Bulldogs Open Pre-Spring Work Tuesday

All the lists and charts on the meeting-room whiteboards were still for Liberty Bowl planning. But those will be erased soon enough as starting tomorrow Mississippi State football moves into the first stage of true preparations for the 2008 season. Or rather, preparing to prepare, with about six weeks of winter workouts prior to spring practicing.

The day before this ‘off' season stage began, Coach Sylvester Croom spoke to media in the staff meeting room for a general ‘state of Mississippi State' discussion. He was able to update reporters on the 2008 assistant staff changes, injuries to and transfers from the spring semester roster, planned position changes, and other items.

A few hours later, Croom got some official news of his own as his contract with Mississippi State was extended through the 2011 season. The two-year extension was approved by MSU president Dr. Robert Foglesong.

The edited transcript of the morning media conference follows.

Q: Can you update the staff situation as of now? "Everybody is aware we promoted Charlie Harbison to defensive coordinator and Lewis Campbell is going to coach the linebackers. Lewis is already here, he started work last Wednesday. Unless something develops which hopefully nothing will, but there's always that possibility particularly with changes in the NFL, we are intact as far as I know and anticipate. We think if anything else occurs at this point it will probably be more to the NFL."

Q: Have you talked to any NFL teams? "No, I have not."

Q: Who are the spring arrivals? "We've got Mike Hunt and O'Neal Wilder who we signed last year on campus now, offensive tackle Phillip Freeman is on campus now, high school tight end Hurst is here now. And Tyson Lee is a walk-on and we're excited to have him. He played extremely well in high school and junior college and I'm sure if he's he were two inches taller he'd probably be signed. But he's been wanting to come to Mississippi State for some time, we've assured him he'll have every opportunity to compete for the job and we're going to avail him of that opportunity, at some point if he earns a scholarship will do that. We've had a lot of success with walk-ons here at all positions and we recruit walk-ons, we're out looking for them all the time. Every year we go in saying here's what we need and you can't sign a full complement to fill every position, every year. So what we try to do, in anticipation of losses the next year or so, is get walk-ons in the positions who we think might have a chance to earn a scholarship. And then we'll have a veteran player to step in when that time comes."

Q: Can Lee redshirt? "Yes, he still has the potential to redshirt as well."

Q: Do you anticipate any players leaving? "Yes, we've had some discussions with players. I know two that are not with us now. Alex Carpenter will be going to junior college, and Anthony Summers I understand will transfer to Central Arkansas. There may be others as we go on. This is where we are right now, particularly guys who have been in the program four-or-five years who may not be in the two-deep, that will probably be the norm every year now. Because when you get to be a fourth- or fifth-year guy and aren't going to make the 70-man SEC roster, not many guys want to do that their last year. But when those changes come about we always avail our guys in that situation that they can transfer or we can let them go to school. One thing we will always do, with the guys who follow the rules and go to class we'll make sure they get their education.

"With the APR rules, if a guy is eligible at mid-term you have to project if he's going to do well the second semester. If he's been in the program two years and the projection is no, you have to move him on somewhere else. Otherwise you're going to get docked and he's going to get docked, because if he's not eligible he can't transfer."

Q: Is everyone who was on the bowl roster and in bowl practice eligible for spring? "Yes, as far as we know. Everybody will be eligible for spring practice at this point. And we get started on the off-season program tomorrow."

Q: What about injuries and surgeries over the winter? "Anthony Dixon had a minor clean-up job on his knee. Anthony Johnson of course won't go through spring practice. Josh Riddell probably won't go through spring practice. Arnil Stallworth had a shoulder operation and probably won't go through spring practice. Jimmie Holmes will be alright. Eric Hoskins is not going to practice. Everybody else should be OK by the time we start spring practice."

