"Then we'll have a pretty good little scrimmage Saturday," Croom said. It will be the first game-type session of camp, too, at Scott Field and closed to the public.
Today, the head coach was able to take some stock of what State has got done so far in pre-season and where the emphases have been. The tactical and technical themes have gone as hoped, building on spring's results as far as setting lineups and installing systems. And the intangible aspects? "My big concern has not changed," Croom said. "Over the next couple of weeks we've got to become a mentally tougher team.
"We're physically tough, I'm not worried about that. It's all mental. If we get that done we've got a chance to be a team. I say that because we're a better team than at this time last year. Our attitude and our work ethic is better. We've got more experience even though we don't have a lot of seniors. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football, they've played since they were freshmen, that's why we lost a lot in the past. Now we've got guys who have been around the block a couple of times and know what to expect and know how to deal with it.
"Our talent is better, we're much faster particularly on defense. We have more depth this year." And, Croom added, "I like our leadership. Guys are challenging each other on and off the field to live up to a certain standard."
So far, then, so good. Of more tangible interest is what sort of standard the Bulldogs are meeting each time a ball is snapped in drills, whether separate unit or 11-on-11. Croom had two primary position concerns coming into camp, depth at defensive end and finding a starting fullback in the two-back package. The results so far are mixed there, due to injuries in both areas of the roster. "It seems injuries are always where you least need them." Fortunately no body has been lost for the season to injury so far, though illness has kept alternate safety and top ‘nickel' candidate Demario Bobo entirely out of practices to date. Still a sizable portion of the squad has missed days and even a week with various pulls and strains, typically hamstrings and groins. Several need to be back in action in time for Saturday's scrimmage if they want to strengthen their depth-chart status.
Most media queries were on the offensive side of the ball which has struggled in this staff's first three seasons. One-week evaluations of the tentative starting lineup are encouraging across-the-board, and depth is much improved in several areas. Others are ‘top heavy' still, such as quarterback where Mike Henig is essentially unchallenged.
"Mike is having an extremely good camp," said Croom. "We need to make sure we don't his arm out, but I'm never worried about his throwing. He can throw the football as good as anybody in this conference, what I want from his is to make good decisions. In our offense we have to have a high percentage of completions." Which has been Henig's weak point so far with a 44% career average. Croom does see the junior making marked improvements there now, without forcing things, and not just from maturity but a wider variety of tools to work with.
"Because we have people now in all our backs, tight ends, wide receivers that can take a five-yard pass and take it to the house. Whoever touches the ball has the chance to take the ball the distance at any point on the field. Mike is getting better in making good decisions and I think his completion percentage is going to be a lot higher."
And the overall production as well as Henig spreads the ball among backs and ends, wide or tight alike. State's gameplan will still stress shorts throws and yards after catches, but "We probably will call more deep balls this year because of some guys we've got." The other obvious concern with Henig is durability, after two breaks to the same left collarbone last season in games one and 11. Both are entirely healed and protected by a plate, and the padding is increased. Croom even intends to let Henig go ahead and run some as he can make ground that way…as long as he is smart about it. "So we're not going to worry about him."
Coming out of spring Josh Riddell had no worries about being second quarterback. As of today Riddell would still step in if the need arose on opening night. "I would not ask him to run the entire offense right now," Croom said. "He can throw the ball, he moves well, he's good on our play-action passes. But we would not expect him to execute in the first game anywhere near what Mike is at this point." And Riddell has competition from a surprising freshman, Wes Carroll who thanks to playing in a similar system in high school has picked up State's schemes quickly to take third spot on the depth chart.
"And he's going to make an interesting battle for the second spot. It's not going to be a given Josh is the second guy." Carroll isn't the only true rookie bidding for prime-time duty. State knew Robert Elliot was a top high school halfback, but the youngster has come on faster than even hoped in just a week's work. "He's a really good talent," said Croom.
"He's got a lot to learn in this offense, but I was not aware of his work ethic. He's been the freshmen to come in since we've been here as far work ethic, it's not even close. He's finishing plays, every play is wide open. He has exceptional running skills, his pass protection skills are non-existent right now and he's got a lot to learn. But with the ball in his hands he's going to fun to watch."
That said, don't look for a freshman face to take the first handoff opening night or for that matter all season. "Anthony Dixon is the guy," Croom made clear. "He will be a lot of places, he might play some fullback but not in the sense Robert Elliot is at halfback and Anthony blocking the linebacker. The ball is going to #24. That's a given. Everything that happens in our offense goes through #7 and #24, that's where it starts."
Where it ends hinges on the folk Henig has been tossing to in drills. Tight end is the most competitive ‘settled' spot(s) on the field as Croom rates Eric Butler, Dezmond Sherrod, and Jason Husband all as starters depending on the play package. "That's a very comfortable position, they're all catching the ball well and blocking well." With more maturing redshirt Brandon Henderson will join that particular party.
