The Mississippi State offensive line battles the defensive front during practice on Monday. (Photo by Lee Adams, SDN)
By LEE ADAMS
Mississippi State had a successful running game last year as they rushed for 2,793 yards and found the end zone 28 times. The success of the backfield was due to the offensive line paving the way.Â
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The Bulldogs have three returning linemen in sophomore Gabe Jackson, senior Addison Lawrence and senior Quentin Saulsberry. Jackson, who was selected to the 2010 SEC All-Freshmen team, and Lawrence, who recorded 43 knockdown blocks last season, will be returning to their respected positions at left guard (Jackson) and right tackle (Lawrence), but Saulsberry has moved over to center to handle the snaps.
Saulsberry makes the move to center from the right guard position, but he is not inexperienced at center as he played there for two games (Florida, UAB) in 2010 due to J.C. Brignone suffering an injury.
"The two games I started last year at center helped me get a feel for the position, and it showed me what my vision needs to be like and what things I need to look for and pay attention to," said Saulsberry. "Center is pretty much the same position, I just have a ball in my hand now, but moving from guard to center helped me be able to read keys that predetermine what's going to happen."
The experience Saulsberry got in those two games at center, is a plus as he will be delivering the ball to senior QB Chris Relf, but running game coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy believes the chemistry between Saulsberry and the other lineman is key.
"He (Saulsberry) played two games at center last year and he's played three years of games, so he has the experience of playing at guard and center," said Hevesy. "Him moving over there (center) is a transition, but we believe the center is the leader of the offense and his leadership and chemistry with the four guys around him is key."
The three returning starters will be joined on the front line in 2011 with junior Tobias Smith, who played in 12 games and started in one (Florida), at right guard, but the left tackle position is still up for grabs. James Carmon, who moved from defensive line to offensive line in the spring, and Blaine Clausell are battling for the position, but whoever wins the battle will have big shoes to fill. From 2007-10, the left tackle position mostly belonged to now Green Bay Packer, Derek Sherrod. Following Sherrod will not be an easy task and there is some added pressure from many fans to try and fill his shoes, but Carmon is feeling pressure not just because of following Sherrod.Â
"I feel a lot of pressure following Sherrod, but also because it's my senior year and it's my first time playing the position," said Carmon. "I'm not letting the pressure get to me, because I know Sherrod is a good player, so I'm just trying to follow his footsteps to get this team to the next level."
Although Carmon and Clausell are fighting to take over Sherrod's former position, Hevesy doesn't expect either to try to be anything they're not, especially Carmon.
"I'd never ask him (Carmon) to be Derek Sherrod. I just ask him to be James Carmon," said Hevesy. "It's tough learning a new position, but he's done a great job so far."
According to Hevesy, both Carmon and Clausell could be splitting time when the season opens in Memphis, but the battle for the position is friendly as both see each other as brothers.
"I consider him my little brother," said Carmon. "We are always talking to each other about ways to get better and we have taken each other under each other's wing."
Hevesy hasn't seen enough of Carmon and Clausell to make a decision so splitting time between the two could be a possibility.Â
"Right now, I could absolutely see them splitting time," said Hevesy. "I've made no decision at any position yet, so everyday they have to go out there and compete to see who the starter will be."
Although, he sees Clausell as a brother, Carmon wants to win the starting job but would be fine with rotating at the position.
"I could see us rotating during games, but I want to be the starter," said Carmon. "I want to be on the jumbotron with my name but it's cool. As long as we win and play as a team I'm all for rotating."Â
Carmon, who began taking some reps on the offensive line during practice for the Gator Bowl, has a big task of learning a new position his senior year while competing for the position at the same time. However, he is working hard to make a smooth transition, but making the change seems to be more of a head game than physical.
"It's more mental than anything, because I'm having to think about more stuff since I'm just learning the position and I still have that defensive mentality," said Carmon. "It's going to be alright, because this summer I worked on my footwork, handwork, calls, protection and picking up blitzes. I'm putting all that together on the field so by the first game I'll be ready."
Making a position change is tough before your senior season, but Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen noticed the hard work Carmon put in this summer to keep pushing forward.
"Not only is he (Carmon) learning the offense, he's learning the fundamentals of the position," said Mullen. "He worked hard this summer so he wouldn't take a step back and he came into camp and picked up right where he left off."
The progression of Carmon and the entire offensive line is still in the air, largely in part to new plays being introduced on a daily basis and having more helmet practices than full pad practices.
"I'm never going to judge anything off just helmet practices," said Hevesy. "We've only had on day of full pads, but we are starting to get better as we are installing different plays. To judge where we are right now is hard to say, so we're looking at probably day 11 or 12 before we can determine that."
The Bulldogs have a lot of depth on the offensive line, which is making for a confident group of players.
"I feel comfortable with all the guys around me and we have confidence in each other," said Saulsberry. "If a guy goes down, I don't worry about it because we have depth and we are all working hard, so if it's fourth and one and a guy's shoe comes off, we don't worry about it. Just call in the next guy and we will be confident with him too."
With the team goal being winning the Southeastern Conference's Western Division and getting to Atlanta, the offensive line also as a goal of their own.
"Our goal as a line this year is to get better everyday," said Saulsberry. "The way we get better is to do what we do best and that's execute in the running and passing game."
If the offensive line executes the way Saulsberry expects, getting the team to Atlanta is highly possible.