touchdown punt return, his career-first at State and the seventh-longest in program records. It added to his SEC lead in punt return average, now 14.2 yards per attempt. And Pegues still paces the league in kickoff returns at 27.4 yards, though JSU didn't even give him the chance to run one back.

"I'm just getting my confidence up," Pegues said. "I've had a couple of ups and downs during the season. I've got a little swagger about myself, that's really the biggest thing."

Croom welcomes seeing Pegues strutting through his second college campaign just as everyone had expected. "He started off the season lacking confidence. He's just gotten better every week. Saturday was the first time we're really seen him just explode past people. And it was a joy to see."

Pegues may have the swagger back, but he's also been able to apply it properly. He's learning that returning is much more than sheer ability and taking advantage of those ten teammates on the field. Such as on his first college scoring runback. "The blocking was there and any time you can make one or two men miss most of the time you're going to get a return." Of course, it was also true that his sheer talent made the runback possible in the first place as Pegues spun out of a hand-tackle…and found himself pointed in the right direction.

"When I came level the big wall was there, all I had to do was run. It probably was the high point of my career in this short time. I hope to have a couple more of those!"

"He's making good decisions using the protection," Croom noted. "Last year he would run away from the blocking, this year he is staying disciplined with the blocking."

The coach has had further praise for Pegues' progress in his primary job, that of covering receivers and supporting against runners. The return man gets the honors but cornerback is where Pegues means the most in this gameplan. "Derek has picked it up," said Croom. Especially after a rough day at Baton Rouge when Pegues was burned by LSU for a series of first-half connections. Pegues found out what he was doing wrong.

"The biggest problem for me was my eyes," he said. Not his vision, but what he was focused on. "Playing zone coverage I tend to look at the quarterback a little bit too much." Now he is putting what the coaches preach into action, most of the time. "I believe I'm getting better every week. Now that I went through the ups-and-downs and had a couple of busts, I believe I've got a lot better. I've got a couple of pass breakups and interceptions."

Ah, yes, those interceptions. Pegues has picked off two passes this year, doubling his count from 2005 (one at Florida). More over, both of those interceptions ended up as touchdown returns against LSU and JSU. It's almost incredible to realize that with two picks for points in '06, Pegues has already tied not just the season but the career MSU record in that category. And he has five games this season and two more full campaigns to add to re-write those records.

Not that he can afford to think that way. "That's how I get beat!" he grins, speaking of trying to make hero plays. "I'm just trying to play good, solid coverage and not try to make too many plays and not do my job."

So he scores on kicking plays, he scores on defense…is it out of the question Pegues would get a chance to score on offense? Croom has talked about getting the ball in Pegues' paws, but as to expanding the soph's repertoire he turns coy. "I think about it all the time," was his answer to that question Tuesday. When rephrased, he repeated "I think about it all the time!"

"I wouldn't mind playing offense," Pegues admits, though he agrees practicing there would probably take away from his first assignment. "It wouldn't bother if I made some plays, hopefully in the future I get that chance. Whenever Coach needs me over there I'm willing and I'm ready."

*AFTER MISSING three games and coming off the bench in two more, HB Brandon Thornton is back to speed. And, back in the starting lineup. His 88-yard effort in the JSU game showed why the sophomore had been #1 coming into this season. A sprained ankle in the Auburn game knocked him out for most of a month and slowed the comeback.

"That's the first time playing any length of time," Croom said of this past Saturday's efforts which saw Thornton tally two touchdowns. He had one, at Kentucky, as a '05 freshman backup. Thornton showed no ill-effects from the layoff, making cuts and accelerating through the line the way he did last November when he had to spell Jerious Norwood for a quarter in the Egg Bowl.

"Brandon has always run the ball hard and when he filled in for Jerious last year I didn't really mind," OG Brian Anderson said. "He always ran hard and I respected the way he ran and fell forward, and instead of avoiding the hit he'd put his head down."

In Thornton's absence rookies Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth had some solid efforts, despite their own injuries. Around erratic playing time, Dixon now has 282 yards and three scores, Thornton 151 and two, and Stallworth 140 and one. With all three at full-strength again, or at least for the moment, it's the older Dog who has moved atop the depth chart.

"Arnil and Anthony have done well for freshman backs," Croom said. "But there's a seasoning Brandon has after a year behind Jerious Norwood. We hope he stays healthy. And the other guys have tried to accelerate their play."

Another injury means that Dixon might have to pull double-duty now. Senior FB Bryson Davis is lost for the rest of his last college season after Monday surgery to repair damage to the kneecap ligaments and a chipped bone at the joint. Depth was decent here, though replacing a player Croom called the best fullback in the country, won't be easy.

"Casey Rogers will start," Croom said. "Then we have Brandon Hart. And Anthony Dixon will also swing as well."

*WITH TWO first-game starters returned to the lineup in Thornton and QB Mike Henig, the inevitable question is where might MSU be today if not for the early injuries. There is no answer of course, though Anderson hopes to see the results the rest of the '06 way out.

"I wish we'd have had those guys healthy for the whole season to see what it would have looked like. I'd like to think we're going to start getting to the way we hoped the offense would be the first of the season with these guys back."


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