Q: What is the academic outlook for prospects in Mississippi this year? "It's gotten better. Our freshmen last year were tremendous, I know over half that class had a 3.00 GPAs. From the time they got here in summer to the end of the first semester they did an outstanding job academically. And the class we're signing right now coming in we've got one or two guys that are close (on qualifying), but we anticipate they'll do better in the spring and we shouldn't have a problem with the improvements in their ACT scores when they take those again, we still have some scores hanging out there. There's no question that it's better. The first year we got here the increase in the scores, and with the increase in the core requirements, I would never have forseen. The high school coaches and counselors and the junior college coaches as well have done an outstanding job as far as making the adjustment there and it seems to be getting better.

"The big thing is you're starting earlier. The ninth-grade year is where the damage is usually done. It's our experience that the guys in the junior and senior years have done pretty well, but when you can't go back and make up for that ninth-grade year that's where the damage is done. And I didn't realize until almost after our first year, about GPAs, everybody else is on a ten-point scale, all the other states. Mississippi is not. And it can vary even in different districts in our state. We have guys who may be a point off, they may have a 92 or 93 and that's a B, or a 72 or 73 is a D instead of being a C. Where guys coming out of the state on still on a ten-point scale, that's another point and it makes a huge difference. Why we're on that scale, I'm not being criticial but I know it's a problem for us and our athletes and got to be a problem for the other students. It makes a huge, huge difference as far as the eligibility process. It's putting Mississippi students at a disadvantage."

Q: How many scholarships do you have to offer this year? (laughing) "25! We've got 25 every year!"

Q: How many will you sign? "Well, I don't know that yet! It's between 19 and 25."

Q: Has the winning record and bowl game made any difference in recruiting? "You know, that started really back during the season, when the change occurred. I think for this year it was pretty much determined, except for one or two kids at the end where it was down to us and somebody else. What it's done is kept us in the hunt with some guys out-of-state. And one or two guys in-state, the winning season and the enthusiasm around the program have kept us in the deal with some guys who have looked at us a lot stronger. Where in the past no question with some guys out-of-state we wouldn't even be in it. Where I think we will get the biggest benefit is in our next year's class. I think this year's guys have pretty much made up their minds where the want to go, but next year's class I think that's where we will reap the biggest benefits."

Q: Do you expect any surprises in recruiting? "For this year everything I think is pretty much in place as far as our recruiting class. Right now the best surprise for us this year is no surprises. We've had several commitments, we've had guys who have told us they are coming who have not announced publicly. If that stays as-is we will have a good recruiting year if we don't lose any of those guys. Right now we're more at the point of making sure we don't lose any guys, and there are one or two positions we have a chance to get. The question was asked how many? It's about the people, we want to sign 25 guys but we're only looking to upgrade. If it's not an upgrade we won't sign them because we have a couple of guys who are on our team already, and walk-ons we would like if the opportunity presents itself to at some point either as part of this class or in fall to put on scholarship. Like Hoskins, we have to see first is he going to play this year with that nerve damage, but we want to help him out at some point if possible. Because he has surely earned it."

Q: How much interest outside did you get in the defensive coordinator job? "We got a lot of interest. It was very positive as far as interest from outside. But I've always been of the mind to get the best guy available, and I felt the best guy available to us and the best thing for our program was to maintain some continuity. And in my mind we had three guys on the staff—David Turner, Melvin Smith, and Charlie—I thought were all qualified. But with Charlie being already being here, and wanting to keep some continuity and keep our staff together, keep the chemistry of the entire staff together. But at the same time he's such a valuable asset to us in the run game and the pass game, and also from the communication standpoint with the staff and the team, I didn't want to have any chance that we could possibly lose him. And not just trying to keep him here, I felt very strongly he did an excellent job here. I tell him all the time couldn't nobody be that good based on reputation, but after we got him here and working with him OK, he's everything I heard he was and more. Last year when the opportunity came to hire him we were very fortunate to be able to get him.

