Hevesy runs through the list. "Tobias Smith had a shoulder. J.C. Brignone had a knee, Quentin Saulberry's back, Derek Sherrod this, Addison Lawrence this." And if the line boss took another moment he could surely come up with at least some nick or tweak endured by Gabe Jackson. Nor does Hevesy regard any of this as unusual for this time of a season. Any season.
"I mean, that's the game," he says. "We went a nine-weeks straight run where they're playing every snap." Well, not 100% as in a few—a very few—games Hevesy and Coach Dan Mullen have been confident enough to let backups such as Phillip Freeman, Mark Melichar, and Sam Watts get some snaps. And back when Brignone was sidelined for one half against UAB by that knee sprain, Melichar got the start.
But on the whole Hevesy is correct, since when push has come to shove this season the six-man corps has carried the line-load. Though it is worth noting the three backups do relieve some burden by taking care of placekicks, getting the regulars off the field for at least those snaps. It helps, because Hevesy figures that in much of the winning streak his sixsome has "averaged about 75 snaps a game. So it was just a wear-down and last week was a good chance to get some rest, get healed up and get ready for a three-game season."
The linemen got something of a ‘break' before the break, when they ran, and sometimes even passed, just 58 snaps in beating Kentucky. That was the same total as at Florida two weeks earlier in fact. But of course 58 SEC snaps are more stressful to body and mind than 70 or more in most non-league matchups. What has allowed these Dogs to survive so far, besides the acknowledged off-season preparation by Coach Matt Balis, is Mullen's reliance on rushing plays that keep the clock running while producing enough first downs and points to win.
The wisdom of such a hard-nosed approach shows in the stats where the Bulldog offense is third in SEC rushing, third in third-down conversions, and fourth in possession time. Not so surprisingly two of the teams ahead of MSU are Auburn and LSU, the only league squads to date to have beaten the Dogs at the same game.
Folk outside Starkville have noticed what Hevesy's gang is achieving. Left tackle Sherrod has twice been tabbed SEC Lineman of the Week, an award that really reflects on the complete unit more than any one blocker. Sherrod of course has the highest profile of the bunch, but Hevesy is proud of how every regular is developing…and even adapting, such as when Brignone missed the Florida game.
"Between Tobias, Quentin, and Gabe jumping back and forth they've all done well in the rotation," Hevesy said. None more so than junior guard Sauslberry, who not only can flip to both sides of center but played eight-straight quarters at center over a three-game span. That was worth of a league LOTW honor in itself, though Saulsberry didn't mind his better-known senior tackle getting the recognition(s).
"Quentin has stepped up," Hevesy says. "Going from right guard to left guard to center, which when I got here I don't think he could have done. But he's done a fabulous job with that."
"And Addison keeps getting better and better. And he keeps becoming more a football guy than just being here to play football. He's understanding all the intricacies of what is going on with plays and schemes and that stuff."
So. Since they had a week off from game prep last week, what did Hevesy do with his Dogs? Install new tricks for that three-game season he referred to? Nope. "We did fundamentals," he said.
"I mean, there's nothing schematically that we're going to work on. We just have to get better fundamentals, footwork. And come back with assignments and getting more in-depth now." Which is why Hevesy had these Dogs studying themselves last week more than Alabama or any other upcoming opponent. "Nine weeks of running certain plays, of sitting back and looking at and understanding why they worked and why they didn't work. I think that's a big thing for them."
Sounds sensible. But then, surely Coach, you did a bit of looking ahead yourself to this week's matchup in Tuscaloosa? Yes, Hevesy agreed…but then to his mind only the names and jersey numbers have changed on Alabama's defensive front. Everything else looks just about the same as last year, or almost any year for that matter.
"That's a lot of weight running around in their front four. Gap sound, well coached. So it'll be a good fight."
Senior Sherrod agrees. He's been through three of these inter-state squabbles before, with a freshman win in 2007 and two losses since. But then the Columbus native saw other games as a high schooler and recruit, and while coaches and systems change the on-field action doesn't.
"Yeah, whenever Mississippi State and Alabama line up against each other it's going to be a hard-fought game," said Sherrod. "Throughout the years we've had a lot of tough games and we both want it pretty bad."
Sherrod was ready for the open date much as any-MSU-one. Yet what was supposed to be a break was suddenly and entirely disrupted by the illness and Tuesday death of third-year sophomore Nick Bell. Sherrod had his share of practice matchups with the defensive end, and was already a team veteran when Bell was being recruited. Yes, he says, it was a stressful time for everyone.
Yet, "It still felt like a bye-week. We had to deal with a tough situation last week and our coaches helped us do that with practices and stuff. We handled it the best we could and I think the week went good."
Nor is Hevesy concerned about any emotional hangovers on the club, much less his linemen. As for the daunting demands of playing before a hostile arena…well, been there, done that, and even won some.
"Hey, it's the SEC and it's a great game to go there and play. It's like Florida was, it's like LSU was. It's one of those games on the road." Oh, and for extra motivation? "And to me they're still the defending national champions," says Hevesy, who knows that feeling very well after his own 2005-08 tenure in Gainesville. "Nobody's taken it away from them."