Croom Discusses Football Recruiting Outlook

After a couple of weeks on the recruiting road, Coach Sylvester Croom and staff are able to take stock of where Mississippi State stands in terms of securing talent and/or depth for the 2007 Bulldog roster. Monday morning, the head coach met with media to give an early evaluation of how the process is progressing.

As per NCAA regulations Croom could not discuss or even acknowledge specific prospects. But he could offer a general overview of what is shaping up to be a busy signing season with a list of commitments already larger than the available scholarships to be signed. Croom expects to get back the first round of those this Wednesday when eligible December junior college graduates can ink for spring enrollment. Spring junior college prospects and all high schoolers can put their names on papers on February 7.

Croom also gave updates on some injured players and status of his assistant staff, which currently has just one vacancy as a strength/conditioning coach to be added in January.

Croom: "We've been in-and-out every day. I was here Saturday for recruiting visits. Now this week we're cleaning up some season-ending things. Nothing major has changed since we last talked, just going through the recruiting battles of course. Maybe an adjustment here-and-there, who stays in and who flips out, all that stuff. Right now for the most part our commitments are holding. I guess it's all how you define a ‘commitment' these days. Everybody has their own definition."

Q: According to some lists you have 33 commitments. How does that work?

Croom: "A lot of that depends on grades. When we talk to players about it, if they want to come we accept the commitment. But when we send out the letters it's all based on their grades. And we won't know exactly where we are until we find out what their grades are. Even guys, there are some serious questions about whether they are going to be eligible, we tell them we may end up having to bring some guys in in January. If they want that opportunity we'd still like to have them, and we're going to honor the chance of a scholarship; it's just a matter of whether it's going to be coming in September or January, we'll let them know as we assess the grade situation.

"There's a couple of guys that we do know there is a strong possibility they may have to go the junior college route. We're aware of that already. I'm not going to divulge who that is of course. But some we won't know until the grades come out." Q: Has everyone that has publicly committed been offered a scholarship? Has anyone committed trying to draw an offer?

Croom: "No, we won't go that way. We won't let a guy commit on us that we have not actually offered a scholarship. Again, the grade situation…we won't get the first-term grades on some guys until we come back in January. That's going to be the key to who actually comes in in September and who may have an opportunity to come in January of next year, and doesn't commit at all.

Q: Based on commitments you seem to be picking up a lot of momentum. Are you where you thought you would be?

Croom: "Well, the key is to be where we think we're going to be that first Wednesday in February! That's my only concern. It changes every day, because my idea of what a commitment is and a prospect's idea of what a commitment is…we're very fortunate that a lot of the guys that have committed, they and their families are ‘OK, I'm coming to Mississippi State, it's over and done with and I'm not taking any more visits'. That's the way I like for it to be. And basically what we've done, if they're still visiting, we're still visiting! That's just an approach we've had to take this year. We've explained that, there's no hard feelings on either side if that's what they choose to do. We have to look elsewhere. Last year we didn't do that and at the end a couple of guys the night before changed their minds and went elsewhere, and we had turned down players who wanted to be here.

"The number-one objective is to get the best possible student-athlete you can get that genuinely wants to be in your program. That's the way we're trying to approach it. The academics, the character, of course the talent is a great part of it. But it's not just one aspect, you have to look at the whole person and try to get the best person you can get and get the best athlete. At the same time you have some specific needs we have to fill, and that's part of it as well."

Q: How much farther ahead this year are you as far as knowing the academic situations?

Croom: "I think we're a lot farther ahead, based on the guys from the start. Again some of it depends to some degree on when you get the transcripts. But we'll know by the time we come back, the coaches will all be back in the office the third of January. Most of those transcripts should be back by that time. We will know before we go back on the road."

Q: You said needs, can you mention three of four needs?

Croom: "We had to get some more guys on the defensive line, of course, we lost those three guys up front. We're trying to get some more depth at linebacker. And then get some more speed in the secondary. If everything holds I think we've done that on the defensive side of the football.

