Croom Praises His Best, Biggest Signing Class

Coach Sylvester Croom calls it his best signing class yet at Mississippi State. It's also easily the biggest of the four groups he has recruited since taking over the Bulldog program, with 34 names on the final list released Wednesday afternoon on the NCAA's Signing Day 2007.

Of those, three were previously announced as December signees already enrolled for this spring semester. One of that trio counts on the 2006 scholarship limit; the rest, or at least the 25 who make their grades and fit the '07 team's needs, will enroll over the summer.

After finalizing the day's signing, Croom spoke to media about the class, particular players, what it means for the program both immediately and long-term, and various aspects of the recruiting process itself. Following is the full transcript, beginning with Croom's opening statement.

Croom: "Let me start by saying this is a very good day for Bulldog football. We feel like we got an excellent class coming in and we're excited about that. A lot of people had a great deal to do with that. I'd like to give special thanks to Dr. Foglesong, our president, and out athletic director Larry Templeton for the help they've given us throughout the course of the season and through this recruiting process. That's always helpful knowing you have the support of your top administrators when you're a football coach." "Our coaches and staff did an excellent job recruiting. They worked extremely well together. I thought the cross-over at different position and in different areas was outstanding, and I think the success we had today was because of the relationship of those men. The new staff members who came in recently did an outstanding job, they jumped right in and contributed to the teamwork in our recruiting effort. Great, great teamwork, almost like the success you have in a ball game the way our coaches worked together. I thought we did a good job of evaluating and satisfying our needs and getting the best available players as well."

"Without question since we've been here this will definitely be the best class that we've signed. And we expect a lot of guys in this class to make an immediate contribution. Of course as always you don't know until after a couple of years just how good a class is. But based on our evaluation process we feel good about the possibilities and the potential of a lot of young men in this class."

"A couple of things we wanted to do, we got done. We improved our overall team speed and that was a priority. Quite a lot has been said about our kicking game last year and a lot of that had to do with the lack of depth in the secondary and at linebacker. And just the lack of overall team speed. And that was a priority in the recruiting process. We feel we filled some immediate needs on our defense. With the graduation of those three big guys we had inside, we feel we satisfied those needs. And definitely it gives us more depth at the linebacker positions and in the secondary."

"We feel we strengthened our overall kicking game, which was a priority. We got a kicker in who is an excellent field goal kicker, kickoff man, and punter. And as I said, the depth we established at linebacker, running back, and defensive back adds tremendous speed to our kicking game."

"Our current players did an outstanding job as well, as far as entertaining our prospects when they came in on the recruiting weekend on official visits. Not only the guys who hosted the players but the players not even directly involved in entertaining prospects on the weekend, a lot of them stayed on their own and stepped up and really contributed to the success of our official visit weekends. We're very appreciative of those guys. It just goes to show that I feel when you bring in guys who want to be here, guys who have some character about them, they attract similar-type people."

"I thought we had a lot of success with our parents coming on campus. Just about every player we had in on an official visit, a parent or both parents came with them. I think that had a great deal to do with us being able to hold on to committed players because not only do we recruit the players but it's very important to us the whole family be involved in the process. So that when a decision is made they're all involved. Pretty much like a marriage, people say you don't marry in-laws; well, we feel when you get a player you marry the entire family and that's the way we want it. One of the great strengths of this University, and it's resonated since we've been here and even more with this class, every player we signed mentioned two things: it felt like home, it felt like family. That was very important. And the community of Starkville, the entire Mississippi State community had a lot to do with getting these young men to this campus. The cooperation of our faculty and entire administration on official visits is something we're very much appreciative of. Again, that family atmosphere. Even in our one-on-one academic sessions with our professors, all of that played into our success in this recruiting class."

"Something else I must mention. The upgrade in our facilities was a big, big factor. It allowed us to compete a lot more, on a higher level than we have in the past, with schools that were recruiting against us. Quite often players were told before coming here that our facilities were mediocre, then when they got here they found out that was not the case. So that was a strike against the competition for basically painting a false and critical picture. So that worked to our advantage. As we continue to improve our facilities that's something that has to continue. Plans are on the drawing board to continue that and that will help us in our recruiting in years ahead."

