Croom, Coordinators Discuss Spring Results

Coach Sylvester Croom has been completely content with scoreless spring games before. The priority after all is healthy players over happy observers. But after four in-offensive quarters, something unexpected happened. Instead of leaving the field, the Bulldogs stayed on their sidelines and prepared for…overtime? "That was an adjustment!" grinned Croom afterwards.

And a successful one, at least for the Maroon team. Because after the Whites, made up of second, third, and reserve units failed to score—a 57-yard field goal try by freshman Eric Richards was a dozen yards short—the varsity Dogs made quick work of OT. On the second snap at the 25-yard line quarterback Chris Relf lobbed towards the left pylon where Co-Eric Riley out-jumped redshirt cornerback Damein Anderson for the catch and touchdown.

Otherwise the spring game—like most—was short on stats and not much longer in duration. If not for a flurry of timeouts by the respective staffs the event would have beaten the hour-limit Croom prefers, as the best way to prevent end-of-spring injuries. On the last day of camp, and with friends and family in the stands, Bulldog boys will often be boys and attempt to make personal points in pads.

Yet this Maroon-White scrimmage was even more low-key on the field than usual. The hitting looked to be about 90% speed most of the time, and not just from any sense of mutual self-protection. The fact is, State's staff had the Bulldogs batter each other long enough earlier in the week that there wasn't a lot of ferocity left for Saturday. Even the intra-team chatter was absent; the respective staffs were the loudest folk around.

No wonder Croom said "I'm not judging anything based on today. It's just an indication, it's not a true picture of where we are. My idea of how we finished spring is based on the scrimmage we had last Tuesday. And that's probably some of the way the players performed today, because they know that's the way I looked at it!"

There was still some entertainment value to the hour-plus. Only too often it was for the wrong offensive reasons. Five passes ended up in defensive hands; fumbles ended three more series; and seven sacks were whistled. The SEC officiating crew was also kept busy pointing out errors in alignments and procedures. "We had too many turnovers and too many penalties," Croom said. Which was all the more annoying as it continued a camp trend by the first- and second-offenses.

Still it wasn't as if the offenses weren't taking their shots. A total of 41 passes were thrown, compared to 26 rushes including sacks and keepers. In fact the first three series, two by the second offense and one for the varsity, featured all-throwing. Not until the fourth series did a back get to touch the ball, and starting HB Anthony Dixon made it count for ten yards…his only tote of the day.

That was intentional. As was limiting starting QB Wesley Carroll to work in the first and second quarters, though he did represent the Maroons for the OT coin toss. Croom saw no purpose in risking these proven play-makers any more often than necessary. Due to numbers though the first offensive and defensive lines had to do full-games work each while the Whites had more bodies to substitute with. Fortunately the only hurt was to nickel S De'Mon Glanton who came off rubbing his ribs after a fourth-quarter pileup. White OC D.J. Looney tweaked a hamstring. No other injuries were observed.

Among those watching from sideline safety with spring-time or previous injuries were HB Christian Ducre, HB Eric Hoskins, DE Tim Bailey, LB Dominic Douglas, LB Karlin Brown, and OC Johnny Carpenter. Not seen on the sidelines were two other players either out or limited this camp, WR O'Neal Wilder, DE Charles Burns, CB Anthony Johnson and QB Josh Riddell. Also not present for unspecified reasons were LB Jamon Hughes and DT Rodney Prince, though both were on the game roster.

That roster was reprinted Friday with starting OT Mike Brown and first DT Quinton Wesley deleted after their Thursday night arrests and dismissal from Mississippi State for firearms violations on campus. Croom had no update on their legal situations.

Carroll threw six passes, completed two for 16 yards. But his first attempt went awry, as on the initial Maroon possession he had Riley open between the second and third lines of coverage. Carroll simply underthrew where LB Mark Lynn could pick the ball.

Chris Relf took care of the last series of the first half and all the remaining turns with the first offense, but completed just two of 13 throws for 76 yards. 51 of those yards came on a single play, a catch-and-go by WR Jamayel Smith which was instantly followed by a fumbled rush. Relf had a pick of his own, by Lynn again.

Croom saw opportunities for much more production by the first offense. "We had things open all day long. Co-Eric was open twice on the square-in and we just didn't get the ball up-and-down over the linebacker. Wes had one, and Chris had one."

The offensive standout of the day was White QB Tyson Lee, the mid-year junior college transfer who has battled with Relf since early in camp for #2 status (with veteran Riddell still recuperating from his October knee surgery and limited to drills only). Operating always against the #1 defense, the junior was 12-of-21 for 172 yards. His first series ended on a tipped ball caught by LB K.J. Wright.

Yet it was a few throws Lee didn't complete to anyone that got the most crowd attention. In the first quarter he tried long for WR Ryan Mason with S Derek Pegues breaking it up inside the five-yard line. The next period the Whites ran a flea-flicker that with a bit more zip would have scored; Glanton broke it up in front of Mason at the goal line.