"On the offense we had to recruit a quarterback and right now we have three committed so we've definitely helped ourselves there. I think we've increased our speed at running back, that was a high priority. And from there we were just trying to get the best player available. And get some more competition at the kicking position and I think we've done that. So I think what we've done is fill our specific positional needs, increase our overall team speed, and give ourselves a chance with some of the junior college players coming in on defense to immediately replace some of the losses with talent and experience. That's what we're anticipating. Again you don't ever know until you get it on the field, but that was the goal and at this point I feel pretty good about it. But hey, until that final whistle blows on this recruiting I'm not going to feel very good about it!"

Q: How many do you anticipate signing this Wednesday?

Croom: "I think it's four. I hope it's four."

Q: And one will count against last year total?

Croom: "Yes."

Q: Is this an unusual year for the number of December-eligible junior college prospects?

Croom: "Highly. Well, I shouldn't say highly, but in the past couple of years I've been here it is. And that is encouraging because the fact they're getting out in December hopefully indicates you're bringing in a more qualified student. I think that's really where it is headed. I know this, the guys that we send to junior college, that may not get in, we want to be a little more aware of what they're taking when they go. Not that we're saying you've got to be in a certain (major), but we want hopefully to work with the junior college to have them on a plan to satisfy all the requirements and get them back in December.

"Because the thing we've found is that not only from a football standpoint, but if you don't get them in in December even though they're two years out of high school the transition is almost just like coming out of high school. Getting familiar with the classes, with the campus, with your professors, getting familiar with your players, the socialization aspect of it takes longer. It almost necessitates that they end up redshirting because it's almost midseason before they get acclimated. The whole reason you sign junior college players is somewhat negated if you don't get them in in spring."

Q: Do you see more Mississippi high school kids staying in the state this year?

Croom: "Yes, and that's positive. Really I think the bulk of the kids, if we don't get them they'll end up going to Ole Miss or Southern (Mississippi). I think that's a good sign for the overall health of all our programs, that most of the kids are staying in-state this year."

Q: How are the grades around the state this year?

Croom: "Better. But, I'm really concerned about next year because of the 16 core-course rule going into effect. I think there's going to be a transition period academically where some guys are going to get lost. It seems any time you change those rules some guys are going to fall through. That's a concern."

Q: Will the players you redshirted this season be factors in spring?

Croom: "There are a couple of guys that really have to step up. Some who didn't redshirt but played, like Quinton Wesley and Kyle Love. Those guys have step up in the defensive line and have the ability to be good players, no question. But the first thing is their weights, we've talked to them about that. Then they have to really step their games up in spring. The young guys in the defensive line like Reggie Odom and Rodney Prince, and Cortez McCraney was a transfer, they have the ability and very good mobility. Combined with the junior college players we've got coming in hopefully we can still be a pretty good defensive football team.

‘Anthony Johnson and Marcus Washington at the corner spots have to step up. Derek Pegues has to really assert himself more in the secondary, we've already talked to him that there's a chance we may move him to safety because we need somebody back there to sort of lock everything down and control everything. Back now he's the guy I think can do it because he was a former quarterback, he has excellent range and ball-skills, so there's a strong chance he'll move to free safety where can sort-of be the centerfielder back there. And with the junior college corners we've got coming in that ought to help. And we'll move Keon Humphries to corner, he's a good football player and really wants to play and right now he's down the depth chart at receiver. And he did a good job as the ‘hold up' guy on the punt team on gunners. If he can do that no reason he can't play corner. Those are a few that have to step up just to mention a few. We'll move Jamar Chaney to middle linebacker to take Quinton Culberson's place and Jamon Hughes will go into spring on paper at will linebacker. And that's where we hope we have a junior college linebacker coming in I think will help us.

