But now with August turning into September the Mississippi State coach and his team can focus entirely on football. The Bulldogs and their first-year boss open the 2004 season Saturday, with Tulane visiting Starkville for an inter-conference contest. Kickoff from Scott Field is 5:07 with a national ESPN2 telecast.
Croom isn’t sure yet what the home crowd and the country will see from State on opening night. For that matter the ‘rookie’ college coach admits he is making fresh discoveries about his team and his job daily. “Everything, every day this week has been new,” he said at his Tuesday press conference. “Even though we have a schedule to go by there’s always something different. A lot of this week is trial-and-error and getting accustomed to how things work.
“But the one thing we know is constant: we will play Saturday afternoon. And that’s the most important thing.”
The only thing, in fact. And despite the uncertainties—or, actually, because of them—Croom is clearly ready for kickoff. It’s time for the Bulldogs to be tested in real competition.
“I can say that pretty much for the entire football team,” Croom said. “As much as we’ve worked them and tried to put them in every possible situation you can think of, you really won’t get a feel until Saturday as to where we are.”
Fortunately State is at home this Saturday, which means opening week won’t have the added complications of an early road trip. The Bulldogs also appear to be getting back to strength just in time for the opener, with a couple of exceptions. “I think we’re reasonably healthy, as well as we possibly could be,” Croom said, “considering the amount of contact we had in camp. Guys seem to get the week of the game. We came back yesterday really enthusiastic, they seemed to have a little extra juice after going home.”
The question mark of the week is offensive guard Will Rogers, who hurt the right ankle the second week of camp. The midweek depth chart lists soph Brian Anderson, also a backup center, as the tentative starter ahead of Otis Riddley. Left guard Johnny Wadley has been protected all preseason and will start Saturday, backed by converted defensive tackle Devrick Hampton.
The rest of the projected starting lineup is unchanged from scrimmages, though Croom said he will not notify the team of who will start until Saturday. “But I think they’ll have a good idea,” the coach added. Game captains were to be announced Tuesday after practice (it will be posted), and the dress-out team named Thursday. The only Bulldog veteran certain to miss the opener is wide receiver Ray Ray Bivines, who has not practiced all camp with a rehabilitating hamstring and damaged nerve.
The wide receiver positions have been a red-cross unit lately though none of the hurts were serious. Croom reported that flanker Will Prosser and split ends McKinley Scott, Joey Sanders, and Jason Husband will be ready to play. Still there is some risk of injury the next two days with a pair of full-contact drills lasting over two hours.
Croom repeated his Monday concerns about State’s first opponents, adding that in college ball he doesn’t have the advantage of preseason games to evaluate the opposition. “We’re basing things on last year and what reports we get out of New Orleans,” he said.
The Green Wave offense is missing a NFL-drafted quarterback and leading runner/receiver from the team that beat MSU last September in New Orleans. Still the new college coach sees plenty of talent in Tulane, particularly at the speed positions.
“They’ve got receivers that can beat you any given play. I’m glad that running back they had is gone. But Jovon Jackson will probably be as effective. They seem to keep getting quarterbacks every year, now they’ve got a guy that came over from LSU and he seems to be a talented individual. I don’t think their offense will lose a beat.”
The head coach himself has spent more time looking over the Tulane defense, the first test for his ‘West Coast’ offense that State is still learning. Again speed is the Wave calling-card, particularly in the secondary. And it is not the coverage that concerns Croom most.
“They cause a lot of turnovers. That is a great concern. Anytime you go into a first game, especially working with an offense, you’re concerned about protecting the football. Even if you get a big play their secondary has a knack for coming up with the ball downfield.”
For that matter turnovers have been an obsession with Croom since spring training began. Every practice, every day, he harps on the subject, and makes the ball-handlers work on protecting the pigskin. “Here we don’t believe in ‘the ground cased the fumble’,” Croom said. “No such thing.
“We do a three-man monkey roll drill every day to try to protect the ball as we go down. We run the blaster drill every day with our tight ends and receivers to teach them to protect the ball properly. And if we intercept a ball or recover a fumble we want the defensive guys to carry the ball properly.”
After almost two decades in professional football Croom already understands and accepts that everything won’t run properly the first time out. The patched-up offensive line is an obvious concern, youth at linebacker another, and inexperience at receiver another. In the defensive secondary Croom said converted cornerback Quinton Culberson could play both safety positions, which will rotate up-and-down in much the same way the defensive ends and outside linebackers shift side-to-side. Jeramie Johnson is still listed #1 at strong safety and David Heard at right cornerback.
The coach also said that with backup quarterback Kyle York’s shoulder still not entirely proven, rookie Mike Henig will practice more intensely this week. “Just in case we do have a problem there,” Croom said. He said last week that starter Omarr Conner and York will both play in the opening game.
Not all uncertainties are potentially negatives for State. Croom thinks Tulane can not know many things about this Bulldog team either, particularly their brand-new offense. “I’m sure he’s feeling much like us, I’m sure he’s had to base a lot on rumors about us and what he thinks my philosophy will be and what he’s looked at in Green Bay. So he doesn’t know what we’re going to do, and I don’t know how they’re going to defend what they think we’re going to do. It’s going to be a lot of adjusting during the course of the ball game.”
And for that matter the entire 2004 season is going to be one extended adjustment period for Bulldog football as a new team and new coach begin a new era. “We’re still a work in progress,” Croom said. “We’ll go one day at a time, one week at a time, and one game at a time and see how it progresses.”
“I’ve heard people say they’re not my players. Well, they are my players. I’m their coach, and that’s the way it is. So we will go out and do the best we can. We will try to go out and win this football game, this week.”