Jackson State athletics director Bob Braddy, familiar to Bulldog baseball fans as longtime head coach of the Tiger nine, came to campus Tuesday for the joint formal announcement. He also called it a historic occasion. "And I'm certain our fans are looking forward to it." JSU is promised 2,500 tickets to sell, Byrne said, which will be taken off the $315,000 guarantee State signed for. "On top of that we will provide 300 tickets for their band," Byrne said.
And the justly-famed ‘Sonic Boom' is certainly an added attraction to this contract. Braddy joked about a ‘sacrificial lamb' aspect to the actual game, but "We will say our band will win!"
Braddy met with Byrne and associate A.D. Mike Nemeth in the Jackson airport two weeks ago to discuss the possibility of a '09 meeting. "Of course I was trying to explain to them what a sacrificial lamb was," Braddy said, referring to the ‘buy game' nature of this matchup. But it was an offer both schools worked hard and fast to seal, with the help of Louisiana Tech's willingness to delay their return game.
"We're looking forward to it and we think the fans of Mississippi State and Jackson State are in for a treat," Braddy said. "We think it's good for the state of Mississippi. Mississippi State has always reached out to JSU, going back to 1975 when they were the first SEC school to play us in baseball."
"It all happened very quickly," Byrne said, adding that moving Louisiana Tech to 2012 also helps in his goal of scheduling seven home games every year. "And scheduling a I-AA team every year will help us meet that goal," Byrne said. As of now the Jackson State deal is for 2009 only.
Coach Sylvester Croom echoed the ‘historic' theme. Besides, he said, "In the off-season it's going to create a buzz within the state. And I think it will also mean a great deal for our state on a national level. It's outstanding that our university has taken a leadership role in relationship with the historically black colleges in this state. I think it's great that there will be an untold amount of interest this state will receive because of this game."
PRECOCIOUS PUP: Going into the season safety, whether strong, free, nickel, or all-the-above, was rated the strongest single area of State's squad. The three seniors—Keith Fitzhugh, Derek Pegues, and De'Mon Glanton—have all lived up to billing. But now they're having to make room for a new kid who is proving he belongs in the group and on the field. Freshman Charles Mitchell has come to play.
Take this expert opinion from the voice of the Dog defense. "He's doing real good, just to be a freshman," says Fitzhugh. "He's getting everything down, he's staying under the wing of me, P, and Glanton. He's having fun out there and coach likes him a lot, he's trying to get to the ball and make plays. I guess he's following in my footsteps!"
Well, perhaps. But the Clarksdale native is proving plenty capable of making his own way around the playing field. After, he says, he got up to college pace. "At this level everybody is good," the former prep all-star says. "And the amount of film to study. But the biggest problem was learning the plays and adjusting to the speed."
Yes, it's an annual rookie rite of passage for most speed-position players, who after three years of blowing by prep peers suddenly are matched, even out-run, by college elders. State's staff found the right way to get Mitchell up to SEC speed, though. On opening-night he lined up for kickoff coverage, and he's now a fixture on that squad.
"Special teams helped me really adjust to the game speed," Mitchell said. "It helped me adjust to the physicality of the game, because on kickoffs you run into a lot of people!" In his case intentionally as Mitchell gets in on more than his share of such tackles. And now he's adding to that tally with increasing duties as a nickel safety. In the second half against Vanderbilt the rookie was on the field almost as many snaps as senior Glanton, without any obvious mistakes.
"Charles is an excellent talent," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "You hate to make predictions for a guy that young but he's been very impressive to me. I talked to our defensive coaches, I want to see him on the field more. He's a very good athlete, smart, and a very physical tackler. He's done an excellent job on special teams and he's playing good defense now."
And with State relying more and more on a three-safety set, Mitchell will get more and more opportunities to develop his college style. "I'm very satisfied with it," he said. "The guys are helping me out, I'm learning the plays, adjusting to the game better. So I'm really satisfied with it." Of course being the new kid on the block—or tackle, rather—Mitchell defers to his elders for extra ‘coaching' as needed. "They're helping me out a whole bunch. They encourage me whenever I'm out there. They tell me don't the big-eyes and just play my game. I appreciate them."
In turn the seniors are showing some parental-type pride in how their youngest cohort has fit in so fast. "I like him a lot out there, he's a lot of fun," Fitzhugh said. "I call him ‘Little Fitz' but Coach Cheese (coordinator Charlie Harbison) calls him ‘Little Cheese' because they've got the same first name!"
FAMILY AFFAIR: It's a special weekend in Knoxville for one Bulldog and his family; a ‘homecoming' of sorts for Blake McAdams. The Mississippi State punter hails from Ripley, Tenn., and is the son of former Vol defensive lineman John McAdams. It's a tough day for dad, but his orange blood will run maroon at least this one trip to Rockey Top.
"They'll use my tickets and wear maroon-and-white," Blake said. "My dad told me today this'll be the last time he goes in there wearing it, next year he'll wear orange-and-white!"
The younger McAdams did get his first shot at dad's old school last year, and while State lost 33-21 at home Blake had one of his best junior-days with a 42.8-yard average on six punts. Now he gets to show the leg in a setting almost as familiar to him as Scott Field.
"I've been looking forward to this for a while. Since I was little I've thought about playing there, and I've been to a bunch of games so it won't be anything new going there. Just playing in front of it is going to be different."
McAdams definitely hopes to have a different sort of day in Knoxville than he had this past Saturday at home, when he averaged 29.2 yards on eight punts against Vanderbilt. Two second-quarter kicks in particular stood out, for the wrong reasons. With State on their 45-yard line he hit one off the side of the foot that went almost directly to the sideline for a net of four yards. The next time, having to quick-punt from the back of MSU's end zone, he got just a little more downfield angle but still netted just 16 yards. Vanderbilt started inside the red zone and scored off this exchange.
"I just miss-hit them both, that's all I know to tell you," McAdams said. "I looked at them both and I didn't do anything different, I guess I just miss-hit them. It wasn't the wind or anything, it was just me." McAdams got his kicking under control in the decisive second half, though, with 48 yards on the first chance. A 32-yarder was downed on the VU 14-yard line, and in the fourth period he tried only to hang his kicks high for coverage instead of going for distance as the Dogs protected a 17-14 lead.
It only affirmed that punters, like pitchers—and McAdams was a prep baseball star—need short memories to last in this job. "You put it behind and go to the next one and do what you always do, don't change anything," he said. "I was watching a pro game the other day and a guy hit one for 15 yards. Everybody has one, you try not to have too many of them."
And while his 36.0-yard average for the senior season to-date doesn't look like much, the real story lies in State's punting plans. Against Auburn, then LSU, and then Vanderbilt, each time the Dogs were punting to the return man who happened to lead the league that week in return average. McAdams is instructed this year to kick more for hang time than sheer distance, and not give those specialists the chance to do anything special. It's worked well so far as State hasn't been hurt in the punt return game, either for immediate points or field position.
A good example was Vandy's D.J. Moore, averaging over 28 yards on returns coming in, netted just 20 yards on three chances against State. "The coverage guys were doing a great job as usual," McAdams said. "Coach (Reid) Stringer has done a good job scheming and getting guys in right places. The protection has been great all year, the coverage has been great."