"Taking that front seven, if everything holds in recruiting, I don't think it will be a big drop-off from where we were. In fact I'm hoping we're actually better because if Pegues does what we want him to at safety and the junior college corners come in and develop the young guys in Johnson and Washington, we've got a chance to be better back there. And improving our overall team speed will help us in kicking coverage units. All that was part of our thinking going into the recruiting process. Quite often we end up having to take the best players we can get, but I think we've satisfied our needs and got some pretty good football players at the same time."

Q: Where are you in the process of getting a new strength coach and are there any more changes on the staff?

Croom: "I'm not going to do anything officially until after the first of the year when we get back, I'm just not going to rush into it. I want to see how everything shakes out, during this time if any of our coaches want to interview or anybody calls them between now and the end of the (coaches) convention, I give them total freedom to do that. I never want to block a guy from advancing, if for whatever reason he feels he wants to make a move I'm going to give them that opportunity. After we come back from the convention we'll get everything a lot more solidified and I'll have a better idea if any of our guys are leaving or interested in leaving. That way I can do all things at one time."

Q: Have you received requests from a lot of people to talk to your coaches, like Woody McCorvey talking with UAB?

Croom: "Nobody has called anybody else. Woody was talking to them but other than that nobody has contacted anybody on our staff. But in the past it has always been at or after the convention. After these bowl games is when things start to happen."

Q: What is the status of the guys who had off-season surgeries?

Croom: "Right now everybody is healthy. We're a lot better in that area than we were at this time last year. I think we only had two, Tony Burks had to have his ankle cleaned out. And everybody was aware of Mike Henig. Tony was the only one that came up after the season and he got it done. Everybody is healthy for spring."

Q: How is Tray Rutland's state of mind?

Croom: "I talked to him, he seems fine. But I can tell from re-habbing myself, some guys deal with it differently than others. He says all the right things but he has to get in there and do it. And it's not easy, it's a tough thing for some guys. That's something he really has to do well. All the one that have re-habs while they're at home we've got them with physical therapists in their hometowns. Paul Mock has gone over specific programs we want them to do in that time, and the coaches have checked with them to make sure they're doing it. Right now everybody is expected to go when we start spring practice, and most of them I expect to participate in the off-season program."

Q: Henig has broken his collarbone twice, is there any special pad he can wear?

Croom: "No. The thing Mike has to do, first of all is to keep his weight up around 200 pounds. He's got to be a really dedicated weight-lifter, he's done OK in that area. The other thing is he's got to be smart when he runs, to protect himself a little bit better. In games he made some really nice runs but I was not comfortable. He can do some things to protect himself, get out of bounds and don't take head-on licks and not be in vulnerable situations. We've got to teach him some things this season about how to go down. On the last lick (against Arkansas) the first thing he did was plant his forearm and elbow; all the pressure went right to that shoulder. Hey, throw the ball away and tuck-and-roll. A simple technique of going to the ground couple have prevented that injury. We're never going to totally eliminate that but we have to minimize it."

Q: What are your Christmas plans?

Croom: "The best holiday is I'm not going to plan anything! Every other day of my life is planned, so a vacation for me is I don't have to plan anything, or analyze every aspect. A vacation from planning would be excellent."

Q: Do you like recruiting? The way it is today?

Croom: "I don't have a problem with recruiting. The process, with the rules and limited periods, it's a whole lot easier that before I went to the pros. It was 24/7 in those days, sitting around baby-sitting a guy the night before signing, he gets out somewhere and you're tracking him and following other coaches…you don't have to do that stuff any more. But, the one thing that is different now…the words, what you say means nothing any more. That's just or society. A commitment means nothing. The idea that a word is a bond, that's out the window. That's just the way it is. That bothers me, that you can't trust and when somebody tells you something you can't bank on that any more.

