Mississippi State split Wednesday's work between both the indoor and outdoor fields. After the three days of drills to end the campus phase of Liberty Bowl camp Croom is satisfied the necessary work has been done. "We introduced our normal package, our third down package, and our red zone package. We'll start back over again Monday there (in Memphis), the gameplan is basically in and the coaches will look at some things tomorrow. But everything will be finalized before we leave this weekend and we'll only work on those things we'll use in the gameplan up there."
Just as on Monday and Tuesday the work was done in shorts and shells, since for four days last week the Bulldogs practiced—and hit, a lot—in full gear. These past three days were entirely game-preparation, just as during the regular season. For a program that hasn't had any post-season practice or play since 2000, the process went quite efficiently.
"I'm very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish here," Croom said. "We were able to give them some time off after the Ole Miss game, after a long season, then come back and put the full pads on—which we hadn't done since August—and they had a great attitude about it. It was like four days of spring practice, it was probably harder, and there was no complaining."
Well, there was one not-so-happy Bulldog. Senior defensive end Titus Brown did not enjoy his campus camp, sidelined for all but the most modest drills and only one day of that due to both November knee surgery and lower-back spasms induced by a too-quick comeback of his choosing. Croom hopes that his All-SEC end will take advantage of three off-days to really take them off.
"We hope that with the rest up there he'll be ready to go. I don't expect him to be able to play a full ball game but he can run and give us some pass-rush. If we played this weekend I'm sure he'd play, but he's easing into it at his pace. And to be honest, at this point of his career I don't mind giving him a few extra days off. But I expect him to work when we get to Memphis."
Two defensive tackles who missed a couple of days this week, LaMarcus Williams (ankle) and Kyle Love (neck), were both back in varsity gear for Wednesday. Linebacker Gabe O'Neal (shoulder) and tight end Jason Husband (knee) were limited in all practices but will play against Central Florida.
As smoked-tires haze dispersed along with the Shira Center parking lots, along with the Bulldogs, State coaches returned to the Bryan Building for some fast film review. Or most did, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was flying to Atlanta for an interview at Georgia Tech for the same post there. The staff will take their own breaks, too, before everybody arrives in Memphis this Sunday. Croom plans to take a day to visit his mother once he's finished going over these three days of practice tape as well as more evaluations of Central Florida's offense and kicking games.
Croom had some good news Wednesday morning to share as final fall grades have been posted. The football Bulldogs set a semester record with their GPA of 2.63; still below the overall men's sports average of 2.83 (itself an all-time MSU record) but a notable step-up for the program.
"It was very, very impressive," Croom said. "And the other thing is how well our freshmen did academically. We're going to a bowl game and everybody is eligible. In light of a lot of things going on in college football this group has a lot to be proud of, it's a standard they've set and they should be able to take pride in that." The freshman class itself had a collective GPA over 3.00, and none of the 107 players tabbed for the bowl roster failed to pass at least the six fall hours required for bowl participation. Also, four players—PK Adam Carlson, DE Avery Hannibal, WR Lance Long, and HB Justin Williams—received their undergraduate degree this month. Carlson is returning for graduate school and a 2008 senior season.
With how they have performed this fall both in the classroom and on the field, playing or practice, the Bulldogs have earned a measure of ‘liberty' for this bowl trip. "Now we're in the next phase, we've still got to work but we're going to create opportunities for them to have a good time," said Croom. So, "On Sunday and Monday night we're not going to have curfew."
Which would seem a bold step for State, turning the players loose on the first two evenings of their first-ever post-season expedition. Croom recognizes this will sound strange considering how strict the State staff is with their players under most circumstances. But the coach says at this point it is like handling one's own children.
"At some point you've got to trust them. If they betray that trust they're going to pay the consequences but I'm not going to punish the entire football team. If one or two of them break the rules, one or two are going to suffer the consequences." It's a measure of the faith Croom has in the 2007 roster, as well as a reflection of the reward earned by most of them for the seasons building up to this year's successes. Make no mistake, Mississippi State is going to Memphis to play football and score the eighth win of the year.
"But when we do give them time off in Memphis and when they're at the different functions I want them to have as much fun as they possibly can and enjoy the experience," Croom explained. He added that his own playing experience with bowls at Alabama in the mid-1970s was not at all fun or even pleasant. Yet his teams also lost every bowl he went to.
Then "When I started coaching (Coach Bryant) took a different approach, we gave the players more free time at the bowl site and didn't practice in pads. And amazingly we won the games!" Now that he has his own team to take bowling, Croom hopes to blend work and fun. And not just here in 2007.
"Because we hope to make this process a habit. If we do what we're capable of and continue to improve in this program we expect to here working every year and in a bowl game every year. That's our expectation for ourselves. This first year I'm sure we'll end up learning some things that we may change in this situation next year." As for this year, well, "I think this group can combine having fun and still stay focused on the business."
Especially the upperclassmen. After all they've endured in the previous four or five years, the seniors have achieved personal goals by playing in a bowl game. Now just doing that isn't quite enough; winning will be the best way to take off the uniforms forever. In fact, while most of their young teammates dashed to the locker room some seniors took a bit longer leaving."
"I was ready for practice to be over," said Sherrod. "But once it was over that's when it hit me that this is the last time I'm going to walk off that field in a Mississippi State uniform. But I knew it had to come to an end sometime. I have no regrets, everything is all good, and the next step is Memphis. We've gotten to this point, now we have to finish strong."