Freshmen HBs Robert Elliot (six carries for 15 yards) and Wade Bonner (9, three) did most of the ground-work. But the respective staffs didn't really try a lot of real running, and Croom applauded their attempts to make things happen in the air game. "I was pleased the coaches tried to get the ball up the field a little more," he said. Then again there was much more trying than succeeding. And the officials misunderstood the coach's pre-game request to start all series on the 35-yard lines. "To give the offense a better chance," Croom said.

"But it's good it worked out that way. Because we turned the ball over too many times. We have to learn, you can't get the ball in the end zone if you're turning it over and having penalties." Smith had 64 yards on two catches, while Brandon McRae—a '07 regular working with the White team this time—had four grabs from Lee for 72 yards.

Linebackers starter Wright and veteran walk-on Lynn each had a pair of picks, with walk-on Emmanuel Gatling getting the fifth interception. Maroon DE Cortez McCraney was busy with five of his six total tackles going for losses, two in the final quarter and OT when the first defense got more serious about preserving a shutout.

Whatever the lack of fireworks, Croom—who spent the first half in the CSS television broadcast booth—was reasonably content with the outcome. Now while the players resume strength work and finish out the spring semester's school duties, the staff can take their time evaluating the 15 days of camp results.

Post-scrimmage comments by the head coach and both coordinators follow:

COACH SYLVESTER CROOM: "From what I saw, of course we had too many turnovers and too many penalties on first down. That was something that was consistent in our other scrimmages, it's something that we've got to get straightened out to keep from putting ourselves in second-and-unusual situations. That's the one negative from spring ball that I saw from scrimmages and today. It kills drives, it puts you in third-and-impossible situations. Of course that's what the defense wants! A lot of it can be prevented. The turnovers and pre-snap penalties, that's what we'll really hone in on. It's not hurting ourselves, when we get back."

"We've still got to up our tempo on offense, particularly with the change to the 40-second clock. We'll spend a lot of time, as many as we can with our conference officials, when we practice in the fall so we can get a true feel for what the change is going to be like in the ball games."

"I was pleased to see Brandon McRae catch the ball, because he has a chance to be an outstanding receiver for us. He's just got to be able to perform when the lights come on. I thought he made some big-time plays out there today."

"All in all I thought we had a good spring. I didn't want Wes and Anthony Dixon out there long today. Christian Ducre was out of course, Dominic Douglas was out. We just wanted to get out of this thing pretty much healthy."

Q Will Tyson Lee get a scholarship? "Yes, he will be put on scholarship. I've just got figure out whether it's going to be now or starting in the fall. He's ahead of where I thought he would be. I've seen enough of him to know he can help us win games."

"I'm not judging anything based on today. It's just an indication. I look more at the negatives than anything else today because it's not a true picture of where we are. My idea of how we finished spring is based on the scrimmage we had last Tuesday. And that's probably some of the way the players performed today, because they know that's the way I looked at it! The intensity level was about what I expected it would be."

"But one thing we did try to do, I was pleased the coaches tried to put the ball up the field a little bit more. And that's something we want to do this fall. We have to be able to throw the ball better. I think with our receivers we're capable of throwing the ball up the field more. Because we know we can run the football. Based on our game against Central Florida, that was one thing that came out. They played nine, sometimes ten men in the box. We knew then going into the off-season we have to be a good passing team this year. And we have to be able to hit the home run. We've got to put a little Raider ball in our attack this year."

Q Is the offense improved? "Oh, it's no question. Our ability to throw the football and some areas I won't talk about, I'm not giving any scouting report for pre-season! But we have worked extremely on our play-action passing game and throwing the ball up the field. We continued to work on that today; we didn't connect on as many of them as I would have liked to today, but something we have worked on a great deal is throwing the deep ball. We intend to throw the ball down the field this year."

Q How would you assess Coach Harbison's first 15 days as coordinator? "Hey, Mississippi State ain't on our schedule! I'll evaluate that after the first game!"

"Robert Elliot had an excellent spring. I wasn't pleased today with that ball being put on the ground that first time out of the box. And he has done a good job protecting the ball. And that's what has to happen, we can't put the football on the ground. He did that on the first carry today. He had a good run, and another that was going to break out and we had a penalty on it. We still offensively have to quit shooting ourselves in the foot. But we've got plenty of time to work on that, I'm not overly concerned right now."

Q Is there any update from Thursday's arrests? "There is no update. When everything is final, when the dust settles I'll make a comment at that time."

Q Were some other player not present? "You can look at the roster, look at the film, and figure it out for yourself. Any comments on personnel, any comments that have to do with the incident the other day I'll make when all the dust settles."

