Coach Croom's MSU Media Day Transcript

He's had five practice days now, the most recent in full padding, to evaluate the team. So Coach Sylvester Croom came to Mississippi State's pre-season media day far better-prepared than a week ago to comment in much more detail on how his Bulldogs have worked since reporting to August camp, where there strengths are and what concerns remain to be addressed before kickoff on August 30.

Thursday morning saw the Bulldogs pull on full-gear, and go full-contact for the first time. On Friday they will have the first two-a-day date with an early-morning workout in pads and afternoon session in shorts to prepare for Saturday's scrimmage. That session is closed to the public but open to the media, the lone game-type date that can be reported on.

Following is a full transcript of Coach Croom's Thursday comments and answers, starting after he had complimented football media director Joe Galbraith's suit and new shoes.

Coach Sylvester Croom: "We're excited to get our fall practice started. I think our players have been really enthusiastic up to this point, as far as the work. I think it's extremely obvious they worked hard over the course of summer and came back in relatively good shape. I want to comment Ben Pollard and his staff for what they did this summer, our kids have worked awful hard and a lot of them have totally changed their bodies. One that comes to mind is Aubrey Bell, he's in the best shape in his life and practicing at a much, much higher level than he ever had. That's just one of several guys who has really changed their bodies and the way they go about things. Brandon Hart is another guy who is in great shape and has a totally different attitude this year.

"So guys have gotten themselves in probably the best shape that we've been in going into camp. Now, we've got to get them in football shape and that's a totally different deal. No matter how much you condition in the summer, carrying those pads and blocking people and pushing and pulling and all those kinds of things with that equipment on it's a totally different feeling and concept. I think they've gotten themselves to a point as best they could in the summer, but now we really have to work extremely hard with the pads on. We went out for the first time in full pads this morning, and luckily it was probably the coolest morning we've had in a long time this morning, obviously my prayers went unanswered for a warm morning! So they got off this morning relatively light. I thought our enthusiasm was great but they weren't really tested because it wasn't that hot. I'm looking forward to when it's a really hot morning practice so we can see how they handle it with the full gear on.

"I know that sounds a little bit tough for this time of year. But anybody can play when they feel good, anybody can play when it's cool and nice and everything is going well. To be able to execute when you're tired, you're hurting, you feel you can't take another step, that's part of what we've got to find out. Mental toughness, great conditioning, because it's going to happen in a game sometime and we've still got to be able to execute at a high level.

"But I am pleased with our enthusiasm and our work ethic at this point. I think we are ahead of where we were at this time last year in some areas, not quite as far along as in others.

"I think our linebacking crew has really, really stepped up, playing at a high level. Our secondary is playing at a high level. Up front we've got some issues to deal with. We've got some new people in there, we're thin at defensive tackle with Rodney Prince not being eligible and the loss of Quentin Wesley it really hurt our depth there. Then the guys we got back; Kyle Love had (toe) surgery and LaMarcus Williams has been a little injury-prone, so we're a little thin in there. The good thing about it is we're getting a chance to work some of the freshmen, guys like Sean Ferguson, Josh Jackson, Nick Bell, those guys are getting a little more work than they probably would have under normal circumstances. But that is something definitely concerns me. If there is any spot that concerns me it is definitely with the depth at defensive tackle.

"On the offensive side of the ball we started a little slow the first day but we got better yesterday and really picked it up today. I thought our understanding of what we're trying to get done in the passing game was better, we threw and caught the ball a little better today but we've still got a long ways to go as far as our timing and our execution. Our quarterbacks have to be better on their drops and getting the ball out quicker. We've still got some things to clean up in our route-running. But our guys understand the protections better and what we're trying to get done in our concepts.

"Probably by the end of the week we'll be through putting in what we're going to put in. From then on it will be situations, and we use a lot of the same plays in different situations except down in the red zone, we have some things different there. We won't get into that probably until the latter part of next week. But the idea is to get a lot of repetition of what we're doing, particularly in the passing game, and get very, very, very good at it. I feel like we can be a better passing offense than we had last year because of the experience of our receivers and having quarterback Wesley Carroll back, and Tyson Lee has been in our offense since spring. It think those guys fit our system and have an understanding of what we want to get done. But we have to execute a lot better than we have previously.

