The only other injury is to walk-on wideout Major Sosebee, who has yet to dress out for a game. He was sidelined in a red-cross shirt today, for an unspecified injury. So far only two Mississippi State players, DE Charles Burns (labrum surgery) and PK Eric Richards (broken foot) have been lost for the season, though Richards could be back practicing by November. Both were injured in preseason incidents.
*Coach Sylvester Croom announced the players of the week from State's win at Tulane. Not surprisingly, SLB Gabe O'Neal was the defensive standout; he was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. And HB Anthony Dixon was the team's offensive star for his career-high 131-yard output in New Orleans. CB Marcus Washington got the special teams recognition for his work in kickoff and punt coverage.
For that matter the coaching staff could hand out awards to everyone working those two special situations. "No question our coverage is better than last year," Croom said. Through two games opponents have been able to attempt returns on just two out of Blake McAdams' eight punts, for five total yards. The coverage is very much upgraded from '06, yet Croom adds "The biggest improvement is Blake is punting the ball better."
That's not immediately obvious on the stat sheet where McAdams is averaging just 36.2 yards, even lower than last season. "I think he can punt the ball better," Croom said. But those at the games have seen the junior drop a couple of balls around or inside the five-yard line, where the faster coverage downed them. Those are average-killers any coach can live with.
The opponent's average kickoff return is 19.2 yards so far, equal to what State is getting, so that evens out. PK Adam Carlson has yet to tally a touchback and, given the longer distance needed with this year's change in spot, such are not looking likely. Still, Croom said, "Adam is putting the ball where we need it to be" with sufficient air-time so the coverage squad can get downfield and make the stop at or inside the 30-yard line, which is the stated goal now.
"I'm really pleased with how Adam is kicking off, that was a major concern coming into this season with the rules change."
*Croom has seen the stats and heard reports of how Auburn's running offense is struggling this season, gaining an average 94 yards through two tough games and netting under three yards per carry. The absence of Brad Lester, suspended for both unspecified reasons and duration, is one factor; more so is the loss of four standout blockers from 2006.
Nobody knows, or if so they aren't telling, whether Lester could be activated for this weekend or not. For now Auburn doesn't list him on the game depth chart, which is headed by Ben Tate (71.5 yards per game, 3.9 per carry) and Mario Fannin (31.0, 4.4). Croom isn't putting much stock in reports that Auburn's ground game is dead, though. "We hear that they may play running backs by committee," he said. "But the guys running the ball look pretty good to me. I don't see a big difference in either one of them getting the ball."
*At the same time Mississippi State hasn't been pushed around at-will, allowing 121.0 yards and 3.6 per rush. Fears that the Bulldogs were going to be vulnerable up-front without the big, veteran tackles of '06 have been unfounded.
"Our defense is definitely faster, we're tackling better. And I think just the idea of our guys working together and understanding their assignments is a lot better. We are playing a better form of ‘team' defense," Croom said, explaining this meant more confidence by individual Dogs that the other ten teammates will take care of their assignments. Besides, "Guys understand things better. And it's going to get even better because the young guys are still learning." State starts only three seniors on defense, and all but one member of the second-team are underclassmen.
*Captains for the weekend have already been named. O'Neal will represent the defense for the coin-toss at Auburn, with WR Lance Long from the offense and Washington from special teams.
*There's no question who headlines the Auburn defense in 2007. Senior end—and Greenville native—Quentin Groves is the Tigers' leading all-star candidate and easily one of the nation's elite linemen. Not that he's restricted to a single identity, Croom notes. "He'll line up at linebacker, line up inside, outside, or put a hand on the ground. But wherever he lines up, he's coming after the quarterback. He's very similar to Titus Brown." Groves has gotten to quarterbacks twice this season, for loss of 18 total yards; with three other tackles behind the line of scrimmage of non-passers.
Bulldog left offensive tackle Mike Brown says sure, Groves is an outstanding player. "But they've got a balanced defensive line. When we watched the film 95 (Pat Sims) was the main focus at d-tackle, and I watched 94 (Sen'Derrick Marks. He was a tackle last year and they moved him to end." Marks will be Brown's mark, so to speak, most of the time, though Groves will flip over to the MSU left (Auburn right) end in some situations. "He's matched up on me when he's standing up, playing at linebacker like he's covering."
The key isn't to stop a single Tiger, anyway. South Florida did go after Groves and often threw double-teams at the end, but that's a risky approach against the group as a whole. "They're real quick, it's similar to LSU," Brown said. "Never focus on one person. He's a good athlete but you've got to focus on everybody on the line."