"Now we've got six receivers who can play," Croom said of the rotation of Brandon McRae, Jamayel Smith, Tony Burks, Co-Eric Riley, Lance Long, and Aubrey Bell. Also, "Ryan Mason is hurt and Alex Carpenter is starting to make some moves, so that's eight guys where before we couldn't find one healthy one to compete on a SEC level." Though they haven't drawn as much attention as their ‘skill' position comrades this camp, the blocking Dogs are getting compliments from a coach who claims not to be worried about this previous problem spot. "This is the best situation we've been in. We're working twelve offensive linemen, in the past we had a hard time working five. We'll get twelve ready for our 70-man roster and that's not counting the freshmen we're planning to redshirt."
His only remaining question on offense is fullback, where converted tight end Jeremy Jones was supposedly making the move before an abdomen muscle strain. Veteran Brandon Hart has been challenged to earn the job he was supposed to step into for '07 and is putting up a better battle. Putting all that together, Croom was making some strong comments about what State can do with the ball this fourth fall.
"We haven't run our offense in three years. All we've done is manage the game for the best chance to win, in fact we've played to our defense. We've limited ourselves to what our quarterbacks and receivers could do. You saw a little bit of it last year when we started to stretch the field, we're going to do a lot more this year."
Defensively things have taken shape nicely in the back-seven spots, though there is one interesting situation to settle with no bad solution. Juco Dominic Douglas earned a starting job based on spring work, so Jamon Hughes was moved to backup middle-linebacker to make room. Yet he and current starting MLB Jamar Chaney both need to be on the field.
"The big question is do we move Chaney back out to weak-side and Hughes become the starting middle linebacker?" Croom said. Which is a good problem to have. For that matter the coach welcomes muchly-improved depth at all three slots where, he says, "Last year we didn't have but three linebackers. We've got a lot of numbers there, (freshmen ) K.J. Wright, Karlin Brown, Terrell Johnson, Jamie Jones. All those guys can run.
"But we've got to put them in the right spots, and find out who our two-deep is at all three spots. That's going to be one of the most-improved positions on the team." The addition of freshmen Zach Smith and Wade Bonner has had a similar effect on both safety spots, along with rookie cornerback Damein Anderson and transfers Jasper O'Quinn and Chris Nance.
There are more and bigger new bodies up front, but here remains the true concerns of the defensive staff. Especially at end. "As luck would have it that's the position we have the most injuries at," said Croom. Starters Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal both have cranky hamstrings though Hannibal keeps practicing. As for depth, "The two guys we really wanted a look at, Jimmie Holmes and Tim Bailey, haven't got a lot of practice. We think they'll be good at that position, I was surprised how natural Tim looked at the position. He's not as big as you like but he has some skills he can use, his leverage and quickness and toughness."
At tackles it's a similar story as freshman LaMarcus Williams strained a groin and hasn't worked much after showing initially he could factor in. Jessie Bowman and Kyle Love are currently first-team ahead of Quinton Wesley, Cortez McCraney, and Rodney Prince. "We have six guys which is more than we've ever had," said Croom. "But some days one looks like he's the guy and the next the other guys does. Nobody has locked it down and said he's going to be one of those starting tackles.
"I do like the talent and we intend to play all six of them. I sure hope I don't have to flip the coin to see who starts against LSU. But that's where we are today."
Freshmen are also showing up in special teams drills, including Eric Richards who is battling starter Adam Carlson at placekicker and should win kickoff duty outright by the weekend. The two are also taking turns punting along with starter Blake McAdams who is trying to overcome 2006 inconsistency. "Blake is punting well until he starts trying to analyze everything. When he just takes the ball and puts his foot on it he does pretty good, any more than that he'll get one of those bad balls.
"But I like the way they're hitting the ball now. And it's very encouraging seeing those guys run and our kickers kick."
Kicking will be on display at Saturday's scrimmage along with full-speed, full-team offense vs. defense if State sticks to the preseason pattern of the past three falls. Croom would like to have all position battles settled and questions answered before practices resume Monday, the last of the two-a-day dates. Injuries likely won't allow that in some areas, and good competition will keep things interesting in others.
While regular beat-reporters focused on camp developments, other media which don't attend practices asked more general questions about the season to come and state of State here in Croom's fourth year. The Bulldogs have won only three games each of those campaigns, and not posted a winning season since 2000. Still the coach said he is comfortable with the situation as it has played out to-date.
"My own personal plan was to grind it out three years and get us in a position we could compete. The fact we are in that position now, it's been worth it. But it's not been easy at all. It's never easy when you've got to go through the losing process to a point you have a chance to compete."