THE MODERATOR: We’re ready to start with Coach Croom.
COACH CROOM: We’ll get started with practice one week from today. Our players are there. We’re just finishing up summer school. So our guys, our veteran players, have been there since June 1st. Our freshmen came in right after the 4th of July. So our guys really won’t get a break before we start practice.
But we’re looking forward to the season, looking forward to practice. As everybody’s aware, we play LSU in our opening ballgame on national TV on Thursday night, August 30th. They’re one of the best teams in the country. Hey, we got to play ‘em. They’re in the SEC West.
We’re excited about our potential for improving the season. We thought we made significant strides as far as our attitude and confidence level last year. With the influx of new people that we’ve had in our freshmen and junior college players, plus the returning of most of our guys from last year, we’re really excited about the possibilities of what could what we can become at some point during the season.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Coach Croom.
Q. Do you feel any pressure going into the season?
COACH CROOM: Yeah, I do. I feel a great deal of pressure. The same pressure I felt when I was in the ninth grade when Tuscaloosa Junior High, played Eastwood Junior High. Tuscaloosa Junior High won. Same pressure I felt then. The pressure of winning a game and having bragging rights after the game’s over.
If you’re asking me whether I’m worried about whether I’m going to get fired, no. I’ve coached for 30 years. I’ve never had to go look for a job. I’ve always had one. The good Lord has blessed me with one. I know we’re doing things the right way. I know our plan is on track.
But at any point during my tenure, or as coaches, we always know that’s a possibility. But if that should ever come about, I’m quite thankful to have had the opportunity to do it my way. I’m very fortunate Mississippi State, my athletic director, Larry Templeton, our president, Dr. Foglesong, our past president, Dr. Lee, have allowed me to do things exactly the way I believe in.
So regardless of the outcome, I’m far more fortunate than a lot of guys in this business. I got to do everything exactly the way I want to do it.
Q. What is your feeling about an early signing period in college football recruiting?
COACH CROOM: Not interested in it at all. And we’ve done that in the Southeastern Conference. When I was playing we signed in December. When I was coaching we signed in December. We signed the conference letter in December. The national letter came in January.
What that means is you have to, during the season, focus on playing games and recruiting. One of the problems I feel like, I think the rules as they are now alleviate to some degree, is quite often we give more attention to players in the recruiting process than we do when they’re on campus. I think that’s what that will lead to.
Right now coaches can focus on coaching their players and spending time in the game plan. If they do have a break during the season, they can spend some free time with their players, even after a game. You get time, your players get a chance to celebrate, you can spend some time with them after a game if you want to do some things.
Whereas if you go back the other way, as soon as that game is over with you got to have got to go to a recruiting meal, something like, that entertain people.
I’m not interested in going back that way. I think it defeats the idea of focusing on football and concentrating on the task at hand during the season.
Q. Since you’re opening up with LSU this year, would you rather play your non conference games, then maybe third, fourth week of the season get into your SEC games?
COACH CROOM: As I said earlier, if we had a format where the conference decided that’s what you’re going to do, everybody doing the same thing, then that would be different.
But, you know, I never worry about schedules, guys. I don’t get into that. It’s not something, I guess because of my NFL background, you just get ready and play ‘em. I don’t care what time we play, when we play, as long as we’re you know, the only thing I worry about is if we had to play, let’s say we were playing an early game, I know what we’re getting into a Thursday game, and the other team had a little more time to prepare for you. Now, that’s the things I look at.
As long as the opponent, we got the same preparation time for that game, it doesn’t really bother me.
Q. Are you ever surprised when guys decommit from your program or other programs? What do y’all try to do to prevent that? How do you handle moving forward with other program’s guys who have decommitted who are on the market now?
COACH CROOM: Well, I have learned. We’re very open and honest with our prospects during the recruiting process. We explain to them what my definition of a commit is. When they commit to us, it’s over. If a guy who’s truly committed, if I’m going to hold that scholarship for him, he’s not visiting anywhere else.
Now, if he’s visiting, then he made a reservation. That means if he’s visiting, I’m visiting. So it works both ways.
Q. At this time last year, Michael Henig was talking about getting over the toe injury that he got, and then he comes back and gets the broken collarbone. Is there anything you try to do to keep him healthy on the field? Have you told him, No more pool games?
COACH CROOM: Well, I told him not to go barefooted, that it is for sure.
Injuries are part of the game, part of life. We sure don’t need one to happen to him. But those things happen. He did a great job preparing. Our guys are all excited. We go to the South Carolina game. He gets a concussion literally the first play. He still doesn’t remember very much of that game. Even before he got the collarbone hurt, he was playing he was dinged on the first play.
