COACH CROOM: It's good to see everybody again. That means it's time to start playing ball again.
We're excited about going into the 2008 season. We've got a lot of players returning, 21 seniors coming back. We're a pretty experienced football team. We have a couple guys who are going to be in starting roles this year that played in backup roles that are going to have to really play well for us, particularly we start with Derek Sherrod, our left offensive tackle spot, taking that spot over due to the loss of Mike Brown for disciplinary reasons. Then Mark Melichar, the right tackle spot, who was our backup left tackle last year. Those two guys really do have to step it up and play well. They think they're very much capable of doing that. JC, our new center, replaces Royce Blackledge. JC is more talented than Royce, but Royce was the leader of our offense last year. The intangible qualities that JC brings, how he handles all the things that a center has to do in the Southeastern Conference, is really going to be a key factor in the development of our offensive line.
As a group, we'll be more talented there, but we did lose a couple of guys there that we'll definitely miss. Overall we go into this season with a more talented football team. But as you all know and watch throughout this conference over the years, a lot of things go into being able to win, particularly being able to have a chance to compete for a championship.
We need to play well as a team, be physically and mentally tough, which we think we've established in the past. We have to have great team chemistry. We have to have excellent leadership. One of the things I was very pleased with us last year is that we finished games and we finished the season extremely well, and we have continue to do that.
Hopefully this year we can start off a lot stronger and a lot faster than that we've done as far as the season goes and also at the beginning of games. That's something we're really going to work on during the course of our two a days. If we do have the intangible qualities as our team had last year, with the talent we have, then we have a chance at some point to be a good football team during the course of this season.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. Can you just talk about the effect of last season and winning the Bowl game on your program and how you feel like it's taken it up a level in recruiting or just attitude on the guys buying into what you're doing.
COACH CROOM: The biggest thing that's happened for us is we're now starting to see the residual effects of last season in the recruiting. As you know, with the nature of recruiting, it's such now that about mid season is pretty much over and done with. So last year's recruiting was pretty much in the books before we went down that winning stretch at the last part of the season.
But we are way ahead of where we've ever been in recruiting for next season. In fact right now I think we're at 19 commitments already. We've got a few guys in our state that, if we can get those guys committed, and we feel positive about that at this point, then we'll have an excellent recruiting year.
Q. Did you use the Michael Brown situation to kind of illustrate to your players their responsibilities off the field as well as on?
COACH CROOM: That entire situation, I hope we've learned from that. Mike Brown is an excellent person. I think Mike was on the Dean's list the previous semester, an excellent student. In the spur of a moment, he made a bad decision. That's what we get our players to understand. I'm not making excuses, let's make sure you understand that. There were things that myself and my teammates did in college that if these guys did them today, it would be horrifying. But what happens now because of the Internet, all of these different kind of tubes we have on the Internet, all that stuff, I don't totally understand it all (smiling), but the access to the the public has so much access to what goes on so much quicker, that a guy in a split second can change his entire course of his life just by a decision that he makes.
What we really try to do is educate our players to make the right decision. They're gonna make mistakes. What we try to do at our program is hopefully try to keep them from making a mistake that they're going to have to live with the rest of their lives. Unfortunately in this case we had some guys who made some mistakes that as far as being in our program, you know, they just can't be there any more.
We talk to our players constantly. There's certain things on our campus, any kind of possession of any kind of firearm is not tolerated at our institution, and they know that. If that happens on our campus, you are not going to be in the program again. He made a bad decision.
Q. Teams usually bring seniors to these events. Why did you bring a sophomore?
COACH CROOM: Because he knows how to win and he's a leader of our offense. You know, I didn't read in the handbook where you had to have a senior (smiling).
Q. Compared to some other players you've had, how composed is he as a youngster?
COACH CROOM: Think about this: the guy starts off as a third stringer. He was a guy we recruited, liked, didn't have a great arm. Still doesn't have a great arm. He ends up all of a sudden in the early part of the season starting in the Southeastern Conference as a pure freshman. No benefit of spring practice, no working in the summer with the coaches, learning a pretty complicated offense. He goes out there, he throws I think 135 or 136 straight passes without an interception, which almost broke the national record. He's won more games than any quarterback in Mississippi State in the last eight years. So that says a lot for him in this conference.
