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A frustrated Sylvester Croom simply shook his head in amazement. The message, he thought, was clear.
For this unbending man, who played for and coached under the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, football is far more than the basics of Xs and Os. It's also about life and preparing young men for the daily obstacles they'll inevitably face when they leave campus. And that's why the second-year Mississippi State coach takes it personally when players run afoul.
Since Croom's arrival in Starkville in December 2003, 16 players have either left on their own terms because they couldn't handle the rigors of his system or have been dismissed for various reasons.
"They just don't get it," said Croom, who guided the Bulldogs to a 3-8 mark in his first season. "I don't know how much more clear I can be. We have rules. Clear rules. And at some point, they'll understand I'm not kidding."
From the first day he was introduced as coach, Croom has been bound and determined to restore discipline and character to a program that hasn't been able to escape the cellar of the Western Division since '00. He admits that task was far more arduous than he first expected, but slowly and surely his players are beginning to buy into the system with the hopes of again being competitive and playing in bowls.
How can the Bulldogs can post a winning season and return to a bowl game for the first time since '00? The answer is, it won't be easy. However, if MSU is to improve under Croom, particularly on offense, the play in the trenches will be a determining factor.
The protection that this unit, led by center Chris McNeil, provides will be key with regard to the production of quarterback Omarr Conner and running back Jerious Norwood.
Last year, Conner proved he could be effective when given the time to set up in the pocket and throw the football. But when protection broke down and he was forced to scramble, the results weren't pretty.
Also crucial for Conner is the emergence of a go-to receiver, and Croom is hoping that player emerges from a group that includes veterans Tee Milons and Will Prosser, as well as incoming freshmen Tay Bowser and Corey Gardhigh.
Of course, Conner isn't expected to shoulder the entire load of the offense thanks to the talents of Norwood. A 1,050-yard rusher in 2004, Norwood has established himself as one of the top runners in the SEC. In the offseason, he worked intensely on reads and bulking up, aspects of his game that Croom said could lead to an extra 300 yards.
It didn't take long for Croom and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to discover that Quinton Culberson can be playmaker for the Bulldogs. As a result of that discovery, they wanted to make sure he was put in a position to make plays. So, Culberson was moved from outside linebacker to the middle, which should allow the defense to take advantage of his speed.
And with a front that is expected to be greatly improved, the defense could turn out to be the strength of this team.
If there is a concern, though, it's in the secondary. Last year, the defensive backs fell victim to big plays. However, with experienced players such as Kevin Dockery and Mario Bobo, fans can expect more interceptions and fewer bombs.
Still, there isn't much depth. And as the case for any position on this team, injuries must be kept to a minimum.
Placekicker Keith Andrews didn't have a lot of opportunities last year, but he did connect on 6-of-10 field-goal attempts and all 21 of his extra points.
State's punters, however, were given a lot of opportunities. Handling those duties this year will be Brooks Crabtree, a walk-on who averaged 36.1 yards in limited action last season.
In the return game, MSU lost a great threat in Fred Reid, but with incoming freshman Derek Pegues and the return of Jonathan Lowe, the threat should remain.
With a year under the direction of Croom, State should be more consistent, if not better, on both sides of the football. However, the Bulldogs face a more difficult schedule this year. State must go to Florida, Arkansas and Auburn, while Georgia replaces Vanderbilt. Out of conference, MSU plays Tulane, Houston and Murray State. But as this team proved last year with a loss to Maine, no game is a guaranteed win.
Regardless of the win total, though, MSU fans can expect to see improved discipline, one of Croom's trademarks. That in itself may lead to an extra victory or two.