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June 14, 2008
THE SCHEME: When Sylvester Croom arrived in Starkville, he installed a West Coast offense he learned from years of coaching in the NFL. The problem: He hasn't had a quarterback capable of adequately running the system. The offense needs a quarterback who makes smart decisions in the short passing game rather than a physical specimen who can chuck the ball 70 yards. The M.O.: know where to go with the football and make the smart, safe throw. That opens up the ground game, which always is punishing on this campus.
STAR POWER: Look no further than junior tailback Anthony Dixon. He became just the seventh Bulldog to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark (1,066) last season. He's a plow horse who excels at banging between the tackles. Dixon is money when he gets near the goal line, scoring 14 TDs last season – the second-most in a season in school history.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Coaches are pumped about redshirt freshman tailback Robert Elliott (6-0/192). He has decent size, but it's his blazing speed and elusiveness that has the staff excited. Elliott is the guy who could put some lightning into what has been a power-based rushing attack since Jerious Norwood left.
IT'S HIS TIME: Fingers and toes are crossed for quarterback Wesley Carroll to take the next step in his development. He showed flashes after being forced into duty as a true freshman last season, taking care of the ball (none of his first 137 passes were picked off) and playing it safe en route to forging a 6-3 record as a starter. Now, Carroll must show a knack for making a play instead of always playing it safe. Still, Rule No. 1 remains the same: No turnovers.
STRONGEST AREA: Whenever you talk Bulldogs football, the first thing mentioned is the ground game. That won't be different this season. Yes, the line is being overhauled – just one full-time starter returns – but Croom has done a good job stockpiling talent in an area that was in disrepair when he arrived. One caveat: Center could be a problem. Is junior Johnny Carpenter ready? The developing unit will have a host of good runners to escort, including Dixon, Elliott, Christian Ducre and Arnil Stallworth. Leading the way will be fullback Brandon Hart, a hole blaster.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Are there any deep threats at wide receiver? If not, this offense will see a lot of eight-defenders-in-the-box looks. It's hoped senior Jamayel Smith fills that role, especially with Tony Burks gone. It's time for senior Co-Eric Riley to live up to the hype he brought with him from junior college last season. Maybe true freshman O'Neal Wilder, who enrolled early, will surprise. More bad news: The tight end corps must be rehabbed, with sophomore Brandon Henderson the heir. He'll be pushed by a converted fullback.
OVERVIEW: This has the makings of Croom's best offense yet in Starkville. Alas, that's not saying much. An inability to develop a consistent passing game is the biggest obstacle keeping this program from taking the next step. It's not for a lack of scheming by coordinator Woody McCorvey. But there's more hope than usual. McCorvey feels Carroll is ready to emerge and allow the offense to shift from first to second gear. Hey, it's all about progress – even if it's baby steps. It's time to go from being a bad offense to being an average offense. And it should happen.
THE SCHEME: It's a standard 4-3 set built on athletic ability. The loss of coordinator Ellis Johnson to South Carolina hurts. Croom promoted Charlie Harbison to coordinator from safeties coach, and don't expect any big changes from a defense that's all about being aggressive. This is not a read-and-react system. It's all about letting the athletes be athletes. With what should be one of the top secondaries in the SEC, Harbison will have the luxury of gambling some with his front seven.
STAR POWER: Senior free safety Derek Pegues is one of the best in the nation. Before the 2007 season, he moved from cornerback to safety and didn't miss a beat en route to earning All-SEC honors. It has been that way since he stepped on the field as a true freshman following an illustrious prep career. Pegues is all about the big play. He has 10 career interceptions with 218 return yards and three scores. He doubles as one of the top return men in the nation, with two career punt returns for scores.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Keep an eye on redshirt freshman strong safety Wade Bonner. He's an electric athlete who turned heads in practice last year because of his speed and athletic ability. MSU has a deep secondary, but Bonner – who's also an adept return man – may be too talented to keep on the sideline. No defense has enough playmakers, and Bonner is another one.
IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore K.J. Wright got his feet wet last season, playing mostly on special teams. But he's primed to move into the strongside linebacker post. He's a quick and instinctive player who can take on blocks and cover. Coaches feel it's a matter of when – not if – Wright becomes an all-star in Starkville, where some of the most underrated defense in the SEC has been played this decade.
STRONGEST AREA: The secondary should be outstanding; all four starters are back. Pegues is a legit All-America candidate who has rare playmaking ability. Strong safety Keith Fitzhugh is a tackling machine who excels in run support. Backup De'Mon Glanton is almost the peer of Fitzhugh and will push him. Cornerback Anthony Johnson is expected to return in August after suffering a broken leg vs. Ole Miss, solidifying one corner spot. He led defensive backs with 73 tackles in 2007. Marcus Washington and Jasper O'Quinn, who both started seven times last season, should battle for the other starting slot.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There are no worries at tackle with 300-pounders Kyle Love and Jesse Bowman back to anchor the interior and muck up the works. But the Bulldogs need someone to bring the heat off the edge with ends Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal gone. Cortez McCraney and Timmy Bailey are next in line. McCraney came to campus as an end, played tackle last season and is back at end. Bailey, a 241-pounder, has played some at linebacker.
OVERVIEW: Losing Ellis Johnson hurts. But with eight starters back for a unit that held eight foes to 17 or fewer points, Harbison has the horses to makes this one of the better SEC defenses. The veteran secondary will allow Harbison to play man coverage and turn the front seven loose to attack. If this unit can amp up the turnovers and give a still-developing offense short fields from time to time, State will have a good season. The key is avoiding injuries. Why? The difference between Mississippi State and the SEC elite is depth.
The Bulldogs look good here. In fact, few SEC teams are in this kind of shape. Blake McAdams is a solid punter who is back for his fourth season on the job. McAdams has averaged almost 40 yards per boot. Adam Carlson is a steady kicker who has connected on 18 of 29 career field-goal attempts. He enters 2008 on a roll, having hit his past seven. Still, he can improve. Is there a scarier return man than Pegues? He has two punt-return TDs in his career. There are no worries in the long-snapper department, either, with Aaron Feld.
Give Mississippi State officials credit for sticking by Croom, who is building a solid program. If you want flash, look elsewhere: Croom is an old-school coach who was seasoned in the NFL from 1987-2003. His schemes and ideas finally are blooming now that he has stocked the roster with his guys. McCorvey is a patient, steady hand who knows when to pat someone on the head or kick them in the backside. This is Harbison's chance to show he can run what has been one of the SEC's better defenses in recent years. He developed a standout secondary before earning his deserved promotion. Croom's staff is augmented by veteran minds such as linebacker coach Louis Campbell, offensive line boss J.B. Grimes and running back coach Rockey Felker, a former Bulldogs head coach who bleeds maroon.
The non-conference schedule is soft, but that's OK. This is Mississippi State, an emerging program. The visit to Georgia Tech, a team in transition, is a good measuring stick. There's no Florida, Georgia or South Carolina in SEC play. The schedule is built for a fast start and fast finish. It's vital the Bulldogs win their first two games, at Louisiana Tech and against Division I-AA Southeastern Louisiana. State will need all of the momentum it can get heading into a rugged three-game stretch that will define the season: Auburn, at Georgia Tech, at LSU. And after a visit from Vandy, State goes to Tennessee. Survive that, and MSU has a chance to be 4-3 heading into the home stretch that could produce four more wins. Really. And would Nick Saban's head explode if Mississippi State beats Alabama for a third year in a row?
Mississippi State showed tangible progress in Year Four under Croom last fall, earning the school's first bowl in seven seasons. And the Bulldogs won, topping UCF in the Liberty Bowl. Good thing, because some of the natives were growing restless. Buoyed by myriad returning starters across the board, an offense that's coming alive, a still-rugged defense and – most important – confidence from 2007's success, there's no reason Mississippi State can't make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first since the program went to three in a row from 1998-2000.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.