"Overall, Anthony Dixon had a real good spring. The thing I liked the most is the way he competed. When he competes he's capable of making a lot of things happen. He showed he has the ability to be physical. But I thought that he really improved his play-making ability in terms of running the ball, making someone miss, breaking a tackle and continuing or catching a pass out of the backfield. We think of Anthony as a physical guy, but he went 65 yards against Arkansas last year. And this spring he had some long runs, too. One thing he needs to improve on - and he got better as the spring progressed - is being a winning football player without the football, whether it be blocking, pass-protection, faking, running pass routes or other little things like that. It's important for our football team that Anthony play well. And we are expecting big things out of him.
"Probably the surprise of the spring was Christian Ducre. We went into this spring not certain if we could count on him, but he certainly improved his position at tailback. He ran hard, made good cuts with the football, didn't make many mistakes. He showed the ability to run over you or around you. He was very consistent and really practiced well."
What caused your uncertainty about Ducre?
"Last year was a big adjustment for him. We were hoping that he could come in and make an impact after transferring, but he wasn't ready to make that adjustment. After a year of getting comfortable and being in the weight room getting stronger, he seemed to settle in.
"Now, we have to wait and see how he competes during two-a-days. But right now, if we had to play today, he would probably be the second tailback to go in the ballgame.
"In the SEC you have to have three SEC type tailbacks. And that's why it's important that Christian comes back with great work ethic. Which I think he will because we have been pleased with what we've seen so far.
"The next guy on the depth chart is Justin Williams, a guy who walked on and hung in there for about four years. He's the veteran of the group. What we remember about Justin is him being in the game when we beat Alabama last year. He ran the ball hard and made some key first downs. That's really what Justin is; he's going to give you everything that he has. While he hasn't shown the ability to make the really big, big play, he's going to get the third and four, third and five, third and six; those tough type runs. He's a player who is very consistent and one that we have enough confidence in to put him in a game.
"The fourth back is Arnil Stallworth. He came on during the last week of spring. He's also a guy who is a really good third down type back that can catch the ball out of the backfield. Hopefully, he will become the type back that will make more people miss and make long runs. He's a very smart player who makes very few mistakes. He's a good solid backup who will be in the battle for playing time."
With Bryson Davis having graduated, what's the situation at fullback?
"Fullback is a question mark right now. Bryson Davis has been a starter for the past few years, but he's no longer here.
"We have three guys that got most of the snaps in the spring. Brandon Hart and Eric Hoskins got most of the snaps and both competed well. But we want them to be a lot more consistent and grade a winning player more often in their blocking. And they have to be able to catch the football. We are looking for more consistency from that standpoint.
"The guy we moved to fullback late in the spring who showed some signs that he could do those things was Jeremy Jones. He's been a tight end for us all this time, hadn't play a lot, but we always knew he had ability. We like his athletic ability and he's 6-3, 270 pounds. And he's got good hands and can adjust to a ball that is thrown to him.
"It's an opportunity for Jeremy to play. He's been behind Jason Husband, Dezmond Sherrod and Eric Butler at tight end all this time. And he would have had a hard time beating them out this year because all three are back and all three are seniors.
"It's going to be interesting to see which one of those three becomes our starter."
Is there a possibility that it could be a fullback-by-committee situation?
"Hopefully, it won't be, but it could be. We hope we have a solid starter that is a better blocker than the other two and a better pass-catcher and we can go with that one person. But I'm sure all three of them will play some role on the football team. And all three of them will need to be ready in case we call for them."
What did you see out of Jeremy once he moved to fullback in the spring?
"Jeremy gives you a guy who can come out of the backfield and catch the ball. And he's a big body. But he's got to learn a little bit more about how to get his body in the position to make a block. He's not as low to the ground as Brandon Hart and Eric Hoskins. It's going to be interesting in seeing him isolate on a linebacker with (Anthony Dixon) right behind him and make that block. I think he can. I don't think anybody has ever questioned his toughness and ability to compete. He's just got to learn to get his body in a position to make a block.
"And Jeremy's gotten more serious about the academic side. He's a lot more focused. I think he realizes it's time for him to play. This will be his fourth year at Mississippi State.
"Really, you can say the same thing about Brandon and Eric. Brandon has been waiting for his opportunity behind Bryson. And Eric is a junior college player who was redshirted last year. We liked what we saw of him during two-a-days last year. He's a good person who has a good work ethic and he's fun to coach."
We talked about your players young and old alike. What about their coach ... you? What was it like for you to be on the football field again after being away from it for so long?
"It was different because I haven't coached since 1999. I've been around football since I came back here in 2002 with Coach Sherrill, so it didn't take me long to get back in the groove. Once I figured out what Coach Croom expected, it was ok. But I think I'm going to be a much better coach in the fall than I was in the spring.
