Tulane Opponents: Game 1 - Mississippi State

Tulane Opponents: Game 1 - Mississippi State

New head coach Sylvester Coom takes over the Bulldog program from coaching veteran Jackie Sherrill, whose departure was announced prior to the end of the season. Croom became the first African-American head football coach at an SEC school

We'll start our review of Tulane's 2004 opponents with a look at the opponent in the opening game, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

New head coach Sylvester Coom takes over the Bulldog program from coaching veteran Jackie Sherrill, whose departure was announced prior to the end of the season. Croom became the first African-American head football coach at an SEC school.

Croom is apparently engaged in a struggle to change entrenched attitudes of some members of the football team and that initiative has led to the dismissal or suspension of some members of the team. Croom does not seem to be conducting a wholesale house cleaning but there may be more personnel turnover to come.

Wholesale house cleaning or not, a review of the depth chart indicates that a youth movement is definitely underway.

Prior to taking the State job, Croom was the running backs coach for Green Bay of the NFL. The veteran coach has spent 17 years of his 28 year coaching career at the professional level on the offensive side of the football, four of those years as an NFL offensive coordinator. Croom's reputation is that he is an 'Old School' kind of coach who tolerates no nonsense.

When the Bulldogs take the field against the Green Wave they'll do so with a brand new quarterback and a brand new offense.

The new field general at the reins is sophomore Omarr Conner, 6-1 208, who spent last season at wide receiver and sometime punt returner, starting three games as a receiver and totalling 14 catches for 211 yards. Conner's rep is that he's extremly athletic. The sophomore also had 2 carries for 29 yards last season.

Conner exited spring practice atop the depth chart at the signal-calling position after completing 18-of-37 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns during three spring scrimmages.

If Conner doesn't get it done, he has a plethora of replacements waiting stage right. Junior Kyle York, 6-0 207; soph Aries Nelson, 6-2 213; junior Brett Morgan, 6-0 194; and senior Joe Judge, 6-2 233.

Nelson, the official backup, saw brief action with a single pass attempt and a single carry in 2003.

The new quarterback will be running a West Coast style offense installed by State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey, whose most recent job was as the running backs coach at Tennessee.

In summary, the Tulane defense will be facing a quarterback with no previous game experience at that position running a brand new and fairly complex offense.

The Bulldogs will have quality personnel at the offensive skill positions in junior running back Jerious Norwood, 6-0 192, who rushed for 642 yards and two touchdowns and a pair of seniors at wide receiver in Mckinley Scott, 6-0 197, and Ray Ray Bivines, 5-11 176. Scott was the teams second leading receiver in 2003 with 29 catches for 391 yards and a touchdown, while Bivines made 26 catches for 324 yards and a touchdown.

The Bulldogs leading rusher in 2003, junior-to-be running back/kicker returner Nick Turner, was dismissed from the team last winter, raising a depth issue if the disciplinary action stands.

Senior Fred Reid, 5-9 184, netted 157 yards on 32 carries but his work load may increase with the departure of Turner.

Former strong safety Ricky Wright, 6-0 201, has been moved to wide receiver. Wright, a redshirt freshman, was on the depth chart as the backup at stronng safety duering spring practice.

The offensive line is always a key indicator of offensive production and the Bulldogs o'line could be a very good unit, given the loss of just one player from last year's group and the return of seven players who started at least one game last season.

And the 'Dogs are truly BIG DOGS! Nine of the ten linemen in the post-spring two deep weigh more than 300 pounds. The lone light weight is 290-pound junior center Chris McNeil. McNeil was suspended late in the spring term but could to return for August camp.

The starters on the Dog o'line lineup like this:
RT-David Stewart 6-6 317, Sr.
RG-Will Rogers 6-4 339, Sr
C-Chris McNeil 6-3 290 Jr.
LG-Johnny Wadley 6-2 341 Jr
LT-Richard Burch, 6-5 315, Jr.

