Croom and the offensive staff also have something of a wait-and-see situation at backup quarterback. Mike Henig did not participate in most of Wednesday's drills due to pain in his throwing right-hand. The condition is a result of the fracture and surgery on the hand. Henig wears a tight glove to support the digits with a nerve-stimulator wire hooked in, but whenever the fingers are curled more than half-way there is still pain in the knuckles. Gripping and throwing a football is obviously a problem.
"He's not doing a lot," Croom said after practice. "We've just got to take care of his hand." So starter Wesley Carroll and true freshman classmate Chris Relf are taking care of almost all live passing in practice now while Henig watches. "If we have to use Mike, we will," said Croom. "There's nothing new in the game plan, we'll have to go with what he knows. But he hasn't got a lot of reps this week. We'll see at that time how much he can do. If not, we'll go with Relf and Zack Harrington."
Relf has not played yet this season and the staff still hopes to redshirt the rookie.
RETURNED TO RETURNING: It's been almost a month since Derek Pegues last caught a kickoff. Specifically once in the Gardner-Webb game, returned for 18 yards. Since then Mississippi State has used three others to field and return, with modest results at best. For that matter the KOR team hasn't produced as expected in preseason, with a seven-game average of 18.1 yards overall. Much more goes into this frustrating situation than just the one man with the ball. But that's where State is making a change this week with Pegues resuming deep-return duty. "Coach said they took me off to give me a little rest on defense," he said. "They felt the needed me back there, I'm a veteran."
Not just a veteran, but as of now the one player with most proven potential to make something happen on a kickoff. "Through the course of practice and games we've tried everybody else," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "The only other guy is a freshman we don't want to lose a redshirt year on." He didn't ID the rookie but both S Wade Bonner and HB Robert Elliott have practiced KOR this fall. Neither has played this year, though they usually dressed-out in the first half of the season.
Pegues' return to this task means he will give up working on another special team. "They said they're going to rest me up on kickoffs instead of kickoff returns. Hopefully we can get some big returns this week." Croom hopes the same because he hates losing Pegues, the defender with the most range, off coverage. "We felt he was more valuable on kickoff coverage against some of the returns we've faced. He's one of our three-deep safeties on kickoff return, the last guy if something goes wrong."
With Pegues' help, as well as much better organization and speed on the field, State has covered kickoff far more effectively than in 2006. Ditto for the punt covering. Yet it's to the point, Croom says, that the offense now needs a little bit more help in starting series with less yardage between them and the opponent's goal line. Even if it means risking over-work for the team's top all-around athlete.
"Ever since the game he dehydrated we just felt we had to rest him more because we can't take him out of the middle of the field on defense," Croom said. "But at the same time for the field position and potential to get some points, we need some explosiveness in our game. We're a grind-it-out kind of offense, and we need some explosive plays somewhere in the game. Hopefully he can give us that as a kick returner."
"Yeah, I need the rest," admitted Pegues. "Because I'll be blowed out there playing on special teams. So they felt it's better to rest me on something that I'd have to run down the field then go right to the defense. Instead I can get a breather after I run the ball back." Hopefully a long one as the offense moves the ball, chains, and scoreboard.
HB Justin Williams, the return-man last week, returns to right-halfback to block for Pegues and make signal-calls on the plays. WR Lance Long is now Pegues' backup, though if he works his way back into good graces WR Co-Eric Riley would be the preferred alternate. Interestingly, Croom isn't just thinking about better returns this year. He's looking farther ahead.
"That's an area important to us in recruiting. We're at a point now where we can recruit guys for specialist-type roles. We're actively recruiting two guys, if we don't get them some of the wide receivers and corners we have had the explosive speed to make a difference. We've got to get more explosiveness in the future, but right now D.P. is going to have to be that guy."
DOUBLE-DUTY: Of course Pegues hasn't relinquished his job of fielding punts, though the game he did have to sit and sip fluids Long filled in there as well. But the junior hasn't been satisfied with his results here, either. His 14 return tries have netted just 70 yards and a big chunk of that came on a single 23-yard runback. And eight times he's been forced into a fair-catch.
Pegues said to look for improvements here soon. "We've been working new schemes," he related. "It's really been the teams we've been playing.
"Some opponents have been putting a lot of good hang-time on the ball so it's hard to get returns. And some have been spraying the ball a lot of places. We really haven't had a lot of opportunities. And the defense has been struggling trying to get off the field on third downs, that's been a big part of it too. I've been dying to get one for a long time. Hopefully I get one Saturday."
--- October got off to a slow start for WR Tony Burks, with one catch and five yards in the UAB game. He made up for lost—or lack-of-gained—ground with a five-catch, 79-yard output against Tennessee. Burks also got his second score of the year on a short catch meant to move the chains that became a 30-yard touchdown, with a big assist from cohorts Lance Long and Jamayel Smith and their downfield blocking.