You usually don't expect your quarterback in this conference to play until his third year. This young man played well as a freshman. And I have been amazed at his decision making. I expect him to be even better this year. We're going to give him more options this year and allow him to make more decisions on the field, which we think will make us a more explosive offense.
He's a joy to be around. He has pretty much orchestrated our throwing program. The players have responded to his leadership.
Q. Talking about him some more, you said his arm isn't any better. Is it unfair to judge him on his arm? His arm's got to be letter than last year.
COACH CROOM: I'll tell him you said that (laughter).
Q. It wasn't bad. With your offense, you put him in situations where he didn't have to throw deep or whatever. COACH CROOM: I should have said that Wes has a good arm. Quite often we look at a guy's arm. But the strength, the velocity of passing, it starts with flaws in his footwork and his footwork. That's what he has to improve. His arm strength is strong enough for him to do what we want him to do. Because Wes played and it's happened to a lot of quarterbacks that play in high school offenses and shotgun throughout high school, he's not used to taking a snap from the center and dropping back and delivering passes in a rhythm passing game. The footwork, the timing, it takes a lot of work. That's what we've had him working on throughout the course of the entire off season in spring practice. Just the improvement in that area is going to make his delivery and getting the ball to the receivers, going to make him a lot better.
Q. Sly, speaking of that offense, is there a chance that it does open up a little bit this coming year? I know you ended up using three quarterbacks last year. Would you like Wesley to be the only guy this year? Is a possible change of pace quarterback something you are looking at?
COACH CROOM: Okay, our offense is definitely going to open up. A lot of that reason is it starts with the quarterback. I trust our quarterbacks, not only Wes, but Tyson Lee, a junior college transfer, to make right decisions. In our offense, the ball goes to anybody who can get the football. In the years that we were at the Green Bay Packers, the runningbacks were the leading receivers in the offense every year. But that requires a quarterback to make good decisions and be able to get the ball to the open receiver.
We think Wes would do an even better job of that this year. We have more speed at wide receiver. That's gonna allow us to attack vertically a little bit more than what we have done. It's not that we will force it. But when the opportunity becomes available, he has that option. He has a green light. We've given him the green light to take those shots. If it doesn't work, we feel like with our running game we can come back and make it up on the next play, whereas we didn't give him those kind of options last year.
I mentioned Tyson Lee and Chris Relf. All of our quarterbacks can make plays with their feet now. That was important for Wes going down the stretch. We ran a little bit of the inside zone option. We added that to our mix. That will continue to be a part of our offense. Wes made several plays going down the stretch in those last four games where he pulled the ball down and ran the football. Tyson can do that and Chris Relf is almost like having another runningback out there. He has the strongest arm of all the guys, but he just has not mastered the entire offense to this point.
But there are certain things we can do with him to take advantage of his athletic ability should he have to play on an extended basis.
Our plan, we use two offensive lines last year. We played 22 guys on defense last year. If Tyson is good enough to win, then we will play two quarterbacks this year. It has nothing to do with Wes' performance. I just have always believed that if you can use any contribution that any of our players can make towards us winning the game, we want to use them. That makes everybody accountable for wins and losses. It also heightens everybody's intensity and preparations because they know they are gonna play.
Q. Given all the positive things you said about Wesley, what is it about his personality that, now given a little bit more freedom, now that he has a little bit more confidence, what do you think those aspects of his personality will allow him not to get too caught up in trying to be a Tim Tebow or Wilson or Stafford?
