"The Best Surprises Are No Surprises"

The process was done so early and easily, Coach Sylvester Croom and his assistant coaches could have spent more of this Signing Day working on spring practice. Because by 11:00 in the morning all 27 members of Mississippi State's 2008 football recruiting class had signed, sealed, and delivered their letters of official intention to become Bulldogs.

"The best surprises are no surprises," said Croom after discussing his fifth Mississippi State signing class. Which might, well, surprise aficionados of recruiting, who crave the build-up to Signing Day and lust for last-hour twist and turns…as long as all are in their team's favor of course. That was distinctly lacking at State this time around, other than an elite in-state prospect who did delay announcing for MSU until Tuesday.

But on the whole Signing Day was just the last day in a long and productive process for Croom and his staff. "Not a lot of flash, not a lot of last-minute surprises and those kind of things," he said. "Just business as usual." Ah, but all-important business too. Croom doesn't care for the sort of fuss and furor fans savor, but nobody knows better what getting enough of the right names on letters-of-intent mean to building a football program. Or in State's current case, building on what the 2007 Bulldogs achieved. Croom believes that this class met almost all goals.

"We're excited about the guys we got, and those are the kind of guys we recruited. Most of our players committed early, they weren't interested in all the hype that goes with recruiting. Neither are we, it's strictly about making up your mind where you want to go."

He added, "Because in my thinking it's not really that hard. Once you decide how far you're going to go away from home and the schools you're interested in, it really comes down to the people."

Over half the class—16—hail from Mississippi addresses. But while Croom's staff continued to recruit just across the state line and brought in four more Alabama natives, this year Mississippi State delved deeper into Florida for just as many such signees.

The 27-man list splits somewhat evenly with 15 defensive players, though several of those have credits on the offensive side of the ball in high school. And almost half that total played on the defensive line, with five of these seven down-men currently at end-size and two already with tackle bulk. Of course some of these 230-240 pounders will ultimately be playing inside, but the priority of bulking up the entire front with this class was clear.

Of the 11 offensive signees receivers dominated with five wideouts (two were listed as ‘athletes' on the official chart) and a pair of tight ends. With the varsity and redshirt roster well-stocked from the last few classes Croom was picky about how many true linemen signed this year and selected three. He was also able to take just one running back given good depth there already; and no true quarterbacks at all. That latter category is the topic for 2009 recruiting with a couple of high-profile prospects in State's sights already.

In fact, 2008's recruiting was such a routine process that Croom is already well into work on Signing Day 2009. By unofficial estimates as many as twenty prospects have indicated they favor State, though of course the coach could not discuss that. What Croom could say was that the success of the 2007 team not only paid dividends in this year's recruiting but has given the staff a running start on the next. While playing in, and winning, the Liberty Bowl meant a busier winter for all Bulldog folk than usual…

…"It was a lot easier to go get started on next year's class! It's not any easier because of the work-load, but it's a lot easier making those phone calls when they've watched you in a bowl game with a positive outcome. We're grateful for what last year's team did, the identity and the image they created for our program. It will definitely serve us in the future."

And in that future, Croom will take the same tack as he did evaluating, selecting, and courting players as he did this time around. Because it really should become a Bulldog routine in his mind, just as it was with the signing class of 2008.

"And more than anything else, these guys understood it's choosing the people you want to be associated with; not only for these four years, but for the rest of your life. These are the coaches, these are the fans, these are the professors, these are the other players that I want to share my life. They made that choice early, they stuck with it and went on.

"And I sure hope we can find next year's recruiting class will the same kind of people mature enough to make those choices early, that their parents are involved in the process, and they can do it early and move on."

The transcript of the press conference follows:

Opening comments: "As a coaching staff we're excited that it's over, and we can start on next year…as we already have. Our coaching staff did an outstanding job of getting done what we needed to get done, and getting these players. This is an outstanding group of young men as far as their talent and also as far as the kind of people they are and their ability to perform academically. We're very pleased with what we've done here today, we think it will strengthen our football team in the future. Of course it always takes time for young men to develop but these people definitely will upgrade the talent of our football team. We'd like to thank the coaches of these young men for their cooperation, the counselors, the principals, everyone associated with each of the high schools these prospects came from. They were very cooperative working with us along the way and I'm sure they will continue to be so in the future as we wind toward finishing off everything at the end of the semester."