"Again, with this class we feel we have answered a lot of our questions. We're really excited about the potential of this class. But let me remind you that it's always just potential. A lot of work has to be done before that talent comes into play. But a lot of these young men we expect to get here in summer school, that they will be able to make a contribution to us very early. We're also excited we were able to get so many players from the state of Mississippi. That was one of our goals since we've been here. We want to have an attitude of ‘Mississippi First.' We're going to recruit the southeast as thoroughly as possible but we want to get the best players in the state, talent-wise and also who happen to have the grades and the ability to perform academically while they're here and the potential to graduate with a degree that will allow them to contribute to our society when they leave."

Q: Comment on signing Robert Elliot: "We're very excited to have all our players. We're especially happy to have Robert, because that gives us some speed at running back. He and Marcus Green are the two guys we're going to bring in to play at that position and we think they'll give us some size and excellent speed. And we're looking forward to getting them both ready to play. I believe when you're serious about running the ball you can never have too many backs. And you definitely have to have two or at least three at the college level. We've already made plans as we go into the spring, I've talked to Anthony Dixon, he will play both tailback and in some certain packages at fullback as well. We will be getting Marcus and Robert ready to go as fast as possible when they get in here."

Q: How were you able to finish strong? "Well, we finished strong. We talk about doing it in all phases, in the game as well. But some guys just didn't make their decisions until the end. We felt pretty good about a lot of situations, just the fact we didn't make some things public. That was the choice of some of the players. Of course even all the way down to last night we were still on the phone with some of them. I'm never comfortable until they sign the papers."

"But any success we have throughout the recruiting process is attributed to the way our staff has worked. They worked extremely hard. It wasn't a single coach on a player, throughout the whole process the coordinators were calling players, the position coaches, the area coaches. And if there was a connection with a high school coach or somebody else in the family, everybody was working everybody. It wasn't just one coach on a player, it was the entire staff recruiting everybody. Everybody on the staff worked everybody and I thought that had a lot to do with it."

"And I think that's important because when you get players here sometimes they connect with different people for different reasons. I tell players when they come here, somebody in our coaching staff, somebody in our support system, maybe it's a professor on campus; there's somebody you connect with there to help you on this journey through college. That's one thing we try to do in the recruiting process, we tell them it's not going to be a cakewalk because life is not a cakewalk. The deal is who is going to be there to help you over the rough spots. I think that's something that is a plus for us, the family atmosphere that we have."

Q: There were some players, such as at Jones Junior College or in Coffeeville, that you let go. How did you determine that? "Well, every situation is different. In the recruiting process when we send out our letters…and this was something I had to get used to, offering a scholarship early. The question has been asked to I like it or don't I like it. I prefer not to but that's just not the real world we operate in. You have to offer scholarships early and we offer them, but in our offer-letter are certain conditions. The number-one condition is academics. In our academic process as soon as we evaluate a player, if we like that player we try to get the transcript as quickly as possible and get it to our academic support staff here. And they make the final judgement on one, whether we can get a player in; two, whether we think that player can stay eligible; three, do we think that player can graduate. If it's a no on any of those we don't take the guy, bottom line."

"If there was any mistake made, I probably waited too long in trying to get the transcripts. We did so on the players from Jones Junior College in the effort to get the final transcript to see exactly where they were. If there's anything that I might have been wrong at, I might have waited too long because I did want those players on the football team. But in our evaluation process academically we could not go in that direction. As for Lee Chambers, on the recruiting weekend of the (January) 20th the last thing I said when I talked to those players was when they left here that weekend nothing was going to change. Nothing I was going to say different after that, nothing was going to change about the facilities on this campus, nothing was going to change about the opportunities here. I said very specifically make up your mind, be in or be out when you walk in my office, when you leave this campus. I was told Sunday morning that the young man said he was coming here, that he was going to take a visit but it was over. After the visit to Miami for two days he did not return my calls. I very simply called his high school coach and said I was going on a plane trip to Arkansas and had I not received a final commitment by the time I got to Jamie Jones that his scholarship was revoked. And that's what happened. There's no hard feelings with that, I understand he signed with Miami and we wish him a great deal of success in his endeavors."

