Words from coach and players were also all media had to go on in reporting on the preseason's second scrimmage which, in keeping with Croom's policy, was closed. Yet even the handful of reporters waiting at Gate 10—which offered a fair view of the north end zone where State spent much of the morning working anyway—could tell things weren't going well. Mostly because a 7:00 am session planned to end just before 10:00 went almost a half-hour longer, delaying the Dogs' departure to all points.
In fact this break might have affected the morning's work. "We're going home today and I believe we came out with the mindset just to get through it," safety Derek Pegues admitted. And he was on the squad that got good words from the coach.
"I thought our defense got better," Croom said. "They fought hard, they made some plays and played with a lot of enthusiasm." After the initial series, that is, which Pegues said was somewhat slow to start. "After that first series the defense picked it up and we finished with a great day. The offense came out sluggish, Coach was kind of upset with them on third down or inside the five. But I believe that's just showing how good the defense was playing. We kept them out of the end zone and that was a big problem for us last year. I think we're going to be real good in that area."
As well as his defense performed, Croom could not help staying focused on what the offensive squad did or more often did not do. He pointed to the obvious demarcation point in this practice. " Offensively, after we took Anthony Dixon out of the game we didn't do a whole lot." The sophomore halfback did not scrimmage last Saturday for purely protective reasons, and because he is a known quantity as starter. No statistics were available for the morning, nor needed as almost all work was in purely situational settings and repeated down-after-down.
Still "He looked like Dixon," Croom said. "I got him out of there to make sure he looks like Dixon on August 30."
That comment was more meaningful as the full-speed scrimmage cost State a player when kicker Eric Richards had a punt blocked and foot bones broken by the follow-through contact. "We had a breakdown in protection," Croom said. True freshman Richards is out for the year now. He was #2 placekicker to veteran Adam Carlson, had also worked up to second punter, and was expected to take the kickoff job outright by opening week.
No other players were observed leaving the scrimmage injured of body. Their pride might be another matter, particularly for those competing to be Dixon's top backup. "I'm not sure where our running backs are," Croom said, frustrated over the inconsistency this day. A week ago the staff was excited about the efforts of Christian Ducre and freshman Robert Elliot after both rambled for 92 good yards in full-tackle settings. It was clear from Croom's comments this second scrimmage was nowhere near as productive for either.
"I get excited about Ducre and he looks good sometimes, then sometimes he's not real tough. I know Justin Williams is tough but Ducre has more explosive potential. We'll just see. I'll make a decision after we watch the film who is the second guy." Last Saturday it seemed Elliot was about to become that second halfback; a week later the rookie's talents are the same but his skills in such essentials as pass-protection and simply holding on to a football after contact need further developing.
"Ability-wise he's got a lot of potential," Croom said. "But he's not ready to play LSU, I can tell you that right now. Not yet." Fortunately Elliot has another dozen days to try to get that ready."
What frustrated Croom more was lack of production from the passing game which in non-scrimmage practices has looked most promising in what the coach called an "excellent training camp" so far. Not this morning. "We had opportunities. Our receivers didn't show up today. We dropped a lot of balls, a lot of balls, and didn't show the aggressiveness to the ball when it was in the air I thought we would. We've got talent there but they didn't show a lot of mental toughness."
Yet within the critique is reason to demand better from these Bulldogs. Because Croom said the wideouts were getting open, progress from the first scrimmage where they were often shut down by good coverage. "They just didn't make catches. Mike Henig didn't throw the ball well today either. I was disappointed with the way he threw."
"I think we did badly today," starting receiver Brandon McRae acknowledged. "We know what we can do but we didn't do it today."
Unlike his first three years the coach knows he now has runners, catchers, and a thrower with the talent and just enough combined experience to get things done in real games. To have them not show it in their final scrimmage explains Croom's disappointment. "Because that's where our explosive plays have to come from, other than Dixon," he said.
"We've still got a lot of work to get done this week. We're capable of getting it done if everybody is honest with themselves and about our evaluation." That evaluation is going on all afternoon at the Bryan Building as the staff wears out the scrimmage video grading every individual and every combination in every setting tested. By the time the Bulldogs get back on campus their coaches will have essentially lined up the starters and set the rotations to begin all-out game preparations next week.
"We're going to learn from our mistakes and get ready for the LSU game," said McRae. "We know we've got the tools, we have to make the plays. We've got to get it done."
"We'll get it squared away and be ready to go," Croom said. "It was pretty much the last full-speed work with the guys who are going to play. We'll make some final decisions about all positions after we grade the film today." The head coach has some other items to review as well, such as the lax sideline operations he noticed during the scrimmage. "It wasn't what it should have been today as far as getting plays and people in-and-out. That's got to be a lot better than it was today. We'll see what the reasons for that were."
Richards was the only injury reported in the scrimmage. Three Dogs—OT Mike Brown, DE Charles Burns, and DL Rodney Prince—were held out with minor injuries, though after over a week in limited-yellow OT J.D. Hamilton was back to varsity maroon and scrimmaging on the first offense again.