Croom Completes 2007 Staff, Assigns Roles

Coach Sylvester Croom addressed the question before it could even be asked. "I can't yet give you final staff changes because some things have to go through the process," he told print media members gathered at the Bryan Building to discuss the start of spring practices at Mississippi State. Five hours later, though, the coach could and did give the formal word about his 2007 staff.

Croom confirmed that Rockey Felker is being promoted from director of operations to running backs coach and recruiting coordinator; and that Dave Turner has been hired as defensive line coach.

Felker, who has been with Croom's staff all three years as well as former MSU head coach (1986-90), will take over the position held in 2006 by Shane Beamer, who last week took a job at South Carolina. Turner, who comes to State after a season with defensive ends at Alabama, steps into the job vacated only Wednesday when Brick Haley accepted a position with the Chicago Bears.

Announcement had to be delayed until State received tentative approval from the state college board, which will have to grant final approval at their next meeting in March.

Filling the vacancies also allowed Croom to make public at last what the specific responsibilities will be for the entire staff, which already had seen two off-season changes. In January Charlie Harbison and Pat Washington were hired to replace the released Amos Jones and Guy Holliday. No position-roles were announced at the time. Today Croom formalized the situation with Harbison taking charge of defensive safeties and Washington the wide receivers.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson now has all three linebacker positions; offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Woody McCorvey retains charge of quarterbacks; Melvin Smith remains with cornerbacks; and Reed Stringer keeps tight ends but also assumes primary responsibility for special teams. Brad Pendergrass shifts from assistant to the head coach to coordinator of operations, and Ryan Hollern continues as coordinator of recruiting operations.

It's been a hectic off-season for State's staff, but with practices set to start next Monday Croom is confident. "Everything is totally in-place," he said. And as to the players and plans for camp, he was able to provide more specific answers at the time.

Q: On Brick Haley leaving: "I've got mixed emotions about it. I'm excited for him to have a chance to be with one of the best franchises in professional sports. Of course they've just come off a Super Bowl and probably will be a perennial playoff team the next few years. As well as the job satisfaction of working at that level. From a financial standpoint the salaries are good at that level but the playoff money is what really gets coaches over the hump at that level. The other thing, the franchise has good ownership and excellent management. Then you've got a chance to win. It's also good working there because Jerry (Angelo) is a very good guy and knows what he's doing from a talent standpoint, and has an excellent relationship with his coaching staff. And Lovie Smith is a good man, what he's done since he's been there is going to continue. When I went into the league we went to a bad franchise and perennial loser and it didn't get much better because management was not the best in the world at that time. Brick is getting in a very good situation."

"We'll miss him, he's an excellent football coach, an excellent recruiter. The combination of the two is hard to find. And he's very good here in the community and with our players, he did a lot of things for me with the players and took care of a lot of situations that prevented me from having to deal with. He will be missed. But at the same time we're happy we've got another one of our family at that level and it will be a positive for our players as they move to the next level, having somebody up there who knows them as people and as players. Particularly our guys who will go into the league as lower-round draft choices, a valuable source of information not only for the Bears but other people in the league that contact him to ask about our players. So that's always a plus for our program."

Q: You won't have any more people leaving? (laughing) "I tell you what, the way it's been here lately it's amazing. That's been one of the tough things for me. Particularly when hire young coaches like Stan Drayton, Freddie Kitchens, Shane Beamer, you know they're going to leave. You hire them when they are young and inexperienced and by the time they get where you feel they're really strong coaches it's time for them to go move up, other people tap them. You understand it, but it is disappointing. The tough thing for us is we've got some running backs who have had a different coach every year they've been here. The only thing that's good, that's one reason I'm very involved at that position so we can keep some stability there and make sure they're teaching the same things and doing the same drills. That's one thing I do require, so that's kept some continuity. But every coach's personality and teaching methods are going to be different, so those guys will have to make an adjustment again."

"But one thing we've been blessed with, and I say blessed, the timing has allowed us—not to take anything away from the guys who have left—but to get good coaches. To get Charlie Harbison in here, in an ordinary situation you don't get that guy. The timing was perfect, any other time we don't get a coach like that. And the coach we're going to hire to replace Brick, that position is one of the hardest to find, in the defensive line. Just like players, defensive line coaches are hard to find. This guy being out there at this time is highly unusual, so unusual I'd forgotten about him because I just assumed he had a job. But if he's approved we're very fortunate to get guys like that. When it's all said and done, we're disappointed with the guys we've lost but we're going to have a strong football staff in place, from a coaching and recruiting standpoint."