"I was very impressed with the game-planning and the play of our safeties. I guess a little bit before mid-season I called the safeties in and told them if we were going to have any success—Zach Smith, Derek Pegues, De'Mon Glanton, Keith Fitzhugh—that they had to step their performance up. And not as much their physical performance as their mental performance. They couldn't miss tackles, they couldn't give up big plays. Think about it, those guys didn't let the ball get behind them the last part of h the season and they rarely every missed tackles, and played fantastic football. But the big thing is they had to be the quarterbacks of the defense and not only know what they had to do but make sure the corners and linebackers were doing what they had to do. They accepted that challenge, all of them, and I think Charlie had a great deal to do with that. They spent a lot of extra time over here at night or early in the morning as far as getting them better. And I thought the gameplan he and Melvin came up with for coverage at Kentucky…it started at Kentucky, because I was very concerned at the time we played them that was the best quarterback in the conference. I thought that's where we really hit another level. The coverages and our defensive gameplan was really big part of us winning that game and Charlie had a lot to do with that, just some strategies and things—and I won't go into any detail!—were extremely important. And when we played Alabama, I told them everybody else might catch 100 balls but I don't want D.J. Hall to catch a pass. And they made sure he didn't. When I look at other teams I tell them this is what I don't want to happen, and y'all make sure that it doesn't happen. Those guys came up with a plan to take him out of the scheme. Those are the kind of things that entered into my making that decision.

"A lot of things played into that opportunity and we're fortunate to have a guy on our staff we can promote and keep some continuity and still get a guy at the defensive coordinator position. And, also open a spot to have a chance to get Lewis Campbell, that was a huge thing. I had previously decided to go another route and then I thought, well, Lewis is going to Ole Miss, let's see what will happen! And it worked out."

Q: Is there an update on Woody McCorvey? "Woody has told me he'll be here. If you want to discuss that more with him that would be a good choice."

Q: What are some things you liked about Lewis Campbell? "First of all the thing I look for in all our assistant coaches is enthusiasm. I'm boring enough as it is so all them have got to have some enthusiasm, energy and all that. They've got to have more energy than I have, and Lewis has got that. Lewis has been around. He's older than I am but he has so much enthusiasm for the game, so much energy. Any time you can get a guy who has that youthful enthusiasm but yet has a wealth of experience and knowledge… I've seen this guy coach, Bill Oliver is considered one of the best defensive minds to come through this conference and Lewis trained under Bill Oliver. He and I coached together under Joe Kines. Lewis knows how to game-plan, he's been a coordinator, he's an excellent recruiter, he's an excellent teacher. He's a team player as far as working with your staff.

But one of the things I wanted with our linebackers, we're fortunate to have a good mix with Jamar Chaney and Jamon Hughes and Dominic Douglas coming back with good experience. But we're very young at the other position with K.J. Wright and Jamie Jones and Karlin Brown and Devon Edwards. So I felt we needed a mature guy to coach that group. And we're bringing in some young guys too so it's a key spot for us. You need somebody who can relate to them but at the same time a veteran coach who can teach young people. And just knowing him was a huge plus for getting him. The connection with Arkansas, that's a plus. It opened up some areas in Arkansas that we wanted to get into a little because it's close. Any time you can go across the state line and still be four hours to five hours of your campus and be competitive recruiting, I think that's a plus for us."

Q: Are there any position changes planned for spring? "I've done our depth chart already. We'd talked about moving Devon Edwards, a walk-on linebacker, to fullback, but I don't think we'll do that right now. We are going to move Jarvis Kyles down to outside linebacker, he's an excellent special teams player and we have pretty good depth at safety. He has a chance there, and (to) just give us some depth. We're trying to find a place he can fit in and be a role player. We will move J. C. Brignone to center, we've got a wide-open battle between Johnny Carpenter, Bringone, D.J. Looney, and Chris Spencer for the starting job. We've got to find a center replacing Royce Blackledge who can mentally make the calls and also be an anchor for us in the offensive line. Of course Marcus Green is playing tight end. And the Webb kid from Starkville high, another walk-on who came from Southern Mississippi, we'll see how that works."