The backup o'line stacks like this:
RT-James Cochran 6-5 300 So.
RG-Donovan Davis 6-7 315 So.
C-Brian Anderson 6-5 309 So.
LG-Johnny Wadley 6-2 341 Jr.
LT-Avery House 6-4 308 Jr.

Look for Anderson to start at center if McNeil does not return.

Those are BIG, BIG Dogs!

The issue here is whether the o'line has sufficient quickness and pass blocking skills to protect Conner. An indication that this could be a problem is that the Dogs allowed 36 sacks last season. The Big Dogs might serve very well in a straight ahead power running attack but they may have problems with a speed rush type defenders. The normal reaction of someone being beaten off the ball is to reach out and grab. In a well officiated game, that usually results in numerous holding calls.

Because it features short drops/quick routes, the West Coast offensive style is a way of keeping defenses from pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. That may be just what State needs to keep their offensive heads above water. The problem for State will be to avoid second-and-long and third-and-long situations.

The West Coast offense features short passes as a substitute for the running game while still maintaining ball control. In the West Coast-style offense the quarterback takes a three or five-step drop, reads the defense and runs through a predetermined sequence or progression of receivers, before deciding which of his receiver options to throw the ball to. Ideally, all five receivers release in the pattern giving the QB plenty of options. Learning the intricacies of such an offense may take more than a single spring practice and August camp.

Look for the State passing game to feature what are called 'ruboff routes', where the receiver's path past another receiver causes the defender covering him to change direction or else collide with the other receiver.

The whole point of the West Coast offense is the yards after catch produced by the the ability of the skill players. Teams running that offense will nibble and nibble, throwing the ball underneath snap after snap, eventually beating someone deep or having a short pass turn into a big play because a defender missed an assignment or a tackle was broken.

If State can protect the quarterback for the three step drop, they could benefit enormously from the speed and athleticism of the receivers and Jerious Norwood at running back.

Moving on to the defense, State will run a variation of the 4-3 in 2004.

The defensive front is probably the strongest element of the State defense. Senior DT Ronald Fields, 6-2 321, a Bogalusa native who has made 25 career starts, is a talented and physical player and is probably the top hand. Fields made 52 tackles last season, including one sack.

The other tackle will be either redshirt freshman Corey Clark, 6-1 310, or sophomore Andrew Powell, 6-2 309.

Junior defensive end Deljuan Robinson, 6-4 295, is expected to be another solid defender. As a sophomore last season Robinson made 18 tackles.

The other position on the defensive front is the rover. The starting rover will be either junior Willie Evans, 6-2 255, or sophomore Michael Heard, 6-2 241. Evans started 10 games last season and made 54 tackles, with theree sacks and three QB hurries. Heard played in 7 games and made 4 tackles.

The d'line starters line up like this:

DE-Deljuan Robinson 6-4 295 So.
NG-Ronald Fields 6-2, 321 Sr.
DT-Corey Clark 6-1 310 RFr.
ROV-Willie Evans 6-2 255 Jr.

The backups look like this:

DE-Markell McKinley 6-2 294 So.
NG-Devrick Hampton 6-3 290 RFr.
DT-Andrew Powell 6-2 309 So.
ROV-Michael Heard 6-2 241 So.

The d'line unit may be talented, but it's not an overly experienced unit. Last year the State defensive front was able to post only 13 sacks, however that may be an area where they are much improved in 2004.

Junior Marvin Byrdsong, 6-2 247, is the top returning tackler with 76 an will start at middle linebacker. Byrdson played in all 12 games in 2003, starting 7 and is is probably the top hand at linebacker.

Brad Horton 6-0 225 So. Horton, the starter at will linebacker, played in all 12 games last season and made 13 tackles.

Clarence McDougal, 6-1 215, mans one of the other linebacker spots. Mcdougal is one of State's leading returning tacklers, having made 64 last season, and is probably the top hand at linebacker.

