State Staff Practicing For Bowl And 2008

Make no mistake, Mississippi State's practice priority this December is preparing for the 2007 Liberty Bowl. Yet at the same time the Bulldog coaching staff is using these same 14 working days to get something of a jump on 2008 spring training…and next fall's regular season. "And we're very encouraged about some things," said Coach Sylvester Croom said following Friday's session.

For their third day of bowl camp Mississippi State maintained the same approach as the first two, spending two-and-a-half hours on the outdoor practice fields in full pads. Whether unit drills or team-on-team situations, things appeared to proceed efficiently this time around with the players operating much closer to game-speed. Not that they are there yet, Croom noted.

"We got good work today. We're still not nearly as sharp as we need to be, but I didn't expect us to be on the third day. We'll work again like this tomorrow. And work on fundamentals, (though) some of the base stuff we'll use in the game-plan."

In fact the actual game-specific practicing won't start until next week as Wednesday-through-Saturday really are more about getting the Bulldogs back into a ‘game' frame of mind after their two-week break for fall exams. Sunday will see a walk-through sort of session in partial gear, though given the forecast everyone will be bundled up for a change. And while players have gotten some exposure already to aspects of Liberty Bowl foe Central Florida, they haven't actually practiced as if for an opponent. Not yet.

Croom said that the staff is finalizing the game plans now. "But we haven't put in all the phases; short yardages, third down, goal line, red zone, none of that stuff yet. We'll have that ready by Sunday and start to do a little bit of it next week. We'll get into the gameplan on Monday."

In the meanwhile Mississippi State coaches are getting into some tentative 2008 plans as far as personnel. Only the varsity has had to practice the full two-and-a-half hours, with a few exceptions. They would be sent to another field for the last 20 minutes to run while backups, reserves, and redshirts stayed together to scrimmage. Vigorously, too.

"We're really finding out about some of our younger guys and making some decisions about the future for some of them," Croom explained. "We're seeing where guys have stepped up, seeing where there might need to be some position changes in order to shore up some spots."

These periods aren't exclusively for the players who were held out or barely participated in the 2007 regular season, either; some regular backups and even a handful of linemen, on both sides of the ball, who started a game or two were kept working longer. These younger Dogs are still being evaluated so the staff will have more data to work with before lining everybody up on the spring depth charts.

Three in particular were getting bonus Friday snaps with the scrimmaging group that played plenty this season: safety Zach Smith, offensive tackle Derek Sherrod, and offensive guard J. C. Brignone. It's not that Croom is unhappy with any of them. Just the opposite, the coaches want to accelerate their development for greater duties next fall.

"Zach has played in games but we still need to get him some extra work in there," Croom said. "Brignone and Sherrod are doing well. Brandon Henderson has got to get tougher and he's too heavy but he can be a good tight end. This is the opportunity he's got to step up." And so on down the line of first- and second-year personnel, whether redshirted or not.

Three whom State managed to hold out all 2007 are catching camp attention. Croom is high on safety Wade Bonner, and converted halfback Marcus Green has peformed well as a tight end. Of course Bonner is still well down the depth chart as State is stocked at safety for a while longer; tight end is wide-open with all three starters graduating. With Henderson and Green, though, "We've got some good young guys to work with at that spot."

Yet the top pup this week has unquestionably been halfback Robert Elliot. "He continues to impress," Croom said. The redshirt frosh put in a long day, too, first running against the varsity defense on the scout offense and then scrimmaging with his peers. Even after all the snaps and the contact, Elliot breezed through the post-practice ‘gassers' without showing any strain.

"We're fortunate (he redshirted) because he's so much better now than he was back in August," Croom said. "You almost wish you could play him in this game but of course that wouldn't make any kind of sense. But he's come that far, this is the first time I've felt like OK, he's ready to play. And he's not near as good as what he's going to be. Same thing with Wade Bonner."

An off-season to improve the strength and skills of both will add gifted play-makers to the depth charts of both offensive and defensive backfields in spring…as well as give current starters a good hard push from behind. But while Croom said many spots on the projected spring and fall rosters are encouraging, there are soon-to-be holes yet to be filled.

"Right now I'm worried about two spots. We're going to have a hard time replacing (DE) Titus Brown and (OC) Royce Blackledge. We know we have to find a defensive end over there and some of these guys have to step up, and some of the freshmen we plan on signing will be given every opportunity to win that starting job. Royce was the anchor of the offensive line and right now I don't see anybody that really wants that job, we might have to move somebody for the future."

Brown has not practiced this week after a procedure to clean up some minor knee problems during the break. He will certainly play. For practices Tim Bailey and Brandon Cooper have been the backup ends to Brown and fellow senior Avery Hannibal; neither has shown they are ready to replace what All-SEC Brown gave the defense. On offense, Johnny Carpenter is the second center to Blackledge, with backup Chris Spencer and redshirt D.J. Looney behind.

Mississippi State will practice on campus through Dec. 19th. Next week's work will be in partial pads as Croom will limit contact once the Dogs are in game-prep mode. The players have only three days off before reporting to Memphis on Dec. 23 for bowl-week.

INJURY UPDATE: Besides Brown, two other Dogs were held out of Friday's practice. DT LaMarcus Williams sprained the right ankle late in Thursday's drills and was wearing a boot today. And reserve fullback Taurus Young also was in a red cross shirt with an ankle problem. Starting LB Gabe O'Neal (shoulder) and TE Jason Husband (knee) were limited again today, but both will play.

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