Q: How have off-season workouts gone? "I think they've gone very well. I think Ben Pollard has done an excellent job there. We had a 5:45 workout Tuesday and Thursday and I think we're definitely ahead of where we were last year."

"I think we're stronger, we've done more of the explosive lifting and movements and guys are definitely getting stronger. I think the attitude is positive and that's the biggest thing you like to see this year, is a real positive attitude."

"Our emphasis is on one play, one day at a time. We've got to find those four plays that cost us those four games we lost by a field goal. Make one play in those games and win the game. The way to do that is to focus on every play, play every play like it's the game. That's what our focus is this spring, is attention to detail and play every play like it's the ball game."

"Going into the spring we pretty much have a two-deep at every position with guys who have a legitimate chance to play. So we'll have more competition this spring that we've had. That's exciting. Then of course we're also looking forward to breaking in those new guys when we start fall practices in August."

Q: How is Mike Henig? "Mike is at about 196 pounds right now. He definitely has a stronger upper-body. Now the thing that's impressing me is he's moving very well, he looks a lot quicker than what I saw last year. But the surprising thing was going back and looking at our cut-ups the other day, he ran the ball last year a lot better than I thought he did. I always worried about him running, getting injured, we were very cautious on some of the things we had in. When Omarr Conner went out we took them away from Mike, but he did it anyway a couple of times. We won't be as cautious with him running the football as we were, after the injury we got scared but the thing is his injuries came on drop-back passes. So we aren't going to worry about him running, we're going to let him run."

Q: Where do you see the most competition? "We're going to have real good competition in the offensive line again, we're two-deep in the line. We're going to have good competition at wide receiver. I don't know if there is any one position but the biggest battle is going to be settling on who is going to start at right tackle, and who is going to be our starting right guard. I think that's going to be interesting. Then eventually who is going to be our starting corners."

Q: Have there been any more position changes? "Nothing since the last time we talked. Derek Pegues is at free safety, Keith Fitzhugh will play strong. And we're moving Brandon Thornton to strong. Keon Humphries will go to corner. Marcus Washington is on the right, Tay Bowser is right, Keon is on the left with Anthony Johnson. Demario Bobo will move back to free safety right now. Anthony Summers is at free. Then we'll see how all that shakes out. Bobo will be one of those guys we probably have to play safety and corner."

Q: How is Tray Rutland's knee? "He's moving around pretty well. He's not 100%, he'll be fine to practice because those guys don't get hit. But he's wearing a brace still, one of those braces the offensive linemen wear just for a precautionary measure. But he's a lot better than I'd anticipated by this time."

Q: What are the challenges for Josh Riddell? "The biggest thing is learning the offense. Because we don't do a whole lot during the off-season studying and teaching, it's against the rules. So he's getting caught up on two things, he's got to learn to work under-center because he was in the shotgun a lot, and he's got to learn the system. He's got to learn the player's names, for a quarterback that's as much as anything else knowing who he's talking to!"

Q: With Tray not full-speed how much does it help Henig having Riddell to push him? "It's a lot, that's the reason we signed him. My big concerns were two things: Tray's injury and a lack of competition at the position. We want competition at every position. Mike is our quarterback, but he's got to get it done. And I don't have any doubt he will but I want competition like that. That's the thing, that those guys know if they don't perform somebody else is going to play instead."

Q: Will anybody be limited in practice? "Right now Eric Butler probably won't get very much work. He's the only one. He has that injured toe, we could have gotten him through spring but I'd get tired watching him limping and frowning around! So we'll go ahead and get him well so he won't be limping in drill work this summer. Dezmond Sherrod will play tight end, he won't play fullback. Dezmond blocks to well there, he's a tremendous blocker. Those last six games of the season he played extremely well. So he goes into spring our starting tight end, and we'll go from there. At fullback we'll have Brandon Hart and a couple of walk-on kids. And Anthony Dixon will work there some too, we've got some packages where he'll play fullback."

Q: Where is Jessie Bowman practicing at? "Bowman is going to play at tackle right now. That's going to be a critical deal, our inside guys have got to step up. Bowman has got to step up, Kyle Love, Quinton Wesley. Right now Quinton is a little overweight, I'm a little disappointed he's not where I want him to be. We're not playing of course but I expected him to be in a lot better shape than he is right now. In the whole off-season program he's my biggest disappointment, he's got to pick it up. I think everybody else is on-schedule, some of our big guys are a little heavy but that's understandable and they're gradually losing their two pounds a week. Quinton has not done as well as some of the other guys have."

