Those players must be buying-into the attitude because coverage has shown dramatic gains this season. The Bulldog kickoff-defend squad ranks fourth-best in the SEC this week; and despite mediocre punting State actually is seventh in net-punting, which factors the returns against raw kicking average. And while the kickoffs by Adam Carlson were modest the other night, Gardner-Webb did not get good starting positions for series thanks to upgraded coverage. "It's one of the bright spots in our kicking game so far this season," Croom said. Where others aren't, he added.
"We're got to really shore up our kicking and get better, particularly our punting. And our kicking-off. Our coverage will really be tested this week because South Carolina does a good job in their return games."
*YOUR CAPTAINS: Kyles will be one of the three team captains for the South Carolina game, along with Brown and TE Dezmond Sherrod.
*INJURY UPDATE: DT LaMarcus Williams is the only player to have missed both practice days this week, with plantar fasciitis (painful inflammation of a foot nerve). But he was joined on the red-cross injury list today by HB Robert Elliott, who has an ankle sprain.
Other Monday hold-outs, DT Cortez McCraney (ankle) and DE Tim Bailey (groin) were both back at work with the varsity Tuesday, wearing limited-purple but practicing on the second defense.
SEE A.D. RUN: Anthony Dixon wasn't aware Saturday that he'd just reached a milestone, going over 1,000 rushing yards in only his 16th career game. In fact, he still didn't know until today when a reporter mentioned it. "That's a good accomplishment, but I had no idea. I was just out there running." For 86 yards and two touchdowns exactly, giving him 1,017 career yards.
Dixon only got in 16 carries against G-Webb, too, a light night of work considering he'd toted the ball 27 times at Tulane and then 29 more at Auburn, both personal-highs for the sophomore. And while 86 yards was a respectable output, he wasn't in long enough to notch a third-straight, 100-yard game. That's not necessarily a bad thing now, though.
"I'm going to have really fresh legs! I wanted to play some more but coach didn't want me to. So I can't wait to get back out there and gain some more ground." But the coaches aren't letting up on Dixon in one area. Not after he had an uncharacteristic fumble in the second quarter the other night. That one gaffe meant he did not earn a ‘winning' grade for the game.
"I was trying to do too much," Dixon admitted. "I should have took the loss and the tackle. But I didn't want to at the time, you know! Little stuff like that I learn from, in the big games I know I can't make that mistake."
GROUND-POUNDING PAIR: Dixon isn't the only Dog having his day—and nights—at halfback. After minimal use as a '06 transfer and tough spring, Christian Ducre has emerged as more than just a backup to starter Dixon. He is very much an alternate at the position entrusted with most of the same duties as the starter and maybe a few other things. It was Ducre, after all, who got the key 3rd-and-12 conversion at Auburn to set up his five-yard touchdown dive, both on draw-type plays out of what looked like passing formations.
Against Gardner-Webb, the soph had 51 yards on ten attempts. "Ducre has really upped his game," Croom said. "That one run he had against Gardner-Webb was outstanding. He's a sound technician now, his steps are right, he's not missing reads, he's hitting the hole with some burst. Of course the main thing is protecting the football." That being the sore point in Ducre's spring, when he fumbled in drills and scrimmages. More attention to that basic, as well as the finer points of what a Bulldog back is asked to do, has let Ducre become what was hoped when he transferred from Tulane.
"Being able to play two guys keep both of them fresh," Croom said. Besides, he added, Dixon and Ducre bring slightly different styles to the game-plan. The former is more a pounder, the latter has more moves and a better burst at the hole. It's a good combination to Croom. "After tackling Dixon sometimes I think defenses are fooled a little by Ducre," he said.
"I've always felt if you're serious about running the football you need at least two, and I like more backs than that. I always assume one of them is going to e in the training room. Because those guys get hit, if they run the ball the style we like. I expect our guys to play physical. And we only see them get hit in the running game, they take a lot of licks in pass protection. We're actually playing four guys. Two that carry the load, then two others coming in making contributions late in the game." Most notably, HB Justin Williams who has the sure hands and strength to grind out late-game plays, move chains and eat clock. HB Arnil Stallworth is fourth on the list.
ON CALL: That group does not include either of the touted freshman runners, who at the moment are effectively redshirting though no official decision has been made. In fact Elliott has dressed for three of the four games, missing only the Auburn trip when the roster had to be limited to the SEC-maximum 70 players. Marcus Green dressed for the first two games but not the Gardner-Webb date.
This week Green has been warming up and working with the tight ends. Partly because with Jeremy Jones moved to fullback, and starter Dezmond Sherrod taking it easy some days to protect a foot from developing a stress fracture, the position can use some practicing depth. At the same time, "We're experimenting," said Croom today. "We're trying to find a place for him. And we're not going into spring with only one tight end (Brandon Henderson)." But this move is far from permanent.
When healthy, Elliott is often running at halfback with the scouts but also working with the varsity backs just in case. There is no ‘deadline' to declare anyone a redshirt as in the past when kids could play a few snaps in the early season then get the year back.
NO CAMPAIGNING HERE: Mississippi State received one vote in this week's ESPN/USA TODAY top-25 poll, the first time in Croom's tenure one of his teams has gotten a polling point. But that vote was not from Croom, who is part of the coach's panel. It came from the week's competitor as Steve Spurrier put State on his weekly listing.
Which amused Croom greatly. "I'll have a little conversation with him pre-game on Saturday!"