Q: Is this a make-or-break year for the offense? "No, I don't see a make-or-break year. And we did what we had to do to win on offense, we didn't turn the football over. My philosophy is to find a way to win the game. This year we were very strong on defense. We didn't play as well after the Kentucky game offensive as I thought we should have. Even in the bowl game, I still haven't looked at the film, I'll look at that today. We executed extremely well in practices and prepared going into the bowl game but… Central Florida had something to do with it, but there were some things we didn't do as well as I thought we should have. But, we did an outstanding job there at the end. Wes (Carroll) did an outstanding job when we went to our option game—which is something we will continue to do and probably some more of because Wes does it so well. We'll always do what our team can do. We'll do what our quarterbacks can do, we'll do what our other guys will allow us to do on offense.

"But we have to be more explosive and score more points on offense, there's no question about that. And I don't have any question that we can. A lot of it is we have got to execute on a more consistent basis, of doing the things that we practice. If we do them the way we practice we'll be fine. And penalties, we had a big one early in the UCF game when Christian Ducre had some nice runs and we had a good mix going, and we get a hold on a draw—which I've never seen many holding penalties on draws before! But we've got to do a better job on some of that stuff. And then third-down conversions is the thing we've got to do a better job on. On third-and-seven-plus we've got to do a lot better job. What happened is we got in trouble on first downs in this (Liberty Bowl) ball game.

"Yeah, we've got to be better on offense. And we will be, I don't have any question about that. In spring we'll continue to pick up where we left off in the bowl game. There are some other things, some other people that we will use to take advantage. It all centers around what our quarterbacks can and can't do, that's where it all starts. We'll take advantage of some things they do extremely well and we'll not ask them to do some other things. Considering the fact we won with a freshman quarterback and we found a way to win, I was pretty pleased. It was a big difference this year, last year we lost four games by three points; this year we made those plays to get those three points. Next year we'll be better, we'll be better on offense."

Q: How do the quarterbacks line up going into spring? "Wes will be the starting quarterback going in. Then Mike Henig and Chris Relf, and Tyson, those are the four guys we're going to work. Overall we're going to have to scrimmage more this spring than what we have done, to evaluate the quarterbacks. The biggest thing is coming out of spring knowing who our three quarterbacks are, so we go into training camp with three guys that are going to get the bulk of the work. And we've got to find out who those three guys are this spring. Of course Josh Riddell will do whatever he can and be a part of that, and then we'll have to make a decision in the spring. But coming out of spring practice we're going to rate them 1, 2, and 3, and that's the way it's going to be. But if I haven't decided who our starting quarterback is this spring, we've got a real problem! When we come out of spring somebody is going to be the starting quarterback and get all the work getting ready for our opening game.

"Now, this is what has got to happen. Wes has got to get stronger, physically stronger. And all of them have got to improve their footwork, their mechanics. And they'll start working on that tomorrow, not only the physical part of getting their body stronger but the mechanics of the position as well. Then of course knowledge of the offense, we've got to get better particularly in the passing game of knowing where to go with the football. And one of the things we want to do, and were tempted to do some but just weren't able to, is get the ball more to our running backs in the passing game. I thought that was one of the things we did extremely well at Kentucky. Because we've got backs that can catch the football. And there will be some other things as we go on as far as moving some people around. But we've got get Robert Elliot involved in that, which means we may some more stuff in the offense where Dixon and whoever the other back is, Ducre and Elliot, are all out there at the same time. We've got to get those guys more involved in the offense."

