Scrimmage Review To Settle Starting Lineup

All along the preseason gameplan has been for Mississippi State's staff to spend three practice weeks and a pair of scrimmage dates evaluating the Bulldogs and then determine starting squads for the season-opener. Well, the second scrimmage is in the books…or on video, rather. Is State ready to set the August 31 lineup?

"We're pretty close," Coach Sylvester Croom said after Saturday's game-type practice at Scott field. "Pretty close. I'll look at the film and think about some things and go from there."

Go into specific preparations for South Carolina, that is. It begins Monday afternoon for the players after their coaches have spent about 36 hours dissecting the tapes. When everybody hits the practice field Monday they'll have a good idea how all will line up on the last day of the month.

"The guys in the lineup will be out in shorts Monday," Croom said. "And the other guys will carry their pads out, and when send the ones in we'll scrimmage those guys again. That's what we normally do on Mondays to keep getting these young guys better. We'll scrimmage them every Monday henceforward in the season."

That varsity will be relieved not to face further scrimmaging. Two such Saturdays were enough for them. For that matter Croom sounded as if he'd seen sufficient game-type drilling for this fall.

"It wasn't a great scrimmage. It was better than last week, but anything would be better than last week." The head coach was talking from an offensive standpoint of course, having seen that unit get entirely shut down—first and second teams alike—a week ago. Just looking at the stats from this Saturday offered better reading, though. The first offense still had the worst of the hitting, but they did find the end zone—twice--for a welcome change.

"We had a lot better day," said quarterback Mike Henig, who threw for both scores. "We came out and executed, we started off slow but we built up and got some things done."

That slow start was amplified because it came against the #2 defense. This scrimmage was scripted for three series of 1-offense vs. the backup defense, then the starting defense against the second offense for three series, and so on. There was also just a bit less passing this scrimmage than the first as Croom wanted to give the ground game—offense and defense alike—more serious testing. The result was that 72 of the 102 recorded snaps by respective ones and twos were rushes.

After eight series, the head coach suddenly halted things as if it were halftime, then lined up the respective first teams and blew the whistle. "We really didn't know we'd be going against the one-defense," Henig admitted. "I think we came out at first and slacked around (against the #2s), then when it came to ones-on-ones both sides executed and it was a battle."

And if the offense didn't entirely win that battle they did get on the board with a stout drive capped by a touchdown throw to tight end Eric Butler. That was a victory in itself, Henig said, under the circumstances. "We know our defense is good, I think they're going to be top in the conference."

It also needed noting that the offense did not have all its tools available. Croom held starting tailback Brandon Thornton out all scrimmage this time, after he put in just two series a week ago. There was no need risking the #1 back. "And we didn't play our first two fullbacks," Croom said. Starter Bryson Davis had missed some weekdays with a sore shoulder and backup Brandon Hart has little left to prove either. Starting receiver Omarr Conner was limited in his total snaps as well, and co-#1 wideout Will Prosser has been out since banging up a shoulder last Saturday.

"Some guys we didn't get a chance to look much at last week we spent a lot of time looking at today," Croom said.

Henig finished with 12-of-20 passing for 168 yards and touchdown tosses to Butler and Keon Humphries. #2 QB Tray Rutland was 5-of-10 for 41 yards with no scoring throws and one interception, though he did run for one touchdown. Reserve Ty Evans did not throw a pass this day. Humphries was the top target with three grabs and 86 yards. The air game got mixed reviews overall. "I thought Henig threw the ball well, there were a few more drops than I like," Croom said.

"There's no question our protection is better. And it just gives us more stability in knowing what we're doing. I feel a lot better about that group than the group that played through that scrimmage last week."

Keeping the top runners out meant opportunity for others to get snaps. A lot of snaps, in the case of Anthony Dixon. The freshman halfback, who did not scrimmage last week, made up for lost time with no less than 31 carries as the temporary #1 runner. He gained 145 yards in the process, though much of that admittedly came against the second defense. Still Dixon showed strength and durability and solidified his place behind Thornton, and dove three yards for a touchdown.

Veteran walk-on Justin Williams ran 12 times for 85 yards, and freshman Arnil Stallworth ran nine times for 29 yards. Christian Ducre was 11 rushes for 27 yards.

Croom should not to have to make major moves as he did after the first scrimmage on the offensive line. Having watched the first defense shred their counterpart's attempts at pass protection, the MSU staff dropped young and still-heavy tackles Calvin Wilson and Craig Jenkins to the second unit. Wilson was already in a tight fight with transfer J.D. Hamilton anyway; now the junior will start at left tackle. In Jenkins' place the coaches didn't promote, they moved spring right guard Brian Anderson out a step and brought up Michael Gates—himself a substitute tackle as a 2005 freshman—to guard.

