"He's planning on playing this weekend," Coach Dan Mullen said. "We plan on having J.C. for the game. If not, if he's still sore, somebody else is going to have to step up."
The obvious ‘somebody else' already owns a starting job. But when Brignone went out Saturday it was right guard Quentin Saulsberry summoned to snap, first to Chris Relf and after THAT starter was sent to the sideline—fortunately with just a bruised pride—to Tyler Russell. Saulsberry handled the change of position and responsibility with equal poise.
Because, he said, it was not really much of a change. Not the way Mississippi State operates under Hevesy's direction. "It's all the same steps, all the same thing, You're just a lineman and you have to do your job. It's just that one person snaps the ball."
OK, it's a teeny bit more demanding than just snapping the ball. But Saulsberry is serious about everyone knowing everyone else's job even if they never fill it. Saulsberry himself shifts over to left guard, his old position in fact, as needed so sub guard Tobias Smith can rotate in at RG and starting left man Gabe Jackson take a break. Neither starting tackle rotates…but they could.
To Hevesy this is not so much a matter of slotting five linemen by distinct talents as it is keeping a cohesive quintet—with the one swing man—on the field. "Five guys have got to do everything, and there has to be a communication factor. We have to talk and we have to understand each other." This makes a man like Saulsberry that much more valuable in being able to play three spots and keep the communication going.
Even if others were listed at the second center, in reality Saulsberry has been the main backup for a while. He did not make a single game snap in 2009. "But I took a look at it and fooled around with it as a project in practices. I had in the back of my mind there was going to come a day I had to do it. I just had to be ready." Fortunately State slipped the guard into center for a few snaps in this year's Memphis game just so it would not be a shock to his system.
Still it is another matter doing it for-real in a game not yet decided. "I had to get used to that, calm down and adapt to the game," he admitted. "As the game went on I got better at it." And Saulsberry's true debut here came with the twist of two different and different-style quarterbacks. The sub-center says he tried to ignore who was calling for the direct-hike and just get the ball back there.
"I just have to get my snaps right first! Make sure they're not on the right hand or left hand, just got to make sure they're centered. It's all the same thing no matter who is in the backfield."
"We adjusted pretty well Saturday night and those guys didn't miss a beat," Mullen said. But, the head coach added, "That hurts your depth situations."
Because if Brignone can't go, there is no depth. Not tested depth anyway, and even the sixth man in this front remains partially unproven. Not talent; nobody questions Smith's ability to be an excellent college guard. The doubts are how many snaps his historically fragile ankles can handle. Hevesy has limited Smith's action as much as practical so far. He might not have that luxury now. So how will the line coach approach preparations?
"I'm just gonna run him to death this week!" Hevesy bluffs, gruffly, before grinning. "No, Tobias loves to play and he said he took a couple less reps in practice because of injuries or whatever, but it's time for him to play. He's on scholarship with the rest of them and he's got to pay his dues. If he has to play 70 plays, 90 plays, ten plays, whatever we need he's got to play."
So no slack is going to be cut with Smith or any other starting blocker. Hevesy is that serious about continuity, especially half-way through the schedule when rotations seem set and communications established. Outsiders would expect to be working in newer, younger blockers at this point of a season.
"I'm not into playing a hundred different guys because they've got to get reps, they've got to get reps in a game. J.C. has to get reps with Quentin and Tobias; Addison (Lawrence) has to get reps with those guys. Everything is a little bit different because you're used to routine, here's a feel for how guys do things. Start slapping guys in there and the puzzle doesn't fit as exact any more. Now, barring injury, guys have got to play."
Yes, what of un-barred injury? State did replace the first line in the fourth quarter Saturday to keep other blockers developing. "And I just got through telling the guys, you never know," Saulsberry said. "You have Sam Watts, you have Templeton Hardy, Phillip Freeman, all those guys behind us. You never know when your number might be called or who might go down."
HONOR ROLL II: The Bulldog blocker not mentioned so far is the one who has now been honored twice by the SEC. Left tackle Derek Sherrod was named league Lineman of the Week today, for the second time in three weeks after his post-Georgia recognition. Sherrod led a unit that allowed State to roll up 409 rushing yards at Houston. If none of the Bulldog ball-carriers gaining that ground could overshadow South Carolina's Stephen Garcia for the Offensive POTW, then at least one of the big guys clearing the way could.
