That's another strong statement considering that State's August 30 opening-night foe is a consensus top-five pick in preseason polls. Still going into his fourth Bulldog season the coach believes Mississippi State is in better position to compete with the league's elite. "I feel good about the attitude, I feel good we can compete with the ability, I feel good top-to-bottom about our schemes. But again the most important thing is our players believe in themselves now."
And, Croom added, "Our goals were get our attitude right, get our thinking right, and improve our talent. I think we're at a point now that the improvement in those areas allows us a chance to compete."
If any in the crowd thought otherwise they stayed politely quiet during Croom's speech; all others were willing to hear the coach say things similar to his comments exactly a year ago in the same venue. Certainly the responses and applause were typical for the event, which marks the unofficial start to every MSU football season and sports year, if for no other reason that Bulldogs fans want to be optimistic and Croom was giving them reasons for it.
Both to press and to public he cited progress in key areas of overall talent and depth, along awareness of and comfort in the systems. Based on spring practices and reports from the strength staff the '07 roster is definitely better in ‘explosiveness' on both sides of the ball. "Last year we had a little," Croom told reporters. "This year any of our skill people in the offense and secondary can take an average play and make it a big play." The offensive line is very much improved and two-deep across, while the secondary has twice the bodies to work with this year.
And of course quarterback Mike Henig is healthy and seasoned. Yes, Croom brought in juco Josh Riddell over last winter to compete with the veteran, but there is no controversy going into fall camp. "Mike Henig is the quarterback without a doubt. He's it, he's the guy. We can put that to rest now." At the same time Croom said Riddell can play if needed; more than that, he will play even if not in a pinch. "If something happened early we'd limit what we ask him to do, but we have every intention if Josh is ready to use both of them."
The same theme holds for many if not all positions, in fact. While the two-deep coming out of spring looked reasonably solid, Croom isn't holding back anything or anybody this time around. He says everybody is "fighting to get on the bus"; that is, to make the dress out list for the first game.
"We're in a little different situation this year. Everybody that is good enough to play will play. We're going to play a lot more people this year, so everybody is getting ready to play. I tell them to be aware of where they are on the depth chart, to get increased playing time you have to get better, but you're really competing with yourselves."
The competition includes true freshmen, 17 of which are on campus already for July summer school. Though Croom does intend to redshirt new offensive linemen—"A couple of them have the ability but we're not going to play them"—other rookies get fair shots at jobs. Such as in the secondary where rookies Wade Bonner and Zach Smith will open as reserve safeties and bid for special teams duties. That's also because the current safeties are junior classmates and it's time to develop their replacements now.
Croom does have a couple of pre-camp worries. "My concern is defensive ends, we've got two guys; and depth and who our starter is gong to be at fullback." There too some rookies could factor in, like frosh fullback Ethan Stockett. And more freshmen will be practiced for work in kick coverage and protection, both sore points of '06.
Three other freshmen either have or will qualify for the fall semester, though not soon enough for July arrival. Croom said QB Chris Relf was caught by a paperwork issue with the NCAA's Clearinghouse. "We're 99.9% sure he's cleared, we anticipate he'll be here August 1." A couple of others, LB Maurice Crutison and OL Colton Jenkins, will attend junior college this fall despite being eligible to come to State now. They and perhaps one more signee plan to report in January and not lose a redshirt year.
"The guys who came from junior college have made the transition better than any junior college players we've had. I'm really pleased with their work ethic, class attendance. And I'm pleased with the information we're getting on our freshmen. So I'm pleased with how this last signing class turned out."
Croom confirmed that soph offensive guard Anthony Dunning, sidelined in spring by recurrence of an old kidney condition, will be on medical scholarship this year and probably has ended his football career. "Other than that we have nothing serious we're worried about. (DB) Jasper O'Quinn had surgery for a little tendonitis but he's working with the rest of the guys. Right now we're as healthy as we've been in a while. The fortunate thing is we have more depth at a lot of positions, but there are certain key guys like Mike Henig, Titus Brown, Anthony Dixon, if anything happens to those guys somebody has really got to step up big-time. And I think we're going to develop some depth at those spots as we go along."
With less than two weeks left before the reporting date of July 31, practically the entire squad is already on campus and working out. Croom gets regular reports from the strength coach, as well as the team's academic monitors and head trainer, about the states of body and mind. Yet as he spoke to reporters it was the spirit that matters most at this point in the building process.
"The first thing I'm interested in is the attitude, because I know we have enough athletic ability in our program now to compete with the better teams in the conference. I'm not saying we're as good yet, but we're way ahead of where we were and even farther along than last year as far as going into a big-time SEC game and feeling you have an even chance of winning. Where in the past in those games we had to play perfect ball—which rarely occurs—and the other team probably play their worst game to give us a chance."
Now Croom believes the Bulldogs can create their own chances to succeed. Yes, he spoke in such optimistic terms a year ago only to have State endure a 3-9 season, 1-7 SEC. "I might have probably expected too much out our team last year. I was looking at what could be, but realistically the lack of experience on offense really hurt us early in the season. I mean it really hurt.
"But that's just the way I am, I always have high expectations and I have the same high expectations this year. If we hadn't had those expectations we probably wouldn't have got in position to lose four games by a field goal. So, we're going to approach it the same this year, we've got lofty expectations."
EXTRAVAGANZA NOTES: Croom came to Jackson sporting more than his usual facial hair, having added a chin beard to his mustache. "It's usually a vacation style, but I think I'll keep it this year, especially after my barber trimmed it up!" And the head coach had been on a vacation in early July.
"I went up to Green Bay for a couple of days, then over to Detroit. It's great weather there this time of year and really relaxing. It was a chance to see some people and hang out at the mall. I didn't really buy much this time, but my wife bought a few items, I'll give her that. But mostly it gave us a chance to relax and spend some time together."
*One Bulldog senior, OG/T J.D. Hamilton, did not make the trip to Jackson due to the Wednesday death of his father.
*Before the coaches, athletics director Larry Templeton spoke to the crowd. Among the items mentioned were groundbreaking for the Academic Center which will take the place of the former two-level parking lot outside the Shira Complex. Templeton said it will be 37,000 square feet, or the same size as the current Bryan Building administrative office center.
Templeton also reported that season ticket sales are "ahead of schedule" without giving a figure. And, he told the crowd that with State opening the season on ESPN, on campus, and on a Thursday night, the cable network will air part of their three-hour ‘Countdown to Kickoff' program the preceding Wednesday from the MSU campus. The broadcast crew will be live from Scott Field for a half-hour.
*In a non-football note, Templeton said that Mississippi State had bid $68,000 to host the super regional baseball tournament at Dudy Noble Field in June. Tomorrow, he leaves for a meeting of the NCAA baseball committee which he currently chairs. "I'll be taking a check for $175,000," he said. "That's more than twice what any other regional made."