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR WOODY McCORVEY– "I thought we made a lot of progress. It wasn't evident out there today because we had some quarterback/center exchanges, we had the interceptions and all. But overall this spring I feel we made a lot of progress, we've come a long way. I think by having an opportunity to play in a bowl game, having that extra practice, and we started spring early where there wasn't a big layoff and a lot of transition. We had a lot of carry-over and I feel good about what most of the kids did."

"One of the biggest question marks we had going in was the tight end position. I feel like we've got three young men capable in Brandon Henderson, Marcus Green, and Nelson Hurst. All of those guys have the ability to be able to do the job, it was just a matter of them getting enough snaps this spring to see who the first two would be that we need to work with."

"The offensive line, most of those guys are coming back intact. I feel like we'll be good there. We're going to have to have some make-shift stuff, probably have to move somebody because of what happened the other night. But if feel in the offensive line, that's going to be one of the most experienced positions we've got. And I feel those guys will do a good job for us."

"At tailback, the thing we needed to do was find somebody who could help Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre. And Robert Elliot I feel is one that can give us a home-run threat, so we hope we don't have to try to have those 12- and 13-play drives. We haven't had many big plays from the running backs really since Jerious Norwood left, I'm talking about big runs. He is going to give us that, and as we get Robert into it we're able to get some screens and things like that thrown to him out of the backfield. That's another thing we're going to have to be able to do, too, is utilize Dixon and Ducre, get the ball to them a little bit more."

"Outside, I feel good about those guys especially the first four at receiver. Jamayel Smith has played a lot for us and should continue to do a good job. I was pleased with what Aubrey Bell did coming along because he has to be a slot-guy for us. And Co-Eric Riley can be a player; you saw that today right there at the end, on jump balls and that sort of thing when we get down there inside the red zone he's somebody we can get the ball up to and make some things happen. Brandon McRae had a good day today and that's what we've been looking for from him; because he hasn't really shown that during the spring. Being out here today on the field with somebody in the stands we saw he probably could respond. If we get all those guys going we feel like we'll be fine."

"I feel we're good with Wes Carroll at quarterback. Wes got a lot of snaps for us last year but the big question mark was who the backup was going to be. I think this spring and today Tyson Lee showed us what he can do. I mean he can make a lot of things happen, especially getting outside of the pocket, keeping the play alive being a mobile-type guy. So I think we've got a good nucleus to start to start off with coming back. We've got a lot of work to do over the summer with quarterbacks and centers, making sure we get a good, clean exchange. And all those guys working together, especially in the passing game this summer when they start doing the seven-on-seven against the defense. I feel we'll make a lot of progress there."

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR CHARLIE HARBISON: "What we did this spring was a lot of base-stuff. That was the main focus, because once you get the base down then you can win. Because we were game-planning against our own team."

"Our approach won't change with more veteran players. We're going to do what we do. The bottom line is making sure to do the fundamentals, to do the little things. Because if you start trying to build something too big too fast you lose the framework, which is the fundamentals and understanding the format of the defense and everyone playing their responsibility. And, everyone being gap-sound."

"I think K.J. Wright did good stepping into a starting job. K.J. is a mature kid. We didn't have to push him too fast, and now going back through it he's re-teaching himself and learning the little things that he might have overlooked. Or, he learned the system as a freshman and now he's building himself up to be a better player."

"I think the area we're going to improve in is the maturity of our ball team. And, finding a guy who can replace Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal. I think the rotation that Coach David Turner has is doing a good job with that. That's an area we have to improve in. Losing Quinton Wesley isn't going to change anything because we rotation people anyway. Some guy will move and the next guy will step up, it all depends. It's a group of guys. Just like at safety where I have four guys, I just rotate them in."

"I think Anthony Johnson is going to be fine. With an injury like his—and I never had a broken bone!—but as corner he needs to stick his foot in the ground. But talking to Coach Ben Pollard and Paul Mock, everything is going good."

"The depth at cornerback I think is improving because Damein Anderson is getting more work. Last year we were young and we got some maturity as the season went on. Now breaking it back down, going back to step-one and building it back again, they're understanding the little things."

Q Playmakers on defense? "Well, we try not to find just one or two guys. We try to keep it a team concept. Because if you focus on one or two guys and those guys aren't out there someone might say well, we can't do it because they're not out here. I want it to be a team effort. It takes eleven guys running to the ball and doing their job regardless of who that eleven is. That's what I try to teach. Because if you look at one guy as the bell-cow, if he's not out there folk look around for somebody. I want everybody to have themselves thinking as part of the team. It's a team, not one individual."

"I liked this spring's schedule. You don't want to get too far removed from the game. Last year is last year, now we have to focus on this year; but having a season like we had last year gives our kids a better outlook on things in the future. But the bottom line is we have to continue, go to square-one and build back up in there."

"I think we got everything accomplished. And a lot of that was team, having a great attitude and not being selfish. It's one-ness. I want everybody thinking they're a bell-cow. Because it's a team. It's not offense, defense, special teams. It's one unit, one heartbeat. That's how I look at it."

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