"Yesterday was our first day of two-a-days and it went about like I expected it would due to the extremely hot conditions. I was looking forward to seeing how we would respond. And we didn't respond very well. We went back out this morning in pads and it was a much better practice.
"The reason I opened with (that comment) is the next couple of weeks we have to become a mentally tougher football team. We are physically tough; I'm not worried about that. We had an excellent practice yesterday inside. If everything is perfectly nice we won't be a bad football team, but that's not the way things operate. You have to handle adverse situations. You have to play in the heat and play with pain. That's all mental and that's what we are trying to get our players to learn. We get that done and we have a chance to be a (good) team. I say that because we are a better team now than we were at this time last year. How good, I don't know. But I think sometime during the season we will be a good team.
"Our attitude is a lot better. There is no question about that. We are a lot closer as a football team. I think our work ethic is better. Guys are going about things the right way. I think they have taken more accountability about whatever happens to this football team, more than we have at anytime during the past.
"Our leadership is better. We have more experience. Even though we still don't have a lot of seniors that are starters, we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football, a bunch of them having played a lot of football since they were freshmen. That's why we lost a lot in the past. Now, we have guys that are experienced and know what to expect and how to deal with it.
"Our talent is better and we are a much faster football team than we have been. We can run, particularly on defense. Being able to run will not only help us as far as being a better defensive football team, but it will play a tremendous part in us being better on special teams. That is a critical area for us this year. We have to get better there.
"Overall, our depth is much better this year. But the position that I was expressively concerned about going into training camp was the depth at defensive end. And, of course, as luck would have it, that is the position where we have the most injuries. Right now, Titus (Brown) is not practicing due to a nagging hamstring injury. Avery (Hannibal) has had a hamstring injury but is still practicing. But the two guys that we really wanted to get a good look at were Jimmie Holmes and Tim Bailey, but they've had some injuries and haven't gotten a lot of practice. We think they can be good players at that position. Tim got a little work yesterday and I told him how natural he looked playing the position. He's not as big at that position that you would like, but he has that attitude where he doesn't worry about what he doesn't have. He has some skills that you can use; his leverage, speed and quickness. I think he is going to be one of those lunch bucket kind of guys. He will bring his lunch every day and will work from start to finish. And whomever he is playing against will have their hands full for the entire day.
"I think our kick coverage will be better. We started working on kickoff coverage this morning and we've been working on punt coverages, testing some guys out. That's where I saw that our freshmen linebackers can really run. How much they will play at linebacker, I don't know. But there is a strong chance that they will be playing on special teams. Our kickers are kicking the ball well. I haven't seen (true freshman) Eric Richards kick off yet because we haven't had him kick off yet, but he has an extremely strong leg. He and Adam (Carlson) are kicking the ball well. And Blake (McAdams) is punting the ball well until he starts trying to analyse everything. When he takes the ball, put his hand on it and kicks it he does pretty good. When he tries to do any more than that, then he, every now and then, kicks one of those bad balls. We just have to get him more consistent."
Based on what has been said by people that I've talked to, your team appears to be in much better shape and stronger. Do you agree with what? If so, why?
"I totally agree with it. I agree with it because I think (new strength coach) Ben (Pollard) has motivated them in a different manner. They have totally bought into his program. I think his approach is a little different. He's asked more of them. And I think he has gotten the attention of some of the guys who pretty much were just going through the motions, but weren't doing the extra things. I think that is the different. It is one thing to be where you are supposed to be and doing what the program says to do rather than being totally committed and enthusiastic about it. I think that is the difference."
Has your original gameplan changed any?
"No, in fact, we are right on schedule. Everything that we have done has been thought out. Of course, you always make adjustments. I had a long range plan in mind and it is pretty much right on schedule. We've had some tough breaks on the way, but we have had some good fortune. We had good fortune getting a guy like Brandon McRae walking on. He's going to be an excellent receiver. We've had some bad fortune with injuries. You take a guy like (Demario) Bobo. He's got mono and will probably be out for a full three weeks. He's had some bad luck over three years.
"We've lost some kids to disciplinary action over the years. That's part of it. I know that. Those things are part of the process. We wanted to establish a solid foundation. And we've attracted some solid kids. As for our freshman class, you always say that you don't how good they will be until they get to be seniors; well, if these guys stay in school and do what they are supposed to do, I have no question that this freshman class is going to be an outstanding group."
What's your thoughts about Derek Pegues earning pre-season honors?
"Pre-season honors are nice because it says that people are watching you. But none of that stuff matters until the end. And that is the way I want to approach the season. We are going to take it one week at a time, one game at a time, one practice at a time. Then, at the end of the season, that's when it matters. Then, if you make All-SEC or All-American, that's when it counts. All of this stuff before the season, it's nice, good to write about it. But we haven't even discussed it. Normally, in the post-season, when we get an honor we will acknowledge it in a meeting. We don't acknowledge pre-season picks. We don't even talk about them."
Talk about the progress of Michael Henig.
