A pair of sacks might not seem a huge output these days, but for the 2008 Bulldog defense it was a strong effort. State has just 18 sacks through 11 games, tied (with Georgia) for last in the SEC. Of course the '07 defense had just 19 baggings in 13 games, so sacking hasn't exactly been a house speciality. And when Dominic Douglas was moved to middle LB the unit lost the best potential rusher on the weak-side.
But Wright has done what he can coming off the strong-side to pressure passers, and he's doing it even better in the last weeks of the season. "Coach said he was going to send me and that's what he did. And it paid off," Wright said. "I won't say the pass rush was lacking, I mean we were just rushing three people. We saw that was a problem and we had to do something about it."
As in, lining Wright up in a gap instead of outside, which State has also done with Douglas. "Bringing those two guys from a lot of different areas because they are the guys who can create rush coming from inside or out," Coach Sylvester Croom said. Of course making the passer unload early and off-target is almost as good as sacking him outright. And against an Ole Miss quarterback, Jevan Snead, who can either evade rushers or shrug off first contact, sacking has to be a bonus; the first MSU priority is containment.
But if Wright gets an alley and within range, he'll take his best shot at another sack, or two. And that's coming from the side with more big bodies to work through, which at times has Wright envying the freedom of the weak side. "I know, but it's fine. It makes it better when I do get a sack!"
Besides, Wright is used to constant contact and not only in his line-backing duties. He plays on both the punt coverage and field goal defense teams, and when the year opened he was even on kickoff coverage. "But it was too tiring, all that running down the field and being the ‘dummy' and colliding."
Croom is thankful Wright has managed to stay healthy this year despite all the extra duties. "Some guys just have a knack of doing that. K.J. never says anything, he just plays. He doesn't want to come out of the game and plays nearly every play on defense. And he's still a young guy. When his body fills out and he gets bigger and stronger he has a chance to truly be an outstanding player."
Wright likes his current size of 6-4, 235 pounds just fine, though he definitely plans to get stronger over the spring and summer sessions. He actually looks taller than 6-4, as if he could hold his own over on the Humphrey Coliseum court. Naturally, he says, since he played center at Olive Branch High. "But I'm a little too short, here they're like 6-8, 6-10, so I stick to football."
What, no playing pick-up in the post with, say, Jarvis Varnado? "I don't want to get embarrassed!"
WINTER WORK: Speaking of getting stronger… With the 2008 season in its concluding week, and December final exams coming up soon, the winter schedule for Bulldog players has been scripted. That's ‘winter' as in next semester's weeks prior to spring on-field practicing. And while Croom uses the accepted term of ‘off' season there is very little time off for Mississippi State players.
"We'll talk about having an individual program for each one of them as far as what we expect, their personal strength gains, what they need to do in preparation for spring practice. Those are the things we'll focus on in January and early February, because we'll start spring practice the first week of March."
Barring any serious injuries in the season finale most returning Bulldogs are expected to be ready for both ‘off' season work and spring drills. That includes a trio of young talents at receiver positions who State had hoped would put the passing game in fast-forward this season. TE Marcus Green suffered a groin injury before the season and aggravated it on his one catch, a 50-yard grab-and-go against Southeastern Louisiana. Green has been out watching practices for over a month now but unable to participate…though Croom said he often had to bite his lip and not activate the second-year freshman for the potential boost it would have been.
"Marcus is getting better. He's still not 100% yet. We really do need him to get well so he can participate in the off-season program."
True freshman WR O'Neal Wilder was removed from the playing-picture in August with a knee problem. He did come back to some practicing in early November but without any chance of action. A second operation, an arthroscope to remove some remaining bone chips, was done and now the 2009 outlook is optimistic.
"I'm assured O'Neal will be ready to participate in the off-season program when we start up in January," Croom said. "Beyond that he is improving daily, so we expect him to be able to participate in spring training at full-speed." Classmate WR Terrance Davis was another '08 might-have-been, had his academic clearance come in time. The rookie was not certified until well into August camp, and after two impressive days in pads he hurt a hamstring; then later a knee. He will be ready for January strength work as well.
The outlook is not so bright for second-year freshman HB Robert Elliot, who injured two knee ligaments in the LSU game. Instead of having both repaired in October, the standard procedure which State wished, the youngster's family opted for separate operations and the second will be done in December. That sets him far behind in the recovery process.
"Elliot should be full-speed by August," Croom said, but "he will not participate in spring practice at all."
SECOND HELPING: As the Bulldogs assemble this evening for their team Thanksgiving meal, don't blame most of the bigger bodies if they look askance at OT Derek Sherrod. Because the true sophomore is finishing up a personal ‘rebuilding' program that has allowed Sherrod to dig in at the dining hall in a way his teammates could only envy.
Back in August an infected toe turned serious and sidelined Sherrod for over two weeks, including for the opening game. And, it cost considerable weight and muscle, so much so that only recently has Sherrod reached the size projected for the season.
"I'm probably about 310 pounds," he said. "Actually my coaches wanted me at 310, but that was a major setback for me and it's taken me steadily to get back and get back and get back. Fortunately I caught back up, even though it's at the end of the season. But I'm where I wanted to be."
The only positive aspect to this all-fall recovery process has been the freedom Sherrod had to eat. And eat, and eat some more. Which he admits to enjoying, even if his cohorts were openly envious. "It was kind of an ‘opposite' thing for an O-lineman, because usually we're overweight, and I had to gain weight. So it was a little bit more fun for me than it was for them!"
