Wednesday Football Notebook

Mississippi State continues preparations for the season-finale at Ole Miss with a standard closed Wednesday afternoon practice. The Bulldogs are scheduled to work in shells and sweats today, with unit work outdoors and full-team drills conducted in the Palmeiro Center. Thursday's practice will be at 1:45, allowing the Dogs to both sleep late and enjoy a holiday meal.

The Bulldogs will have a standard Friday walk-through session before leaving for Columbus to spend the night off-campus. They will bus to Oxford with an arrival time at the stadium shortly before 11:00am.

*THE SIGNING period for eligible mid-year junior college transfers doesn't start until December 20. Based on summer and fall semester graduations, State should have five and possibly six scholarships to hand out next month to juco players who are graduating this semester. Signing Day for prep prospects and spring juco grads is nearly two more months after that, and with a long list of reported unofficial commitments lined up State is down to a handful of unclaimed scholarships for 2007.

Still Croom knows where he intends to apply one open grant next year, when walk-on WR Jamayel Smith is rewarded for his labors and his '06 production. "Because of NCAA rules he's now been in the program two years and we can put him on scholarship on the 85 (limit) in the fall without counting against our initials for this signing date," Croom said. "That's important because we're getting down to the nuts-and-bolts of our recruiting for this year, getting close to having those 25 scholarships closed out."

"But we'll definitely put Jamayel on as soon as possible if he continues to perform as he has. Saturday shows what he can do when he focuses on the ball. What separates receivers is the concentration and fundamentals of putting the ball away, he did that the other day."

Smith, a sophomore, led State in receiving for a second-straight game with five grabs for 71 yards despite an injured ligament on the right hand that required surgery and a protective pad. Smith has 19 catches and two touchdowns on the season, but has really blossomed in the second half of the schedule. In the last four games he has 15 catches and 246 yards with both scores.

Going into the season four veteran walk-ons were put on scholarship: WR Lance Long, FB Casey Rogers, HB Derek Ambrose, and S Marcus Evans. All met the criteria for having been on campus at least two years so they did not have to be counted against the 25-initial grants limit for next year.

As to this winter's recruiting campaign, after two years of NCAA sanctions (the probationary period for the entire athletic program runs through October 2009) the football team can again have the normal 85-scholarship roster for 2007-08. State apparently will try to sign five December-eligible transfers who can participate in spring practice. It also appears that one of these will use an existing 2006-07 scholarship and not count as an ‘initial' in NCAA parlance. The other December signees will still be ‘initials' and count on the February signing list, though they would already be on campus by then. WR Tony Burks is an example of the latter case, as he signed in December '05 but counted on the 2006 signing class.

*THIS YEAR'S Egg Bowl features two of the SEC's top-three tacklers. Rebel LB Patrick Willis tops the league in both total tackles (124) and per-game (11.3). State's MLB Quinton Culberson is third at 98 and 8.9, only one tackle behind Kentucky's Wesley Woodyard. Due to the nature of their middle or inside LB position none of the three rank in the SEC top-ten in such categories as sacks, tackles-for-loss, or turnovers forced.

In last year's Egg Bowl win, Culberson had six tackles (three solos, three assists) and was credited with half-a-tackle for loss. He also had six tackles in the 2004 Egg Bowl. Willis had 14 tackles last year at Scott Field, and Croom jokes that when he met the Rebel at a 2005 awards function he ‘encouraged' him to turn pro early.

"I've got a lot of respect for Patrick Willis. He was hurt last year and played extremely well, I still remember the big hit he had at LSU last year down on the goal line. He's just an impressive individual."

The coach is all the more impressed with his own linebacker, not just for a stellar senior season but how Culberson has adapted and developed over his whole career at State. The one-time cornerback will finish as a middle linebacker and pro prospect.

"He was reluctant (to move) at first, I think he has adapted extremely well," Croom said. "The entire reason we moved him is because we recognized early on that he was a playmaker." Which he certainly has been as a senior, with six double-digit tackle games. More than that, Culberson has become a true team leader.

"Quinton, I can't say enough about the job he has done and the maturity he's shown. This year he's had a different focus, he's been very serious. He likes to have fun but when he comes to practice he comes to work. He has a NFL-type attitude, when it's time to work he homes in. he's a craftsman, he pays attention to details of the game. That's why I think he has a chance to excel at the next level because he has the discipline it takes. Plus he has the skills and he loves to play. I don't think Saturday will be the last time we see Quinton Culberson in football."

*EVERY YEAR the same subject comes up in connection with the Egg Bowl: how will the outcome affect the recruiting results for the respective programs? With fans it is an absolute article of faith that the winner is bound to recruit better than the loser, though the cyclical nature of the series argues the other way.