Q: You signed 34, are you expecting some not to be eligible? "Yes, probably four players we know will go to junior college. We anticipated that. The way the process worked, when you sign that player and he goes to junior college you're making a commitment to that player, that player is making a commitment to you. Again, all that depends on how well they do once they get there on the field, socially, and in the classroom. That is explained to them specifically, there will be an academic plan in place to get them back hopefully in a year-and-a-half."

"There are some other players in that number we have discussed about bringing them at mid-term, in January (2008)."

Q: Discuss the contributions of the new coaches: "When they came in they didn't necessarily have areas. They've already started junior recruiting, we've already divided up who has what areas for next year and we've started recruiting for next year. But what they brought in, those guys are experience recruiting, great evaluators, they work extremely well with people. They just jumped right in. Pat Washington had a great deal to do with recruiting Co-Eric Riley, he got to know him, visited him, conversed with him a great deal on the phone. Charlie Harbison had a great deal to do with recruiting LaMarcus Williams at Alabama, he jumped right in and had a great deal to do with us getting LaMarcus. They played a key role in those two particular instances as much as anybody else did. But our whole staff…Brick Haley cross-keying with LaMarcus, that's his position on defensive line. Our entire staff working with everybody was outstanding, I was on the road with them a great deal and just watching those guys work was very special. The job J.B. Grimes did recruiting Robert Elliot, that was a long, tough process and a lot of things happened through the process. I though he handled it with a great deal of class, professionalism, and dignity."

Q: At the first of the year you talked of the importance of getting to know the smaller towns, how well did you succeed there? "Our coaches did an extremely good job of going to the high schools. It's something we wanted to do. And a couple of changes we're going to make the coming season I think will help us to do an even better job at that. We made some changes in our recruiting areas, because of the limited number of weekends we have this fall, where coaches can get out on Fridays and have a little more access in-state. I think that's important for long-term success. Next year it may be a little bit different, as far as the numbers we may sign more players out-of-state because one of my concerns is as we convert (in Mississippi) to 16 core-courses, how the academics are going to affect us next year. That's a number-one factor going into the upcoming recruiting year."

Q: Who is a ‘sleeper' in this class? "Sleeper? Don't mention sleep, I'd like to get some of that! I don't really have one. It's just a matter of you never know, you just never know. Again, a lot of potential is there. Some will surprise you, I just like to wait and see what happens. Karlin Brown is an under-sized linebacker but a tremendous hitter. I'm just interested in seeing what a lot of them do. But I like the size and the speed of the entire group."

Q: With so many young linemen already on the roster, will the five linemen signed all redshirt or could one play as a freshman? "You never know. Those guys have a lot of talent in that group. Derek Sherrod is very talented. D.J. Looney is very talented but his position is center and we're pretty solid there right now. But that's a group that you really don't like to play as freshmen, we've learned that over the last three years the hard way. Even the most talented guys have a difficult time making that adjustment from high school to the SEC at that position. Offensive line and quarterback are the two toughest positions to play, I still say, in football, and making the transition from high school to college is very difficult. Like getting guys from smaller towns, quite often they don't play competition equal to their talent level week-in and week-out, where they see that every day in practice. So in a way I expect most of them will redshirt. We're always going to let the player dictate that. A lot of those guys will dress and we'll carry them to games every week with specific instructions they don't go on the field unless I send them on there. I've almost resorted to taking their helmets away from them to make sure we don't make a mistake and send a guy in a game. We played Michael Gates (2005) as a freshman simply because we didn't have enough bodies. We've done a pretty good job but that's one I wish we'd redshirted as a freshman."

"We will evaluate it on a case-by-case basis, but quarterbacks and offensive line in an ideal world you'd like to redshirt them all."

