And Coach Sylvester Croom is optimistic that the commish, along with both fans in the stands and the television audience, will see a competitive show Thursday evening. "We feel we're in a position where we have a chance to play good football," he said Monday morning. "No guarantee we're going to win this week or any week for that matter, but at least we feel good going into the game that we can compete with these guys."
The ‘guys' being a Louisiana State ball club that has been tabbed to represent the SEC's Western Division in the league title game, and to contend for larger national honors. Maybe Croom would prefer to start his fourth Mississippi State season against somebody—or almost anybody—else than a Division rival and league heavyweight. But that's the way the schedule worked out once ESPN requested of the conference that this matchup move up to open the collegiate broadcast schedule. And there's motivation enough in any event to Croom.
"It's LSU. It's a good football team. The fact they're in the conference just adds to it. You want to get in position to compete for the Division championship. But main thing is we're playing a very good football team, one of the best in the country. We've got to be ready to go out and play our best football." Or better, even. Clearly Croom is expecting this 2007 State squad to be an improved bunch of Bulldogs after what he calls a "very good preseason camp."
"We've gotten a lot of good work done, our guys have had a great attitude and embraced everything we've asked them to do. We've been able to get a lot of physical work done despite the heat."
The Bulldogs are in reasonably good physical shape, though with two significant pre-season injuries. Freshman PK Eric Richards broke bones in his kicking foot during a scrimmage. He could be back in another two months but Croom won't take chances then. "He definitely was going to be our kickoff guy if nothing else." Richards also would likely have been used on truly long field goal attempts as he showed 50-yard range, if not always accuracy, in camp. "He'll be back and better than ever because he has a great attitude. I talked to him and he said bad things happen and we move on, I knew then he'll be OK."
In the case of DE Charles Burns it will be spring before he is OK, as the veteran had surgery to repair a labrum tear suffered in drills last week. "He's done for the season. He was one of those guys just starting to make a move for us." Burns' loss also leaves the defensive end position even thinner than expected, and Croom was still awaiting a verdict on backup Brandon Cooper after a Sunday leg injury. Second-team DE Tim Bailey is supposed to play.
So are other gimpy practice players such as WR Tony Burks (knee) and TE Dezmond Sherrod (foot). "All in all we should be healthy by Thursday. We have guys with a few nicks but our trainers are optimistic." Croom's concern is that these starters have had their physical edge dulled by downtime, particularly Burks who before straining the right knee in the second scrimmage was practicing better than he had played any time last fall.
"He'll play but he's not back to that form right now, you can't miss a week and be as sharp. But no question we expect him to have a big week, whether he starts or not is to be determined."
Certainly the State staff and most of all the offensive coaches want every possible tool available for this game. Louisiana State is ranked among the national elite and for every good reason according to Croom. "They're an outstanding team. Last year they were the best team we faced, no question. They're extremely talented, they're well-coached." Though the Tigers came up short in the SEC West chase last fall that ‘best team' comment is merited, as LSU blew out to a 35-0 lead before State scratched in Baton Rouge.
The cat pulling the trigger in '06 is gone on to the NFL, but Croom doesn't see a lot of drop-off now that Matt Flynn has returned to the quarterback's spot after watching Jamarcus Russell run the show. Flynn has a resume of his own, after all.
"We went back and got all his tape and watched him operate. He's very effective, throws well, moves around in pocket, makes good decisions. He's a top-flight quarterback, he just had the misfortune of playing behind one of the best in the country. Obviously he loves LSU because not a lot of guys would have started there so he has to have some strong intangibles about him. I'm sure he's looking forward to his opportunity this year and to take full advantage of it."
The Tiger defense obviously takes advantage of the marvelous skills of tackle Glenn Dorsey, a senior that Croom honestly had hoped would be in the NFL by now. "I would have been his agent had he decided to go into the draft! The guy is a great payer, one of the best d-linemen I've seen. He's up for every award and will probably collect them all. I just hope our guards show up for the game." Not that State's offensive tackles will have it easy with all-league DE Tyson Jackson to account for, and six more returning defensive starters.
"It's great challenge," Croom admits about the opening-night matchup. "But with every great challenge comes great opportunity." As well as great responsibility, and no Bulldog will have more of that on his shoulder pads than quarterback Mike Henig. This will be his first start against a LSU team, as he played off the bench in 2005 and missed the '06 game with injury. Henig had the same injury to the same collarbone to end the year, too. While the junior did do some drills with the campus ROTC about how to get to the ground efficiently, the best way to evade injury is simply to run the system, Croom says. And here Henig has shown preseason progress.