That’s just part of the process. What we’ve done, we went out and got a junior college quarterback, two freshmen coming in. The only thing that we’ve done to alleviate that is get better depth, and at the same time he has worked extremely hard in the weight room.
I think he’s worked a lot more in the weight room, a lot better, than what he had previously. He’s gained some weight. In fact, he got up to a little too heavy. Got up to 205, 206 pounds. His mobility wasn’t as good as it was in the spring. He’s back down to a range that he finds comfortable for himself right now.
The preventive maintenance, we got him a little extra training with our ROTC on how to take a fall, so I hope that will help as well.
Q. Talk about your thoughts on the rule changes, especially kicking off from the 30, the stuff they’ve done to put plays back into the game.
COACH CROOM: Well, the kicking off I think is going to make everybody watch the kickoffs now for sure a lot more. It’s going to be a bigger play in college football now. I think you’re gonna see offenses start with better field position, which means we should get we should be more productive on the offensive side of the football because field position is everything in offensive football.
So I’m not as worried about it now if my freshman kicker is as good as everybody tells me he is. If he does what he’s supposed to do, then, hey, it’s not going to be a problem for us. Hopefully with Derrick McGhee’s returning kickoffs maybe we can get some field advantage on the kickoff return, which I think is the whole purpose of the rule.
I’m glad we’ve got the clock going back the way it was on kickoff. I’m not excited about the idea that I think we’ve we’ve only got 15 seconds after the ball is spotted after a TV timeout. We want to save five minutes, my thought and I don’t know what the reason behind it is. I know quite often we don’t want to do things like the NFL, but I’d just like to see us take five minutes off the halftime and quit messing around with the game.
Q. You talked about your team last year making some tangible improvement. Why hasn’t it translated into wins? What is the problem? Is this process taking longer than you thought about weeding out players that didn’t see it your way, transfers?
COACH CROOM: No, it hasn’t taken any longer than I thought. When I took this job, I talked to Curt, I talked to Bobby Ross, I talked to all the people. I talked to Durell out of UCLA, all the guys who have been through this, rebuilding a program, and they said that, Hey, you’re not going to be in that position to compete with the better teams for at least three seasons.
You throw the probation in there, plus the fact I knew the way that my philosophy is that some of the young men there was not going to want to stay and participate.
So basically we started all over again. That was explained to our athletic director, explained to our president when we took the job, because I knew that was going to happen. Because I know me better than anybody. We’re at that point now where we’ve gotten young men in the program. The guys like Titus, the guys like Mike, who believe in our way of doing things, who believe in going to class, doing all the little things that we ask them to do.
As far as last year, we made significant improvement. I know the fans said they weren’t wins. But you got to understand something: we were still a very young team last year. I asked our players to do one thing last year: get us to the fourth quarter where we’ve got a chance to win. That was the goal: get us to the fourth quarter. When we lost four games by a field goal, two of them Georgia and Ole Miss, we lost on the last play of the game. So we did what we asked them to do.
Now, we’ve got to find that one play to get those other three points. That’s the improvement we made. When I look at us in the first game last year, particularly on the offense, we played pretty well defensively.
But when I look at us offensively we made significant improvements. We had 22 sacks in the first six games. Only had six in the last six. We finally pieced together an offensive line. That’s been a process in itself.
We got a pretty good offensive line coming back. We got a bunch of starters coming back on offense. I expect us to be a pretty productive team on the offensive side of the football.
Building a program takes time. Building anything that has a chance to succeed, whether it’s your family, your business, anything, it takes time. Quite often in our society today, patience is not a virtue any more. We want it to happen right now.
Again, I’m very fortunate to be at Mississippi State because the people who hired me understood that this was the way that I was going to do it. It’s not been easy for me because I want to win right now, too. Hey, I’ve been used to everywhere I’ve been competing for championships.
But to build something, I’m extremely proud of the players who have come to our program because a lot of them, rather than choosing to go somewhere and riding on the coattails of someone else’s success, they chose to be a part of building something. They’re the ones that’s building it, and builders are special people.
Q. Could you talk about what college football does to help guys, other than NFL guys, to succeed when they get out of college, what you do as a program to help them do that?
COACH CROOM: Well, the biggest thing in college football is, our philosophy is to make sure our guys are on track to graduate. That’s the biggest thing. If you got a degree, now a guy, particularly with the career planning and all those things that all universities have in place, and most athletic departments do some fashion of that as well, with alumni trying to help them get in contact with different people so they can have a career of their choice.
