Post-Spring Evaluations Mean Summer Switches

It's been three weeks since practices concluded, plenty of time for post-spring evaluations. And, for Coach Sylvester Croom and the Bulldog football staff to adjust their depth charts for both the summer sessions and coming pre-season. It's an ongoing process in some areas, Croom said Thursday morning discussing spring results.

On the whole it was a productive camp for Mississippi State. "I thought we got a chance to evaluate some positions that I was really concerned about," Croom said. "Particularly backup quarterback, at tight end and fullback, and to get some depth at linebacker. I thought we got all those things done."

Well, most of them. Because the fullback position remains an open question heading into summer, which only time and the improvement—or not—of an injured nerve can answer. "We've still got some concerns about the status of Eric Hoskins," Croom said. "We're not 100% sure how he's going to be." Hoskins, a former walk-on who in October 2007 abruptly emerged as the most productive fullback on State's roster, had his season end just as quickly when his shoulder and a nerve were damaged at Little Rock.

Hoskins did not practice all spring, though he was on the field every day and awarded a number for his no-touch red jersey that usually only quarterbacks wear. It's a measure of how highly Hoskins is regarded…and how much the offensive staff hopes he can come back. "If he's well, we'll be OK there," said Croom. As it is, veteran Brandon Hart and redshirt Ethan Stockett are 1-2 at fullback after camp.

As for the other pre-spring concerns, the coach was satisfied with how backup quarterback turned out as redshirt Chris Relf made the expected progress; and winter walk-on Tyson Lee was unexpectedly productive, to the point of ending camp essentially equal at #2. That, and the clear starter-status of soph Wesley Carroll, produced the anticipated result that brief '07 starter Josh Riddell—limited to drills-only work and no scrimmaging on a recovering knee—intends to transfer for his senior season. Croom did not discuss that in the morning's brief talk with press.

The other injury/recovery situations are also on track. DE Brandon Cooper (shoulder) came back strong the last week of camp and was almost a co-#1 at left end. Starting DE Tim Bailey (calf) and #2 WLB Karlin Brown (knee) will be lifting and running full-speed; backup OC Johnny Carpenter will take longer to come back from early-camp surgery to fix a nagging shoulder situation. Croom said he hopes DE Charles Burns, who hasn't practiced since last August with a shoulder operation, is ready to go in summer.

And a few other ankles, knees, backs, and shoulders have been checked out since spring work ended on March 29. "All of those clean-up things have been done and I've been assured when we come back to summer school we're done with all the little operations," Croom said. "We did not have a major injury occur in spring. Everybody will be ready to participate in the off-season program full-speed."

But at least one and maybe a few more Dogs will be at different positions come August than where they finished March. Most notably, offensive tackle Derek Sherrod. Camp ended on a sour note when after the 14th practice starting LOT Mike Brown and newly-promoted first DE Quinton Wesley were dismissed from school for a campus gun incident. Three more players—rehabilitating CB Anthony Johnson, backup DT Rodney Prince, and backup MLB Jamon Hughes—were involved in the incident's aftermath and remain in summer legal limbo.

As quickly as Brown was automatically dismissed by the University, everyone knowing anything about Bulldog blocking knew what would happen and true soph Sherrod would be going from one end of the line to the other. He was first-team RT all spring, promoted to starter after alternating there with the graduated J.D. Hamilton as a true freshman. Yet all along Croom said "We've been operating on a two-year plan. Our plan was to move Derek over to the left side next year (after Brown was finished) and Mark Melichar to the right side. So, we went ahead and did that."

Which means Sherrod will line up as first LT come two-a-days and a year earlier than planned. Nobody is at all worried about any transition. "We know Derek can play on the left side, that's not a problem," said Croom. For the 15th spring date, the Maroon-White scrimmage, '07 backup LT Mark Melichar returned there after practicing 14 days at right tackle. Croom said today Melichar will stay a right tackle for pre-season, where presumably he will compete with juco transfer Phillip Freeman. Under that two-year plan, Freeman was to redshirt this transfer year and he spent spring as the #3 right tackle as a result. Now he'll compete with third-year soph Melichar for fall duty.

"We've also got (redshirt) Quentin Saulsberry over on the left side," said Croom. "And (junior) Chris Spencer who was our third center, he signed at tackle out of high school. He expressed an interest in playing at tackle again. We know he's athletic enough, so we'll put him out there for depth and still work him at center." '07 backup left guard J. C. Brignone is the first center now ahead of redshirt D.J. Looney and the recuperating Carpenter. Post-spring evaluations show both guard spots are in settled shape.

Nor did any changes appear forthcoming on the defensive side over the summer, even though the same day he was promoted to first left DT Wesley was dismissed. Senior Cortez McCraney is back as the #1 for summer though it's probable Cooper will be moved there by August.

Linebacker depth does have one remaining question…and an unplanned solution as well. Hughes was already facing an early season suspension for a pre-camp incident, and with his summer situation uncertain the defense needed some depth insurance. The solution was already on the MSU sideline as Croom talked to Anthony Littlejohn, a fifth-year senior who opted to drop off the roster over the winter, about coming back to active duty.

"What happened with the incident we had in spring, and some other things that could still happen there as an opening," Croom said. "‘LJ' and I talked about it earlier this spring that there may possibly be an opening after spring." Which is what happened. Littlejohn hadn't quit the program; in fact he spent spring as a student volunteer coach as part of Croom's policy on fifth-year players who aren't likely to make the SEC travel roster (70 players) at their position.

"I give them an option, if they don't want to go to through practice they don't have to. I hate for a guy to go through it if he's not coming back, I don't think that's fair," Croom said. "Anthony wants to coach and he did an excellent job as a student coach. He's actually operating as a player-coach right now! He was going to finish up school anyway, we asked if he wanted to come back and he said he wanted to. And he's a great special teams player."

So for most every spring problem that cropped up, the Mississippi State has been able to figure out and find a solution in these past three weeks. Whether these were the right answers will be evaluated come August, when remaining legal and availability situations should have be settled. And, when the incoming class of Bulldogs gets their chance to make some fast fall impressions, particularly on the defensive line and on special units.

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