"I coached against him in the Southern Conference and have known him about 27 years," Ellis Johnson said. "I was at Appalachian State and he was right across the mountain at Lees-McCrae (College). I think a lot of him, I've talked to Coach Croom about it. And I'm not going to get in all the plusses and minuses (of the post)."
There are plenty of personal and professional plusses to the South Carolina situation for Johnson, a native of the state who has coached in the area a sizable portion of his career. While Johnson will actually interview with Georgia Tech, he said today that there are no plans to go to South Carolina because Coach Steve Spurrier usually doesn't bother with such things in selecting his staffers. Johnson had nothing new to add on that situation Tuesday.
"No, nothing has changed. He and I have had ongoing conversations as I'm sure he has with some other candidates. That's where it is."
Talking to two other programs about jobs, while preparing his own defense for a serious task in the Liberty bowl, is just one aspect of how college football is in general this wild winter season. And while Johnson is very interested in both opportunities to move after four years with Croom and Mississippi State, he didn't seem overly worried about how thing will play out for him. Not in the current college job market.
"It's like a carousel right now," Johnson said. "There are a lot of good jobs open and a lot of people out there, some of whom don't have jobs. I'm fortunate to be where I am."
For his part Croom knows Mississippi State will be very, very fortunate not to lose Johnson or any other staff members after the breakthrough of 2007. He reiterated today the need for Mississippi State to retain this group of assistants, for continuity both in preparation for spring work and even more to conclude a successful recruiting campaign. And the key to retention is paying coordinators and assistants as closely as practical on par with State's SEC peers.
And despite speculation in some areas that Croom himself is being mentioned as a potential candidate for open professional football jobs, "No, I haven't been contacted by anybody," he affirmed.
MEANWHILE, ON THE FIELD: The sun shone but a brisk breeze dropped Tuesday's temperatures for the three hours Mississippi State spent practicing in shorts and shells. "It was a little colder today and that was good, too," said Croom, in the event that Liberty Bowl game-day will be much closer to seasonal averages. Though, tentative long-range projections are for temperatures in the mid-50s with a likelihood of rain.
Now that State has moved from the full-pads work of last week to non-contact practices much more in line with true game prep, so has the schedule of drills. A large part of Tuesday was devoted to third-down packages tailored for how Central Florida plays on both sides of the ball. The game-plan was finished over the weekend and installation began Monday.
"We're still working towards ironing some things out," said Croom. "Our defense is really working on their pattern recognition because they (UCF) really do a great job on some things. They don't do a lot of things but what they do, they do extremely well and it can cause some problems. So we have to do a great job on pattern recognition. Offensively we're still trying to get our timing right and definitely improve on our passing game."
Discussion of Central Florida has naturally focused on superb running back Kevin Smith and an offense that averaged over 38 points per game. But the Bulldogs point out that UCF's defense isn't a group to be taken lightly, either. Particularly at the line of scrimmage. "Their defensive front seven is real good," left tackle Mike Brown said. "They play together and feed off each other, and the defensive ends are some of the bigger guys I'm going to play against."
And DE Leger Douzable is as good as anyone Brown has faced; the Bulldog tackle compares UCF's leader in sacks (7.5) and tackles for losses (13.5) favorably to LSU's Tyson Jackson. Except "He's a little heavier." UCF can also ‘flip' their ends without any drop-off as far as Brown can see, while the tackles take care of their own business inside.
"And their defensive line is going to keep playing hard the whole game, they keep coming and never give up. They keep coming and never give up. We have to meet a punch with a punch and make sure at the end we throw more punches than they do."
Which means practicing for a slug-fest in Memphis. Brown has been encouraged by the last couple of days drilling this particular offensive gameplan. "It's going real good, we started off a little bit rusty coming off those weeks off and we've just got back in the groove of running the ball, blocking, the quarterbacks making good reads and throwing to the right person. So we're just getting back into focus on offense."
DAY TO DAY: Focus also comes from routine, but that's not been the easiest aspect to plan for Mississippi State's post-season. The staff wanted to make bowl preparations as close to regular-season routine as possible, while still giving the boys at least some sort of holiday break. State will report to Memphis on Sunday; due a December 29th game-date Christmas at home was not an option. But Croom said there was thought given to not arriving until the middle of next week
"The other option was have our guys come back here after the break and practice Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; then go up there Wednesday. But I think that would have made it difficult for our guys logistically, for all the equipment and supplies, everything we need to get set up. From a football standpoint that would have been ideal schedule for us, come back and work and travel Wednesday, then play the game and come home. That would have been my druthers, but I let the people who have to move all this stuff talk me out of it!"
The decision to check-in at the Peabody on the 23rd means three more days of hotel bills. State has reserved almost 150 rooms for the players (107 will be on the bowl roster), coaches and their families, staff and their families, and University administrators. That will add up to over $130,000 out of the $1.04 million Mississippi State has budgeted for expenses from the $1.7 million bowl payout. The rest will be turned in to the SEC.
But even these eight days practicing on campus are part of the bowl budget, too, with meals and other expenses, so the sites are not a big line-item difference either way. Besides, Croom said about the stay in Memphis, "We got a pretty good deal on that! But it gives us a better chance to win the football game. I feel the best thing for is getting on a regular routine starting Monday. I don't like breaking up the week."
MARK THIS DATE: While the Bulldogs prepare for their final game of 2007, they received a reminder today that work on next season starts soon. Very soon, as in 28 days. On January 15, Mississippi State players will begin the ‘off' season strength and conditioning program. And spring practices begin, as this year, at the end of February.