After three years in the rivalry and splitting the first two games Croom has not really seen a major impact either way. "Whether it changes any minds, I don't know if that's the case. I think most kids grow up a fan of one team or the other." And never the twain shall meet save on the playing field someday. To Croom the real impact, other than of course with the fan base, is the emotional lift it gives coaches as they go courting players in December and how they are received at high schools.

As for the prospects who will sign in February 2007? Croom thinks this year's final score is unlikely to change any current commitments or affect many remaining decisions. "I think most (prospects) have made up their minds by now, they're just not telling. One or two, it might be a signal which way the program is headed."

*IT WILL be a frustrating end to the sophomore season for QB Mike Henig, who had hoped to win his second Egg Bowl this weekend. Instead he will spend the holiday with left arm in a sling and recovering from his second left-collarbone surgery in three months. Henig broke the bone in the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game, landing hard and getting hit after a desperate heave under pressure. The break was not even an inch from the healed fracture suffered August 31 in the second quarter when South Carolina sacked the soph.

It's been a busy year for Henig's bone doctor; the quarterback shattered the second toe on his left foot in June running up a stair and needed to have three fragments wired together for a couple of weeks. And that wasn't his first long stint in rehab; Henig separated a shoulder in his college debut, in 2004 at Vanderbilt as a true freshman. There will be an appeal for a medical redshirt when Henig completes his fourth year in college, per NCAA policy, and it should be granted which is why he goes into 2007 as a athletic-junior.

Certainly Croom expects Henig to be back on top of the quarterback depth chart by the time spring camp starts in February. He has no fears of his quarterback quitting because of injuries; just the opposite. "Mike is a great competitor, his family loves Mississippi State. As long as he can play I don't think there's any question Mike will be out there."

At the same time, Croom hopes Henig has at last learned—the hard and painful way—the worth of wisdom. As in, don't try to be the hero but get rid of the ball in high-risk situations and survive to take the next snap. The irony is that against Arkansas Henig ran the ball for a couple of first times, something he would never have done in '05. Or should have.

"I watched the film of him running last year in the Ole Miss game, and to be honest he was bad! But I was impressed the other day. He has that option but in the past we've told him to hand the ball off. We took that away from him, all of a sudden he decided on his own that he had to do what he had to do!"

The irony was Henig didn't get hit all that hard on any scramble, that he was knocked out on a standard drop-back in an obvious passing situation. Croom isn't surprised, though. "I learned that when you worry about a quarterback getting hurt running the ball, he gets killed when he gets hit in the pocket. That's the toughest lick." So, once he's back, Henig will be allowed to run if necessary.

"But he's got to learn to get down," Croom said. "I'm going to put him out with Ron Polk to learn how to slide." Good call. Just don't expect the quarterback to learn how to bunt.

*WITH THE 2006 season coming to an end Saturday, the off-season begins…almost immediately. Not so much the physical stuff because Croom knows the end of the semester brings other priorities to the fore. "The first thing is getting these exams passed," he said.

"Then we'll start getting healthy, getting our quarterbacks healthy. We'll start all over in our off-season program, with mental and physical conditioning. And start trying to pull a new team together, creating some ‘oneness' and seeing who the new leaders are going to be. Every team is different and it starts all over. We take the numbers off and start all over again in spring."

Spring comes early for the Bulldogs in 2007, with camp moving up into February. It's the earliest start to a State spring in anyone's memory and means the public spring scrimmage will be the last Saturday in March. There were reasons beyond the coach's control in setting these camp dates.

"We've got scheduling to tie into our Super Bulldog Weekend, which is a tradition around here, in order to fit a date when we had a ball game," Croom said. "We had to move it up." Not that the football staff is bothered, though. In fact Mississippi State has been among the last two or three SEC schools to wrap up camp every spring for many years, due to the SBW that typically came in mid-April. For 2007 that event is March 30-April 1, as the next SEC baseball series is not until April 20-22. That is a couple of weeks too late to finish camp.

So, this time the Dogs start and finish early. "There are some plusses in that," Croom said. "After spring practice is over we'll go right back into our off-season program and really be able to intensify it. And if we have any injuries in spring practice that will give more healing time before the season. But the down-side is we'll have to be preparing for spring practice while we're in recruiting as well. It's always a plus and minus. But I'm not opposed to trying new things to see how it works out."

*NOTE TO SUBSCRIBERS: There will be no notebook for Thursday due to the holiday. The Scouting Report for this weekend's game will be posted Friday.

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