COACH CROOM: Well, first of all, Wes is a team player. Hopefully that's one of the things when I talk about maintaining an identity, that we have established as part of our culture at Mississippi State. We constantly talk about this. Any time anybody does anything that seems to have another agenda or tries to elevate themselves above the team, then they're gonna be called on that. That's me, coaches, anybody. Nobody in our program is bigger than Mississippi State. It's not about an individual; it's about Mississippi State. That's the way we are. That's the way we always will be.
Q. The numerous early commitments that you have, is that kind of a strategy that coaches around the country are using as kind of a safety net for players decommitting at the last second or is that just a strategy you're using going into recruiting for the following year?
COACH CROOM: Really I don't know if it's a strategy because it's just the way it's happened. When I came back to Mississippi State, I was one of those guys that didn't want to offer a scholarship until after guys started playing the senior year. If you wait that long, you won't get any. I got a letter the other day from a kid in the ninth grade. Wanted to know if we offered a scholarship. I hope it doesn't get to that point.
One of the things that's really helped us is the stability of our coaching staff now, being able to know where guys are. Basically in the fall we'll be evaluating talent not only for this year, our last few scholarships, but also for the next year. We're almost two years ahead. Believe it or not, last night I was working on a 2010 depth chart. That's how far you get ahead. You'll know exactly who's leaving and how many scholarships you're going to be able to offer the next year because it does affect your decision. It's a lot like the NFL. The NFL looks at guy's salary contracts and who is going to become a free agent. We have to look at who is going to graduate, positions we're going to be deficient, how many guys we're going to be able to sign. This year we're going to probably sign 25 guys. Next year we'll probably only be able to sign 16, 17 guys. We'll have to be sharp on our evaluations to make sure all 16 of those scholarships count. It's just the trend right now, the way things are going.
Q. I remember last year you said something to the effect that you'd be happy to give Glenn Dorsey a graduation gift and see him move on. I know you got a lot to do between now and the game against LSU, including your 2010 depth chart, but when you look at what they've got coming back on the defensive line at LSU, do you almost think there's not much of a drop off you'd expect losing a guy like Dorsey?
COACH CROOM: If anybody else had lost Dorsey in this conference, they'd be in real trouble. LSU just puts another one up there. Tyson Jackson is really an outstanding player.
But I know that whoever they put out there is going to be a great player. But I'm still glad Dorsey is gone (smiling). I tell people this all the time. In my coaching career, he is one of only three defensive linemen that when I went to the game I was truly afraid of. Reggie White was one of the others when I was in the NFL. And Howie Long was one of the others.
Q. I think you're one of 11 coaches now in the league that's won a Bowl game. There's five guys that have won national championships. What is it like coaching this league, the competitiveness level?
COACH CROOM: Our conference is the toughest conference in the country. We've got more national championships, we got more players in the pros. So our talent level in this conference is the best in the country. The quality of our coaches is the best in the country. If you're going to compete in this conference, you've got to prepare well and you've got to play well every week. Anybody in this conference can beat anybody at any given time.
It's an honor. I always felt it as a player and I feel it more now as a coach, it's an honor to be part of the Southeastern Conference.
Q. You talk about high school quarterbacks have run the spread, and it now seems to be seeping into college. Could you just talk about the thinking behind that. Would you ever do it, defend it, the problems it causes?
COACH CROOM: I would never say never. I like having tight ends and fullbacks. It's part of who we are. It's a part of our mentality. We want to continue to stay in that direction.
We do use some spread sets. We do use the shotgun. But, you know, to go to that full time, I don't see us doing that.
Defending the spread is just like defenses defending the wishbone. It all goes in cycles. You have to recruit a different kind of athlete to run the spread offense. You've got to recruit a different type of athlete to defend the spread offense. You have to have speed in the secondary. You have to have speed at linebacker. The days of the 250, 260 pound middle linebacker, those days are over. The days of 215 or 220 pound safety who runs a 4.7, those days are over. All four of those guys in the secondary have to be able to cover. You have to have six defensive backs now that can line up and play in a given game because you're going to see four wide receivers and you have to be able to put six guys out there, corners, that can cover and also be able to tackle.
I think there's no question the defenses are going to catch up with it because they always have and they always will in time.
