Of course considering how Bulldog first scrimmages, spring or fall, have all gone in the previous three years an average grading can be read as progress. The Mississippi State head coach thought so. "All in all we got done what we wanted," said Croom, then adding "I wish we'd scored more points on offense, and would have had we not had the penalties."
Those were what stood out most to observers, the lack of offensive production—especially the first unit—and all the flags tossed by the SEC officiating crew. Of the 100 or so total snaps run only two resulted in offensive touchdowns, both off throws by backup quarterback Josh Riddell and each to a tight end. Eric Butler had a 7-yard catch in the end zone, and Brandon Henderson a grab-and-run of 19 yards to score.
There was one other touchdown, sort of, but it was by the defense as reserve cornerback Jarvis Williams picked off fourth quarterback Chris Relf and returned it some 40 yards down the sideline. Except it was negated by off-setting penalties and not recorded. The second defense had another chance to score as backup corner/safety Jasper O'Quinn had a swing-out throw from third QB Wes Carroll on his hands and 50 open yards ahead, only to lose the handle.
Otherwise it was a Dog defender's day, which has been almost the script for first scrimmages in Croom's tenure. The varsity offense was not particularly concerned with the results, either. "You know, if the stats mattered we wouldn't have to play the ball game," commented starting center and senior Royce Blackledge, who has participated in a few scrimmages over his five years with State. "But we'll watch the tape and correct what we did wrong and learn what we did right. We'll get better from it."
"I thought we worked hard," QB Mike Henig said, adding "It was an ultimatum if we didn't we'd have to stay a little extra and do some not-fun stuff!" In fact Croom commented that the whole team passed the ‘attitude' test under blistering afternoon conditions, that there were no new injuries and everybody left the field under his own power. Save starting S Derek Pegues who walked to the locker room before the session ended and came back on the cart; the junior had a round of back earlier in the week.
"We worked pretty good," Croom said. "But we had too many penalties, too many missed assignments." The penalties were particularly galling as none were necessary by the offense and several short-circuited series before they could really begin. "Every time it seemed we made a big play we had a penalty to pull it back," the coach said.
"The one thing I did like is we were converting third downs. We didn't do very well on first down and when we did get big plays we had them called back. We're hurting ourselves and that's what we've got to stop."
That was the contradictory aspect of the early scrimmage. The starting offense took their second series over fifty yards, three times moving the sticks on third-and-lots despite the defense having a good idea what was coming. One conversion on third-and-long came as Henig rolled right and flipped a shovel pass to halfback Ducre for 19 yards. The encouraging drive ended though when Henig forced a long toss for TE Jason Husband at the right pylon that was intercepted by S Pegues on the goal line.
Henig was 7-of-18 passing for 63 yards with the one pick. "There's some things I need to look at and learn from," he said. As for the head coach, "Mike threw the ball well, but when he did make plays we had penalties. I thought he did OK. The only thing, a couple of slants I thought he made a bad decision on which way to go. But I'll have to look at the film first because I'm sure he'll have a logical reason for why he went to that side."
Riddell, also running the first group, was 13-of-21 for 145 yards and the two touchdowns, with one interception. "Josh is better," Croom said. "He started off camp not as well as he finished spring, but he's getting better. I want to see a little more passion about stuff, but he is what he is and I'll learn to live with that." Freshman Wes Carroll had some good moments with the second offense, posting numbers of 5-of-7 for 65 yards. He too was picked off, on a pattern similar to Henig's turnover, when a deep throw down to the right pylon for Jamayel Smith was intercepted by CB Keon Humphries.
The passing averages were not notable, but Croom was much more concerned with the Dogs supposed to be grabbing those throws. No wide receiver got a positive review except Lance Long, with 4 balls for 49 yards. One of his grabs, a 22-yard catch and go, got a first down after partner Brandon McRae earned an offensive interference call to put the offense in third and very long. "He's one of those guys who ain't quite tall enough or ain't fast enough but he's the best route-runner and most disciplined receiver we have," Croom said. "He makes plays." But not enough other wideouts did, as the two offensive catches for scores were made by tight ends.
"We started sluggish then picked up as the day went on," Henig said. "But when we picked up I was out of there, and the receivers got to the point they decided they were going to run. They did some good stuff." Or did it then, was the implication. Besides, the offensive staff wanted to work almost entirely on passing plays in the first half of the scrimmage and the defense was usually ready. "We run against the defense every day and they know our calls," Blackledge said. "But we're getting where we can execute." Still optimistic evaluations would sound better with more points on the board by an offense that should be able to produce by now against friend and foe.
It did not help the first-offense that both starting tackles, LT Mike Brown and RT J.D. Hamilton, have been out most of the week with minor injuries. Then again the #1 defense also lacked their starters on the ends as LDE Titus Brown and RDE Avery Hannibal were sidelined today as well. Top backup DE Charles Burns was also in a red cross, as was rotation WR Co-Eric Riley. Reserves in red crosses were OG Chris Herrera, FB Jeremy Jones, DT LaMarcus Williams, and WR Ben Shelton.