Q: Is this the first spring that the talent gap as far as the rest of the SEC has closed? "Well there's no question it's closed. I don't think there's any question about that. Now we're by no means at the level of LSU, Florida, Georgia, right now they're up there above everybody else. Maybe Tennessee is up there. Then you've got Alabama and Auburn, then the rest of us are right there at that next level. Which is a huge change for us. Now hopefully with this class we can move more toward that second level and get closer. The fact that we were able to beat Alabama and Auburn this year, that shows the gap is closing. But we have to get faster, particularly on offense. We've got to get more explosive on offense with guys that can take a run or pass and hit the home run. That's where we're lacking. Our speed on defense helped us a lot. Our first year here Auburn runs the ball up-and-down the field and LSU scores about 35 the first quarter. But each year we have improved our speed on defense and that was our first objective, to get our defense where we could stop people. Now we've got a pretty solid defense and with the freshmen defensive linemen and the guys we've got committed, if that holds our defensive line should be in great shape for a long time to come. Our offensive line is in good shape. But when you look at us on offense, we don't have any home-run hitters and we've got to get that. We do have a guy like Co-Eric Riley who can really be a deep-ball player for us this year and we've got to get that incorporated into what we do. We've got to be able to strike and get big chunks in the running game and passing game."

Q: What impact did Rockey Felker have on the running game? "I thought Rockey brought a real disciplined approach and a real teaching approach to our guys. The improvement in Ducre. Anthony is still a work in progress, he can be hard-headed and stubborn at times, but as well as he did this year I'd say he's still about 60% of what he could be. He should be better this year. But I thought Rockey did a great job of managing him, he's still got to mature. He's not as mature on or off the field as he should be at this point, and I think he will because he does love the game. But I thought Rockey was a tremendous asset to us as far as the ideas he brought to the table in the gameplan, handling of the players. The thing that really impressed me and I think shows up on the field next year, is I saw tremendous improvement in Robert Elliot over the course of the year. I think he is one of those guys who can be a huge impact player for us. As much improvement as he made from the summer to the end of the ball, if he makes that much improvement from the spring to the fall he could have a huge impact on us next year."

Q: Who are some other potential impact players? "Robert Elliot is one. Marcus Green could be an impact player for us at the tight end position. On defense, the linebackers; K.J. Wright wasn't redshirted but he's got a chance to be a big-time player. Jamie Jones, Terrell Johnson, Damein Anderson. There were several times during the year we thought we were going to have to play Damein, we think he has a chance to be special at corner because he has skill, I think eventually he's a 195-200 pound corner and maybe 6-0 which is excellent size for a corner, but he has excellent cover skills. Those guys are the ones based on what I saw in practice that are going to have a tremendous impact. Derek Sherrod played last year, he will continue to emerge and has a chance to be a big-time athlete. I think Quentin Saulsberry will have an impact, we moved him to the offensive line to defense, back to offense, we never anticipated him playing defense in the first place. We moved him back in bowl practice. Those guys I know right now can have a big impact. Wade Bonner is another guy. Because they all can run very well."

Q: Are you thinking of moving anyone from defense to offense based on how practice goes? "No. Of course Rockey has already suggested moving Bonner on more than one occasion! And we worked him some at running back during the season, when we got ready for West Virginia and Slaton. There's no question he could do it, but as offensive-minded as I want to be I'm never going to be without a good defensive football team. That's the thing people have got to understand. Part of our plan is always have a good kicking game and a good defense. Pegues, Fitzhugh, and Glanton all walk out of here next year; and we have to have two safeties back there who can make all those calls the next year. We've got to have two experienced safeties and in my mind it's going to be Zach Smith and Wade Bonner. And when we signed Wade that was our intention, to have him ready to step in as starting safety when Pegues, Glanton and Fitzhugh walk out of here.

"We're at a point now where we recruit two years ahead of time. I don't ever want to have to start a freshman. If they're ready to start great, but if you have to go recruit a freshman where he can walk in? If you start a freshman at safety you're going to get killed in this conference. That's the reality of it. Particularly when they have to make the calls, you have to have poise and confidence and have to have been out there and experienced it."

Q: Will you do any experimenting in spring practice? "We're going to experiment with some more personnel groups and things but we pretty much know what it's going to be. It's not going to be a lot of experimenting, we'll talk with some people about some things. Not changes, but some additions and adjustments. We're going to go visit a couple of schools and get some research into some things."

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