"We haven't got real deep into the kicking game except for our field goal and extra point, and field goal and extra point block and rush. Those have been the main emphases so far. Our punt team and those things have been emphasizing individual techniques and we're just now getting into the teamwork phases of it. And we'll get a lot of work in that scrimmage Saturday. We will open this scrimmage (to media) and this will be the only one open to the media, the rest will be closed.

"Just to update you some on personnel, Rodney Prince did return to practice today. Of course he is ineligible, we didn't intend to bring him back until school started but we had an opening, one of the walk-ons in our 105 decided to partake in other interests. So we were able to bring Rodney in early. Johnny Carpenter talked to me last night, he decided to leave the squad. He will remain in school on scholarship and on a work-study program but no longer be involved in our football program."

Q: Could you recap how Jamar Chaney came here? "We really didn't do a whole lot to get Jamar here. A lot of it was because of Mark Richt's concern for Jamar when he was not allowed to enter the University of Georgia. Even while Mark was trying to get him into Georgia he was also looking at a plan-B scenario where if he didn't get him where was he going to go. One of Jamar's uncles had seen something about our program on TV, this was where he wanted Jamar to come if he didn't go to Georgia. It was touch-and-go, after we checked on some things. I took recommendations from Mark about Jamar's character because we hadn't recruited him, and totally trusting in what Mark said about him because I know what kind of program he likes to run and what kind of person he is.

"We did talk to the high school coach to get some clarifications on some issues that we were concerned about. We had some knowledge of that high school coach and we basically went forward on the recommendation of the coach, the high school counselor, and Mark Richt. He went on about three official visits. I think he got tired and we were afraid he was going to stay at Maryland. We were very fortunate he came here and decided to stay and he's performed extremely well for us.

"I think he's playing better right now than he ever has. He's a lot more aggressive, he's playing downhill and that's something we talked to him about after spring, we wanted him to be more aggressive and play on the offensive side of the football more. Particularly as a blitzer. He's very, very aggressive now. He's taken on a lot more leadership role. I think he's been starting so long that in the senior spring I was not pleased with the way he performed. But I'm very happy with the way he's playing right now, he's got his focus back and I think he's going to have a big year for us."

Q: At quarterback is Wesley Carroll the clear-cut starter and what is Tyson Lee practicing like? "They're both a lot alike. Tyson might have a little quicker release and probably a little stronger arm. Wes was our leader and the guy who won games last year and that's the way we'll start the season. We intend to play both of them, because they both we think can help us win ball games. They're alike in a lot of ways. They're both very smart, they're both ‘gym rats' and are over here early and stay late and study the film. And they really do have a good understanding of what we're trying to get done. If we can keep them healthy and they continue to get the reps in practice I believe both of them are going to be very solid players for us.

"Chris Relf is our third guy, the most athletic of all of them. He's very inconsistent right now, and he's got to get a little more intent and a little more serious about the business at hand. Chris has great, great potential and I told him he's either going to perform to the level of that ability or he's not going to be around here. We will not allow him to play at less than he's capable of. He's going to play and play well and get better or he's not going to be very happy in the days around here."

Q: How much contact do you have in full-pads? "We just stay ‘thud' tempo all day. To some people I guess our thud tempo is full-speed, but thud for us full-speed in the line, the first guy up get a good lick in, just don't take him to the ground. And everybody else on defense better be right there with him.

"So we can get a lot of work done at almost full-speed without putting guys on the ground. My experience has been and what I learned in pro football is when guys go down on the ground that's when you get injuries. Particularly big guys, when they roll around on the ground and somebody rolls-up, a knee gets hurt, somebody throws somebody into the back of a leg. So we try to get as much contact work in without guys going down. That's one thing I thought our team last year did a great job of, being able to practice hard and practice smart as well. Not pulling guys from behind with the jersey and pop a hamstring, not grabbing guys in the nape of the neck where again that's something else that can pull a hamstring and now it's against the rules to do that. The other thing is cutting guys below the waist and putting guys on the ground, those are the kind of things when you're going hard that will cause injuries. We're learning how to practice, we particularly have to teach our young guys how to practice full-speed without getting guys unnecessary injuries."