Still by now Burks would have expected more than 16 catches, 268 yards, and two touchdowns. But he understands the reasons why. "It's been a slow process this year, because of the quarterback situation and the coaches gaining confidence. Me, I've been ready for this day to come since the beginning of the season. Now we're throwing more and showing what the receivers are capable of."
And who those receivers are, according to Croom, who said it's been an up-and-down process since the start of fall camp. Redshirt transfer Brandon McRae had the best spring while Burks struggled to practice as he'd played in the season. "So we moved Jamayel Smith from ‘X' over to ‘Z' because we didn't want McRae having to learn a lot," Croom said.
"We come back in the fall and McRae didn't play as well, Tony did. We put Tony back in the lineup and that caused another switch. So it was just getting the right guys in the mix. And in the process Lance Long kept on being Lance Long." That is, a reliable route-runner and steady blocker out on the end of things. "So we've pretty much got it solidified now," Croom said. "Tony, Lance, and McRae are going to play on the strong side; and Jamayel, Aubrey Bell, and Co-Eric on the weak side. But we're still playing a lot of guys in different roles to try to play to their strengths, and not ask them to do a lot of things even if we think they'll be good at in time. We've got to get the best out of what we have at this point."
And if Burks isn't getting the sort of 100-yard games he had (five times) last year, there are two other reasons he points to. First, "Now we have more receivers, we're all working hard as a group and teaching each other. It's starting to show." So the load is being spread around, which means individual wideouts aren't asked to make every play…just to be ready when their chance comes. And there is the second reason from Burks: the wideouts have had to adjust to three different starting quarterbacks and styles of throwing.
Now they know who the man is, assuming of course Wesley Carroll avoids the injuries that felled his cohorts Mike Henig and Josh Riddell (the latter for the season). "Wes is doing a great job bringing what we do in practice to the game," said Burks. "Everybody has gained confidence in him." Though, the senior wideout adds, he already had respect for the new kid before fall.
"We worked in the summer so I wasn't going to look at him like he was just a freshman. I looked at him as a quarterback." Now Carroll has lived up to early expectations and more. "He talks to us, he understands what the receivers are doing. It's a good relationship." And, Burks said, Carroll is showing signs he can bring the ball better, such as on the wideout's trade-marked slant patterns across the middle that produced big gains in 2006. Burks thought Carroll was putting more into his throws Saturday for sure.
"I think he'd been listening to the coach saying things about his arm! I feel he was just trying to prove them wrong!" That said, Burks isn't forgetting the guy who got the ball to him most of the time last year. When Henig is back to full-strength there will be resumed competition at quarterback. And of course at MSU it's always safe to allow for injury disruptions.
"But we have to be able to adjust to anybody," said Burks. And keep making the most of what chances come to catch the ball, make gains, score points…and hopefully keep the defense spread around. Not that the wideouts mind if the opponents stack the front and leave single coverage in fear of what another Dog might do.
"Yeah, they're crowding the line worrying about (Anthony) Dixon. They're playing more man-to-man, to get more folks in the box and that's helped us receivers."
GROWING ON THE JOB: It's certainly helped Carroll, taking some of the pressure off the rookie triggerman to make big plays on his own. Naturally the offensive staff never planned to hand such demands over to a true freshman, yet Carroll has handled the job with poise beyond his college years. Make that, months.
"Wes has come along a lot faster than I thought he would," Croom said. "He's throwing the ball better. Coming out of high school we knew the intangible qualities, the ability to manage the game. Those things were not a surprise at all. He can handle that." Carroll has also coped quite nicely with the other aspects of being under-center…including dealing with his head coach's constant practice attentions that all MSU quarterbacks must deal with.
"If they can't handle the stress I'm going to put them under, they're sure not going to be able to handle it in front of 60,000 people. I haven't been able to faze him."
This doesn't mean Croom demands of Carroll what he would a more veteran quarterback like fourth-year junior Henig. Certainly the younger doesn't have the sheer arm-strength of the elder. It just comes down to practicing what each is best at, which makes for interesting practices when Henig is able to go and throw. "Then the things we asked Mike to do we didn't ask Wes to do; and the things we ask Wes to do we didn't ask Mike to do," Croom explained. "So now, settling in that Wes is the quarterback…we've basically been trying while the two of them were playing to do two different sets of things while Wes was learning." And now Carroll has learned enough that State's staff has effectively settled the overall gameplan for the rest of this season.
Which, Croom added, will still be built around the ground game first. Naturally. "And the reason we've been able to run the football as well is because we haven't changed anything since spring," he said. "The passing game, because of using multiple people at wide receiver and quarterback, you just never could lock-in to this is where our identity is in the passing game. I think now we've done that and we're starting to see a little more effectiveness from them."