"One of the things that you can see here, we went pretty heavy on defensive linemen. It was a good thing because we needed defensive linemen this year. Positions are pretty cyclical in the state of Mississippi, in that last year we went we went heavy on offensive linemen; this year there weren't that many that we recognized. But they were heavy on defensive linemen and it couldn't have come at a better time, because we really needed to upgrade our talent level and our speed in the defensive line. We were able to get that done, that was the number-one priority this year."

"The other thing we wanted to do was add some speed to our offense. When we first came here we were not a very good defensive team, since then we've been building our defense and adding speed and I think that showed up this year with the move of Derek Pegues to safety. One of the options we took was moving corners to the safety position and it really paid off, we brought in guys like Jasper O'Quinn and Dominic Douglas to add to the speed on our defense. Now, in order for our program to move ahead, we have to improve our explosive speed on offense. We feel we took steps in that direction with some of the athletes that we added to our package."

"Other than that, we went through the process of continuing to add depth to our secondary, and always trying to improve our special teams by adding tight end/linebacker type bodies that can run."

"As you can see with the number of in-state and out-of-state players, our focus was and will continue to be on the state of Mississippi first, and then a four-to-five hour radius of Starkville. So we're very pleased with the guys we've got. We signed 27, right now one young man will go to junior college and we have a couple who will come in in January. They are aware of that, other than that we feel we are in very good shape. We do have some players already on campus—Phillip Freeman, Mike Hunt, Nelson Hurst, and O'Neal Wilder. And, Brandon McRae who was a walk-on is included in this class."

Q: Can you say who the grayshirts and juco are? "Nope!"

Q: Who are some of the players who will bring the speed you talked about? "A lot of our players are capable. We like to sign guys who can play multiple positions. A guy like Arceto Clark, we originally signed him with the idea of playing him at corner. But here is a guy who is a tremendous wide receiver, that's something we may use him there since we do have a lot of experience at the corner. Terrance Davis, excellent speed, we signed him as an ‘athlete'—a guy who can play wide receiver and also was a very good option quarterback at high school. You talk about getting the ball to people in space, he and Arceto can take the ball in space and make guys miss, which is something we're lacking."

"Delmon Robinson is another guy who can take the ball in space and do some things. Now all those guys can be very valuable to us in the coverage units, they're also excellent return guys in the kickinig game as well. Corey Broomfield as a corner, excellent speed and an excellent cover-guy on defense and an excellent return guy as well. So we got a lot of guys we'll be looking at there. Charles Mitchell is another big-body guy who plays safety but also has excellent speed. Those are some guys that we really want to look at, in particular Terrance Davis, Delmon Robisnon, and Arceto Clark on the offensive side of the football."

Q: How crucial was signing so many defensive linemen? "Well, we got our first priority satisfied. And I should say, too, (Coach) David Turner did an outstanding job coaching our defensive line last year. As you know we lost some people the previous year and only really had Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal coming back. And David got a lot out of a lot of people, like Brandon Cooper. And to give you an example, I nearly had a heart attack in the Ole Miss game on that fourth-down play; I think Gabe O'Neal was the only starter in the front-seven that was on the field on that play, and it was too late to call timeout! All those guys were backups that made that fourth-down play against Ole Miss. We really wanted to just get some more talent in the defensive line, particularly speed at the defensive end spots."

"Inside, Joshua Jackson is 6-3, 294 pounds, is a very physical individual. And I just found out this guy is super-talented, he is an artist extraordinaire. I've never been around a big man with the artistic talents he has; not only is he a demolition expert, he's an artist as well! Devin Jones is one of those defensive end guys that is actually about 6-2, 255 at this point and has exceptional strength in his lower legs. We signed Devin to play defensive end because he has an excellent first step. But as he continues to gain weight we'll play him inside. That will give us a guy who can really rush the passer from a three-technique position on the inside; still he'll be big enough and powerful enough in his legs to take on the big guys inside. Sean Ferguson—6-4, 225 pounds with a long lanky frame, a great first step, relentless pass rusher, who we think is going to grow into 260-270 pounds very easily. Another guy who recently committed to us, Shane McCardell is 6-5, 225 pounds. Shane was one of four-five guys on his team that signed, he was a late signee. I was there on a recruiting trip really looking at some guys for next year. When I saw him I was thoroughly impressed and when I found out he had a 42-inch vertical jump and ran a 47 quarter in track I was even more impressed. After I watched the film we offered him a scholarship, he came here and fell in love with the place. We had some other people come in late and were still able to get him, he fell in love with Starkville and decided to stay."