But the most important thing is getting a degree. That is the most important thing. The NFL has followed up on that as well with its degree program which allows players to stay in their respective franchise towns and still be able to finish their degrees. That’s the bottom line. Whether it’s at the college or pro level, it’s guys being on track to graduate with a functional, marketable degree. That comes first.
That’s been one of the things that was, you know, asked about our program. Our entire goal when we started this program, what we’re doing at State, is we wanted to be a program that graduated its players and put them in a position to compete in society.
If they’re winners as people and are able to go out in society and be winners, the wins will come.
Q. I can probably count on one hand the number of times in the last 10 years I’ve seen a team win the opening coin toss and choose to take the ball. Do you think with the kickoff change we might see coaches trend back that way?
COACH CROOM: I don’t know what other coaches are going to do, but I’m taking it. Everybody has his choice. With that ball on the 30 yard line, you better believe I’m taking it.
Q. When you talk about the goals you set for this year, trying to move up, I suspect you think it’s really important to get out of the gate early. Does that complicate it by playing LSU in the opener?
COACH CROOM: I’m not one of those it’s always nice to start off good. I’m more worried about how you finish. Getting out the gate, people say last year I might have tended toward that because I probably put too much emphasis on the South Carolina game last year because we were not a confident football team. That’s why.
I thought it was really important. If we could have won the South Carolina game last year it would have made a tremendous difference in our season, because we had a young team that had no confidence. Our team believes in itself right now.
Regardless of the outcome against LSU, we’re still going to be a good football team before the year’s over.
Q. Do you feel the state of Mississippi can support two successful SEC programs talent wise? If not, how important is it to be the first one to have a breakout season?
COACH CROOM: Hmm. Well, I’m not worried about them supporting two, I’m just worried about them supporting one (smiling). Them other guys can worry about themselves.
I know it can support the one in Starkville, so beyond that I’m not worried about that.
Q. Could you comment on Titus Brown, what he means to your team, the progress that he’s made the last couple years?
COACH CROOM: Titus is a very important factor in our football team. Our team has a team concept. We got no superstars. Titus is a key player in the mix. An excellent pass rusher. He’s what I call a natural pass rusher. Titus to rush the passer the day he set foot on campus, and he’s refined that art even further now. I expect him to have a big year for us.
He’s an intense player, but Titus understands what we’re all about as a program. He’s going through some personal odyssey himself. He started off, he came in as a guy who was not highly recruited. Really took it personal he didn’t get a chance to go to the University of Alabama. Came in as a freshman trying to prove himself.
I think we started him at middle linebacker. He had some success, made all conference as a freshman. But in the long term we thought it would be better for him to move to defensive end. Well, he didn’t really agree with us on that. Even though he moved, I don’t think he totally bought into it. I think his play dropped because of it, because his heart was never totally in it.
It finally got to a point where I called him in one day and I said, Titus, you’re either going to be a defensive end or you need to go somewhere else, because I do not believe you can play middle linebacker. Plus I know you want to play in the NFL, and I know you can’t play middle linebacker up there.
I said, But if you believe what we’re asking, I think you can play at that level one day. I think last year he finally decided to buy into that. Now he’s committed to it. His play, particularly the last six games of the season, reflected that. I think all 12 of ‘em will reflect that this year. I think he’s going to have a big season.
Q. Anthony Dixon last year played tailback. Do you foresee him playing tailback and fullback from this year?
COACH CROOM: AD might be at tailback, he might be at fullback, he might be at tight end, he might be at ride receiver. Don’t blink because you might miss him.
We gonna get the ball to Anthony Dixon. He’s a big time player. A little bit too big right now. I think he’s about 242. Still got a couple pounds to lose. But he showed he could play in this conference last year as a freshman.
Still got a lot of maturing to do. He’s a little too impatient on his runs as far as understanding blocking schemes, allowing holds to develop. I think the addition of Rockey Felker as a coach, Rockey had a significant impact on him this spring as far as getting his tempo down.
This young man is another one of those guys like Titus. Again, we don’t have a network of superstars, but he is a key player in the scheme of things for us.
Q. How are you and your staff changing your recruiting strategy in anticipation of the text messaging ban going into effect on August 1st?
COACH CROOM: Burning up those text messages between now and August the 1st, that’s for sure. I understand there’s a possibility there may be some adjustments in the rule. We’ll know that soon. But we’ll adjust to that. You can email them. Still the old fashioned way of writing a note, which we always did. We never stopped doing that as a staff. We still send handwritten notes to our players. I do every week. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll still use email, which is possible.
Whatever the rules are, we’re going to follow those rules to the letter. As long as everybody else does the same, I don’t see a problem with it. I’m one of those guys, as long as we all got to do it, okay.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.
COACH CROOM: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Courtesy SEC Sports Information.