Saturday Football Scrimmage Report

Anthony Dixon admits that for him, these junior-year scrimmages can be a bit…well, dull. The starting halfback hauled the ball two whole times last weekend, making this afternoon almost exhausting in comparison. "I had three carries today!" he joked. "It was a light day, Coach just wanted to make sure came in there and got it started quick."

Dixon's results—three rushes for 30 total yards with a 22-yard burst on the first touch—sort of summarized the whole Saturday for Mississippi State. Particularly for the Bulldog offense, which got off to pretty promising starts much of afternoon but failed too often to finish successfully. And, in that a number of projected starters and regulars were limited to cameo appearances in the full-hitting sessions, which naturally figured into the final numbers.

But to the players the real meaning of scrimmage #2 was as the unofficial end to pre-season camp. Starting Monday, the Bulldogs begin both the fall school semester and hands-on preparation for the August 30 opening game at Louisiana Tech. They'll still practice daily, but there is just something about the transition from camp to classes that sends a signal.

"Man, it's football time, no doubt about that," said quarterback Wesley Carroll. "Any time you get done with two-a-days it's obviously a relief, it's such a strain and a grind mentally and physically. I'm just glad that for the most part everybody came out pretty injury-free."

Not quite everybody, though. Some players were held out of the second scrimmage entirely with existing injuries, including starting DT Kyle Love. Others, like Dixon, got just enough plays to make it feel they'd participated then were sent to the sidelines to watch. And be bored. Though, Dixon added, in his case this probably was payback for his previous scrimmage sufferings.

"When I came in it wasn't nothing like that, I don't know if anybody got the treatment I did! But I feel relieved to know now that he can depend on me like that. On Saturday night he wants me to be the one to come out and strike the first blow." Which Dixon did with that initial long dash. "Out here, I'm telling him it's going to be like that in a game and he feels he can trust me now."

Coach Sylvester Croom had enough faith in many skill regulars not to risk them too often today. "We missed a lot of people today because I wanted to see some of the younger guys." So the staff limited Dixon, HB Christian Ducre, and wideouts Jamayel Smith and Aubrey Bell, among others. Though, Croom noted, "Obviously Bell got one play too many because he got a little bit of a thigh contusion but they say it isn't anything serious. We didn't intend for him to get a lot because we wanted to look at O'Neal Wilder and Delmon Robinson. But those were the main guys. Brandon Hart didn't get a lot, Eric Hoskins. Marcus Green didn't get as much as the freshmen tight ends."

The big bodies didn't get off quite so early or easily as linemen on each side got plenty of practicing and scrimmaging in by comparison. That included the varsity, Croom said.

"The first offensive and defensive lines probably got more than I intended to when we got out there, but still not a lot of snaps. We really wanted to check the second group out and we got some questions answered. They're going to be alright. Some kids need more work and more time, they're going to be ready in late fall but not quite ready yet. And there are some that are, so we have to look closely at the film to see where it is right now."

Unlike the first scrimmage last Saturday, this one opened—after some normal practicing by units—with the second teams squaring off. Sparked by redshirt HB Robert Elliot's 15-yard squirt the offense got to midfield the first chance, then with QB Tyson Lee hitting five of six throws in the series got a 37-yard field goal by redshirt Eric Richards to cap the second series. In a matchup of first teams Dixon mirrored his younger counterpart with a long opening burst before the drive stalled. The second chance saw Carroll hit Brandon McRae for 32 yards to set up a 45-yard field goal by starting PK Adam Carlson.

#2 quarterback Lee had the day's big numbers, helped by a ‘situation' drive that began on the defensive 33-yard line and ended with Lee hitting HB Arnil Stallworth for a 12-yard touchdown play. Later he would find another running back, redshirt Wade Bonner, for a 27-yard touchdown connection against the backup defense. When the first teams returned, defense stopped consecutive series on whistle-sacks by MLB Jamar Chaney and SLB K.J. Wright.

From there the scrimmage shifted exclusively to red zone work with the ball moved closer to the goal on each series. Six times the offense got touchdowns, but few of these came in true goal-line settings as the defense rose to the occasion. Or, got help, which led to Croom's biggest issue with the whole afternoon. "The biggest thing I'm disappointed with, we moved the ball pretty well out in the open field, then the offense didn't perform well in the red zone today.

"I thought the defense played well in the red zone. But the thing that was disappointing, and a lot of the reason the offense didn't move well in the red zone was too many penalties." In particular an uncomfortable number of holding calls and ten-yard markoffs on first downs to defeat both the purpose and the drive.

"You can't have penalties in the red zone, and the way our kickers are kicking if we cross the 30-yard line we should be automatic on field goals," Croom said. "Then we get penalties that throw us out of field goal range. Or get down in there close in a pretty good situation with a chance to get it in the end zone and get a penalty and come up with second and long or third and long. It gets you behind the eight-ball. That's what we've really got to clear up, penalties that are really hurting us."

Not to mention aggravating the offensive staff which has seen progress in many aspects this camp. Certainly the yardage tallies this August are better than previous pre-seasons, which is a good sign. "In both scrimmages I felt we moved the ball between the 20's pretty well, but our red zone…" Croom said.