Q. Will there be any changes with the new defensive coordinator? Any changes in philosophy? Also could you talk about your decision to sort of promote from within rather than go look for somebody who had experience as a defensive coordinator.
COACH CROOM: The first thing is there will be minor changes because every coach is going to be different. Any time you get a different play caller, a guy's going to have a different feel for the game. He's going to have different thoughts about the way you do things.
Our overall philosophy will not change. We want to be a physical defense. We want to be a defense that plays fast. We want to be sound in the fundamentals. We want to make sure we don't give up explosive plays in the running game or the passing game.
My decision to promote within (was) basically (because) I watched Charlie. I knew of his reputation before I hired him as our safety coach. Strong reputation. Probably as strong as any assistant coach I was hearing about in the conference. In fact, I've been hearing about this guy for so long, surely nobody can be that good.
After we got him there, watched him work in our defense for a year, it was almost like an interview for a one year interview. I had no idea we were going to be losing Ellis Johnson. About mid season I had really decided that if we ever lost Ellis, that's the route I was going to go on, based on what I was seeing in him coach on the field, preparing in our coverages. You got to understand, you go back and look through our defense last year, we didn't give up any home runs back in the secondary. We played some of the better offenses in the country. The job that our defensive unit, particularly on the back end in our coverages, what we did against Kentucky, was outstanding. That was one of the most prolific offenses in our conferences last year, one of the best in the country. They did a great job on the back end, giving us a chance to win that ballgame.
So without his knowledge of it, he was interviewing for the job because I always, if we have somebody on our staff who is fully capable of getting a job done, prefer to promote from within.
Q. Would you like to see the possibility of an early signing date? If so, when? Do you like the BCS system the way it is now or would you like to have a plus one or playoff system?
COACH CROOM: Well, I'm not in favor of any kind of early signing date, except the proposal that as a coaching staff we made in the spring, for a possibility of a 24 hour period the Monday prior to our going on the road in December. It would eliminate the possibility of anybody else, you know, signing anybody who is taking an official visit. The reason for that is we do not right now have a system where you can focus on the games during the course of the fall and not have to prepare for games and be in the intense part of recruiting at the same time. I think that's great for our players. It was also great for coaches.
As far as the playoff system, I don't see where you can ever eliminate the Bowls. Anything that would take the Bowls out of the picture, I would not be in favor of. If they could work out a plus one, some kind of way we could get the top four teams in there, you end up with a plus one, wouldn't be opposed to that. If it stays as it is, I'm happy with that.
As long as we're all in the same system, as long as the rules are the same for everybody, I don't have a problem with it. Most important thing to me right now is our team having the chance working toward winning the SEC championship. You win the SEC championship, you don't have to worry, you'll be in the hunt for the national championship.
Q. You had several close games last year. Does that give you any concern about whether or not you can replicate that success this year?
COACH CROOM: Well, we had several close games the year before and we lost them. Last year we had those same several close games, we won 'em. This is the Southeastern Conference, they're gonna be close. The blowouts back when I was playing in Alabama, the game over a halftime, 35 to nothing, you sit over there and drink water, eat popcorn the rest of the game, those days are over. Games are going to be decided probably by seven points or less and it's going to come down to somebody doing something right or wrong at the end of the game. That's just the way it is.
Not going to be any celebrations, taking your best people out the first drive in the third quarter. Not in the SEC competition, that's not happening any more.
Q. As you enter another year, last year you said the program may be a little ahead of schedule. Can you talk about where the program has been, where it is now, where you hope to take it? Could you comment on Jamar Chaney, the impact he'll make on your defense.
COACH CROOM: You know, we did some good things last year. Other than those players at our first meeting, we established that day that our goal was to win the conference championship. I told those players at the first meeting they would not be around when that happened because it was going to be somewhere down the road in the future. I know a lot of people have made mention that it's ridiculous to say that.
