“It’s time to play a little football,” Croom said. “I’m excited, looking forward to playing South Carolina on August 31st. We have a chance to play on ESPN, (in the) national spotlight, that’s a great opportunity for our players and our program.”
But if coach and players are emotionally ready to kick it all off, first there’s the matter of getting physically and mentally prepared for an opening game. That begins next week, with all cleared players reporting (actually in most cases re-reporting) on August 1 with the first practice the next afternoon. In a sense most Dogs have been prepping for two months already; the balance of the varsity was on campus all June and most of the freshmen and transfers around in July. So State should hit camp running, so to speak.
“We feel like we made a lot of progress over the off-season,” Croom said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what we’ve really got coming into the season.”
Croom clearly expects a better season than either of his first two years, which produced consecutive three-win records. The varsity Dogs who endured those building seasons now have both experience and some confidence in themselves and their coaches, and Croom often states the importance of attitude in turning things around.
But now the coach also sees enough aptitude on the roster to compete. “We’ve got a lot better. We had a good recruiting year last year and we’re in the midst of another one now. Our team looks like what I hoped it would be at this point.
“From our standpoint it was just building our talent level back up to where we could compete in this conference. I think I said last year we’d be a better football team but I wasn’t sure our record would indicate it.” It didn’t, with a 3-8 finish and 1-7 SEC record. Still Croom can see where weaknesses in 2005 are much stronger in ’06.
“Now we’ve got a chance. I think we’ve got a chance to start to make a turnaround and move forward and give us a chance to compete with the better teams in this conference and to have some success.”
One of the reasons is simply that the veterans are a year older, particularly those freshmen tossed into action last fall. Croom joked that he feared being arrested on the sideline for playing rookie linemen in the LSU game. He still regrets having to burn those freshmen years, and said that “Playing freshmen wholesale, that’s over in our program now.”
Yet there will be benefits now from that forced freshman activity. State’s letterman list is still a bit imbalanced towards youth with 23 who played last year as true or redshirt frosh. But, “Those guys are not freshmen any more, they’re sophomores this year. My Mom used to say ‘this too shall pass’. Thank God it’s passed! Now those guys are seasoned players, they’ve been through a SEC year.”
The coach was specifically talking of State’s still-young offensive line. The interior is built around a couple of senior guards but first- and second-year blockers will be at the tackle slots and a junior at center. One pre-camp ‘starter’ at tackle is a juco transfer and another a redshirt. And still, Croom said, “We’re going to be stronger in the offensive line.”
The same is true at receiver, a weak point for two years that should be vastly improved now. With former quarterback Omarr Conner joining veteran Will Prosser, and spring juco transfer Tony Burks, State suddenly has much more play-making ability to throw to. Croom is also expecting instant help from juco Ryan Mason and some younger receivers. They are as much a key in the overall offensive scheme as the better blocking.
“Being able to run the west coast offense as it’s supposed to be run, you have to be able to stretch the field vertically and horizontally, get the ball to people in space where they can run,” Croom said. “They will be more likw what we intended to be from day-one. We’re in the situation now where we can spread the ball out and do a lot more things. The key ingredient to that will also be our tight end Eric Butler.”
Croom agreed with what many fans felt about State’s 2005 approach. “Basically we withdrew into a shell last year, became a very conservative team, because we didn’t have a lot of receivers and because of inexperience in the offensive line.” Now Croom indicates the offense is going to break out of that shell, even without the services of all-SEC back Jerious Norwood.
“Replacing Jerious, you don’t do that. But we do think we will be very solid, very good at running back with the return of Brandon Thornton. Derek Ambrose got a waiver, he’s coming back and is a very talented runner. Then we have a couple of freshmen coming in. We may not have the explosiveness that Jerious gave us but at the same time we will be able to run the ball effectively.”
There weren’t many media questions about State’s defense, which is a well-known quantity anyway with nine starters back. Croom does look for one new face to make a sudden impact here, in more ways than one. Transfer linebacker Timmy Bailey will push senior Quinton Culberson—who was voted second-team All-SEC by media—and likely spell the veteran. “A lot of times last year we could not take Quinton off the field because we had no one else that could physically do the things we demanded of the position except him,” Croom said. The staff believes Bailey can even before he has taken a practice snap.
There is another benefit to Bailey, Croom noted. “That’s going to help our special teams, we can use both guys. Last year we couldn’t use Culberson because if he went down nobody could replace him. We’ll use starting players on special teams this year because we will have depth behind them.”
State was selective in junior college recruiting last year, and all the signed transfers are being booked to play. Tackle J.D. Hamilton is even listed as a starter at left tackle before camp, while Bailey and Mason are in the rotation at their slots. “We just haven’t seen then practice but based on what they looked like in junior college and the summer program we think they’ll have an immediate impact,” Croom said.
The Bulldogs will get an immediate test when the season kicks off, with not only the first TV game of the 2006 college season but the first SEC game of 2006. That makes the stakes much higher than usual for both State and South Carolina. Yet while Croom was openly speaking of preparing for the first foe even before spring camp, he downplayed questions Friday if the opener was a ‘must-win’ for the Bulldogs to have a successful season.
“I don’t believe in must-win games, unless you count 12 must-win games. Regardless of what happens the season is not over. It would make things easier, I sure would have a lot more more fun that night and the next day when I go recruiting! My wife might even make me some biscuits for breakfast. But a must-win the first game of the season, there’s no such animal.”
The Dogs that Croom sends on the field August 31 hope to be different animals than those who struggled through the preceding seasons. State last enjoyed a successful campaign in 2000 and so it’s not too terribly surprising that the media members have predicted a last-place finish in the Western Division. Croom knows that his program still must win respect by winning games.
The difference this time around is he believes he has a club that can do it. “Yeah, I like our football team,” he said.