Tuesday Football Practice Notebook

Mississippi State went into full preparations for their upcoming weekend road trip to Alabama with a two-hour Tuesday practice. With the number of injured and limited personnel, the Bulldogs worked in shells only instead of full-gear as Coach Sylvester Croom originally planned.

*CROOM BEGAN the afternoon press conference by holding up a sheet of paper, lengthwise. "That's the injury report," he said. "It's a whole page long." While some of those injuries are not quite as severe as reported Monday morning, the news still isn't good in most cases.

HB Brandon Thornton (knee) and HB Arnil Stallworth (knee) have been ruled out for-sure this week, Croom said. FB Casey Rogers (knee) and OG Michael Gates (ankle) have been slightly upgraded but only to the ‘doubtful' stage. "They have a chance to play at this point, just knowing the type of people they are," Croom said. If there is any chance they can play I'm sure they will, but they will not be 100%." Gates might be even farther ahead as he was practicing in a yellow-limited jersey Tuesday.

Several other Dogs are being limited to greater or lesser degrees this practice week, such as Eric Butler. The tight end had been hampered for a month by a sprained toe and limited to yellow-shirt status Mondays and Tuesdays; now he has a knee problem on top of that and is further restricted. Butler still should play, and TE Jason Husband (ankle). OT J.D. Hamilton has played in the last two games after straining a knee in the Jacksonville State game, and he must take it easy the first few days of practice week as well. He was upgraded from red-cross to yellow Tuesday and practicing, while DB Demario Bobo (leg) was in purple.

Two more starters were either limited or not on the practice field this day. LB Jamar Chaney was in a red-cross with a sprained ankle. And QB Mike Henig has taken two days off from normal drills with a minor leg problem. He should be ready to go mid-week. Also, WR Will Prosser was in a red-cross after pulling a muscle in his side moving furniture, according to the coach.

"It's not a pretty picture," Croom said. "We have a lot of walking wounded." As a result, and because they will be leaving for Tuscaloosa very early Saturday morning for a 11:30 am game, the Bulldogs will have a reduced schedule this game-week with no Friday practice.

*SO WAS QB Omarr Conner (groin) on Monday, though soon he was in yellow. While keeping a cautious tone, the staff is increasingly optimistic that Conner will be available for the last two weekends of his senior season. Perhaps even more, as thanks to aggressive treatment the grade-3 strain suffered October 7 has healed far faster than usual. "He can definitely help us the last two ball games if we get him back for Arkansas game," Croom said Monday evening. "And we might get him back for this week, we don't know yet."

Conner is back participating in some aspects of practice, though his lateral mobility remains very limited. Because of that playing receiver again is out of the question; Conner's chance to participate is at quarterback, most likely in a shotgun set where he can throw without needing to run—or hobble—around the backfield.

And as of now Croom anticipates having Conner on the 70-man-maximum travel roster for the weekend. Besides, he said, "Even if he's not playing there are some intangible things he brings to the team."

*THE ROSTER lost another member Tuesday, but not for injury. Freshman WR Keith Mills was dismissed from the team following a Monday night arrest on charges of burglary and uttering forgery. The theft involved a fellow student-athlete who lived in the same residence hall. Mills is facing disciplinary action from the University, which announced the dismissal.

In the same statement Croom said "I have permanently dismissed Keith Mills from the football team. Although I understand that young people make mistakes, Keith's actions were completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our program." Croom did not offer further comment at the press conference, or identify which player was victim of the theft.

Mills, a native of Alexandria, La., was among the last recruits in State's February signing class. He was redshirting this season.

*WITH THE injury to Gates, junior Anthony Strauder moves back up to the starting LG job he held last season and the first three games of this season before Gates was promoted. Injuries have also led to shuffles at both tackle spots during 2006 games.

Yet Croom has noticed something lately in pre- and post-game discussions. "Nobody asks about the offensive line now," he said. "And that's a good thing." Good, because the quality of Bulldog blocking has been markedly better, especially in pass protection. While State has still allowed sacks to Henig, the quarterback is generally getting more time to toss and it has been reflected by the receiving statistics and touchdowns tallied. In fact the two have been closely connected.

"The offensive line and the wide receivers are the most improved since we've been here," Croom said.

*WHILE INJURIES are bad breaks—or sprains rather—for guys like Thornton and Stallworth, there is always someone who can benefit from misfortunate. In this week's case it is HB Anthony Dixon. The true freshman will get his fourth start this weekend at Alabama.

"I know we're down to our last couple of running backs," said Dixon. Actually there are a few more bodies on the list, such as Christian Ducre, Justin Williams, and Derek Ambrose. Backs coach Shane Beamer said Ducre was now slightly ahead of Williams in the playing order. "You can say they're 2 and 2A," the coach said.

But Dixon is the only regular runner left healthy for this weekend. So, will he be a bit more cautious under the stressed circumstances?

"I won't do that!" said Dixon. "As Coach has been telling me my carries will increase. That's what I wanted him to do in the beginning, so now I can just stay focused the whole time. Normally we (halfbacks) know we have only one or two plays before we rotate; now I can go be myself because I know I don't have to look to the sideline if I make a mistake."

Oh, is Dixon assuming he has free rein and no accountability this Saturday for how he executes? That the coaches wouldn't want to put walk-on Williams into the SEC game? "Oh, Coach probably will play him! But I'll still be loose because they're really counting on me now. I know I've got a little bit more room to mess up!"

More seriously, though, Dixon says that the Bulldog runners as a whole messed up their chance to deliver in the Kentucky game. Against the SEC's worst rushing defense, State managed exactly 24 net yards on 24 carries. And this time the blame could not fall on the blocking or lack of threat in the air. Dixon says the backfield was fully at fault.

"It was a lot of bad reads made and a couple of times we called the alert in the huddle," he said. Dixon netted only 14 yards on his 10 carries and missed reads that would have made a major difference in the day. "I took a step back and didn't play like I should have played. BT (Thornton) did the same thing and we couldn't get on track. It was just an off-day." A sort of day the Dogs can't afford at Alabama.

*SOMETHING ELSE the Bulldogs cannot afford are the sorts of breakdowns and missed assignments or tackles that have become a third-down tendency of late. In their last four D-IA games (excluding Jacksonville State), MSU's defense has let the other team convert on 20 out of 41 third-downs. And even that success, or lack thereof from State's standpoint, rate doesn't tell the full story. Because while Kentucky failed to convert on nine out of 13 such situations, all four successful attempts proved decisive as the Wildcats ended up scoring points in those series.

"That ended up being the difference in the game," Croom said of the busts when State had the Wildcats.

For the season State is allowing 38% conversions on third downs, ninth in the SEC.

*COMING WEDNESDAY: The backfield depth chart adjusts; Brandon Hart ready for bigger role; Titus Brown in sack-race; and injury updates.

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