Starting HB Anthony Dixon is uninjured but held out entirely, partly for protection and mostly to give other and younger backs the chance to scrimmage. Two of them stood out, at least statistically. Ducre had a strong day of 91 yards on 13 tries, and is long carry went for 55 yards off a handoff from Riddell that set up Butler's touchdown two snaps later.
"Christian ran well," said Croom. "He started off slow but he didn't have a fumble today. The second time he went out he really attacked the defense, of course he had the long run."
Meanwhile touted freshman Robert Elliot had some rousing jaunts of his own, and finished with 92 yards as well on 19 carries. He also caught five balls for 65 yards, better than any wideout. Naturally the rookie back got the most favorable sideline reviews…and some serious gaffes to take the edge off his day with two turnovers.
"I'll probably drop down (to third halfback) now with those two fumbles," Elliot said of his chances to work with the first offense. "But I know I can get back."
"Robert's ability and running skills when he catches the ball are obvious," Croom said. "But he had two fumbles and he's not protecting the passer very well. Until that happens he won't get a lot of playing time. Hopefully we can get that correct because his skills are important. I know he's young and wants to get better and we know he will." Justin Williams was the other second halfback on the first team, while freshman Marcus Green backed Elliot on the second offense.
With starters Brown and Hamilton out the starting offensive line was, left to right, Mark Melichar, Anthony Strauder, Royce Blackledge, Mike Gates, and Derek Sherrod. The two kids on the end of the line were under pressure every snap. "They did OK," Croom said, "I know Sherrod and Melichar missed some assignments. But those are two good young guys to work with and hey, if they'd been around last year they'd probably have been starting."
The second line was Addison Lawrence, J. C. Brignone, Johnny Carpenter, Craig Jenkins, and Roland Terry. And the third group was D.J. Looney, John McMillan, Chris Spencer, Dakota Merritt, and walk-on Spencer Yates.
While their coaches were not happy giving up so many third-down conversions, the defense enjoyed their afternoon much more. This despite a lack of depth at both end and tackle that had them running three-man fronts much of the time and only putting together the base four-front when necessary. Jessie Bowman and Kyle Love were the top two tackles in that case but Cortez McCraney and Quinton Wesley got plenty of work in both first and second team settings. Quentin Saulsberry and Reggie Odom were the third tackles. Converted linebacker Tim Bailey, slowed by injuries this week, returned and played well as the temporary #1 left end; Brandon Cooper and freshman Jimmie Holmes, also back from injury, alternated on the right end. Holmes even got a sack.
Jamar Chaney started at middle linebacker but it was his alternate, Jamon Hughes, who drew the most Croom praise of any defender with nine tackles and a sack. "He stood out, he was around the football and I don't think we blocked him all day." Freshman Karlin Brown was the third MLB. The strong-side depth chart was starter Gabe O'Neal ahead of freshman K.J. Wright, freshman Terrell Johnson, and walk-on Devon Edwards. On the weak-side it was Dominic Douglas, Anthony Littlejohn, and freshman Jamie Jones, second on tackles for the day with seven.
With the ball in air so often Croom got a good look at all the safeties and cornerbacks…and a lot of ‘em saw action this afternoon. "Our corners are getting better, A.J. (Anthony Johnson) and Marcus (Washington are very solid corners," he said. As for a competitive backup situation on both corners, "I'm pleased with Jasper O'Quinn and Tay Bowser is really making improvements. Keon is making plays. We've got six corners we're giving a lot of work to."
It was a comparable case at safeties. Pegues and DeMon Glanton remain first team with Keith Fitzhugh effectively his alternate, as well as playing the ‘cat' or nickel safety in passing downs. O'Quinn was second ‘cat' and a third corner this day. Anthony Summers and freshmen Wade Bonner and Zach Smith saw plenty of action at safeties, getting more snaps than the starters in fact as Croom worked the new defensive backs and linebackers hard.
"Those guys can run and I like the way they went about things. I'm sure they missed assignments but I like the enthusiasm they played with."
The placekicking competition racheted up a notch Saturday. Veteran Adam Carlson tried a 52-yarder at the end of the first offense's second drive, missing it short. Later when the second offense stalled freshman Eric Richards attempted and made 44- and 39-yard tries with room to spare. Punting was only practiced in pre-scrimmage settings, not full-field with returns. Nor was there any kicking off or returning as expected. Croom did say he liked the placekicking, but was not happy with the pre-practice punting. That will be a focus of attention in the week ahead as well as other trouble spots such as finding a reliable pass-catching fullback.
Players spoken with agreed essentially with their coach's evaluation of an ‘average' scrimmage outcome. If anything they were more optimistic. "Most of the mistakes we had are easily correctible, and that's good," said Henig.
"I think everybody stayed up and was excited," Blackledge said. "We got the work done we needed to do and everybody got better."
The Bulldogs will have Sunday off from practice, but their coaches will be busy breaking down every second of scrimmage tape and determining the lineups for Monday's morning practice. Who lines up where at 7:00 a.m. will be important, too, according to Croom.
"After we look at the film we'll establish a two-deep on both sides and they will get the intense work in preparation for LSU. The other guys will get very few reps, we'll put them on another field and let them work on base assignments."