"He's more disciplined about executing the offense." As opposed to relying on that strong right arm and taking ill-advised shots. Croom says the key is to work to set up the handful of legitimate shots that will come during the game and then fire. Henig has improved his footwork in and out of the pocket this fall, and Croom has noted that the 6-1, 195-pounder is a pretty fair runner in the right situations. So he won't box Henig in, necessarily.
"I don't think of him as any more fragile than other quarterback. He has to be smart about how he goes down. He's going to get hit, he has to be smart and protect himself. He shouldn't take any unnecessary hits, (he should) throw out of bounds, get rid of the ball." Croom confirmed that second-QB Josh Riddell is still under suspension, so freshman Wes Carroll and walk-on Zack Harrington are now the backups. Riddell, stopped for a DUI two weeks ago, will miss the opener for sure.
"I'll make the decision after this game based on how he conducts himself on and off the field what point he'll return." As for having a true freshman as #2 quarterback Croom agrees to concern, "but there's nothing can do. I've confidence in Wes, he'll step up if we have to go that route. We have no other choice."
There will be other true freshmen definitely playing this game by coach's choice, such as a collection of talented and aggressive young linebackers and safeties expected to work on special teams. Croom didn't give any names or definite assignments for them just yet; that will show come opening kickoff. The rookie of most interest in the larger gameplan is halfback Robert Elliot, who had worked his way up as high as second on the depth chart at one point. He has slipped back after a couple of scrimmage games showed what the gifted young runner still has to learn, about pass-protection and route-running in this college system.
In fact, Croom revealed this morning, in a long Sunday conversation Elliot asked the coach to be redshirted. That is not in the plans for now, Croom said. "It's been and adjustment to him, he's aware he's not ready to perform at a high level right now. But I told him we'll take it week by week and get him ready, and make that decision down the road. I want him to ready to go, I don't want him thinking he's not going to play."
Because, the coach adds, Elliot is closer to being ready to play than the youngster himself realizes. The hype of being one of the region's most-touted rookies and the expectations that fall on a local kid might have put some internal pressure on the youngster, Croom agreed. "He'll be an excellent player," Croom said. "It may be next week. Pass protection, routes, all those things, it's going to take him a while to get all that done. But it's going to come in time. His running has really improved, I thought he ran tougher the last few weeks. He's not that far off as far as understanding what to do, he just has to get it all sorted-out. We're going to continue working him and Marcus Green and other kids who have a chance to play."
For now, that is, as after this week-night opener State will get into a more typical practice routine; and that means Monday ‘scrimmages' for freshmen who have yet to play and other young reserves. Until then, any rookie who pulls on a jersey Thursday is available for action. "We're going to bring all our freshmen along at their own pace and not put them out too early. Some of them will play. If they can help us win one game we're going to play them."
The halfback depth-chart naturally has soph Anthony Dixon on top, with Christian Ducre and Arnil Stallworth both second depending on the package being put on the field. And for the opener former TE—and Harvey, La., native—Jeremy Jones will start at fullback. "We think that can be a positive move. He's still got a lot of technique work to learn but once he gets the hang of this thing he's going to be a pretty good fullback."
Barring an unlikely injury in the two remaining light practice days the starting defense is the same as the past two weeks of camp, save possibly at interior tackle where Cortez McCraney and Kyle Love are competing at left tackle. Both will play.
Special teams coverage is where some rookies will make their first marks, though Croom also is clear that starters will also be used as needed. Because, this is where the Bulldogs must make the most immediate progress after an awful 2006 season. "It comes back to coverage, no matter how you kick it it's always going to come back to that. We'll use all those different variations (of personnel to both kick and protect) but it's going to come back to coverage." As for the new kickoff rule, making touchbacks unlikely now, it only emphasizes coverage more. "The reality is if you can make opponents start behind the 30-yard line you're happy with that."
How happy Croom and team are by Friday is what the fans care about. The coach is encouraged about the outlook for this season, though he adds as always taking care of assignments and keeping sound technique remain the concerns. Still… "I like where we are. We don't know how good we are but I know we're much improved over where we were last year at this point.
"We've got a few more playmakers in the wide receiver positions, defensively we're faster with improved speed in secondary and at linebacker translating into improved coverage on kicking teams. Beyond that I'm just ready to play and see what we've got." But is what State has got enough to compete with a national contender? Croom again points to such intangibles as attitude and effort in practice, as well as more tangible things such as actual execution in it.
"I think there's more pride in playing for Mississippi State," Croom adds. Now it's time to see if that personal pride translates into production. Very much time, in fact, after three years of what Croom calls "just trying to build a foundation. Now we go out there and we've got a chance. We just have to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself."