From The Dawghouse

From The Dawghouse

"An act can only be successful or unsuccessful when it is over; if it is to begin, it must be, in the abstract, right or wrong. There is no such thing as backing a winner; for he cannot be a winner when he is backed. There is no such thing as fighting on the winning side; one fights to find out which is the winning side."*

He wasn't what we would call a sportswriter, though the man certainly did know the sports of his day well and would write of them. And were he working now, he would leave the scribes and commentators of our day whimpering in intimidation; his skill with words as sharp as the sword supposedly carried inside his walking cane. It's a regret of my reading-life that I was only exposed to G.K. Chesterton in my 40s, as I'd be the better for it both professionally and personally. That, or I'd have gotten out of the word-working business entirely.

So exactly what does an English writer of the turn of the previous two centuries have to do with the current and prospective state of Mississippi State football? This. By sheer coincidence last week I was re-reading his ‘What's Wrong With The World' which in the second chapter included the above lines. Coincidence, I say, because the on-line fuss regarding activation of a redshirting freshman receiver eight games into the season triggered the connection.

To wit: we're all judging this particular personnel move a bit too quickly in either, repeat, either direction. Why not let the season play-out before deciding if taking the red shirt off young Arceto Clark was the right or the wrong way to go for A) him, B) the offense, C) the remaining season, and D) further recruiting at his position? Or is that asking too much in an age where all answers must be instant and absolute? And I'm not even going to suggest to the more passionately vitriolic of our posters to wait until the end of 2008 to judge it on the whole, those minds were made up by halftime of the opening game.

And indeed they might well be correct. Or, equally, prove not so. Thus the ‘find out which is the winning side' quote from old G.K. There's an entire month, one third of a season, left for the 2008 Bulldogs and their coaches to prove themselves anew and disprove the critics…or vice-versa. I wouldn't punt a shilling either way today, at least as far as '08 is concerned. Longer-term I'm actually now tending more upbeat than I was leaving Atlanta a month back, if you care.

What strikes my ironic nerve is making so much of one particular player at this point in any season should be little more than a footnote. Why it has blown up into such a topic is more the story, for what it says about the mindset of some (though by no means all or maybe even most; judging by post-popularity is usually misleading) towards Coach Sylvester Croom in particular and the MSU program in general. That is, a tithe of the fan base can no longer accept any decision, any move, even any outcome, simply for what it is. I could but won't pull out a comment by one of Chesterton's successors, C.S. Lewis, regarding his own father's tendency to analyze everything too deeply and draw wrong conclusions as a result, but I'd exceed our Brit-quote quota in the process.

Let's at least get the baseline straight. Tuesday, Croom was talking about developing and using players who might be able to make more big plays, of the type State came so close to in the first half at Tennessee and missed by frustratingly small margins. By the way, I now so wish the first half of that game had been on TV so folk could've seen the actual plays for themselves, written descriptions don't do justice. Anyway, towards the end of that particular answer comment, Croom added (as I wrote in a Notebook story):

"Other than B-Mac, we don't have a home-run hitter." And "We may have one more guy that we may insert into the package to try to see if we can get something from him. Of course you're not going to get the name!" How that pretty routine comment transmogrified into the ‘secret weapon' topic of the week is also another story, more about how easily things can be blown utterly out of proportion. My profession is at fault first, true, for turning a tid-bit into a whole tale; though filling space with anything resembling ‘fresh' content two months into a season is tougher than y'all might appreciate. But it also signifies the willingness of our public to swallow what bait we offer, too…as well as reminds just how desperate Mississippi State football fans are after, oh, 109 seasons of waiting for anyone, anything to cheer on offense. That wait continues.

But of such small sparks messy grassfires do start. Incidentally, at Wednesday's practice Coach Croom came over to ask why all the fuss, the speculation over some ‘secret' new star? He found it particularly amusing the suggestions certain defensive personnel were about to change sides of the squad. "You don't think we'd have done that long ago if we thought it would help?" he asked. Though we could add, just how much credit State currently has banked in regards to personnel moves or non-moves is another matter for another day.

In this particular case, though, I can find no fault in getting Clark into freshman action. I actually thought he'd play at Tennessee, based on these facts. First, the kid was suddenly practicing like a guy ready to play. That naturally leads to misunderstandings, so I further clarify: he was working as hard as ever, the difference was that indefinable but recognizable something had ‘clicked' in drills and a rookie was practicing like a veteran, according to staffers other than the head coach I might add. We media can't watch 11-on-11 work so we rely on second-hand reports on such things, and this is not an assistant staff prone to smoke-blowing with us who put in the effort to attend daily drills.

