"It's big. I had a pretty good game I thought, but Defensive player of the Week is saying a lot, playing the best defense of anybody in your conference. I'm proud of it." And, relieved he remembered to set the cell phone to vibrate before class. "I sure-‘nuff didn't want to interrupt accounting!"
Coach Sylvester Croom notes that while O'Neal has played well these first two games, he was doing the same back in spring. One reason is that for the first time the senior has gone through consecutive camps, spring and fall, without missing a single day for injury. Nicks and bumps in the past would put him on the sideline and cause some questions from the coaches about toughness. No more.
In fact O'Neal has demonstrated the sort of commitment needed to earn a thankless but crucial job. "He's the personal protector on the punt team," Croom said. That is the player between line of scrimmage and punter, charged with reading the blocking team, setting the protection, and being the last line of ‘defense' for Blake McAdams.
"He's taken a leadership role in the kicking game," Croom said. "Especially for a senior taking that role and excelling on special teams says a lot about him and the attitude of our team right now. Often guys who play as much as he does don't want to be involved in the kicking game. He's embraced it. He's never asked to come off any special team."
O'Neal will come off the field, replaced by an extra safety, often when State's defense goes to the long pass-coverage package. But it's not so automatic as used to be the case because this old Dog knows most of the tricks whatever the situation. "He's a smart player, not the strongest guy in the world, but he plays smart football," Croom says. "He's become a real leader for us. He's a guy I rely to make sure we get things communicated to the rest of the team."
*During the morning press conference Croom talked of an incident quarterback Mike Henig had in a class last week. A sociology professor made a joke to the class about Henig's performance in the LSU game, when LSU intercepted six of his passes. Naturally Henig wasn't pleased, not so much with the critique but how and where it was done.
With a win on the resume this season, Henig was back in that class today as usual. "Everything is fine," he reported. "I think he realize what he said. He said he didn't realize I was in the class." Given that it was a lecture auditorium with around 200 students, that might indeed have been the case. At least Henig is willing to take it that way. And he did not want to get into specifics about the comment or name the professor.
"I told him regardless of whether I was in the classroom or not you don't go around saying stuff about somebody. Second, if you're going to say it come say it to me, don't say it in front or 200 people in an auditorium." Now of course Henig can find some amusement in how the incident has grown in the campus-telling. "I don't know how many times people have said ‘I hear you beat up a professor, you cussed out a professor. It was nothing like that."
Besides, he said, "It's over and done, I just use it as motivation."
*Two Bulldogs reported for Monday practice wearing red-cross jerseys, after suffering minor injuries in the Tulane game. Linebacker Jamon Hughes has a bruised right shoulder and is expected to play. In fact he was still running #2 middle linebacker in some of the early periods.
Cornerback and nickel safety Jasper O'Quinn (pulled quadricep) spent his afternoon on the conditioning bicycle. Croom said O'Quinn is day-to-day as far as playing at Auburn. No other Dogs were sidelined or limited Monday, though as usual halfback Anthony Dixon spent a period on the bike himself to keep the hamstrings good and warm before going full-speed. Having carried the ball for a career-high 131 yards in Saturday's win, Dixon could not be grudged taking things a bit easy at practice.
*He hasn't put up, or pulled in, big numbers yet, but the first two games have shown Co-Eric Riley is every bit the addition to the offensive gameplan hoped…and maybe more. It's not the three catches, for 16 yards, that has grabbed team attention, either. It's how quickly the junior transfer shook off a pre-season leg problem to get back up to speed and in the game.
"The thing I'm pleased with is he didn't allow that injury to keep him out very long," Croom said. "He works hard, he practices with little nagging things, he's an intense competitor."
The same hasn't been so true for previous new MSU wideouts. While no injury is the same from player to player, and anything that impact on a wideout's speed or agility has to be taken seriously, the fact is some of Riley's predecessors have been slowed in their transition from juco football to college. Such as the guy Riley followed from Gulf Coast CC, Tony Burks, who had a hamstring let go the first week of 2006 spring camp and took over a month in the real season to get back to speed. When Burks did get healthy and confident again, it showed on the State stat sheet and scoreboard in a big way.
Now, "(Co-Eric) has handled the transition faster than Tony did," Croom said. Now both are 100% and taking their turns in the wideout rotation, though not at the same position. "We ask Tony to move around a lot more and do more things," Croom clarified. "It's helped to put Co-Eric on the other side."