Bowl-Dogs Keep Up The Practice Pace

He was the only varsity blocker departing the Palmeiro Center not noticeably breathing hard. That doesn't mean Royce Blackledge is in any better condition than his line-mates, though. "Well, I took a knee and caught my breath before I got out of here!" the senior center admitted. "But that run was pretty intense after a practice like that."

Mississippi State did put in an intense Thursday practice as preparations for the 2007 Liberty Bowl game continued for a second day. Morning rains moved the Bulldogs indoors for their two-and-a-half-hour session, which just like Wednesday was done in full-gear. And even more than on the first day, with fuller contact in many periods. Though most of the tackling-to-ground was done in the final period when the reserves and redshirts scrimmaged for ten minutes, the varsity got in their fair share of stand-up hitting whether in units or 11-on-11 situations. If first- and second-team bodies ended up on the ground, well, that was just the general tone State's staff was trying to set as they get the players back into a season-type approach.

Which was what the players anticipated after their end-of-semester break. "Because we knew we had to come back and get ready to play a game," said Blackledge. "Coach Croom and his staff aren't going to let up on us any. I guess we expected it to be as intense as it is."

Croom was satisfied with day-two's efforts and results. When bowl camp opened yesterday he spoke of all the ‘rust' on the team following their two down weeks. "We got the first little layer off," he said today. "We'll just keep chipping away, but we were definitely better today than yesterday, there was more enthusiasm and intensity."

"I think things went a little more smooth today," agreed Blackledge. The 15 scripted periods certainly seemed to go smoother with fewer unforced mistakes and mis-steps on both sides of the ball. The better execution actually led to most of the better contact plays, some of it approaching scrimmage intensity even by the starting groups. The only regular who appeared to pay any price was defensive tackle LaMarcus Williams who left on a gimpy right leg but on his own steam.

Missing practice today was starting DE Titus Brown, who left after warm-ups for the training room to re-hab the sore right knee that got clean-up work over the break. Brown could practice but is being held back just for his protection, though not by his choice. The only other player reporting in a red cross shirt was redshirting TE Marcus Green with a sore groin. Starters LB Gabe O'Neal (shoulder separation) and TE Jason Husband (knee strain) participated in unit drills but held back from full-team periods. Starting DE Avery Hannibal isn't officially listed as limited but his number of practice snaps were kept down as a precaution.

His and Brown's absence showed at times in 11-on-11 settings, as backups Tim Bailey and Brandon Cooper or third-teammer Jimmie Holmes weren't as effective stopping the first offense on the ground. In fact the offensive staff has made a point of stressing the ground attack these first two days. "We didn't run the ball well against Ole Miss," Croom said, adding that late in the year the defense didn't stop the rush so well either, something of obvious concern since in two weeks State has to face record-setting runner Kevin Smith of Central Florida. So, "We've really got to tighten up our run defense and run offense," Croom said.

But the first step is getting both lines up to game-speed after the layoff. Croom said that a break, no matter the length, shows up most in two areas: the big guys on the line, and the quarterback.

"The secondary and wideouts and running backs I don't think lose that much, but both lines and the quarterbacks I think that's where the biggest drop-off is. Because the offensive and defensive lines is so much technique." And the passer loses some of the season-sharpness in timing with his targets. Fortunately that aspect was noticeably better Thursday with Wesley Carroll and Mike Henig both hooking-up with the wide and tight receivers more consistently.

The big guys? That might take another day or two before blocking-and-tackling are back to November form. Blackledge said the break was welcome, and the linemen—and everyone else—did as much running as possible around testing time. "But everybody is ready to work hard," he said.

"A lot of it is just mental, getting back in the groove," said Croom.

Other than adjustments for injuries the starting lineups are the same as in the Egg Bowl, save at right guard where Mike Gates was running #1 ahead of Craig Jenkins. That's not much of a change though as the two split the snaps almost evenly over the last half of the season, making ‘starter' meaningless other than for the official record. During team-on-team drills today the first and second offensive lines stayed the same.

It was another matter on defense as the staff regularly rotated tackles, ends, and linebackers all day between first- and second-teams. Jessie Bowman and Kyle Love are the top two tackles but Cortez McCraney and Williams took about as many snaps with the rest of the first unit, and Quinton Wesley and Rodney Prince weren't far behind in the six-tackle rotation. On Wednesday, veteran Anthony Littlejohn was O'Neal's replacement for 11-on-11 plays; Thursday K.J. Wright took more turns as the strong-side linebacker, joining #1s MLB Jamar Chaney and WLB Dominic Douglas. The defensive coaches also gave Littlejohn, MLB Jamon Hughes, and WLB Terrell Johnson a good number of snaps in combination with first- and second-lineups. Karlin Brown, Devon Edwards, and Jamies Jones were the third-unit linebackers.

Bowl practices are also helpful in giving redshirts and reserves more work, and that shows most obviously in how vigorously the youngest linemen were drilled today whether as a ‘scout' offense or in the final scrimmaging. The future of Bulldog blocking included tackles Addison Lawrence and Quentin Saulsberry, guard Dakota Merritt, and center D.J. Looney. Trying to move the ball against the varsity defense were scout team halfback Robert Elliot and wideouts Alex Carpenter and Anthony Summers.

The whole team will be back to work Friday and Saturday mornings, still in full-gear and full-contact as Croom gets both minds and bodies back into ‘football shape' as he called it. For their part the Bulldogs understand exactly why they are working as if for a title instead of simply to celebrate their 2007 season with a bowl trip.

"We're going to have a lot of fun and enjoy ourselves," Croom said. "But there is time we have to go to work to get ready to play a football game. I think Coach Croom wants the first four days in full gear to get back on our fundamentals. Then we'll concentrate more on Central Florida next week."

Next week also brings in all the grades for the fall semester, with a University deadline of Monday afternoon. But many profs have already turned in their results and as of now no Bulldog has been ruled out of bowl participation.

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