Well, they give a championship trophy. We play in the Southeastern Conference. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't want to compete and shouldn't work toward competing to get that done. Because why else do you play the game, other than to win it all?
I think we have a chance to do that this year. I don't know if we're good enough. But I know this: every year prior to now we have played as good as we could play. When I sit back and look at our team, we have played as good as we can play. But our goal is to win the conference championship. Again, I want to ultimately for us to play as good as we can play, to be the best we can be. I don't know any other way to be the best you can be unless you try to be the best and to be the best in this conference, it means you got to go to Atlanta and win the conference championship. And that's what we're going to try to do. Whether we make it or not, I don't know. At the end, we may not be good enough. But that's what we're going to try to do.
Q. Coaches in the SEC now are pretty well taken care of financially. I want to know if you have an appreciation for maybe the early stages of your coaching career, maybe how humble those beginnings were compared to now.
COACH CROOM: Well, I'm very thankful for all I've been blessed with, very thankful. I'm like a lot of other coaches in the conference. This year I got a new contract. Mississippi State was very generous to me. I'm very appreciative of it.
Yes, I definitely do remember the days when I was broke. I had a guy ask me the other day, Coach, you've always done well. No. I know what it's like to be worried about where your paycheck is coming from. A lot of people in our country in that situation now. I've been looking for a job. I got hired on a Monday, and my last paycheck was coming on Friday. I've been there, done that. I've had to raid my daughter's college fund in order to pay the bills and nothing else be left. I know what that feels like. I'm very thankful to not have to worry about it. I'm blessed now. I don't have to worry about those things right now.
It's not because of anything that I've done. I'm just fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and the good Lord saw fit to allow me to be the recipient of some of the good things of life. I don't take that for granted.
You know, my wife and I, we're just thinking of all the things we've been through over the years, the tough times and all the financial things that we've been through, and yet our lifestyle really hasn't changed. The biggest thing is I don't have to worry about paying my bills. I don't think any head coach in the Southeastern Conference does. I can say that without hesitation.
So, yes, I'm very fortunate. But it's never been about the money. I coached at Alabama for 10 years, started with a salary of $14,000 and only got a $2,000 raise. I coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for five years. The fifth year my take home pay was lower than it was the first year I got there. It was the love of the game. That's the only reason I still do it now, the love of the game. One of these days I'm going to walk away from it. The money is still gonna be there. There's gonna come a point, I know when that time comes, I'm going to have to walk away. Nothing lasts forever. Right now I'm enjoying it. I'm very blessed to be coaching at Mississippi State. I'm financially blessed. I'm around good people. I enjoy going to work every day. And that's the greatest blessing I have right now. I love going to work. As long as I enjoy that, you know, I'll keep doing it. I won't go to work where I hate to get up and go to work. I'll never do that again another day of my life.
Q. I was wondering if you could explain, it seems like over the past 15 to 20 years, the importance of the left tackle position has increased fairly dramatically. Do you view it as the most important position on the offensive line? Secondly, how do you view Derek Sherrod individually in replacing Mike Brown?
COACH CROOM: I can't believe you asked that question to a former center (smiling). There's no doubt that the center is the most important guy in the offensive line. Always has been, always will be. The left tackle is the second most important guy in the offensive line. So let's make sure we are clear on that (laughter).
Yeah, it's really important. We've got two new guys there. JC Brignone and Sherrod. Now, they're new guys. Let me tell you something, if I got to go to battle, I want those two guys going with me. Sherrod played almost 300 snaps last year as a true freshman. Probably the next greatest story, other than Wes for us, he never started a game because we had J.D. Hamilton there, but Derek, who graded 79% for the entire year, played almost 300 snaps as a true freshman.
If we hadn't had a senior in front of him that I had a great deal respect for, he probably would have been a starter last year. I had a great deal of respect for J.D. J. C. Brignone is one of the toughest, strongest guys I know, tough not only physically but tough mentally. J.C. lost his dad in the spring who was his closest friend. Missed about a week of practice. Went, took care of all of the family business, and basically was the host and the coordinator of his dad's wake. To sit there and watch him do that, even though he missed a week of spring practice, I knew he was going to be our center because the mental toughness he displayed to overcome everything else that he does at center. If he's that mentally tough, he'll be fine there. I have no questions about him.