Second, there was a need for one more ‘speed' guy in the plan. It's become something of a running joke that, based on the praise he's received from the coaches, Marcus Green must be the greatest tight end we never saw. Seriously though, the glimpses we did have of the freshman (redshirted) Green in spring, August camp, and limited game appearances confirm—to me at least—he's one of the missing elements in how State's revised offensive plans are supposed to work. As in, a ‘speed' tight end to shoot right down the center, between the hashes and on true downfield patterns, not just the hot-routes and short tosses in traffic we're used to. Remember that play just before halftime at Georgia Tech, to Brandon Henderson at the goal line? It's a pattern designed for the faster, stronger, better-jumping Green.

He's not available and, with a small tear in the groin a la Omarr Conner 2006 Egg Bowl, probably won't be soon. Henderson and Nelson Hurst don't fit that route and aren't supposed to. An alternate option, or if you will an adjustment, something this staff reputedly NEVER DOES according to some, is using another speed guy from a slot spot. Delmon Robinson is one choice; Clark another, both quick and fast guys with good hands and toughness belying their size or lack thereof. They are also the receivers of the immediate MSU future, too, with Jamayel Smith and Aubrey Bell leaving.

And thirdly, Clark was suddenly very ready to play, at a position where State can use the help…though there are already other bodies there. Thus the question, to play him or redshirt him? And my first answer: don't judge the rightness or wrongness of the decision based solely on how many touches Clark got—or didn't--in his first outing! If for no other reason than besides the handoff-sweep, there were two pass plays called specifically for him, according to Tyson Lee who certainly can't be accused of covering for his coaches. If any who re-read Croom's exact comments on plans to utilize Clark the rest of the year are dubious, I agree there is past-evidence in other cases to justify dubiosity, a word I wish Chesterton had invented and not me.

Now, let's also make something else clear here. I've long been convinced redshirting is both over-used and over-rated, at least for speed position players. Unless the roster is already well-stocked with proven personnel, and goodness knows State ain't and rarely will ever be, receivers, runners, corners and safeties, and linebackers ought to be played early. Defensive linemen, too, though I might hedge a bit there. Only true offensive linemen should automatically sit the first season (another area State historically struggles to have such sufficient experienced depth, though I suddenly like how the line is taking shape for coming campaigns). And quarterbacks, that depends on the skill-set of the new guy and who is in front of him. It's not an instant call any more anywhere, if you've noticed elsewhere in the country.

The ‘counterpoint' of course is Chris Relf, who by no conceivable means was ready to play last year and is still getting up to college speed this season. Come spring, well now, that's gonna be fun to watch. So there is no absolute answer on redshirting, ESPECIALLY at a Mississippi State…but on the whole I'm more agin' it than for it, whoever the coach and whatever the system.

Of course the real story here isn't the wisdom or foolishness of activating a particular player. We're way beyond that. It's more accurately a reflection of larger questions about where this program is, or might be, or can be, heading. I understand that. It's as if 2007 never happened; or that it is being written off entirely as fluke, and not a signal of what this regime is capable of doing when they can keep enough good, experienced, and reliable personnel on the field for any length of time. I also understand that response, without entirely agreeing. And while the offense we see today barely resembles the schemes of 2004-06 (I've been told by one MSU coach there are only seven specific plays left from the original package Croom came with left in the book, and some of those are universal to any offense), the production has been far too similar for comfort, much less confidence. But I offer that to counter accusations this staff won't adjust and adapt to personnel.

In fact I hope y'all will re-read the evening's quotes in regard to how State is now using some ‘Veer' tactics in the running game, as Lee has proven he can handle the read-react responsibilities. To me, who keeps hoping State will eventually find itself with an option-based offense, it's encouraging. Same old same old? Not so. Though whether the lineup's skill-set allows these plays to prosper against a SEC defense, we'll see soon enough. And that, after all, is the ultimate bottom line that I wish didn't need reprising but always seems to: players matter more than plays. Or put another way, start all evaluations—and criticisms—of what State is doing from the talent/experience/depth aspects, then go to the play selections and situations next. Objective conclusions might surprise. Or not.

Me, I'll wait until after the Egg Bowl to start drawing definitive conclusions about this team, this staff, this roster, and the overall direction. Yeah, I know, it doesn't fit well the instant-answer demands of our E-era. And I find it telling that a large portion of the most vocal and very harshest critics of today's MSU football are those whose active participation in the program as fans began…in the 1990s. The mind boggles at what such frantic folk would have been posting in November 1988. Mental health professionals would've been on constant 9-1-1 alert.

Enough ramblings for one sunny October Sunday, the '89 ragtop needs a half-hour's run and fluids check before it gets chilly and the seals shrink. But in keeping with the more general tone of the day, I close with more Chesterton from the same chapter as the opening quote. Maybe it helps, maybe not, but I think it fits pretty nicely…from a guy who never saw a real ‘football' game yet put a metaphorical finger right on many of it's fans.

"A man who thinks too much about success must be the drowsiest sentimentalist; for he must be always looking back. If he only likes victory he must always come late for the battle. For the man of action there is nothing but idealism."*

*‘What's Wrong With The World', G.K. Chesterton, 1910 Dodd, Mead and Company; reprinted in 1994 Ignatius Press.

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