"We're excited to get started this week," Croom said. "It gives us a chance to find out exactly where we are."
With wet weather still hanging around, today's practice moves indoors and that is a bit of a worry for the staff as it puts some limitations on a few things planned for Monday drills. A potentially bigger problem has to do with game travel plans, which are to fly in to Monroe, La., on the day of the game. This close-timing could be imperiled by any weekend weather popping up. "That's a concern," Croom said. "We may have to leave early.
"But right now we couldn't find accommodations (in the immediate Ruston area) that we felt were adequate. We're still going to have to get up and drive 45 minutes to an hour anyway." Besides, Croom noted, the Bulldogs took the same approach back in 2005 when the Tulane game was moved to Shreveport. State won that single-day trip game. "So we're going to follow the same plans again."
But specific planning for Louisiana Tech can't exactly mimic what those Bulldogs, of the Western Athletic Conference, did last season or any previous year. After one season on the job, Tech coach and athletic director Derek Dooley has gotten some of his own personnel on the roster including some key transfers that should produce a new look for 2008. And as Croom said, "We don't know as much about them as they know about us." Especially on offense, where the only tape State has of this Tech quarterback is his play last year at Georgia Tech. Croom agrees that is a concern, but it means focusing more on what State's staff knows of how Tech coaches have played the game in their previous posts.
"But we're sure they're going to do some different things. What we don't get to see (on tape) is their people. We've looked more at the schemes, not watched them in particular, to get a feel for what they're doing on that side of the ball."
The keys in this particular opener, Croom said, is just taking care of Bulldog business no matter what gets thrown, or run, at them by the other team. "We'll just have to go down there and play good football. Not beat yourself, and play hard for sixty minutes. Because we think they're going to be at their best."
"With their first home game of the year, playing a SEC program, I'm sure their fans and players will be very excited. I'm sure we'll walk into a hostile environment." Louisiana Tech isn't just playing a SEC opponent, either, but for the first time Joe Aillet Stadium is hosting a SEC program, adding further to the local flavor.
Yet Croom's 2008 concerns are nothing compared to how he has felt preparing for previous Mississippi State seasons. The fifth-year Bulldog coach had higher hopes going into this pre-season that the program had made a major transition with the successes of 2007. Nothing the past three weeks has reduced his expectations of an even better-equipped club for '08.
"For me, personally, I've got more confidence going into this game about our ability to be a good football team. We had a lot of questions this past year as far as physical ability; this year, if we're healthy, I'm not as worried just from a physical standpoint. I'm talking about at every position having a player that gives you a chance to win."
Or at least Croom did up to last Friday, when starting left offensive tackle Derek Sherrod had to go to the hospital with an infected foot. The coach is counting on true-soph Sherrod, who only moved to left tackle the last day of spring game, being back no later than Thursday. "That's the biggest concern right now. If for some reason Derek can't play, we'll start Mark Melichar at left tackle and go right on." Melichar had run first right tackle until last week when a stomach virus sidelined him a couple of days and Quentin Saulsberry moved up to first team. If Sherrod is back, that starting job remains in contention for a while longer.
If not, redshirt freshman Saulsberry gets his first college action as a starter at right tackle. "And if something happens to him Craig Jenkins will go back to tackle." Jenkins, the #2 right guard, has plenty previous experience at tackle on his MSU resume.
None of this shuffling would be necessary if not for the dismissal of All-SEC tackle Mike Brown for a March firearms offense. Brown is now at Alabama A&M, and Sherrod at left tackle a year earlier than planned. With Sherrod healthy, and Melichar and Saulsberry alternating at right tackle, the first line would be in fine shape. But, "That changed our depth. Another hit there would really make it tough on us."
Most other players who have been hurt or limited the past week should be able to play. That includes starting WLB Dominic Douglas (ankle), backup S Chris Nance (wrist), and alternate DE Jimmie Holmes (back spasms). The offense will miss true freshman guard Tobias Smith, out for the year after a major ankle injury two weeks ago. And freshman WR O'Neal Wilder is out four to six weeks now with a sub-luxed patella.
The offense welcomes their boss back to practices today as coordinator Woody McCorvey returns after a week's absence following still-unspecified surgery. McCorvey visited the football office Friday, and while he did not attend this morning's meeting Croom said he will be on the job by the afternoon.
"I talked to him last night, said he'd be in quarterback meetings today at practice," Croom said. As for the offensive plans, "It won't be anything put in he doesn't already know." One thing McCorvey will be planning for all week is how much he wants to use both quarterbacks, sophomore starter Wesley Carroll and transfer backup Tyson Lee, in any rotation. Croom said Lee will see action in the opener.
"How much we don't know, but we intend to play them both. We'll just see where it goes from there."
On the defensive side, coordinator Charlie Harbison won't have suspended senior S Derek Pegues for this one game. Soph Zach Smith will start in Pegues' free safety slot while senior Keith Fitzhugh is in the other. "We'll play De'Mon Glanton," Croom said. "And play Charles Mitchell as well." Mitchell, the true freshman and top in-state signee of 2008, would have found a spot in the rotation even with Pegues healthy as he has more than met high rookie expectations.
Another freshman, Sean Ferguson, will get in the first game as well. In fact depending on how the game begins, this rookie might start at left defensive end. He'll certainly be in the left-rotation of Brandon Cooper and tackle/end Cortez McCraney. Croom said Ferguson is probably the "biggest surprise" of pre-season, not that the staff didn't think he had ability coming out of high school.
"He hasn't missed a practice, and the way he's performed," said Croom. "We were hoping just for a backup role on limited basis, but his maturity has really surprised us." Other true freshmen booked for this road trip are WRs Delmon Robinson and Arceto Clark, CBs Corey Broomfield and Louis Watson, and possibly DE Nick Bell. Depending on the week's work, and how soon DT LaMarcus Williams is over wisdom tooth removal, some freshman interior d-linemen might make the road roster as well.
If the Bulldogs avoid further injuries and illness the next five days, Croom is confident a good ball player will be lining up at every position Saturday evening. This is easily the best State squad he's fielded from a physical standpoint. But Croom also misses the maturity that left with '07 senior leaders Titus Brown, Royce Blackledge, and other graduates. And that leaves more intangible questions still to be settled, the hard way.
"Can we handle the success we had?" Croom wondered. "What is our leadership? Are we attentive to detail; how will we react if something goes bad that is out of our control. I knew a lot of that last year, but this year… This is the game we'll find out."