"Mike is having an extremely good training camp. His legs are a little sore. And a big thing I'm watching is making sure we aren't wearing his arm out. He makes some extremely sharp decisions. With Mike, I never worry about his throwing. I've told him that, really since his sophomore year. He can throw the football as good as anybody in this conference. What I want from him is to make good decisions. In our offense we have to have a high percentage of completions. Say, if they blitz us, I don't care if it's a one-yard pass, because we have people right now; tight ends, wide receivers, backs, they can take a one-yard pass and take it to the house. Because of our speed at all positions on the offense, whoever gets the football has the speed to take the ball the distance at any point on the field. In our offense we don't call for a lot of deep balls, but we probably will this year because of some guys that we have. But the potential is to take the opportunity to make a big play when the defense allows you to. And when that opportunity comes about you have to make the play. And Mike is doing a lot better as far as making those good decisions. And I think his pass completion is going to be a lot higher this year. Throwing to our backs and tight ends more as second and third options is going to be a key to us in our passing game this year."
How comfortable are you with this team?
"This is the first time I've been comfortable since I've been here because it has not being a comfortable, enjoyable experience. I knew that, though, when I came. I knew what I was getting into when I came. My own personal plan was to grind it out for three years and get us in a position where we could compete. The fact that we are in that position, from my standpoint, has made it worth it. But it was not easy at all, the process was not easy. It's never easy when you have to go through the losing process, learning how to win, learning how to build a program to a point where you have a chance to compete. For two years, we couldn't even get a receiver. We couldn't even get a guy to come into this program. Even last year, we struggled early until Tony (Burks) and Jamayel (Smith) started to make some plays. Now, we have six receivers that can play. And (Ryan) Mason is hurt and Alex Carpenter is starting to make some plays. That's eight guys that we have now. Things like that excite you and give you a chance."
Talk about true freshman running back Robert Elliott, his ability and his potential.
"We knew Robert Elliott was a good football player, but he's a really good football player, a really good talent. But what has impressed me most about Robert Elliott, other than his running skills which was obvious on film, is the kind of work ethic that he has. His momma did a real good job of teaching him to work. He's been the best freshman to come into our program since we've been here as far as work ethic. He works like Jerious (Norwood) once Jerious learned how to do things. Every play he runs wide open. He was a little sore out there this morning. He's got to learn about being a little more mentally tough, because it's starting to wear on him a little bit now.
"But he's got a lot to learn about our offense. And he hasn't been involved in the passing game. His pass-protection skills are non-existent at this time, and he's got to get better at that. But when the ball is in his hands, he's going to be fun to watch."
What was Tony Burks problem last year? Was it the quarterbacks or something else?
"It wasn't the quarterbacks. Tony's problem last year was a combination of poor condition and a lack of mental toughness. He made a lot of mental mistakes. He had five missed assignments in the first quarter against LSU. I challenged him on that. I told him that he had to get in shape. If he was going to miss assignments, he was not going to be the starter this year.
"He's accepted the challenge and is in far better condition than he was last year. We often had to run him on a pattern and take him out of the game for two or three plays. It was to the point where we had him checked out because I thought there was some physical problems. I had never had a receiver like that. I'm used to receivers going out there and practicing the entire practices. Receivers in our offense have to be the energizer bunny. They have to be the best conditioned guys on the field. That was a large part of the reason why Tony ended up number two on the depth chart this spring. But he made up his mind he was going to come back in great shape. So, he got with Ben (Pollard) and it is unbelievable how much better condition he is in right now. He made a lot of plays this morning.
"One of the things that I have found is that it is tough for junior college players to make the transition from junior college to Southeastern Conference ball. Every one that we have brought in have taken at least a half of a season and sometime a full season to make the transition. There may come a time that we will redshirt a junior college player due to what we require of them. It's really tough if they aren't here for the spring practice. Tony was here, but he got hurt that spring and really didn't practice. It was just like he came during the summer."
What are your thoughts about the tight end position?
"That is a very comfortable position for me. I have three guys there that are great people, great students that are totally dependable. I'm talking about Eric Butler, Dezmond Sherrod and Jason Husband. They are blocking well and have great work ethic. I've never seen three guys as close as they are to each other that are fighting for the same job. But they all know they are going to play. They all have tagged plays that they know they are going to be in in certain packages. We consider all three of them as starters. And we have Brandon Henderson who has the ability to be a good tight end down the road, but he has a little more maturing to do."
With the emergence of Robert Elliott, will that mean a bigger role at fullback for Anthony Dixon?
"No, Anthony Dixon is the guy. Dixon might play some fullback. But not in the sense that Robert Elliott will be the halfback and Dixon will go up in there and block those linebackers. The ball is going to number 24 (Dixon). That is a given. Everything that happens in our offense, it goes through number 7 (Mike Henig) and number 24. That is where it starts."
What are your expectations this year as far as wins and losses?
"I don't have expectations like that. I have one number on my mind; one, LSU. Right now, it is the only game we are getting ready to play. That is who we are getting ready for. It is a big game because we are playing one of the best teams in the nation. A lot of people have them picked as the best team in the nation. And I have no problem with that because I think they are a great football team. I thought they were the best team, talent-wise, that we played last year or any time the last three seasons. They have a lot of talent. I think they have the best defensive lineman in the country in Glen Dorsey. They lost Jermarcus Russell, but they have an excellent quarterback in Matt Flinn. They have speed at the receiver position and speed every where else on that football team. Bo Belini does an outstanding job coaching the defense. Their defense is ranked one of the top defenses in the country. He and I worked together at Green Bay. All in all, it is an outstanding football team. It is truly a national championship caliber football team.