"And that's a problem because what happens is we're basically like an airline. We're over-booking. And I don't like having to do that. But if you don't… That's the aspect of our recruiting that I don't like. It's refreshing when you do run across a young man and his parents that their word is good. It's quite refreshing. And when we first started I didn't like the early committing. And our coaches were right, we'd sit here and argue about it and I said I wouldn't do it, because what if a guy doesn't play well in fall and we've committed to him and him to us? What happens if he gets hurt? What if I don't like the way he plays in the fall?

"So we made two things clear. If he commits and does not visit anywhere, he belongs to us regardless of how he performs or if he gets hurt because I gave my word. But by the same token, if he commits and he's still visiting, I'm still looking for somebody else. And if somebody else commits before he comes back then that (first) commitment doesn't count as far as I'm concerned. And I know what's going to happen, a lot of people are going to say you're not keeping your word. No, I kept mine. That's the way we're going to do it. I don't like doing that but that is the business side of recruiting now. And it is what it is."

Q: Have you changed anything else about your approach to scouting and recruiting this year?

Croom: "There were some needs we had, and some guys we could potentially get mid-year. That helped. We had some specific needs we had to take care of. We haven't really changed our format, we just worked harder at it."

Q: You've talked about changing the perception of the program, do you see a different perception after this past season?

Croom: "Yeah, I do. And I think that's how we've been able to have the commitments we've got at this point. And it's still an ongoing process. A lot of players understand we're closer, we think four games, three points, that's four plays away from being in a pretty good bowl game. And I think guys are a little more intelligent about the game, too.

"The bottom line, and this is the thing we still get hit with, there's still a general assumption among the coaching community that ‘you can't win at Mississippi State'. I still say why can't you? Why can't you win anywhere? If you've got players you're going to win, if you don't have players you're not. The deal is not can you win at Mississippi State, it's can you attract players who want to be part of building a program. That's the whole deal. I think we're getting better at that in state, we're getting more kids who want to stay in the state. A lot of it is the perception.

"We have to do some things ourselves about that. Getting the facilities is critical, the benefits of that over the long haul is critical. I think it was Coach Osborne (at Nebraska), they said they don't have beaches or ski slopes, so they had to have facilities. We're the same way. That's the reality of it. Today's recruiting you have to have first-class facilities. Hopefully with the fund-raising campaigns there are some things, and not only for the football program but for all our programs. The academic center, renovating our practice fields, dealing with the track. Everything, all your sports. You recruit speed, maybe some guys want to be on the track team! If a good football player is a good track guy, if you have quality facilities for both it's going to help us recruit. All of that is critical.

"There is a certain kind of guy we won't get, he's not going to want to come to Starkville. But, with the growth in this Starkville area, getting new businesses in town, all of that's a plus. It's not just one aspect in attracting players to a university, it's all a part of it. And if you get players, hey, it's easy! It was real interesting, I broke down our stats by halves of the season. The first six games we averaged 12.7 points a game; the second six games it was 24.2. What was the change? It was obvious. We didn't change the offense, it was players. Tony Burks got in a rhythm, we got a quarterback, we had players. If we don't have Tony we're not going to score points. If Jamayel Smith doesn't develop you're not going to score points. It's players. We get questioned all the time about the scheme. Hey, the scheme works. Everybody's been running it 30, 40 years, so I know it works! It's not a question about schemes, it's about getting players. And recruiting kids is the lifeblood of a college program."

Q: Do you expect many further commitments?

Croom: "We're hoping for a couple of guys right now. There are a couple of guys that we've told if you want to wait until after we have a chance to visit in the home. Normally I wouldn't, but there are a couple of guys I think are really special. We're going to wait and see what they do to give them every opportunity to make up their minds. We've still got guys coming in on visits that are not committed in case some guys change their minds. We will just go through the process and see what happens. At some point I think we'll call and say look, so-and-so wants to come and is about to commit, I've got to have a pretty good idea because if there's a great player that decides he wants to come… And they know that. I don't believe in pressuring them but at some point I may have to make that phone call. I don't want to turn down a good football player who really, really wants to be here hoping to get another one. I've done that and I don't intend to do that )again)."

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