“We will have some fun,” Mississippi State’s football coach said Thursday evening. “This will be our turnaround season.”
A season that begins exactly five weeks from now, on another Thursday evening when the Bulldogs host South Carolina on August 31. Croom has been on the summer circuit giving the same encouraging words, and soon enough the talk will need backing up. Thus the head Dog is eager for August 2 and the start of fall camp. “It’s time to get back to work, to the hitting and the contact and the blood.”
Consecutive three-win seasons have left State players and fans alike bleeding, yet Croom gave the audience reasons to think things are changing for the better. And he noted, it’s been a long time getting back to such a positive-thinking point.
“We’re better than any time this decade,” he proclaimed. The reasons? Talent and skill are improved across the roster, and for the first time in his MSU tenure Croom can see serious senior leadership to work with. That particular intangible has been on display since spring and on through the summer strength/conditioning program. And more than this, the entire team is showing signs of a fresh confidence in themselves and each other. In fact, Croom used adjectives like ‘cockiness’ and ‘swagger’ about the squad, descriptions he wouldn’t have dreamed of applying before.
“The expectation level and enthusiasm is very high,” Croom added, noting how the team has been looking forward to the opening game of both their season and televised college football in 2006. “What an opportunity, and we expect to take full advantage.”
Speaking of more specific elements to this ball club, Croom started with the best-established aspect. “Our defense will be as good as last year.” And not just because of veterans on the line, at linebacker and at safeties. Croom expects some fresh help in several places, such as Reggie Prince and Brandon Cooper up-front and Jamon Hughes at linebacker. Converted wideout Adron Chambers is coming on well at cornerback, and rookie Anthony Summers will get a chance to play in the secondary immediately. Croom also confirmed that safety Demario Bobo is moving to cornerback since Keith Fitzhugh has adapted to safety so well.
Special teams, a downfall much of 2005, should be a very different story this fall. “We’ll have better athletes playing so we’ll have better special teams.” Croom said Tyler Threadgill will open fall camp as top kickoff returner, while Omarr ‘Slash’ Conner will return punts.
But of course what fans wanted to hear was how the offense will be. “Much better,” Croom said, adding the very bold statement “Last year’s weaknesses will be this year’s strengths.”
Specifically he meant the blocking and catching positions, which have been overmatched Croom’s first two seasons. The offensive line will have it’s own ‘turnaround’ theme as several pups who were baptized in SEC fire survived to grow up. Barely. “We started three freshman against LSU,” Croom told the crowd. “They should have locked me up for cruel and unusual punishment for that.
But the benefit is that these blockers, if still young, know what it takes to play in the league now and are ahead of schedule. “We’re two-deep up front,” Croom said, adding later that he hopes to be able to redshirt all freshman linemen in the future.
The other weak point is looking much stronger as the move of Conner and addition of Tony Burks has done wonders for the wideout corps. They, along with an improving Keon Humphries and Threadgill and transfer Ryan Mason, mean regulars Will Prosser and Joey Sanders should have more productive years…because they won’t have to play to the point of injury as in the past.
Croom is disappointed but not surprised Bryson Davis didn’t make the pre-season Coaches All-SEC team, as there is no fullback on that voting ballot. Still “He’s the best fullback in the country,” the coach repeated. As to the running backs, Croom had Jerious Norwood come to the stage for a thank-you cheer. Norwood can’t be replace, the coach admitted, but State is in good shape here with Brandon Thornton and Derek Ambrose, along with three freshman runners. This indicated Croom expects rookie Courtney Jones to qualify and join Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth for fall camp. And as to Mike Henig, despite the quarterback’s summer toe injury, Croom is confident. “He’s the leader,” the coach said. “And he’s assured me he will be ready for the first day of practice.”
Croom brought the whole senior class to Jackson earlier in the day, for a trip to Children’s Hospital. There these healthy upperclassmen Bulldogs met youngsters battling serious illnesses, sharing time, posing for photos and giving autographs and souvenirs. It was not just another routine day in the life of a college athlete, the coach said.
“It was a great experience. Our players had a positive effect there, but the trip had a more positive effect on our players.”
For that matter it was a positively-charged outlook from Croom about the upcoming campaign. “All in all I feel real good. I’m actually looking forward to the season.”
The football coach wasn’t the only upbeat Bulldog on the stage Thursday. New MSU president Dr. Robert Foglesong arrived not long before the program started—“We just flew back in from D.C.,” the retired Air Force general said, “We flew commercial!”. But after stripping his coat and rolling up his sleeves the president ran through not the standard roll of numbers and statistics but things going on and planned at Mississippi State.
Such as the subject of his trip to the nation’s capitol, a Center for America’s Veterans that Foglesong hopes to open. He discussed the ‘Promise’ Scholarship which is already in effect. “We established it in June as our ‘MSU Promise’,” he said. The criteria are a 3.0 grade average and needy income level which qualifies youngsters for paid tuition to MSU. “We already have 67 of these students enrolled.”
Foglesong also has State involved in a program of Community Action Teams that work with towns, communities, and regions where Mississippi State folk can provide advice and expertise. “We can be partners,” the president said. “Our motto is ‘One State, One Team’ in economic development around the state.”
The energetic new boss of Bulldog Country, who admitted he does his jogs in the mornings before things heat up, stays on the run during the work day by visiting “two or three” classes a week. And he noted that he wants the list of some 100,000 MSU alumni updated soon. On the other end of the college process, though, Foglesong said that enrollment at MSU has been “flat or declining” the last three years and it looks the same for this fall. Thus, the University is about to be more aggressive in recruiting students.
“We want to reclaim some territory that we’ve given up the last couple of years. We’re going to be proactive.” Though, Foglesong admitted he has had to accept failure in one MSU-aspect so far. “I asked for a copy of the (football) playbook. I’ve been denied.”
Before turning the program over to coaches Stansbury (see separate story) and Croom, athletic director Larry Templeton provided some other notes. First and foremost, he reminded all of the ongoing improvements and changes in MSU campus facilities and that there are lots of new roads not there as late as baseball season. All should be ready to go by the opening game, he said, but fans are well-advised to study a map of the new campus before coming to town.
As to kickoff, “For the first game we’ll have a ‘grand opening’ of Cullis Wade Depot,” Templeton said. This includes the new bookstore, operated by Barnes & Noble as their “premier college store.” This and other aspects of the new Depot “will transform game-day,” the AD said.
Templeton confirmed the contract just signed with Comcast Sports that will provide full replays of all dozen Bulldog games, as well as live broadcasts of three or four men’s basketball pre-SEC games and as many women’s games. Also, five or six baseball games will be shown live under the contract.
And while not giving specific totals, Templeton said that while revenues are up 11% under the revised ticket and seating plan actual sales are slightly down to-date. Season tickets will be delivered by UPS in mid-August. Also, the re-seating of Humphrey Coliseum for the coming basketball season will begin at the end of August.