Q: How much a concern before he got on campus was Tyson Lee's size? "Well, he grew! No, Tyson's size was a concern. It was a concern coming out of high school and out of junior college. You always want somebody who is 6-3, 6-4, but the reality is there's not that many guys around that can throw the ball, have the feet, have the intelligence, the mobility, and the ideal height. The most important job of quarterback is to get his football team in the end zone; Tyson has proven from high school through junior college he can do that, and that's what he showed us after the spring. He will get his team in the end zone and that's really the true measure of a quarterback, will he put points on the board?"

Q: Talk about the leadership Keith Fitzhugh has given? "Keith as I think back was the first guy who committed to us when we got here. He started out as a corner, and it was a drastic change for him to move to safety. But he has embraced it and he is playing very well for us now. I thought he had an excellent practice the last two practices and has given us outstanding leadership. He finished up with that great game in the bowl game and it has carried through into spring and into the fall practices.

"Our safeties are a strength of our football team with he and Derek Pegues and De'Mon Glanton back there, and now we've got Charles Mitchell back there as well. That should be a very strong position for us this year."

Q: Can you talk about your seniors? "I've talked about these guys all summer long. This is a group that has been around a while, they've been through a lot of the tough times, they've had to work extremely hard. And I have high expectations for them. They knew what we were trying to do when they came here, they knew what our expectations were, they've been through the program, they know all the little things. It's on their shoulders now to set the example to play at a high level, to do the things off the field that our program stands for and help build this football team. They've got to help our young guys come along.

"But the main thing, something I heard Lou Holtz say last summer and I think is very, very important: when guys get to be seniors regardless of whether they are walk-ons, the last guy on the team, or they're a superstar, that's the time they have to play their best football. In order to win, the seniors have to play the best football they've played since they've been here. And to put it in a nutshell that's what we expect from our senior class: I want them to play the best they've ever played since they've been here this year, every one of them, from top-to-bottom."

Q: How are the freshmen doing in practice? "There's a group of guys that I think have done well. The guy who in the summer workouts, through the reports I got from our players themselves, I kept hearing all summer about Delmon Robinson. There's no question he's going to help us this year. There are other guys; I think Sean Ferguson at defensive end, he needs to gain weight and will in time but we're getting him ready to play in that first ball game. Charles Mitchell is going to be a very good football player. Other guys who can help us, on the offensive side Tobias Smith is emerging now as a young offensive lineman who we think can help us. Louis Watson in the secondary. Mike Hunt who we signed last year but is a true freshman and came in the spring, he is playing well now and we think is going to help us this year. Nelson Hurst is a true freshman that came in the spring who we think will help us.

"The one's I've mentioned up to this point if they continue to improve as we go forward I don't think there is any question these guys are going to make a significant contribution to us."

Q: Are Anthony Dixon and you on the same page more this year? "I don't want you to think Anthony and I haven't had a good relationship. We're always on the same page, we just might not have been reading the same words at the same time! His philosophy and the way I think have always meshed, he's always known what I've expected from him and I don't think there was any conflict there. It's just that he was young and a little bit immature and every now and then he wanted to do things his way.

"Well the idea, and it's something we're trying to get over to our players particularly this year with our coaching staff, is we will not allow them to be less than what we think they're capable of being. One of the things I asked them to do when they came here, each and every one of them, is to trust us. Let us determine what their best is rather than them determining that."

"A.D. had a good year last year by anybody's standards. Hey, a guy gains a thousand yards, leads us to a bowl game…but when you look at the film he left at least 500 yards out there. At least 500 yards. The first time we ran an option play in the bowl game he should score. He and the safety are one-on-one, and coming from twelve yards deep the guy makes the tackle for a six-seven yard gain. He's got to beat that guy, there's nobody else behind him. Some of it was a habit of running out-of-bounds in practice, running out of bounds in the games. Well, even though he's hemmed-in he's got to practice at a higher level in order to beat that.

"And that's been a big goal for him and all of our backs, is practicing beating that safety. Because in order for us to become a more explosive team, in order for him to become a better player, he's got to beat that last guy. And we practice that. Something I've done is included in our defensive pursuit drills we have our running backs running to give our defensive guys angles; last year I didn't use the starting backs, this year we use all the backs. He's had to be engaged in that as well.