But just a little bit because a year of such high personal expectations didn't play out as Sherrod or his coaches hoped. The soph was already under pressure having to move to left tackle, replacing the dismissed Mike Brown, a year earlier than scheduled. The infection, which required hospitalization for days, came just when Sherrod was getting comfortable practicing a spot he hadn't worked in spring. But he has kept an optimistic outlook all along.
"Nobody could have seen it coming," Sherrod said. "But I'm just glad God helped me recover really fast so I could get back on the field and help my teammates out."
"After he got his strength back he's played extremely well for us all year long," Croom said. "And playing on the left side he plays against some of the better people in the conference. He grades in the high 80s and low 90s every week. Playing left side isn't easy, and he's performed at an outstanding level. He has nothing but positive things ahead of him."
Sherrod is entirely positive today. Being healthy will do that for a big guy. "It all worked out well and I'm glad I am where I am right now, helping my teammates as much as possible. Production-wise, I had a good sophomore year, and I think a lot of my teammates did have a good season. The win-loss record might not show it but we worked hard all year and have to come out this twelfth game and finish it out strong."
THE HOME TEAM? Sherrod is one of 13 native Mississippians who are listed as starting for the State University this Friday, though of course opening lineups can and do change. By contrast only eight of the listed starters for Ole Miss come from in-state addresses. Columbus-area resident Sherrod was recruited by the Rebels but his college choice was pretty well conceded all along.
"I knew pretty much from the beginning Mississippi State was my home. And just a little thing, that my older brother (tight end Dezmond) was here too helped out!" Meanwhile Olive Branch native Wright grew up dreaming of playing at Miami, not one of the state schools, though when it came time to choose between Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, and South Carolina, staying closer to home was his preference.
Alabama native Croom didn't take long to fit into the scheme of this state's ultimate rivalry, and all the ‘imports' on both rosters are playing for pride just as if they were born-and-raised here. "We talk about the rings, about the bowl games, about all the stuff that goes with it," Croom said. "But when you strip it all away, the guys that love to play, if nobody came, no TV, no band, no radio, the guys that love to play would play the same. And those are the guys I want on the field.
"I tell my guys, the guy you line up against, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now you may be walking down the street on canes, if you see that guy you will look him in the eye and neither of you will say a word…but each of you is going to know that one of you got whipped."
Yet for all the fuss and fury over this annual meeting Croom has found the results, either way, will have essentially no impact on the winter's recruiting. "Because it is basically done," he explained. Not entirely of course, as—measured by public commitments—Mississippi State has a handful of un-promised grants left to offer. And it appears that at most a couple of those are being saved for prospects choosing between State and Ole Miss.
"But it has in impact on next year," Croom said. "You've almost a year ahead of the season now. This game impacts many things though. Rivalry games change perspectives. In this business now, what is is not as important as what appears."
A sizable portion of the 2009 signing class is expected to arrive on campus in January, before Signing Day itself. Up to a half-dozen of these will be mid-year transfers from junior colleges, along with any ‘grayshirted' players signed last February who opted to delay enrolling. And, Croom anticipates at least a couple of early-enrollees out of high school; they cannot ink a grant until Signing Day but, as did TE Nelson Hurst, WR O'Neal Wilder, and LB Mike Hunt last January, if already graduated they can come straight to college and be part of spring classes and practices.
Croom said he will personally visit all the projected early signees and enrollees in the next couple of weeks. The transfer-signing period starts December 17, and the spring semester begins January 7. Many of these prospects came for the Arkansas game weekend. "It went well," Croom said. "Hopefully we'll get an answer from one or two who haven't officially committed yet before the week is out. So far everybody else is still a Bulldog. I sure hope it's that way the first Wednesday in February.
"And there are a couple more guys we really do hope, think we have a chance to get who haven't committed yet. Hopefully when the state playoffs are over, and we've got one or two more that have to make decisions. And if we can get those guys we feel we'll have a very good recruiting year."
State assistants can make home visits weekly upon the end of this season. Croom prefers to make his one home visit to February-sign prospects later, and to spread out these trips most effectively. He won't have to travel far for many of these, as the Mississippi prep class grades out well in terms of what the Bulldog program wants to sign.
"A high percentage of our players will come from in-state this year," Croom said. "I'm also pleased at this point the grades look pretty good, too. The last two classes that has been a huge plus for us, getting guys in with talent but are academically sound as well."
INJURY UPDATES: Starting S Keith Fitzhugh returned to practices Tuesday and worked Wednesday with no ill-effects showing from the sprained foot suffered in the Arkansas game. But strong-side LB Bo Walters (shoulder nerve) has not practiced this week and is out for the game. His starting job will go to Karlin Brown.
WR Co-Eric Riley (shoulder) has practiced the last two days after missing the Arkansas game.
And Mississippi State's post-kicking team should be close to full-strength for the finale. Preston ‘Stick' Rogers was slowed during the final home game in his duty of retrieving the kickoff tee by a groin strain. He reported his time, from sideline to tee and back, was over ten seconds at one point. Stick sets a typical time at sub-nine seconds and claims a personal record of 8.1, on a sprint-turf field.
The strained muscle was likely a result of lack of practice this season, as too often Stick only needed to retrieve the tee twice. But against Arkansas he had to make six runs and the lack of game-conditioning showed.
He predicted a time of 8.5 seconds for the Egg Bowl. "Because it's on artificial turf," Stick said. "Unless it's raining."