"I've really enjoyed being back on the field with the players. That's always been a good part of coaching. I'm really excited about coaching again and trying to help this program as much as I can."
Not only are you a position coach, but you are the recruiting coordinator? What are your duties as a coordinator?
"We have a lot of people involved in the recruiting aspect of it. We have Ryan Hollern and Brad Pendergrass. Of course, they are more involved in what goes on in the office, whereas a recruiting coordinator is in a position to make phone calls and write letters. And I'm able to walk into a high school and go into a home and talk to coaches, players and parents about Mississippi State.
"And being a recruiting coordinator a lot of things come across my desk that are addressed to me and that I have to deal with. And, of course, Coach Croom and I are very involved in recruiting in terms of what our needs are for the team. I also deal with the transcripts and a lot of phone calls. Then, I'm able to take that information to the assistant coaches and make sure they are aware of the player. But all of our coaches are very focused on recruiting and take responsibility of the areas they recruit. I also work with Coach Croom to determine who will recruit certain parts of the state and who will recruit the out-of-state territories. And I also organize which seven coaches are out at one time. We have ten, including Coach Croom, who can go out, but we have to organize the full weeks in April and May as to which seven will be out and when they will be out."
You mentioned that Coach Croom is heavily involved in recruiting. You were known as a very good recruiter when you were here as a head coach. How important is recruiting?
"Obviously, you have to realize that the most important part of your program is bringing in the right student-athletes. If the head coach doesn't work at recruiting, I don't know how you can be successful. And I think Coach Croom is one of our biggest selling points; the kind of person he is and the kind of football coach he is. He's the kind of coach a lot of players would really want to play for and the kind of coach a lot of parents would want their sons to play for.
"Another selling point is Mississippi State itself. It's a great university where you can get a heck of an education, but along with it is the friendliness and the feeling you get when you come to the campus. It was like that when I was a student in high school and came here and it's still that way in 2007. This place is like home away from home."
How would you say Mississippi State did when it came to recruiting the state of Mississippi last year?
"I think we had a good recruiting recruiting Mississippi. And I think it's important that we recruit well in Mississippi. You have to start at home. The successful years we've had in our program have always included Mississippi players. Going back to the 70's when I was playing, there were a lot of Mississippi players. A big part of the '74 team was Mississippi players; Richard Keys, Ray Costict, Walter Packer, Harvey Hull, Jimmy Webb. All of those are Mississippi names. The '78 team had players like Johnie Cooks, Tyrone Keys, Glen Collins and Michael Haddix. In the 80's, when I was the head coach and building a program, I remember one year all the players we signed were Mississippi players."
What has changed the most in recruiting since you were the head coach?
"You don't have as many contacts (with players) as you used to have. Back in the 80's, I saw a player play 13 Friday nights. I was at his game 13 times. Now, you can only go to that high school one time during the months of September, October and November. You don't get to know the players quite as well because you aren't able to get out and see them and find out about them. Now, you have to rely more on references from principals and high school coaches. And I think camps are even more important today than they used to be in terms of trying to get as many of the players that you are recruiting into your camp. That gives you time to spend some time with them and get to know them. That's probably more important than knowing what their forty time is and whether they can throw it or catch it."
Considering you only have 16 to 18 scholarships to give this year compared to last year when you had 25, are camps even more important this year?
"No, I think our evaluation process is still the same. We haven't had as many players commit to us early like they did last year. But it seems to be the same with all the schools. The process seems to be a little slower this year. But our process is the same. It's a staff decision. We watch player tapes as a staff. We feel our way is the best way because it's more thorough. When we offer a scholarship it means we really want you."
You grew up a Mississippi State fan and wound up being the head football coach at MSU for five years. Did you suffer a mental wound after the job was taken away? And, if so, has that wound healed?
"I was naive because I thought I would be the head coach at Mississippi State all my life. The reality of it is coaches are hired and fired. It was a big hurt when it happened and it was tough on me and my family, but I am thankful that I had that opportunity. How many guys stay five years at a school? And I am proud of the fact that I left the program in a lot better shape than it was when I got here. That was a positive.
"But for my family to be able to get away from that pressure was probably the best thing that could have happened to us at that time.
"It was a process that my wife, Susan, and I had to go through. It probably hurt her more and stayed with her longer. And, due to that hurt, at one time I had no thought of ever coming back to Mississippi. But time heals a lot of wounds. And after being away through the 90's, we were in Arkansas or Oklahoma and we would keep up with State. The reality of it was the more that time passed, the less it hurt. And as time went by, the thought was maybe I would go back. When Jackie (Sherrill) called me, a lot of thought went into it, but when I came back, I was ready to come back. And since I've been back, my only thought has been to help Mississippi State the best way I can.
"I'm thankful that I've been able to wear a lot of different hats here at Mississippi State."
This is the second installment of a ten-part interview installment with all the Mississippi State football coaches.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.