"And it amazes me because we were pretty good in the red zone last year. We're not right now, and that's been in both scrimmages. So we've really got to do a lot of work down there."

Redshirt rookie runners Elliot and Bonner ended up just a yard apart for the day, 36 to 35; but Bonner made his on four fewer carries and scored three times even if a couple of those were in set-up situations. QB Lee got to show his scrambling a bit more today with 21 yards to the positive on four official runs. He was 14-of-20 passing for 101 yards and two scores against the #2 defense. Carroll, against the first group, was 7-of-17 for 61 yards.

"I'm not pleased right now with our quarterbacks' execution," Croom said. "That's got to be better, got to be a heck of a lot better. I think some of it probably is we're still putting some stuff in, it's the first time we'd been full-speed working in the red zone. We've got to execute better there. The combination of that and getting the penalties really is stagnating us. When we don't get penalties we moved the ball pretty well but it seemed every time we'd get something going there was a penalty. Of the ten-yard variety and those are not good. It's hard to overcome those, I don't care who you are."

But the starting quarterback acknowledged that the offense also wasn't as adventurous in the second scrimmage as in the first, when a wide variety of sets and combinations were tested. With the season approaching the offensive staff simplified the package a good bit. "There's a lot of stuff we use in scrimmages, and a lot of stuff we don't use," Carroll said. "Normally in the scrimmages we just like to run our basic-type stuff, the stuff that can get us out of tough situations. Because any time you can rely on a set number of plays, those are the plays that help you down the stretch and in crucial situations."

Besides, Croom said, "We didn't use a lot of stuff we normally use down there (in goal line), basically because there are too many cel phones and cameras out here."

Still nothing could be taken away from the defensive effort inside the 20-yard line. With Love held out, the staff mixed and matched more in the front as another tentative d-line takes shape. "If we had to start today we'd start (ends) Sean Ferguson and Tim Bailey," Croom said. "Cortez McCraney plays tackle, he plays end, wherever we need him, but he's going to have to play both. He's going to have to be a swing-guy for us. It all depends on if Kyle Love's healthy, but if we had to start today it would be (left to right) Ferguson, Love, Jessie Bowman, and Bailey."

A unanimous evaluation from this scrimmage was how superbly the starting linebackers played. Croom praised Chaney, Wright, and WLB Dominic Douglas, adding "I expect them to play really well. And our corners I think are playing pretty well. But those three linebackers and our safeties are playing well, but they should. They've got a lot of snaps under their belts already."

That includes the youngest safety, soph Zach Smith, who will draw the start at free in the opener as senior Derek Pegues is suspended. To say he's capable, and confident, is an understatement. "I think I'm ready. I don't think we lose anything," said Smith. "The people you surround yourself with rub off on you. I'm around great players and it's rubbing off on me, God gave me the ability and it's a matter of coaching and taking it into the game with you."

Speaking for the whole first-unit, Smith is also excited about the approach this defense is taking into the opener and the season as a whole. Under first-year coordinator Charlie Harbison the defense has come after their counterparts relentlessly all camp, and while it might give up a play or two the unit has also made more plays happen instead of waiting for the ball to come to them.

"This year it's going to be all-out, putting pressure on and making plays, hitting the quarterback," Smith agreed.

An area that had no criticism today was kicking. Redshirt Richards kicked "extremely well" to Croom, and in brief appearances wideout Smith handled the kicks without problems. He will take over return duties from Pegues, at least on punts, and Croom hopes Chris Nance's wrist is healed in time for the opener to serve as backup. "We'll also use (WR) Delmon Robinson as the third guy but I'm not really excited about using a freshman in the first ball game, unless we have to. He's a guy that I come close to trusting as much as any freshman, if we have to go that way he'll be able to do it.

"As long as we catch the ball and it's not rolling around on the ground, until Pegues gets back I can live with that. But Jamayel has actually returned it better than I expected him to. The main thing I've told him is anything you get after catching the ball is yours, but I do not want the ball on the ground. If he does that the first game I'll be totally satisfied."

Take away those offensive penalties and some defensive line shuffles and the first two weeks of 2008 camp have been satisfying on the whole. But now the tone turns to real game preparation "pretty much the rest of the way," said Croom. There will be some situational items stressed early next week but about everything else the Bulldogs will take to Louisiana Tech has already been practiced, if not perfected.

"It's just packaging it down to exactly what we're going to do," Croom said. "The things we've done well, we'll use them against LaTech; the things that we're not good at right now, we won't. It's not like we've got to do a lot of stuff, because what we have in is pretty much what we're going to run all year. We just have to get better at it, so that's the quest right now. When they come back (next) Sunday it'll be completed and we won't take a rep on anything that's not in the LaTech gameplan."

Croom also confirmed that freshman OG Tobias Smith is out for the season after ankle surgery today. Smith had worked up to #2 at left guard before the injury in the first scrimmage. "That's a young one we really thought was going to have a chance to help us. Unfortunately he had a serious injury so he's done for the season."

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