"But we got guys like that. Trevor Stigers, a relentless pass-rusher, absolutely relentless. Templeton Hardy, a defensive tackle, we're talking about big guys who can rush the passer and run extremely well. So we have definitely made a move to strengthen our defensive line and we've asked that all of those guys come in with the idea that they're going to play. And we'll wait until about game-six or -seven before we have any consideration for redshirting anybody."

Q: You've mention in the past certain position the mental side makes it difficult for first-year players to contribute. Where does the defensive line position fall? "Not a problem. And I don't mean they don't have anything to learn, they do. But if a guy can run fast, whip the guy in front and make the tackle we can keep it simple enough where he can play."

Q: Can you talk about Tobias Smith? "We're very excited to get Tobias. We started recruiting season not wanting to sign a lot of offensive linemen, because we signed a few last year and we needed defensive linemen. But Tobias was such an outstanding player we had to sign him. You don't see a guy his size and his speed and agility, particularly being this close to Starkville. We just couldn't pass that guy up and we're very excited to have him."

"When we first started talking with him we mentioned the possibility of gray-shirting him, because at first I had made some promises to somebody else. And in recruiting, other schools often use those kinds of things against you. We had another school here in the state that was telling him we didn't want him because we mentioned gray-shirting; no, we mentioned gray-shirting because we don't lie to players in the process of recruiting. I had committed the 25 scholarships to other people, I didn't feel that would hold but if everybody was eligible and had signed with us he would have been #26. When we recruit our players we tell them that up-front, we don't sign 30 players then come back in August and talk to them about gray-shirting like a lot of people do."

Q: Talk about Baker Swedenburg. "He's another young man here locally. We felt we had to continue to keep our kicking game up, it's rare to find a guy with his ability this early and we decided to go ahead and sign a punter this year. We feel he can be an outstanding punter in the future."

Q: What are your recruiting needs for next class? "1-A is quarterback. Next year we have to sign two quarterbacks. As you know now Mike Henig, because of injury will not be coming back this fall. That leaves us with three quarterbacks on scholarship, one of whom has no game experience at all and another with limited SEC game experience and is now recovering from an injury and will not participate in a full-speed practice this year (spring). If we had to play today we have experienced SEC quarterback on our roster; and we go into fall possibly with only two. We always want to have four scholarship quarterbacks. We did not sign a quarterback this year assuming that we were going to have four in fall; I assumed wrong. So we may go into fall with just two scholarship quarterbacks, that's just the way it is. It seems we've had a little bit of bad luck over the last three years with injuries at that position. So we're going to find two quarterbacks, two big-time quarterbacks that we can get. And we think we've got one already committed, but we're going to look for another one because injuries have hit us the last three years every year at that position. We're going to scour the country to find one so we can have two quarterbacks that give us a chance to compete for the conference championship this year or the years ahead. But you're not going to win the conference championship unless you've got a big-time quarterback to get you there."

"We're going to give Tyson every opportunity to show us what he can do. He wanted to make sure he would be given a fair chance and I've assured him he would. And I can tell you what, we sure are pulling for him to do well because we need him to do well. He'll get a lot of work this spring, he'll go in as our number-three guy and we'll see where everything goes from there. If he wins a job, or wherever he ends up in that rotation, then it's his." "1-B is running back. We intend to sign two running backs next year. We only signed one this year, Tojo Patterson, he's a young man who broke his foot during the season. We think he brings excellent speed, he's a guy that can play offense or defense, he has excellent talent at the safety spots. So he's a guy who could be a two-way guy, end up being a running back or if we don't sign a safety next year possibly move next year, because we've got three guys who are going to be graduating there in Pegues, De'Mon Glanton, and Keith Fitzhugh. That's a position you have to at least get a year of on-the-job training before you have any chance of being a starter. Because those guys make all our calls defensively back there and we'd never expect a first-year player to make those calls. So running back and quarterback are our first two priorities for next year, and we want to sign two of each if at all possible."

Q: A year ago you said your class was the best you'd signed. How would you rate this class? "I think this class is equally as good. We've had two very good years. Last year's class, watching them, we've got a lot of guys who can be good football players, the talent no question is there, we just have to get through the spring and they have to get some mental toughness. I forget sometimes after seeing them all fall and in bowl practices, this is the first time you feel you're way ahead of where you would normally be at this time of year. We've basically already have one spring practice through those bowl practices so we're found out a lot about those guys there."

