Bulldogs Counting Down To August 31 Kickoff

Sylvester Croom

Not that anyone really needed the reminder. But Coach Sylvester Croom still wanted everyone on the practice field to understand that the preseason clock is ticking faster and the days counting down to kickoff. Because two Thursdays from tonight that is exactly what Mississippi State will be doing.

"I guess I'm a little impatient because we play two weeks from tonight and I'd like to think we'd be at midseason form right now," Croom said following a two-hour, 15-minute workout. The Bulldogs, who have had plenty of contact already this week in camp, ran through the Thursday session in shorts and shoulder pads. That took nothing away from the intensity of both their work and the head coach's attention to same. No, Croom said, the Dogs are not in mid-year form at this point, so…

"I guess I've got to be a little more realistic in my evaluations. But I'm pleased with the way we're working and if we make as much progress in the next two weeks as we did these last two then we might have a chance."

For now the offensive staff is giving their squad every chance to show what they can do against the varsity defense. It's been a tough week for the offense after it failed to score a touchdown in last Saturday's scrimmage game. Yet on the whole Croom has been pleased with their response both to being shown up and having some positions adjusted after video evaluations.

Thursday saw a bit more progress on offense, which focused on red-zone work for a second afternoon. Croom said the unit got closer to the goal line this time. "We got there because I put it there, not because we necessarily moved it," he said. "But we did some things OK." Among them, the throwing by quarterback Mike Henig and the catching by some of his targets. In particular junior Tony Burks, who didn't get into the scrimmage stats and appeared somewhat dead-legged from the first ten practice days. He seems up to a better speed now.

"I'm pleased with the progress Burks has made," Croom said. "He's catching the ball better, and his sheer size just gives you goosebumps. Now we've got some guys we're looking up at, like grown folks. I'm sure Mike likes to have somebody tall to throw to!"

The defense still doesn't give up ground easily, most of all via the rush. Brandon Thornton, Anthony Dixon, and Christian Ducre remain the top running backs, all in maroon, though Arnil Stallworth was demoted to green status Thursday. None is a Jerious Norwood, of course, but in the proper situations all can provide what State needs on the ground…hopefully.

"We're still making too many mistakes," said Croom. "We're mixing some young backs in there to see who can play and who can't. But offensively we have to be perfectly synchronized, we've got to take the right steps and the right angles, the spacing has to be perfect. We're not at that point yet, but we're getting better."

Speaking of Ducre and countdowns, Croom said State still has not received a final ruling on his appeal for 2006 eligibility. "This is starting to feel like we're going to go down to a ‘dead man walking scenario' where we call the governor at five minutes to midnight to see if we can finally get this thing!" Croom joked, sort of. "We'll have him dressed and walking out to the field we might get that call from the commissioner! But I'm pleased with our compliance people going through the procedure." The same applies to transfer offensive tackle Mike Brown, who has appealed for a waiver of his own after leaving Florida.

Croom said he had spoken with UF Coach Urban Meyer just this morning. "Tulane and Florida have been very cooperative in efforts to get these two young men eligible, there's not much more we can ask. It's up to the NCAA now."

For specific unit drills, Michael Gates was able to practice in limited-yellow after missing a day from a blow to the head, his second such incident of camp. When it came time for the offense to go against the scouts or the regular defense, Gates stepped back and Anthony Dunning took his place at #1 right guard. That made the first line, right to left, Brian Anderson, Dunning, Royce Blackledge, Anthony Strauder, and J.D. Hamilton.

In drills against the scout line, four backup blockers stayed with the first unit; Gates, center Johnny Carpenter, and tackles Calvin Wilson and Craig Jenkins. The remaining five lined up as scout linemen against the varsity defense, with Mark Melichar and Mike Brown at tackles, Chris Spencer at center, and John McMillian and J. C. Brignone at guards.

The maroon wide receivers were unchanged from Wednesday, with Omarr Conner, Lance Long, Keon Humphries, Burks, and Keith Mills still the top group. If not for his injury Will Prosser would be in this group, and Joey Sanders is wearing no-hit red this week.

There have been no changes to the starting defense since injury put outside linebacker Gabe O'Neal on the sideline during the first week. Anthony Littlejohn has worked with the first group ever since, and the other ten starters have held their jobs. The second unit seems to be setting up consistently as well, with a backup—actually, almost an alternate foursome—line of tackles Antonio Johnson and Quinton Wesley with ends Avery Hannibal and Charles Burns. Johnson is as much a starter as Deljuan Robinson and Andrew Powell, of course, but true frosh Kyle Love has definitely worked his way up to second-team status.

Injury to OLB Jamon Hughes has broken up the #2 linebacking corps, and the last two days his place has been taken by former safety Jonathon Hill who is now wearing white. "We've moved him down to give some depth at the sam linebacker spot, and he did pretty well. He's another walk-on that is contributing."

This made Thursday's second back-seven MLB Timmy Bailey flanked by Hill and Carlton Rice, with a secondary of safeties Anthony Summers and De'Mon Glanton (limited by injury), and corners Adron Chambers and Marcus Washington.

As to the first group, "I think our secondary has made a lot of progress," said Croom. "We're very solid there. I really like the starting four with Keith Fitzhugh and Jeramie Johnson back there with Derek Pegues and David Heard. David has had a very good camp, he's knowledgeable in his technique and disciplined. And Pegues is starting to be more a technician instead of just relying on his ability. But now we have more depth back there. I just wish Bobo was back in the mix, but Glanton is a real nice hitter…in fact he hits so hard he's knocked himself out the last couple of days."

The scout defensive line had Reggie Odom and walk-on Anthony Smith at tackles with Prince and transfer Cortez McCraney the tackles.

As for all the injuries, on offense receivers Prosser (shoulder) and Ryan Mason (thigh) were held out entirely, as were fullbacks Bryson Davis (shoulder) and Casey Rogers (shoulder) wearing limited-yellow. Tight end Chris Herrera was also in yellow, while tight end Brandon Henderson has been cleared for work and wears backup green.

The defense worked without O'Neal (shoulder), Hughes (hamstring), Bobo (hamstring), and safety Marcus Evans (ankle). Glanton was in limited-purple, as was backup end Rodney Prince. Since it was a non-contact day these two were able to participate in some drills and Glanton was working with the second secondary in coverage periods.

As season kickoff draws nearer, that aspect of the game is being practiced regularly and early in drills. Humphries and Conner took care of most returns Thursday, with Ducre getting a few turns. Cornerback Derek Pegues came out of the last scrimmage as the top returner.

State will have a routine pads-practice Friday afternoon, then hold the second and final scrimmage of camp Saturday afternoon. The scrimmage is closed to all, including media. After that, Croom and staff will review the video and set the starting lineups for the opening game with South Carolina on August 31.

Which as the coach reminds is just two weeks away now. Tick, tick, tick…

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