Dogs Have Long Day's Drills At Scott Field

The head Dog was not there, home sick and unable to observe in-person. Still when Coach Sylvester Croom gets the video from Mississippi State's first full-pads practice of spring training, he will have more reasons than not to be pleased with what he sees.

Mississippi State put in a Saturday session of over close on to three hours, and in full gear as finally permitted by NCAA spring guidelines. Illness meant head coach Croom had to excuse himself from the first-hitting festivities, with coordinators taking charge of the afternoon. Both came away reasonably satisfied with the give-and-take, as well as the block-and-tackle, inherent with any intrasquad action.

"The guys played good," defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison said. "They protected one another, and they were trying to improve and some guys were trying to move up the scale."

Or as offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey summarized, "It was a productive practice overall."

A longer session than any of the previous four non-contact dates, too, by close to twenty minutes. The Bulldogs also chose to have this workout at Scott Field, where a fair portion of the paintwork remains from the last time they were on the home field. Not that any lingering good vibrations from their dramatic Egg Bowl victory were allowed to interfere with ongoing preparations for the 2008 season.

The session was split almost evenly between standard drills: units, 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and some full-team. Then came the real fun, almost 75 minutes of full-contact in game-type settings. Not that the fifth day was technically scheduled as a ‘scrimmage' day; that comes next Friday. But Croom had scheduled over an hour of true down-and-distance, move the chains or stop the drive work to take advantage of just how much farther this '08 spring squad is ahead of previous State teams at this point of the semester.

Which side ‘won' the day depended on who was asked, and neither offense nor defense was going to admit defeat. In fact all responded to their first chance to really knock their comrades around like, well, like college boys with plenty ‘spring' left in their camp-steps after only one week.

"There was a lot of jabbering going on, you're going to have that in a scrimmage!" Harbison reported.

Still talks with each coordinator indicated that on the whole the defensive team came out a bit better, at least when starting squads were going at it. "The first-team defense did a really good job today," acknowledged McCorvey. "They had a lot of energy and they made plays. They did what you have to do, stopping drives and getting people off the field."

"The first team made plays, they kept them out of the end zone," Harbison said. "Overall the second team didn't play with as much passion as the first team, for whatever reason. I've got to look at the tape and figure that out, but we gave up too many touchdowns. Which I don't like! But that's something that can be fixed."

At the same time it was not as if the first offense was shut down or even out, which has been the typical results of most scrimmaging—spring or fall—in the past four years. This year the offense did move the football and the chains, even for some extended drives. What disappointed McCorvey was settling for field goals too often and not getting touchdowns often enough against the first defense. He also pointed to two promising series stopped by failure to convert fourth down chances.

That included the first turn with the ball, after quarterback Wesley Carroll hooked up for completions to Co-Eric Riley and Jamayel Smith for a promising attack. Then on 4th and 1, halfback Anthony Dixon was stuffed for no gain. Next time with the ball the offense got as far as the two-yard line before again failing to make the needed ground on fourth down.

"Those things keep drives going and are the things we're going to continue to work on, to make sure we stay on the field and continue drives," McCorvey said. "We made some plays, but we've got to get the ball into the end zone. I talked to the quarterbacks about how once we get a drive going we have to continue that drive and not come away with field goals. We've got to get the ball in the end zone."

Some of the #1 offense's issues might have been because of inexperience at center, compounded Saturday by the absence of current top-snapper J. C. Brignone who was excused with a family emergency. Even then the first line had its moments despite a high proportion of blitzes by the defense.

There were positive individual performances, with a selection of nice catches by backs and wideouts…"and we had some balls dropped," pointed out McCorvey. The coordinator singled out such improvements as better pass-blocking by the halfbacks, notably Dixon and Christian Ducre. The younger runners are also showing what they will bring to the play-calling package in fall. "I was pleased with the way Robert Elliot responded today, he and Wade Bonner made some plays," McCorvey said. "They're the type of backs we can count on, and hopefully before spring practice is over they get enough maturity about them. Because they're the guys that can get in there and you saw the spark they have. And they can get the football in the end zone, so we don't have to depend on 10- to 13-play drives."

Such series were hard to come by against the first defense Saturday. "The guys are playing as a unit," Harbison said. And, unrestricted by lack of padding as in the first four days. Turned loose to go really hit somebody the #1 D did just that. The #2 unit wasn't exactly bowled-over, either. "They made plays," noted Harbison, but "the ball moved down the field. We've got to fix some places; I see where we can fix it. And we've got to coach them up on some other things, missed tackles here and there we've got to clean that up. There are the individual drills to get that done."