The honor fell to senior Sherrod, who his coach calls deserving this and any week of honors. "Derek has always been a great asset in terms of a leader, an accountable kid in playing his assignments," Hevesy said. "The kids have to catch up to him and the way he plays. And how he practices Monday through Friday. Kids look at him and think well he's been SEC Player of the week twice, maybe if I practice the way he does I'll be that guy."
But wait a moment…why not honor, say, Saulsberry for doing two jobs in the same big Dog game? Saulsberry laughs off the suggestion that given a better p.r. promotion he might have been the MSU man listed. "I'm just going in and doing my job. Me playing two positions ain't nothing compared to what Derek does every day. Derek does his job and he grades out real high so you can't take anything from him."
SHUFFLING THE DECK: If State prefers a consistent look on the line, receiver positions are supposed to be more plug-and-play. That gets tested again this week. WR Leon Berry had surgery Monday for a dislocated ankle suffered on the opening second-half kickoff return Saturday. After the game Mullen said the senior might be able to return for a bowl game, but today's surgery makes even that a faint hope.
Berry has not had a huge statistical year at his prime position, with eight catches in five games. He did have a 55-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the opening win over Memphis, and a three-catch, 97-yard night against Georgia. His biggest moment of the senior year was a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown against Alcorn State.
Mullen said Berry's value went beyond stats. "He's a senior leader and the most experienced receiver we have. Obviously he's a great kickoff returner." In fact Berry is tied for that MSU career record with two such runbacks including a 89-yard TD return last year against Georgia Tech. Plus Berry is acknowledged as the best blocking wideout on the roster.
"He's a major factor in our team," Mullen said today. "So you lose in more than one way."
This leaves State down two experienced pass catchers, with junior TE Marcus Green undergoing right knee surgery after three weeks trying to come back from the Sept. 9 injury. Not only that but Berry and Green are/were the most physical receivers on the roster.
"We just need some younger guys to step up," Mullen said. "At the receiver position now, nobody is older than a sophomore who is going to play. Those guys are just going to have to grow up fast."
Of course three of those young guys, true sophomores Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens and third-year soph Arceto Clark, already have adult impacts on the MSU gameplan. They are 1-2-3 in team receiving with 55 of the team's total 86 catches among them and seven of the nine receiving touchdowns. Another sophomore, Chris Smith, started at Houston and is booked to open again this week.
"And at tight end we'll try to get them to step up and play better," Mullen said. Brandon Henderson is the old hand here but Kendrick Cook will also have a larger role in rotations, particularly on passing plays.
WELCOME BACK, MAYBE: Dan Mullen knew to expect it. Still in both his Sunday and Monday press talks the topic of his A) return to Florida for the first time in another color and B) relationship with UF Coach Urban Meyer threatened to take over. The now-Bulldog boss has handled it as well as expected, and even tinged most comments with humor.
Such as talking Sunday about how in Gainesville his campus jogs with Meyer would, somewhere in the last corner, turn into a closing sprint. Or, how vigorous staff pick-up basketball could become. Mullen claims the same holds true among his MSU aides, though none were available for detailed comment today. As for who won those races, well… "Pretty close to being a tie," he dodged, though the "I don't know what would happen right now if we tried to do it!" was certainly true.
Mullen does admit that there will be some degree of difference as he goes to Florida Field in his own program's colors, to stand on the opposite sideline, and be booed at instead of cheered. But, he said today, the details won't be as entirely foreign to him as other visitors. "I've been in the visitors locker room to set it up for interviews," Mullen said. "I've run out of that tunnel once or twice with my dog!" That would be when he was jogging on the field, he meant, not during a game of course.
It will be different in some ways but for us going on the road I don't want to make it anything more than that," Mullen said. "Georgia is the only stadium in the SEC that I haven't been in, the rest of them are pretty comfortable."
Oh, and as for his relationship with the coach he worked with and for for a ten-year stretch at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida? "I'll feel much more comfortable after this game, when we don't have to play every year!" Florida rotates off the MSU slate for 2011. And by coincidence next year is also when Mullen gets to take a MSU team to…Georgia.