HOOVER, Ala.- Thanks to an attitude adjustment and an influx of talented freshmen, Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom believes that his Bulldogs will be a better team in 2005.
Speaking before a crowd of media at the Wynfrey Hotel in the opening session of the second day of SEC football Media Days, Croom talked about how the second year of his tenure in Starkville, Miss., will be better than his first.
"We are not selfish like we were last year," Croom, the first African-American head coach in SEC history, said. "We are truly looking forward to this season to see how we stack against people."
The Dogs went 3-8 a season ago, an up-and-down campaign that saw an upset win against Florida (38-31) and an embarrassing home loss to Maine (9-7).
"To be honest, I don't know how I made it through last year," Croom said.
Center Chris McNeil echoes Croom's sentiments.
"With everything that we went through, I know that we are tough," McNeil said. "When I show up for training camp, and I look at the guy next to me, I know he had to be mentally strong to survive the past year."
Croom added that he was pleased with the progress his team had made at the end of last season and that from all the reports he had received from his strength coach, summer voluntary workouts went well.
"Everything we do now is with a winning attitude," McNeil added. "Everything is about how it is going to help us win. I think with the adjustment last season, sometimes we were thinking about adjusting and not always about winning."
Croom also hasn't been afraid to make tough calls with regards to position switches. The moves of Titus Brown from middle linebacker to defensive end and Quinton Culberson from defensive back to middle linebacker have paid dividends on defense.
If Mississippi State is to rebound and be a serious player in the SEC West, Jerious Norwood must again have a solid campaign. The senior from Brandon, Miss., a former five-star rated recruit by Rivals.com, rushed for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
"Jerious is our best football player right now, especially on the offensive side of the football … he should have had about 3-400 more yards, but that's to be expected when you are learning a new system."
The key to Norwood's success could be how the Bulldogs' offensive line, which could be counting on several true freshmen, performs this season. Croom said he expects Calvin Wilson from Hattiesburg, Miss., and Michael Gates from Tyrone, Ga., to compete for starting positions. Gates, who came to campus as a tight end, has added 30-plus pounds and will play tackle.
Norwood is confident in his blockers.
"To be honest, I have never worried about the line," Norwood said. "I know that the good lord will take care of me."
Part of that line will be tight end Eric Butler. Butler led the Bulldogs in touchdown receptions with four last season, but hasn't even begun to reach his potential, according to Croom.
"Eric is at about 60 percent of his potential," Croom said. "When I was in Green Bay, Bubba Franks went to the pro bowl and Eric has more potential than Bubba Franks."
The freshman class will be counted on for depth and to contribute this season.
"The most important thing we can do as a coaching staff right now is get these freshman ready to play," Croom said. "That's a challenge in the SEC, but we have to get them as ready as possible without putting them in a situation that will destroy their confidence."
Like Gates, most of the players Croom and company brought in are versatile athletes who can play a number of positions, a trend that will be the norm in recruiting.
"We only like to recruit guys that can play more than one position," Croom said. "If he can only play one, he better be the best at that spot."
Numbers alone will make versatility a required trait this year. Because of NCAA probation and attrition, the Bulldogs will play with around 75 scholarship athletes this season. The NCAA limit is 85.
Nevertheless, Croom remains confident.
"We are going to win some games that people don't think we should win," Croom said.
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