"But I will say he is practicing at a very, very high level right now. His practices remind me a lot of the way Jerious Norwood practiced. The little things right now, he's very receptive to doing the little things. Football has always come easy to him, and I think that could have been part of the problem because he's one of the smartest backs I've ever coached. We use the same system I used at Green Bay and even when he was a freshman he never missed blitz-pickups, he always knows what to do. Now every now and then he'll get careless, but he always knows what he should be doing.

"And he's special. I know he's not a 4.3 or 4.2 guy, he's not flashy. But not too many guys his size have the change of direction he has, is as smart as he is, can block a defensive end, block a linebacker on pass-rush, and then run routes coming out of the backfield like a little guy. If he plays as good as he can play, I have no hesitation about that, he will be one of the best backs in the country this year."

Q: How did you decide to gray-shirt (freshman punter) Baker Swedenburg? "Yes, Baker will be coming in in January, we talked about this in the recruiting process and told him from the start he's a punter we want in our program, but we had other, more pressing needs. We've got two guys out there with Blake McAdams and Adam Carlson, and now Eric Richards as backup. But we lose both of those (veteran) guys this year and want to stay ahead where there is not a gap where we have to bring a freshman in.

"As much as we want our freshmen to contribute, we don't want to have them in a position where they have to start immediately. We like to bring guys along at their own pace. Some guys develop faster than others. It's obvious Delmon Robinson is ahead of the normal freshman and he'll be ready to play a lot faster than you would normally expect. But one thing we learned from our experience three or four years ago is that you have to bring freshman along at their own pace. The ones that are ready to play we let them play. We don't have pre-conceived notions about redshirting.

"And if we do grayshirt somebody we tell them in the recruiting process. We don't recruit them all the way to the end and then just before signing day ‘oh, well, we'd like for you to come in in January. We talk to them and their parents about it up-front. Some guys want to do it, some guys don't. If they don't want to do it, then that's OK and they can go somewhere else. But we're going to be honest with them and let them know what our thinking is."

Q: How are your veteran wide receivers practicing? "I'm very pleased with the three you mentioned. Jamayel Smith had some problems with a little heat; Jamayel is a funny eater and doesn't like to eat his vegetables so we've got to see if we can get that better. But he had a little problem early with the heat and lost about five or six pounds, so we didn't ask him to do anything (Wednesday). He is our best receiver, there's no question about that. I think Jamayel is an excellent route-runner, he's been real professional since the season was over with about getting his body in great shape and becoming an even better route-runner. I thought he got a little careless the other day with his hands, he had such an emphasis on running after the catch he was focusing more on running and forgot about the catch.

"Co-Eric Riley has been very consistent since the bowl game, in his work habits and everything and I've been very pleased with that. Aubrey Bell is in the best shape of his life and is practicing in a more professional manner, I'm very pleased with him. I saw him out there yesterday, he's become a technician running routes, he's catching the ball well, and he's really trying to help Delmon Robinson and Arceto Clark and all the young receivers as they develop. I see those guys coaching the other guys up a lot more. Brandon McRae is practicing better but he's inconsistent in making plays. He's working extremely hard. But he's a guy that has got to step up for us this year because he's a very talented young man. There are some things about the way he places his hands and catching the ball we've got to correct, that I think will make him a more consistent player.

"But I am pleased with the way he's working. Those four guys give us four very solid, dependable receivers. Then you hopefully throw Delmon in there and another freshman, Charles Bailey, who we really need to get a little weight on him. But he has excellent hands and is an excellent route-runner. His dad was assistant G.M. with Jacksonville Jaguars so he's been practicing against professional defensive backs and running routes with professional receivers pretty much all his career. And it shows."

Q: What has Robinson done to catch your eye? "Well the first thing, he runs fast! Faster than I thought even coming out of high school. The reason (cornerback) Damein Anderson is hurt now with that hamstring, what the guys tell me, is Delmon ran by Damein so fast Damein blew his hamstring out trying to catch him. I don't think Damein wants to hear that but that's what the players tell me happened! But his burst up the field has really surprised me. And he's an intense competitor, he's in excellent condition, and he can catch the football. I thought I saw a little more ‘freshman' in him this morning because he dropped some balls he's normally been catching. I think the fatigue and the grind of it is starting to weigh in on him a little bit, and that's understandable for a freshman. I'm sure he'll have a sinking spell at some point and then he's got to come up out of it."

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