And defensively, Croom vowed to bring in the right coaches to prevent the lackluster performances displayed by the Bulldogs in recent years.
And again, it all starts up front for the Bulldogs this fall.
In charge of putting his guys in the proper places up front is first-year defensive line coach Brick Haley.
After two promising seasons at Georgia Tech, Haley wasted little time answering Croom’s call to follow him to Starkville.
"It was a great opportunity to come to State with Coach Croom," said Haley. "I’ve known him for awhile, even though it was mainly through passing each other in the coaching circles. The first time I met him was in 1994 during a tour of the NFL camps, and Coach Croom was at Green Bay.
"Growing up in Alabama, you’ve always heard about the man. And it wasn’t a hard decision to come to Mississippi State. You love to coach with a stand-up guy, and he’s definitely that. That makes all these assistant coaches want to work hard for him. And we’ve got a great staff, which you must have. Everybody is ready to get the ship righted again here in Starkville, and we have the guys coaching in the right places."
Haley has definitely made a habit of changing addresses, but always for the right reasons. Haley values his family, and always had his wife, Tina, and two young boys (A.J. and Jeremy) at the top of his priority list.
Haley’s decision to come to Starkville became his eighth stop during his 14-year collegiate coaching career. However, he’s planning on keeping his new address for some time.
"When you look at my resume, it’s obvious that we’ve moved around a lot," said Haley. "Anytime you have the opportunity to better your family situation, you do it. We have two young kids and we want to raise them in a small-town atmosphere.
"And I see my family being here for awhile, too. We have to get the program in the right direction again. I will stand behind the coach, and we all do that with loyalty. When you have that, then you have strength in numbers."
Haley encountered that initial glimpse of his new group during the spring. And it was a spring where his defensive line made numerous strides to help erase the past. Haley pointed out his guys have continued to progress and build on those positives derived during spring practice.
"Basically our guys have come back, done a good job of refreshing themselves from the spring," said Haley. "But we still don’t have enough depth and that does worry you. That is where games are won or lost – in the trenches – as everybody knows at this level.
"So we need a little luck as far as staying healthy this year. Hopefully, we can stop some people up front."
Haley does have a handful of experienced players, guys that have been through the Southeastern Conference wars week-in and week-out. But as any good defensive line coach will tell you, he’s always looking and needing more to fill out his two-deep chart.
"We have one senior in Ronald Fields, and I’ve been real pleased with him," noted Haley. "Ronald’s a great talent and a great person to be around. Deljuan Robinson and Willie Evans have also done a great job, especially during the spring and offseason workouts. And we’ve got some other young guys that just need to get some good battle scars and give us some help."
While fans get excited about statistics such as sacks and interceptions, Haley is concerned with those type of numbers. He only wants the effort and let the stats take care of themselves.
And his demands sound very similar to the ones echoed by his new boss.
"When you talk about expectations, things can sorta get out of whack," said Haley, a former Division II All-American at Alabama State. "Winning games is the bottom line, whether you do it pretty or ugly. I just want my kids to want to play hard, and give me a complete 60 minutes of football. That’s really all I can ask from them.
"When you set goals like a x number of sacks or a x number of tackle for losses, you can set yourself up for failure. Those numbers are not the bottom line for this team. Sure we have goals set within the group but again, all I want is to compete, play hard and do it for 60 minutes a game. Everything else will fall into place if you do those things."
All in all, Haley fully understands the attention his squad will receive during the 2004 campaign. He already knows too well that how this year’s defense goes relates back to his group up front.
With that concept ringing through his players’ ears on a daily basis, Haley simply wants a steady group effort in the fall.
"We’re not bigger than the team by any means," admitted Haley of his defensive line. "You know, if your only goal is to sack the quarterback, then what do you do when the first-down play is a run? You can’t get caught up in numbers and play as a group.
"Again, if we stay healthy, we have some guys that are playmakers up front. We just need to increase that number, and get the same effort from the first-stringers and the back-ups."
Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at email@example.com