As per NCAA guidelines for the first week of spring, this was another non-contact session without pads other than the helmet. Yet the Bulldogs got to show some toughness anyway. First, many of them wore shorts and short-sleeves all afternoon despite the chill.
And secondly, even without pads there was often more than just bumping going on. At times in unit drills a ball carrier or would-be defender found himself on the ground thanks to a healthy degree of ‘help' from a blocker or tackler. The head coach didn't give such action a lot of credit, though. "We haven't hit anybody yet, we're still running around in our underwear right now."
Maybe so, but the Bulldogs were running with a purpose Tuesday. Croom even allowed that the defensive teams are showing progress, at least partly because more is being demanded of them…whether in pads or out. "We work on tackling every day, even though we're in shorts we're using it as a teaching time," Croom said.
"We're running to the ball better, we're finishing plays better, a lot better than we did even at the end of the season. So we're going in the right direction."
The linebacking corps is taking a slightly new direction this spring, with Quinton Culberson at middle linebacker between Gabe O'Neal and freshman Anthony Littlejohn. The rookie was redshirted last fall and now finds himself already running first-team. Moving Titus Brown to defensive end created the opening atop that depth chart, but Littlejohn is on a fast track for a starting job anyway.
"I think he's making progress," Croom said. "I can see right now he's starting to gain some confidence already just in the fundamentals. He's a good athlete, he works hard, he just has a lot to learn and when we get the pads on we'll find out some more about him." Carlton Rice, Brad Horton, and Fred Akines were the second ‘backer unit.
Croom singled out tackle Corey Clark for good work Tuesday. "I think he's in better shape and pushing himself a little harder." Clark and Avery Hannibal are the #2 DTs, flanked by ends Marckell McKinley and Brown on the second-front behind first-teammers Willie Evans, Andrew Powell, Deljuan Robinson, and Michael Heard.
The offensive front saw a couple of changes on day-two as converted DT Anthony Strauder moved up to first-team at right guard, surpassing Donovan Davis. Left tackle was also different, but not from promotion. Junior Brad Weathers did not practice, as the shoulder that sidelined him for two seasons had a flare-up before the session began. "To be honest I don't know exactly what the situation is, I don't want to comment until I do," Croom said.
In Weathers' place, redshirt Roland Terry moved up to the first unit. Avery House also got a late look at the position. Right tackle saw some Tuesday adjustments as #1-teammer James Redmond is still slowed and in a yellow jersey. James Cochran and House worked there, but by the end of the day guards Johnny Wadley and Brian Anderson both took a few snaps at tackle.
These shuffles did not help the blocking, but Croom was still unhappy with protection. "One area we wanted to work on, and we spent a lot of time on it today, was our three-step game. And it's still not good enough. I know we don't have the pads on but our offensive line was very soft on the three-step game, our quarterbacks can't get the ball out fast enough."
Those quarterbacks were Mike Henig and Brett Morgan, who are taking every snap this week until starter Omarr Conner recovers from his ankle sprain. Croom certainly expects Conner to be activated after next week's spring break. "He'll have had a two-week vacation by then!" And the offense badly needs a healthy Conner to put some spark in the short-passing game. "That's an area we have to improve in. It's a staple of the west coach offense and right now we're very poor at it."
Running back Jerious Norwood did draw his coach's compliment—"I expected him to do well, though. We've got a couple others that are doing well."
The Bulldogs have two more work days before taking spring break, with Thursday and Friday practices scheduled. Partial pads will be pulled on by the end of the week but the real contact won't start until March 21.