Wednesday Football Practice Report

The late-afternoon drizzle didn't prevent Mississippi State from maintaining a normal mid-week practice schedule, as the Bulldogs worked outdoors Wednesday afternoon. And they did so in shorts, despite the wet and the chill, as preparations continue for this weekend's home game with Kentucky.

The two-hour session included drills for both kickoff and placekicking teams, coverage and protection alike. There was also plenty of time spent on the passing game with starting QB Mike Henig and backups Ty Evans, Robert Ambers, and Zack Harrington throwing a wet football for the first time in weeks. It was a good test for the throwers and catchers as well given the chance of bad-weather games in November. Though that doesn't appear to be a concern with a Saturday forecast of clear skies and mid-60s temperatures at Scott Field.

There were few changes to the injury-limited list Wednesday. TEs Eric Butler (turf toe) and Jason Husband (ankle) wore yellow but participated fully in drills as there was no contact by anyone but linemen. OT J.D. Hamilton (knee) was back in maroon as he will be playing behind starter Mike Brown at left tackle again. DE Charles Burns (shoulder) was in purple purely for protection. And CB David Heard shed the purple worn Tuesday for normal first-team white.

Also, after a day at cornerback while Heard was limited and the depth chart depleted, Keon Humphries returned to offense Wednesday in the wide receiver rotation.

*PART OF the normal Wednesday practice schedule is third-down situation drills, on both sides of the ball. Those areas are getting more than typical focus this week, though. At Georgia, the MSU Bulldogs converted on only two of 13 third-down opportunities while the home team was 5-of-10.

With inefficiency by both units, Coach Sylvester Croom has made it clear to the whole team this is an area everybody must improve. "Monday we went to our base third-down package on both sides of the ball and competed against each other," he said.

But this is not a new issue for the Bulldogs, who have moved the chains on third down on only one-third of the chances. Even against Jacksonville State the Dogs were just 2-of-9 on third downs. Croom said a big part of the problem has been dropped passes, particularly at Georgia. With the throws from Henig getting better, it's up to the receivers to make good and earn a fresh set of downs.

It's harder to figure why the Dog defense has been unable to force punts often enough after three snaps. Especially because they have been setting up such situations very well. "That's probably the worst thing we've been doing as a defense, getting off the field on third-and-long," LB Jamar Chaney said. "I mean we're doing an excellent job on first and second down but when it comes to third-and-10, third-and-12, we've just got to straighten that up and do better."

Croom notes an obvious part of the problem has been lack of consistent pass-rush on third-and-longs, especially at Athens where the quarterback was never sacked. "We've got to get a better rush and eliminate missed assignments," he said. Chaney sees another cause of breakdowns on third downs. It's just trying to make a huge play instead of simply taking care of business.

"Instead of doing their jobs it's trying to do other people's jobs and getting out of position," Chaney said. "The coaches are putting us in the right positions, we've just got to make the plays. You want players ot be aggressive and make plays, that's what they were stressing at the beginning of the year. Basically if we do our jobs we'll be straight."

For the record Kentucky has been converting on 31% in third-down settings, while State's season average on defense is 39% allowed.

*STATE'S OFFENSE should be getting better in all sorts of downs-and-distances because of mid-season improvement from the wideout corps. Junior Tony Burks broke out in the Tulane game and so far has four 100-yard efforts for the season. He expects more such opportunities thanks to the emergence of two more taller, athletic targets than those State relied on for the first half of the schedule.

"Aubrey Bell and Jamayel Smith are really good players and if they try to double up on me the other guys can have a real good game," Burks said. "We all complement each other." Though as the season goes on it's Burks getting the most compliments, or at least stats. The junior is increasingly comfortable lining up not just at one but now three wide positions, either in the slot or on one of the ends.

"They can rotate me and make it hard to double-up on me. I'd prefer playing outside so I can get one-on-one matchups. But I can play inside."

So can Bell and Smith, though they tend to line up mostly split-out where they can run either slants or straight shots downfield. "We've all developed from the start of the season," said soph Smith. "With Coach (Guy) Holliday staying on us and keeping us on the right track everything has just come into place."

Smith, a walk-on, had to find his place first. He admits to some attitude issues his first year with the program, but said they came from a sheer desire to win. "I've come a long way and it's been real hard," he said. But the results are worth it, with an all-underclassman group that should only get better both the rest of this season and next year. And these three amigos are enjoying the learning experience.

"It makes it easier because we're competing every day. Coach Holliday tries to get us to compete to make each other better. And it also makes it fun for me. It's really all about competing and having fun."

*THOUGH HE was not practicing and it was raining, a familiar face was on the sideline Wednesday. QB Omarr Conner was on the sideline, either tossing the ball or joking with teammates during drills. The always-upbeat senior had more reason than usual for good humor because of a better-than-expected prognosis on his severe groin strain.

"There is a high percentage chance right now Omarr will return before the season is over," Croom said. "At what point I don't know. I've been assured that he will have the opportunity to play before the season is over, which is contrary to what I originally thought."

Croom said Monday that when cleared to resume action Conner will stay at quarterback. Given the severity of the injury in the West Virginia game there are obvious issues with getting back to wide receiver, and that isn't as big an issue any more with the emergence of Smith and Bell anyway. As of now projections are that even with his rapid rehabilitation the earliest Conner could see the field would be against Arkansas, which is the last home game of Conner's career.

But whenever, Croom said, "It will definitely be a plus having him back in the mix when he does return."

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