Besides their head coach and Brignone a few players were out or restricted Saturday. Other players limited to varying degrees were: DE Charles Burns, practicing some sets in yellow; DE Brandon Cooper, out for a while after a back procedure; and FB Eric Hoskins with a shoulder nerve condition. And #3 quarterback Josh Riddell can run unit drills with no problems but is limited in team work as he comes off fall knee surgery. S Zach Smith has a minor hamstring pull but practiced most of Saturday.

By Sunday afternoon any players banged-up in the scrimmaging will have been evaluated, though no major injuries were noticed during the time media was allowed to observe. All injury reports are cleared through Croom before announcement.

With Brignone absent, the first offensive front was (left to right) Mike Brown, Anthony Strauder, D.J. Looney promoted to #1 center, Mike Gates, and Derek Sherrod. The second group was Quentin Saulsberry, Dakota Merritt, Chris Spencer, Craig Jenkins, and Mark Melichar. Addison Lawrence and John McMillan alternated at third left tackle, with Phillip Freeman the third right tackle.

Dixon remains first halfback, yet that is almost becoming a first-among-equals affair as both Ducre and Elliot have made it a three-way rotation in the base offense. And in passing sets Ducre has the edge over Elliot, though Dixon has also turned in several slick catches in the first week as well. And if that didn't crowd the depth chart enough, converted safety Bonner has responded to a move with some really impressive practices, especially in passing plays for the halfback.

Riley and Smith are the top two wide receivers in base offense, with Aubrey Bell the third wideout and Ryan Mason working his way into that rotation as well. And nothing has changed at quarterback where Carroll has a veteran's grip on the job. Still redshirt Chris Relf has shown the benefits of extra December practices and more snaps as the #2 man. He accounted for the first offensive touchdown on a throw to tight end Marcus Green in the end zone. In that drive Elliot ran six times for 40 yards.

Backup Tyson Lee had some good series himself, directing a scoring drive against the second defense. Riddell is throwing the ball quite well as the third passer in group work.

There have been no changes to the first defense through one week, or many adjustments to the second group for that matter as both units have been efficient in practices.

The d-line depth chart has at left ends Cortez McCraney and Rodney Prince; right ends Tim Bailey and Jimmie Holmes. The left tackles are Kyle Love, Quinton Wesley, and Reggie Odom; the right tackles Jessie Bowman, LaMarcus Williams, and an unidentified walk-on Saturday.

The only shake-up at linebacker has come from the suspension (for fall) of backup MLB Jamon Hughes. He will still practice all spring, but is now on the third unit behind starter Jamar Chaney and #2 Jamie Jones. On the strong-side K.J. Wright has fit in immediately as the #1 man, ahead of Terrell Johnson and former defensive back Jarvis Kyles. Dominic Douglas is still first WLB ahead of Karlin Brown and Mike Hunt.

Jasper O'Quinn and Marcus Washington are the top cornerbacks, left and right respectively; with Tay Bowser and Damein Anderson their backups. Derek Pegues and Keith Fitzhugh are first safeties, and De'Mon Glanton is the ‘cat' or nickel-package safety when not backing up Fitzhugh at strong. Zach Smith is the second cat.

An entire period was spent on punting, whether kicking, protecting, and fielding…though there were no true return attempts by any of the trio—Derek Pegues, Jamayel Smith, and Chris Nance—catching those kicks. And just in case anyone thought State was getting away from the traditional spring emphasis of bare basics, some of these aspects were addressed prior to the hitting. Such as, having the offensive linemen chase bouncing balls around in fumble drills.

Interestingly, no more players were awarded jersey numbers for the fifth practice. The 18 Bulldogs who were in numbered jerseys Saturday stayed the same: WR Co-Eric Riley, WR Jamayel Smith, and DE Tim Bailey, S Derek Pegues, CB Marcus Washington, HB Anthony Dixon, OT Mike Brown, OG Mike Gates, and DT Kyle Love, S Keith Fitzhugh, S De'Mon Glanton, LB Dominic Douglas, LB Jamar Chaney, CB Jasper O'Quinn, QB Wesley Carroll, HB Christian Ducre, FB Brandon Hart, and FB Eric Hoskins.

Thus ended the first week of 2008 spring, a long one with five drill-days…yet that is one-third the total practices allowed by the NCAA. It makes for a long weekend for the staff with so much more tape than usual to review before the Bulldogs return Monday for a shorts-practice. McCorvey agreed that the process is much farther advanced than ever before for this staff and squad, for obvious reasons.

"It's a lot better because of the bowl practice. It hasn't been that long of a layoff from the end of the season to spring practice like it has been in the past. That's one of the big things, especially for the young guys, the freshmen didn't have that long of a layoff and they had some carry-over."

Now it's up to the Bulldogs to bounce back quickly from a busy first week and carry everything over into the four remaining practices before University spring break. "We've going to assess everything and go from there," said Haribison. "We have a lot of work to do, and we can move forward."

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