Q: You had very few who made commitments take official visits, what impact did that have? "We were very honest with our players, that we didn't want commitments from our players unless they were genuine commitments. We didn't want reservations. There's a difference. I had one player who the parents said Coach, he just wants to take a trip, we're coming to Mississippi State, he wants to take a trip. I told that mother you tell me he's coming, I'm not worried about it, he can take that trip. Later on whatever happened, they didn't take the trip. But it's being able to trust each other. That's a big thing with me and recruiting, to the point where I'll tell a player if you trust the head coach on the other team more than you trust me then that's where you should go. Because if you come here somewhere in the course of four years I'm going to ask you to do some things and the reason is I just want you to trust me. Sometimes I do things on gut instinct and we may not clearly know why. But it's just something I feel, and they're going to have to trust me sometime in those four years. And if they don't trust me now they're not going to trust me on this journey. Trust is a lot of it. There are parents who have said their son is coming to your institution and I took them at their word. Trust is a big factor in the way we do business."

Q: Talk about signing quarterback Josh Riddell. "I didn't intend to sign a junior college quarterback for a long time in the recruiting process. Because I wanted to find another defensive lineman. But after Mike Henig got hurt, Omarr Conner got hurt, Tray Rutland getting hurt and just after the holidays his knee getting infected…I said we can't go through this another year. Because I feel we've got a chance to make some pretty good strides as far as improving as a good football team. But I don't care how good you are, if your quarterback position does not play well you're dead, we just can't take the chance. But I didn't want to take a quarterback just to be taking a quarterback."

"Josh fit the system, they run a lot of the same things we do, a lot of the terminology he was exposed to in college was very similar, I liked what we saw on film. And we were very fortunate, he I think was going to Arizona or Arizona State, one of them, they had a coaching transition that created a window-of-opportunity for us to get him and get him here where he could be in a role. I definitely did not want to sign a JC quarterback who could not be on campus for spring practice. So we're very fortunate to get him, I think he is an outstanding young man, he likes it here and I think he's going to fit in very well with our football family."

Q: Talk about signing Riley. "We're very excited to get Co-Eric. When we started out we really didn't intend to sign but one player, but when O'Neal Wilder stepped up that gave us a chance to get a high school receiver as well. And we like doing that because next year we'll have four guys graduating, so we try to stay about two years ahead in our recruiting. But it's obvious the impact that Tony Burks made on this team last year. Getting Co-Eric gives us another explosive guy and allows us to do some things in the offense we haven't been able to do. Even though Tony is a very good receiver there's two different types of receivers. Tony is a more vertical receiver where Co-Eric can do a lot of things in underneath coverages, reverses, those kind of things that aren't exactly Tony's cup of tea. So it gives us a different style of guy and a chance to make a lot impact."

"One of the things that obvious to us last year, we knew going into the season was going to be a little bit of a problem, and one reason we tried to force the ball up the field more than previously, was losing Jerious Norwood and the speed he gave us. We lost a lot of explosiveness in the running game simply because we didn't have great speed there. So we tried to make that up last year in the passing game; and it did, but we had the exact same numbers as the year before. It just came in the passing game instead of the running game."

"Now hopefully with Co-Eric in the mix we can increase our explosive-game production in the passing game, and with Elliot and Green and those guys and a more mature Anthony Dixon, we can begin to match or come close to the explosive running game we had with Jerious was here."

Q: With everyone signed, are there other moves that might be made with the current players for next season? "Yeah, we've already made some. I mentioned what we're going to do with Anthony. One of the things that happened with the injury to Bryson Davis last year was our pass completions to the fullback position basically evaporated. And that's a big part, it goes unnoticed until that guy is not there. A fullback has to catch the ball in our offense, it has to happen. Anthony catches the ball extremely well, he's 240 pounds and only a biscuit or two away from being 250. Now we don't want to move him to fullback totally, so in certain packages we can get the ball to him in space he will play both fullback and halfback. That's definitely going to be a factor for us. We're going to move Brandon Thornton to free safety. That's pretty much it for right now. Chris Herrera will go to defensive tackle but we'd already made that move at the end of the season, he came in as a tight end but he's a very good athlete and to give us some more depth at the tackle position we're going to move him there. Because we've got three senior tight ends coming back plus Brandon Henderson was redshirted. We can't waste Chris, so we're going to look at him in the defensive line and if that doesn't work we'll move him to the defensive line. Derek Pegues is going to free safety as well."