"But we do look forward to playing this football game. Our players are at the point where they like the idea of playing the best in the country. When you play the best on national tv and you think you are a big-time baller and a big-time playmaker, it don't get any better than that."
Who do you expect to play on the defensive line?
"We have six guys in there. Kyle Love is one. (Cortez) McCraney did some good things today. But nobody has locked down the two defensive tackle positions. But I do like the talent that we have in there. I'm a little frustrated that our big freshman, LaMarcus Williams, who I think will have a huge impact for us in that area, has a groin pull right now. He's one that I expect to play."
What do you mean when you say you can compete with the other teams on your schedule?
"What I mean by competing is you are in a position to win the football game if you play well. In the past three years, when we played the big-time teams in this conference, we had to play our absolute perfect game and the other team had to play their worst game to have a chance to win. We have SEC talent at every position now. This is the first time that I have been able to say that."
Do you expect Eric Richards to play against LSU?
"I've still got to see what he can do. But, (even) if he doesn't do anything else, I hope he's kicking off."
How has Jamon Hughes done during training camp?
"Jamon Hughes is having an excellent training camp right now. He can run and will hit people. And he's a lot more mature than he was last year, which you should be since it's his second year. He and (Jamar) Chaney are our middle linebackers. Last year, we only had three linebackers (that could play); Gabe O'Neal, Quinton Culberson and Chaney. One of our big worries last year was what would happen if something happen to Culberson. The middle linebacker is a big key to our coverage. We had to have a guy there that could run. Now, we have Hughes and Chaney both playing the same spot. The big question for us is do we move Chaney back out to weakside linebacker and start Hughes at middle linebacker. But our scrimmage will start to solve that. We have a lot of numbers at linebacker. Those young kids; K.J. Wright, Karlin Brown, Jamon Hughes, Terrell Johnson, Jamie Jones and a walk-on that we think will be a pretty good football player, a kid named (Devon) Edwards (from Hargrave Military Academy). All those guys can run."
What position or positions are you the most concerned about?
"I am concerned about depth at defensive end and who our starting fullback will be. We have two guys who have stepped up at fullback; Jeremy Jones and Brandon Hart. Jeremy shows a lot of promise; he's a big guy, a former tight end, who can block and has excellent hands. But now he has an abdominal strain. Brandon has started to make a move after we challenged him. When we signed him, we thought it would be his job to fill when Bryson Davis left, but he didn't take it like we wanted him to take it. So, we opened it up to competition. But I think he has decided that he wants it, so he's battling for it. Those two guys, if they are playing at the level of their abilities, give us two excellent fullbacks because they can block and catch."
Is junior college quarterback Josh Riddell ready to play in the first game if you need him?
"I hope that if we stick him in for the first game that is it not a situation early where we have to run the entire offense like happened last year (against South Carolina). I would not ask him to run the entire offense at this point. We will have a limited package for him. There are certain things that he does well, but he's not anywhere near where Mike is at this point. But throwing the football, yeah, he can throw the football. And he moves well. But we would not expect him to execute in the first ballgame anywhere near what we would expect from Mike.
"If we lost Mike early it would definitely change the gameplan. There is no question about that. Wes Carroll, our freshman quarterback, has done extremely well as far as picking up things. But a lot of that is due to the program he came from. The coach has been there for 30-something years. And they run a lot of the same things we run. So, Wes was way ahead of the game coming in here. I know who the third guy is now. And it's not a given that Josh is going to be the second guy. You might say you would be afraid to put a freshman in there, but in Wes' case I wouldn't be afraid if he continues to progress over the next three weeks like he has so far."
Have you been able to do anything to help protect Henig's collarbone?
"His collarbone is totally well. The doctors have given him more protection by getting the plate in there fixed. Beyond that, the best thing that we have done is get those ten offensive linemen up there. This is the best situation that we have been in. Going into this game, we are working 12 offensive linemen. In the past, we had a hard time working five. But even when we go to our 70-man roster we will travel with 12 offensive linemen. And that doesn't count the freshman offensive linemen that we plan on redshirting. So, we are a lot better at offensive line than we have been in in the past."
With so many more quality skill players will the offense be more open than it has been in in the past?
"You can expect to see our offense this year. You haven't seen our offense yet. We haven't run our offense in the first three years. You've only seen what we were capable of doing to try to give us a chance. All we were trying to do was manage the game to give us the best chance to win the game on that day. What we've tried to do for almost the entire three years is to try not to put our defense in bad situations. And we haven't been aggressive or run our offense. We've limited ourselves to what our quarterbacks and receivers could do at that particular time. We have not asked our football team, offensively, to do anywhere near what this offense can do. You saw a little of it last year when we started to stretch the field vertically with Tony (Burks) as we went down the stretch. We will run the offense this year and not worry about things."
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.