Croom Sees Progress In Saturday Scrimmage

The statistics were almost all down. And Coach Sylvester Croom could not have cared less, because his on-the-spot grading of Mississippi State's second spring scrimmage was markedly up. "Oh yeah, it was better than last scrimmage," Croom confirmed.

That evaluation came around 3:00 at the conclusion of a two-hour session held Saturday at Scott Field, and after the third week of camp. Of the two hours almost 90 minutes had the Bulldogs hitting each other with few limitations. And, interruptions. Because unlike the March 9 scrimmage Croom and the Mississippi State staff rarely found it necessary to stop the action.

There were fewer plays aborted by confusion out of the huddle or mistakes lining up, on both sides of the ball. Nor were there too many pre-snap penalties, or for that matter a lot of in-play flags tossed at all. Other than a trio of turnovers by the first-team offense, it was a satisfying afternoon according to Croom.

"Because our units look a little more cohesive now. And guys played with a better tempo, we had a little more enthusiasm about practice. That's what I'm pleased with."

The coaches were also pleased with both sides' aggressiveness, particularly the defensive teams. After giving up over 630 yards in the first scrimmage the Dog D stood up for itself more consistently, whether in full-field or red-zone situations. Not even a quarterback's bright-red jersey made him safe, as starter Mike Henig found out when he tried to chase down S Keith Fitzhugh following a goal-line fumble by HB Christian Ducre.

The #1 quarterback became fair game in the broken-field setting and was blind-sided by S Derek Pegues…on the left shoulder twice injured last fall, no less. "I wasn't worried about it," Henig grinned later. Nor was he worried by a stat-line that read 4-of-25 passing for 43 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. In the previous scrimmage he had thrown for 203 yards, completing 17-of-35 with a touchdown and no picks.

Numbers like that might have rattled Henig earlier in his career more than that lick from Pegues. Not now. First, because Henig explained some of the first-scrimmage stats were inflated by types of plays run in specific settings. "A lot of first- and second-downs," he said. And second, because a good half-dozen of his throws were on target and not caught. Croom agreed. "We had some dropped balls in there." And the coach wasn't happy with how #1 wideouts Tony Burks and Brandon McRae handled themselves before, during, and after those missed connections. Such as when Burks relaxed on a slant-pattern and let S DeMon Glanton pick Henig's throw.

McRae, who had been practicing well to-date, had a tough few opening series himself, though admittedly he was also the target for some solid shots from coverage coming across the middle. He made two grabs for 29 yards; Burks had one catch for 11 yards. "Our receivers have a lot of ability to make plays in practice," Croom said. "We kept them out there a long time today and our top two guys, Burks and McRae, didn't show a lot of mental toughness and make some plays when they got tired."

Jamayel Smith ended up the top target with three receptions and 43 yards, one of them a 11-yard snare from #2 quarterback Josh Riddell for a touchdown. The junior college transfer QB had the better line this time, 7-of-10 for 86 yards with the one score and no turnovers. "It was fun, I had a great time out there today," Riddell said. All his series were with the second offense against the backup defense, while Henig's work came in ones-on-ones almost exclusively. Croom complimented Riddells progress in three weeks of work.

"He's still learning the offense, his tempo is still too slow for me. But he can throw the football. I knew that, but he's throwing it even better than I thought. He's got very good accuracy, he has good touch and good zip on the ball when he needs to have it."

Nor did Croom worry at all about Henig's 4-of-25 afternoon, at least not as far as how or where the ball was thrown. Several of the incompletes came when, under pressure, the fourth-year junior ran through the full progression and threw something safe…or even out of bounds entirely. Henig wasn't forcing the kinds of throws as last spring, or fall for that matter. Now Croom says the quarterback has to get better handling drops and errant patterns on the other end of throws.

"But Mike has been around long enough to know that's going to happen. He made some nice throws, I just told him you make sure you do your job but you've got to put that play behind you and go on and make the next one."

For his part Henig found something to celebrate, when he led the first offense 56 yards on seven snaps to begin the scrimmage with a field-goal. Only three points, but "That's probably the first time scrimmaging since I've been here we drove down and put some points up on the first drive."

No other quarterbacks took a Saturday snap.

HB Anthony Dixon's day was almost that short. The soph carried six times for 51 yards, all in the first two ones vs. ones series, and 46 of those yards came on a single burst. After those two series Dixon got to watch his backups do the dirty work against the varsity defense. "I told Christian (Ducre) that's what I got last year," he said. "It's good to see somebody else take the load!"