Q: Do you expect there will be anybody leave? "That's always the case. I figure we're going to have some of those every year, particularly after we go through spring practice and see where everybody is. When it comes scholarship renewal time after the spring I'm sure there will be some turnover in the roster, based on academics and guys looking at potential playing time going into the season."

Q: You said this is your best recruiting class. Going in did you think it had to be to get the corner turned? "No question I felt it had to be. First of all we had some key losses on defense. You start talking about those three guys in the middle, about Jeramie Johnson and David Heard, that's some big shoes to fill. We knew going into last year, really two years ago, take Jessie Bowman; we knew those guys were going to be graduating (after 2006). And there were a couple of guys in that signing class who did not return because of insufficient academic success. Jessie did and we're thrilled with the fact he was able to get here and go through spring practice. Quite often when you sign junior college players you think getting to spring practice is important; but one of the things I've learned is getting socialized, getting comfortable in the University and the mix of the football team, is just as important. Because it takes those guys time to develop friendships as part of the football team and truly be a part of the family. Sometimes I think that slows progress as much as the xs-and-os and schemes."

Q: A month ago you said it might be around now you'd assign roles to the coaching staff, have you done that? "I'm going to wait until probably the week before spring practice. There's a couple of things I want to cover, but I'm pretty close to that. I'll save that for another day."

Q: A lot of these players have versatility, was that something you wanted? "It's obvious we signed a lot of big guys who can run. It's something we like signing, guys who can play multiple positions. Safeties who might grow into linebackers, corners who if they get big and can't move as well at corner they can go play safety. Our two starting safeties right now are Derek Pegues and Keith Fitzhugh. Those guys were recruited as corners. We don't recruit safeties unless we absolutely know that guy is going to be an outstanding safety, or unless his body frame is such he can possibly grow into being a linebacker."

"We've got a guy like Mike Hunt, he's 6-2, 6-3 and weighs about 210 pounds right now. We hope he can play strong safety; if he can't we'll send him over the Cafeteria a few extra trips and get him up to 225 and move him to will linebacker. And we like doing that. Getting good-sized tight ends who if they can't play tight end can go to tackle, or defensive tackle. If we sign a linebacker at 220 and he goes to 260, he goes to defensive end; if a defensive end goes from 260 to 290 he goes to tackle."

"So yeah, we like everybody we sign unless they are a bona-fide great player at that same position we look at OK, what else can he play? We're very fortunate to get a guy like K.J. Wright, who I think is sort of a hybrid type player. We think he can be a sam linebacker, he has the height and speed and unusual change of direction and plays extremely well with his hands where he can line up and play over the tight end, stop the run and rush the passer. And his feet are good enough to cover a tight end one-on-one. Now if we wake up one morning and he weighs 265 pounds, it's easy, he's going to defensive end. That's the way we try to evaluate sitting in that room."

"I might as well get this out there, how we go through the process so everybody understands. Some schools may have a bunch of guys commit to them next week for next year. Well, that's not going to happen with us. Because the way we recruit, our area coach is going to get the film in there, he's going to take it to the position coach; the position coach is going to take it to the coordinator; when they all three sign-off on it they're going to bring it to the staff room and the entire staff look at it. And then I will make the final decision on whether we're going to offer that guy. So if we make that offer every coach on our staff has seen every one of these guys play so we know how they are going to fit on our football team and exactly how they're going to fit in our scheme. Then it doesn't matter if they've got 5-starts, 4-stars, 3-stars, we know exactly how we're going to use them. That's our process, that process will not change. Our junior prospects, we've let them know. Some of them we have already offered scholarships to because of our coaches have been in their areas for some time. We're going to be a little faster than we have in the past, but it's never going to be as fast as us sending out 300 letters and saying we've offered scholarships to 300 people we haven't seen. Never going to happen here."

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