Five practice days and one scrimmage later, this revised front (with C Royce Blackledge and LG Anthony Strauder) appears to be working well together. Or at least well enough to encourage the head coach. Gates hasn't been 100% all week after taking another August shot to the head and taking it easy a couple of days. Anthony Dunning is essentially an alternate there anyway, and allowed to wear first-unit maroon as is #2 center Johnny Carpenter.

Wilson and Jenkins, both of whom still must shed young weight, remain in the tackles mix. "We still need to work on the offensive tackles," Croom said. With transfer tackle Mike Brown's waiver still uncertain, three-position practicee Chris Spencer will likely dress out for the home opener along with freshmen Mark Melichar and converted DT J. C. Brignone.

There were no new injuries noticed at this scrimmage, and seeing Davis back in regular maroon instead of injury-limited-yellow was a good sign. While it would be helpful to have all hands catching practice passes, if anyone could afford to miss work it is the proven Prosser. Besides, Croom has already said plans are to scale back total snaps for the senior to keep him healthy this season. Meanwhile the top-three receivers remain Conner, Tony Burks, and Lance Long, while Keon Humphries and frosh Keith Mills continue to work with the maroon first unit. Transfer Ryan Mason was in that group prior to his injury and he is losing ground every day out.

There have been minimal adjustments to the defensive front-seven since injury two weeks ago put outside linebacker Gabe O'Neal on the sideline during the first week. He still had the left arm in a sling Saturday, but the coach is optimistic again. "We think Gabe will be back next week," Croom said. Anthony Littlejohn has worked with the first group ever since, and the other ten starters have held their jobs. Actually, ten is a mis-count because nominal backup tackles Antonio Johnson and Quinton Wesley might play as much as starters Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson. Four should be enough for the season, but frosh Kyle Love and Reggie Odom are getting their turns with the second unit just in case.

In all the defense tallied six sacks for losses of 23 yards.

Titus Brown temporarily fell back to second-team end due to a family emergency; he's back on the first unit as expected, while Charles Burns is that much better for his work with the starters. Michael Heard and Avery Hannibal have stayed 1-2 at the other end since March. Had he stayed healthy frosh Rodney Prince might be pushing into the end rotation; he did scrimmage this day and with fellow rookie Brandon Cooper is in reserve.

O'Neal might find it hard to instantly move Littlejohn, who has benefited from all the work at #1. So for now the starting linebackers remain Quinton Culberson in the middle flanked by Littlejohn and Jamar Chaney. Transfer Timmy Bailey has completely affirmed the coaches' summer-show of faith by making Culberson's backup before he'd taken a practice snap at State. And before his scrimmage hamstring pull Hughes had jumped up into the second-team, where he will be a contributor immediately. Carlton Rice is a reliable sub outside and Brad Horton has been around. But to get more speed in the group veteran walk-on safety Jonathan Hill has been moved to strong-side linebacker.

Croom had some lingering questions about the defensive backfield when camp began; not about the athletic ability of the group but their technical proficiency. This week he lauded the progress made here and said the secondary has solidified nicely. David Heard has a lock on the right corner with his senior consistency, which is no slight on how Adron Chambers has developed at the position. On the left end Derek Pegues is catching on to the disciplined aspects of coverage which has let him take advantage of his athletic gifts.

The starting safeties got more rave coaching reviews Saturday. "Keith Fitzhugh and Jeramie Johnson are probably our best two tacklers," Croom said. The depth situation is getting clearer as freshman Anthony Summers has come along quickly at strong safety behind Fitzhugh and De'Mon Glanton has put in some impressive hitting. Croom just hopes two-way man Demario Bobo can come back from a camp-long hamstring problem soon, because he would be the top choice as ‘nickel' safety in that package. "It's still an injury deal, we've got a MRI on him and have to see. We're not going to force him out here too early."

For that matter Croom added that the staff did not take any chances scrimmaging some proven players who could use the rest or extra recovery time.

"We know those guys are tough and have SEC experience, we're not going to have to drag them out of the dressing room. It wasn't a big deal for them today, we'll really intensify their work next week." Mentally, he means, because… "There won't be any more full-contact for those guys so we have to get their legs back under them, get them rested and knowing exactly what we're doing fine-tuning some stuff. And then bring those young guys along. Some of these young guys won't be ready to play against South Carolina but three, four weeks from now when we start to have injuries we've got to have them ready to play."

Henig believes the offense will be ready to play, regardless of the numbers from the two scrimmages. With a revised line and some healthy receivers the pieces are there. "At this stage we've still got some molding to do and some things to get done," Henig said. "But right now it's where it needs to be."

And come Monday, most everyone will know where they are. In fact the decisions need to be made faster this time because, with a Thursday evening opener, the staff can't delay until next weekend to finalize their planning for South Carolina. For all intents and purposes it's game week already at Mississippi State.

"After we grade the film and have a discussion as a staff, we'll settle on who is going to be the starters and get them ready," Croom said. "Injuries could always change things but that's how we'll approach it."

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