Ducre had a load to carry, rushing 19 times for 100 yards and four touchdowns. Three of those scores came on series that started in the red zone. Justin Williams, the co-#2 so far with Ducre, carried 13 times for 31 tough yards and two scores, both of three-yards in distance. Arnil Stallworth also scored two TDs, with the second offense and on one-yard dives.

Yet if Ducre had some nice numbers his coach was not pleased after the soph committed two fumbles. "Ducre has a lot of ability," Croom said. " I just don't know if I can trust him at this point. He put the ball on the ground, one was after the whistle but that makes no difference, the ball came out twice today. I know right now he's not going to move up the dept chart as long as that ball is on the ground."

It was one of those fumbles that became the defense's biggest moment of the day. And for that matter sideline observers did not think it a fumble as Ducre appeared to break the plane on a short-yardage dive. But no official hands went up as the ball popped out and was plucked by CB Anthony Johnson. He took a couple of steps and heard Fitzhugh calling for a relay.

Fitzhugh soon was regretting the pitch as he started along the left sideline then zig-zagged on down the field. "I was about to die!" he admitted. "I was getting tired and saw my brother, Derek, down there and I cut back under him." Reminded that Pegues had laid out the starting quarterback so his bro could get a scrimmage score, Fitzhugh smiled again. "Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do!"

It was after that turnover-TD that the second offense got a turn in full-field work and drove 80 yards in eight plays, with Riddell completing all his three throws in the series. And Ducre showed some heart this time as he bowled over Glanton to get to the two-yard line, then vaulted the goal on the next snap.

Otherwise, though, the defense came out better this day and certainly in the remainder of the scrimmage. The next 48 snaps, by either first- or second-offenses, netted less than 130 yards. "Our defense is getting better," Croom said. "I was pleased with some of the situations we put them in, we had a couple of first-and-goals on the three, the seven, the eleven. I thought they held up for the most part pretty well."

Croom also liked aspects of special teams shown at this scrimmage, complimenting both the place-kicking of Adam Carlson and the protection. Blake McAdams had one punt blocked and was hurried on some others, though, as the 2007 protection schemes showed a few cracks. "It's new so we still expected some growing pains with that," Croom said. Pegues and Johnson fielded the punts and returned just a few yards as this was not run full-speed. Kickoffs were not practiced.

Unlike normal spring practices, every player reported to the scrimmage wearing numbers on their jerseys. Except for the injured Dogs in red-cross shirts, that is. There were plenty of these including TE Eric Butler (toe), WR Ryan Mason (hamstring), OG Anthony Dunning (kidney), WR Alex Carpenter (leg), DE Brandon Cooper (leg), WR Joey Sanders (knee), and S Brandon Thornton (shoulder). Also, Croom said LB Anthony Littlejohn (ankle tendon) and OG J. C. Brignone (shoulder) had minor operations this past week. "They should be OK," he said.

There were no noticeable changes to the depth chart from this past week's practicing other than for injuries. Both offensive lines had to adapt to circumstances, such as the pulled abdomen of first LG Anthony Strauder. He practiced a series or two then retired with Michael Gates taking over. Croom also took looks at backup centers, letting starter Royce Blackledge have a short day. Johnny Carpenter became the number-one snapper with either Chris Spencer or John McMillan on the second unit. J.D. Hamilton worked exclusively at guard all scrimmage with Mike Brown and Craig Jenkins the first tackles and Mark Melichar and Roland Terry the #2s.

On the defensive front, converted DE Charles Burns was a first-team tackle with Jessie Bowman, while Quinton Wesley and Kyle Love were seconds. Wesley ended up tying Pegues for most tackles today at five apiece. Starting DEs Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal each were credited with a ‘sack' though actually dropping the quarterback was not allowed.

Unless it was on a broken play, of course. And while Croom didn't enjoy seeing his starting triggerman plowed-under on the turnover return he enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm displayed this far into camp. "I just wanted to see us keep getting better, that's all I wanted," he said. And, Croom added, to see it on the big field. The field the Bulldogs will be playing on for-real come August 30.

"It's amazing, even though there's no people in the stadium just coming from that field to this stadium changes everything in the way some guys perform. That's why I like to practice here, I like to get coaches out of the way and just let them play. Because that's the way the game is going to be played, and you can start to tell a lot about them."

State returns to the practice fields for workouts next Tuesday and Thursday, and wraps up spring next Saturday with the Maroon-White scrimmage at Scott Field.

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