"But I really feel good about this group of young men. The only thing, we recruited a speed back we didn't get; that would have topped it off if we'd gotten that young man. But we're still going to need to sign two next year. And we've got a young man in Robert Elliot here who we redshirted who we think can be special as well."

Q: Where do the new linebackers fit in? "All that depends on how our guys do this spring. Mike Hunt is already here so of course he's going be a leg-up. Then you have a guy like Bo Walters coming in, and Antonio Hoskins as well. Unlike last year where somebody had to play, like K.J. Wright who came in and did a tremendous job for us, Karlin Brown did some things on special teams; we don't have to rush these guys into playing right now. We've got some pretty decent depth, we've got Terrell Johnson and he and K.J. will be battling it out at ‘sam' linebacker; we're going to move Jarvis Kyles, an excellent special teams player, from safety to sam as well to give us some depth at that position. Jamie Jones who we think has the potential to be an excellent player, we'll play him over at the weak-side linebacker spot. We've got a real good group of guys there, and with Jamar Chaney and Dominic coming back and K.J. having gotten experience—in a lot of ways I think we still have three starters back—and excellent backups. And we have a walk-on, Devon Edwards, he might be as talented as any of them out there. Is he a middle linebacker, do we need to possibly move him to fullback, we've got to move him where he can get in the game on a regular basis. Mike Hunt is a guy we liked from day-one when we signed him; how fast he is integrated into the system remains to be seen but we feel he will be an excellent player in time."

Q: Having signed Rashun Dixon, have you consulted Ron Polk about how to judge the major league draft this summer? "I never worry about that! It's sort of like the first year we went to the SEC meetings and a couple of coaches were complaining about some of their guys leaving after their junior year. I'm sitting there thinking boy, I sure hope I get to where I've got guys good enough to leave after their junior year! At the same time I also feels guys who complain about their guys playing two sports, well I'm glad we've got guys like O'Neal Wilder who is going to run track as well. We've got Dixon, who I don't know if he's good enough to play on our baseball team…no, I know he's pretty good, just joking about that! But you're glad to have guys in your program with that kind talent. If they're two-sport guys that means they're pretty good, particularly a guy who can play football and baseball has to be pretty good."

"I've talked it over with him and his family. He's one of those guys that if the money is significant and he chooses to go to baseball, I would be the first to recommend that he do that. And if he decides to stay and play football I'll be very happy with that. I know with his Mom and Rashun, the education part of it, Mississippi State is not going anywhere. We'll still be around so if he decides to go play pro baseball and does that I know he'll come back and get his education in time."

Q: Who would you say are the sleepers in this class? "Hmmm. If I had to pick a sleeper, because everybody here is pretty much aware of the guys in-state, if there is one guy I'm interested in seeing it's Charles Bailey. He's the son of a guy who was the assistant general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has excellent hands, he's an excellent route-runner. His body has got to continue to develop some. The thing that impressed me, he's not a burner but he is a well-trained receiver. He has subtleties in route-running that you can he's been NFL-trained. Because some moves that he uses and some things that I've seen him do on routes you don't see high school players do. He's picked that up working with Jaguars wide receivers in the off-season. I think he's a guy that because of his techniques and training at some point is going to be an excellent possession-type receiver for us."

Q: Can you talk about the new tight ends, after graduating those three seniors? "It's going to be interesting to see who wins our tight end job. Nelson Hurst is very talented, we asked him when we were recruiting him if he decided to come here would he consider coming in January. He was able to do that, he has had no problems to this point making the adjustment. And I know his bloodline, if he's half as tough as his Daddy he ain't never going to have any problems here. His Dad is one of the toughest guys that I've ever been around, and Nelson is far more talented than his Dad. So the combination of those two things I think he'll have an immediate impact on the outcome of that position. Kendrick Cook is a young man too who has a lot of talent, he reminds me a lot of Dezmond Sherrod, probably has a little bit better hands but is a relentless blocker. So he'll have a chance to make an impact as well. The key is finding out what Brandon Henderson can do, he's been around here two years and he has a lot of talent. And he's got a lot of growing-up to do. He should be the front-runner going into spring, I expect him to step up. And believe me, before spring and the off-season is over he's either going to step-up or sit down, one or the other."

Q: How did coaching changes at the other in-state schools change the landscape of recruiting? "I don't worry about what happened at those two universities."

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