"I liked the way things have worked out," Croom said Thursday. "It's given our guys a chance to focus on academics, and the bulk of our off-season program is after practice now. And, it gives our coaches a chance to wind down and square some things away before starting the next recruiting cycle."
Judging by this site's recruiting reporters the Mississippi State is well into that cycle already, with a couple of public commitments from youngsters who will put names on scholarship papers next February. With the 15 practice dates done Bulldog coaches have been able to accelerate their own efforts in evaluating and contacting potential talent for 2008 and beyond. The staff is also able to get more done towards the series of camps upcoming.
At the same time Croom has enjoyed more time than usual at this page of the calendar to review what the current Bulldogs did in March. The first concern is always team health, of course, and here Croom is very pleased. "We came out with no major injuries," he confirmed. Only two Dogs needed repair work done during camp and both—LB Anthony Littlejohn (ankle) and OG J. C. Brignone (shoulder)—will be up to summer speed. Those players who missed most or all of camp with other situations, such as TE Eric Butler (toe surgery) and WR Joey Sanders (knee), also should be ready for the next semester. However, OG Anthony Dunning's kidney condition leaves him in less-certain status.
Lesser ailments weren't supposed to interfere with varsity players as they prepare to be tested for strength and condition by Coach Ben Pollard before taking a short summer break. Those tests will be run before the other, classroom variety of exams for Bulldog athletes who intend to stay on a degree track as well as maintain fall semester eligibility.
Otherwise, "I thought we got better over the course of spring," Croom said. "Our two-deep is pretty much intact, we've identified some guys who can help us. Some of our redshirted players have stepped up and they'll be expected to fill some backup roles." Ten scholarship Dogs did sit out 2006, including a couple of college transfers. As of now there are 43 lettermen on the 2007 roster with the departures of QB Tray Rutland, QB Ty Evans, and S Brandon Thornton. Rutland has already left State while Evans and Thornton will finish out the semester so as to transfer eligible to be on scholarship elsewhere.
So far those are the only departures, Croom said Thursday. "Nobody (else) has approached me yet, but hey, change is one inevitable thing of life!"
Change was also a theme at several lineup positions this year, most notably on the defensive line where a couple of ends, Charles Burns and Cortez McCraney, turned tackles; and in the secondary with two-year cornerback Derek Pegues now a free safety. In fact the post-spring depth chart at both safetys showed changes from free to strong and vice-versa, as well as the presence of Demario Bobo as the ‘cat' safety or what most call the nickel defensive back. A pair of former wide receivers, Tay Bowser and Keon Humphries, ended camp as the top backups on separate corners, though that competition will heat up further when a couple of juco defensive backs arrive.
For that matter, a trio of mid-year arrivals have already made their presence known. "All in all the junior college players did very well and established they are definitely make contributions this fall," said Croom, reviewing what QB Josh Riddell, LB Dominic Douglas, and DT Jessie Bowman did in their first weeks of big-college practicing. For now all three are on the second team, though Bowman is expected ultimately to start in the middle of a rebuilt defensive line.
But naturally Riddell, the shotgun-style passer from California, got the most attention. His presence gave veteran Mike Henig needed competition for his own improvement, as well as showed Evans and Rutland how the land lays now on this particular depth chart. A couple of weeks watching the tapes confirmed what the offensive coaches thought the day camp ended.
"I think both quarterbacks did very well," Croom said. "Josh I thought made a lot of improvement for the first to the second scrimmage. I feel very confident we're going to be OK with him in backup capacity. We still end spring with Mike our starting quarterback, he didn't do anything to hurt himself and I only expect him to get better. But after the experience last year, for the first time I feel good we've got a solid guy behind him that gives us insurance in case something happens."
And speaking of solid backups, Croom is satisfied with the complete first and second lineups that emerged from March. There are some lingering questions to settle in August, particularly how the rotation at offensive right tackle and guard will develop. And competition for a place in the top five or six wide receivers should be intense. The difference this spring is State has experienced, or redshirted, bodies to put into all those positions and raw rookies shouldn't have to be thrown into action before their time in 2007.
"Unlike the past we leave spring knowing who our two-deep will be in our opening game. We're still a very young football team, if we played today only four seniors would be starting; maybe five. But that's a positive for us, even though they're young all of them played in SEC games."
As that team gets older through 2007 the Mississippi State is already lining up younger personnel for the future. Bulldog coaches are spending considerable time this spring scouring the junior college ranks again, but Croom cautions that this doesn't signal a whole-sale shift in recruiting priority. If anything, he said, look for State to become more selective in such signings and completely clear in how those signees will be used…or not. The goal is getting as many like Riddell, Douglas, Bowman, etc., players who can enroll for January and go through spring work with the varsity.
The rest, those who can't come until August, are more likely to end up redshirting or perhaps delaying enrollment to January themselves. "I know it's almost to the point in the future if they can't get in at the semester it's going to have to be a unique situation for us to take them," Croom said. "Because we've found it takes a full semester or more to become assimilated, not just the football but the university aspect. The social hinders the football more. You sign a junior college players because you want experience and maturity; if they don't get here until fall they're no different than a freshman. They're just as lost as a freshman."
This doesn't mean all freshmen will wander around practice their first fall on scout teams. State thinks a few of the 2007 high schoolers inked in February will not only suit up for the opening game but play SEC ball, such as at running back or on kicking plays. Still the staff can be confident most raw rookie won't be pressed into immediate action out of sheer necessity, as has been the case the past five or six seasons at State. It's another sign that the Bulldogs are that much closer to the sort of squad Croom has been building for.
"We have a lot of optimism we'll be able to compete on a higher level this year," he said.