Q: Will there be any adjustments to linebacker spots? "We're going to put Jamar Chaney in the middle, Jamon Hughes and Anthony Littlejohn will be at the weak-outside, then Gabe O'Neal and Dominic Douglass will be the two scholarship guys at the strong side. That's a unique situation because this is the first time since Gabe was a freshman that he's going to have real competition. That's going to make him a better player, and Dominic a better player as well. Then what's going to really pick it up is when those freshmen get here this fall. Put K.J. Wright in there, throw Jamie Jones in the mix, Karlin Brown, Terrell Johnson, it's going to be interesting. We've gone from one of our weakest positions from a talent and numbers standpoint, as far as guys being competitive, it should be in the course of one year a whole lot stronger. And no question it should transition to our special teams being a lot better, just because you've got more size and speed with that linebacker group."

Q: What kind of job has Coach Pollard done? "I'm very pleased. Because the players have bought into what he is doing and the way he does it. He is very demanding but his style is more of a NFL-type style as far as coaching guys. He's low-key in his personality but very exact in what he wants. And that's one of our big emphases. It's something I've done every year but really emphasized this year."

"We've got good players who are good people, I really believe that. But at the same time I see some of the NFL/ESPN stuff creeping into college football. It's not going to happen here. When we go on the practice field there's always going to be difference of opinion, but if a coach and a player have a difference and have to converse about something I want it done in the office or somewhere off the field. But on the field, when our coaches say jump I want our players to want to know how high. That's the way we're going to operate. All that discussion and opinions, I could care less what a player thinks about a scheme or technique we use; either do it our way or he's not going to be out there. Now if he wants to express his opinion then come in my office, but if we're working that's the way I want it done. And that's the way Ben operates, and that's the way all our coaches are going to operate. And that's the way I expect our players to operate. We're not going to waste a minute of teaching time on the field having debates about philosophies and techniques. I've seen some of that creeping into college football, some of that stuff on the sideline in the NFL, guys getting up in coaches. Hey, forget all those discussions; if you don't like the way we do things go somewhere else."

Q: What are you advising your signees who are selected for all-star games to do? "One thing, I want the linemen to make sure they wear knee braces. Beyond that I have left it totally up to the players as to whether they participate. I've had some guys in the coaches association ask me about it; I think I've been accused of telling our guys not to play. That is not true, I've left it strictly up to them. But I will go on-record saying I'm not excited at all about the game being played when they play it. It's totally illogical to play a game at that point of the year. I love the fact of us playing Alabama, I want us to win without question. But we've got all these rules about so many days and doing all this stuff before practicing, and all of a sudden we're going to up and play a game in May and these guys haven't practiced. You can say they get ready, that little practice they do for that game is not legitimate work, no way. Most of them haven't played football since December and all of a sudden you're going to go out and play pads? That's totally illogical. I'm all for the game, but I'd like to see it played in December and early January, now if you have an injury you've got a chance. If a guy gets hurt in that game (in May) he's finished, he's not going to play his freshman year. Plus, he is at bigger risk of getting hurt. But again I'm leaving it up to the players. All we're going to ask our guys if they do play we want them to wear knee braces."

Q: Is this your first spring you've started practice with the offense ahead of the defense? "Yeah. On paper. We'd better be ahead on offense, or it's going to be miserable for somebody around here this spring! The biggest thing, offensively last year we were like two different teams. It's amazing. You can see Anthony Dixon in the first game, he looked like he was still back at Terry High School. Then you see the last half of the season his steps are different, the way he runs is totally different. The same thing with Anthony Strauder, Mike, all those guys. Even the players have talked about how different Mike was in the huddle the West Virginia game as opposed to the South Carolina game."

"We're still talking about young guys. So young in fact just about the entire offense will be back for another year. We probably won't have at the most four to five positions where a senior will actually start, and probably by mid-season we may not have but four starting. Then with a bunch of freshmen we're possibly redshirting, you have a chance now to start to have some depth and some continuity. And when you do put players out there for SEC football they're mature players ready to compete at this level."

"Jeremy Jones has done very well in the off-season program, we're looking forward to him getting back in the mix. We've got some guys like Jeremy, Aubrey Bell, we're hoping Jamayel Smith picks up where he left off, a walk-on like Justin Williams, Brandon McRae who was redshirted, Kyle Love, Jamon Hughes… A lot of guys who have shown potential have got to become winning football players. We have guys we feel good about potentially, but they haven't shown they can win every time we go out there. We've got to get the consistency of doing it right all the time. If we get that, we've got a chance at some point to develop into a pretty good football team."

"My feeling is if we were close enough, one play away from winning four games which would have put us in a decent bowl game with the youth an inexperience we had, then if we play up to our ability this year we'll be a lot more solid team going into the season. You just feel like now you've got a chance. We've got a ways to go but you feel you've got a chance."

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