Even though guys haven't been true starters, you know, I trust them and I'll put it in their hands. We'll be all right with those two guys.
Q. The ACC is sort of toying with an NFL style injury report for their coaches during the season. Do you think that will work or how would you feel about having to do that in the college game?
COACH CROOM: Everybody is doing it, I don't have a problem with it. It's easy to say probable, out, maybe. Just cuts how much I got to say down.
Q. If you can specifically what did you tell your guys after the LSU game?
COACH CROOM: Well, the first thing I told them was they didn't lose the game, I did. And I did. That dumb decision to try to get a touchdown just before the half, that was stupid. If I had one thing I could do over again, we'd run a draw, or a screen, it would be broken for a touchdown, great, otherwise we go into halftime 10 to nothing, go in there, get a little Kool Aid, high five everybody, tell them how good we played, come back out, let's see what happens. Basically I put us in a position where the game was over at halftime, with that interception, their scoring just before the half.
After the game what I told them when we walked off the field, hey, we're going to be a good football team this year. We're going to go to a Bowl game this year. Because we just held our own with the national championship football team. That's exactly what I told them in there. I thought Les and his staff did a great job. I know they struggled. But when they lost Dorsey, had those injuries going down the stretch, for them to still win the championship, that was a tremendous job of their players and coaches staying focused on what they had to get done. Had they not had the injuries they had last year, I think it would have been a breeze to the national championship.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about your opening game at Louisiana Tech. It's unusual for an SEC team to play there.
COACH CROOM: Well, I've never played there before. I think we're going to have to make some adjustments in our schedule, when we leave, how we dress, all those sort of things. But we look forward to the game. Our staff, we were looking at some film of them the other day. They played some good football last year. They made it tough on Hawaii, who I thought June and his staff did a great job with that game last year. I watched Hawaii several times on TV. They were a very good football team. I think Hawaii beat them in overtime. Tech played Boise State extremely close last year.
It is the game we're focusing on right now. It's going to be a tough game. We're going in their territory, so we're playing a road game right from the start. We're going to have to be totally prepared and ready to play.
It's important for us and our players, something we want to improve on, is being able to get off to a good start in the season, being able to get off to a good start in the first quarters in our game. We know we have traditionally finished strong. We need to start faster.
Q. Could you talk about Jamar Chaney. It appears he's come a long way since back when he was denied admission to Georgia. Now he's an all SEC guy. How far has he come and what kind of guy is he?
COACH CROOM: Jamar has played for us for a long time. Seems like he's been playing forever. Very fortunate to get him in our program. He has responded positively. He has done a good job academically, has played extremely well.
He's a leader of our defense. Right now, you know, we always try to be strong down the middle with him at the middle linebacker spot, Jesse Bowman, Kyle Love as the two interior defensive linemen, and with Derek as safety we're pretty solid down the middle of our defense. If we expect his play to improve, I think even from the spring to the summer, he's really changed his body. I think his conditioning was one of the things we talked to him at the end of spring, he had to improve his endurance level, get stronger. I think he's done that. I don't know if you can tell, you probably can't tell with that suit on, 'cause he's got it draped on him pretty good, but he's a pretty good cut individual now. I think he's really changed his body since spring practice.
Q. Do you foresee using Dixon and Ducre in similar roles as last year?
COACH CROOM: Our offense starts with, of course, Wes and AD. Those two guys have to play well. But Christian is a valuable part of it. Then we expect Rob Elliott and Wade Bonner to really make a contribution to them. We've got some packages where those guys will be involved. Even though AD is a starter, all four of those guys will play and play a lot.
But Rob and Wade give us some explosiveness at the runningback position that we have not had since Jerious went to the Falcons. We expect those four guys to be an integral part of what we do offensively.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.