Linebacker Chris Swain, a 5-11 202 junior, is a capable backup. Swain recorded 27 tackles in 2003.

Former nose guard Avery Hannibal 6-1 250, and a redshirt freshman, adds depth at linebacker.

The depth chart at linebacker looks like this:

Starters:
SLB-Clarence McDougal 6-1 215 Jr.
MLB-Marvin Byrdsong 6-2 247 Jr.
WLB-Brad Horton 6-0 225 So.

Reserves:
SLB-Chris Swain 5-11 202 Sr.
MLB-Kenny Kern 5-11 235, Jr.
WLB-Rico Bennett 6-0 211 Jr.

Linebacker is one of the areas where a true freshman or two may be able to contribute for the Bulldogs.

Last year the State secondary leaked like a sieve, opponents threw for 31 touchdowns and had only SIX passs intercepted. Some of this may be traced to the lack of pressure from the defensive front, but you have to wonder about the cover skills. To be short about it, the secondary is another area where incoming freshmen could contribute in 2004.

Right corner Kevin Dockery, a 5-10 185 junior, is the leading returnee from last year's unit. In 2003 Dockery started 10 games and produced 70 tackles and an interception.

Left corner Quentin Culbertson, a 6-0 216 sophomore, started 8 games and managed 42 tackles in 2003.

Darren Williams, a 6-2 199 junior, is the starting free safety. Williams played in 9 games and started 8, making 61 tackles.

Sophomore Jeramie Johnson, 6-0 197, played in 112 games last season, starting 6. Johnson added 52 tackles.

Senior reserve safety Slovakia Griffith, 5-11 197, played in all 12 games last season, starting 3. Griffith made 48 tackles and added an interception.

Reserve corner Eric Fuller, a 6-2 174 senior, is another reserve. Fuller played in all 12 games in 2003, made 29 tackles and led the team with two interceptions.

True Freshmen safeties Fred Akines, 6-3 195, and De'Mon Glanton, 6-1 185, will get a chance to earn playing time during August camp.

Two true freshmen corners, Corey Spells and Mario Bobo, will battle to take Griffin's spot as a backup CB.

The secondary depth chart looks like this:

Starters:
RCB-Kevin Dockery 5-10, 185, Jr.
LCB-Quinton Culberson 6-0 216 So.
SS-Jeramie Johnson 6-0 197 So.
FS-Darren Williams 6-2 199 Jr.

Reserves: RCB-Eric Fuller 6-2 174 Sr.
LCB-Corey Spells 5-11 171 Fr. or Mario Bobo, 6-1 170 Fr.
SS-Fred Akines, 6-3 195 FR. or De'Mon Glanton, 6-1 185 Fr.
FS-Slovakia Griffith 5-11 197 Sr.

Spcial Teams
With an new coaching staff, special teams will be hard to get a grip on. Running back Fred Reid had 25 kickoff returns, bringing one back 100 yards for a touchdown. Reid averaged 23.1 per return, just a hair behind the departed Nick Turner, with whom he shared KOR duties.

Turner was the punt returner as well, and there's no idea who will eventually wind up handling those chores.

Senior Jared Cook, 5-10 188, split punting duties last season with the departed Robert Wallis. Cook averaged 41.5 per punt last season. An interesting point to note is that Cook's net punting average has been sub-par in each of the past three seasons. From 34.6 net per punt in 2001, the net punting average declined to 31.4 in 2002 and rebounded slightly in 2003 to 33.7.

Keith Andrews, a 6-0 195 sophomore from Bastrop, La. Ouachita Christian High School, takes over as the kicker. Andrews saw some minimal action last season but does not appear to have attempted a placement. However, Andrew's high school record included four 50 yarde + field goals, with the longest being a 59 yarder.

Here's a link to the Mississippi State Spring depth chart published by The Insiders Bulldog network site Gene's Page/Dawgs' Bite:

http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com/3/ftbldepthchart.html

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