A price Saulsberry welcomes, of course. "Whatever it takes," he says of his regular rotating between starting right guard, alternate left guard, and the backup Mississippi State center as well. "I'll do whatever's on the table."
Saulsberry brings a whole lot to that table himself, especially in the Bulldog blocking scheme where ‘versatile' directly translates as ‘valuable'. This junior proved that abundantly in October when he stepped in for senior center J.C. Brignone for eight-straight quarters, including the entire victory at Florida. Just as crucial in the larger season plans was how his ability to operate either side of center allowed starter and redshirt freshman Gabe Jackson to fill his quota of snaps; and soph Tobias Smith to rotate in and do his part without over-stressing his problematic ankles.
For the first week of Gator Bowl camp, Saulsberry was again the primary center. It allowed Brignone to take it easier after a long season, not to mention long five falls; he'll be back over the ball against Michigan on New Years Day of course. But it also helped Coach John Hevesy mix-and-match a bunch of other, younger guards and centers during the development phase of December drills.
From his veteran's standpoint, Saulsberry appreciated both what the coaching staff was doing to get an early look at the 2011 line line-up; and how the kids responded. Not that it was always well-executed, Saulsberry cautions.
"They did some things in the scrimmage. And they showed some things that we need to work with them on to get them better and give us the best chance to win next season. And that's something that is our goal in spring, to work on our fundamentals, get guys ready to play in games." But by the same token Saulsberry is confident everyone that should be ready, will be ready. He gives a thumbs-up to redshirted frosh such as Eric Lawson, Dillon Day, and Damien Robinson, while Archie Muniz has spent more time in the re-hab pit with other injured Dog of all ages.
"Oh, yeah, I love their potential," Saulsberry said. "They're good guys that come in and work, they want to learn, and you like to be around those guys. Sometimes you want to get to the point that they don't worry you so much! But at the same time they're just trying to get better."
Such worries are just another price of looming senior-ity for Saulsberry, who now has to do as much informal coaching as practicing himself with such a long list of pups to be prepared. "Yeah, that means I've got to step up my game! You know, do the things that I'm supposed to do well. And when their time comes they have to step up and be a big Dog, know what I mean?"
"It's kind of fun being around the young guys and being the old Dog for a change! But it's a challenge, a challenge for me and for everybody else."
Speaking of challenges… Media enquiries about Mississippi State's matchup with Michigan have overwhelmingly focused on the Wolverine offense. No surprise, given how that side of the ball has gotten just about all the in-season attention and recognition. But after a first real look at the guys he will be squaring off against, Saulsberry is alerting everyone not to take the Michigan defense for granted.
"I've seen a lot of good things that they do. They run to the ball, they do their job, they do things very well. They do a little bit of everything. They try to scheme off who they're playing. We're still breaking down the details but I know by bowl time we'll be ready. So we just continue to get better and worry about what we have to do and everything else falls into place."
Which leads to a follow-up on the original theme: exactly where does Saulsberry look to take his place come his senior spring? Brignone will be graduated and while soph Sam Watts has put in two falls already Hevesy definitely favors older hands when available.
"I expect to play center but if it comes down to it I might play center or might play guard," Saulsberry shrugs. "You never know what may come during the course of the spring, so just be prepared for anything."
LOOKING AHEAD: For that matter Saulsberry is preparing for football beyond college, having applied to be evaluated as an underclassman by a NFL draft advisory committee without affecting his 2011 Bulldog eligibility. Coach Dan Mullen said today this was presented to all MSU players who might consider early departure to pro ball.
"We talked with all the juniors about that, Quentin was the only one that came with me and we filled that out about two weeks ago," Mullen said. One might think a college coach would hesitate helping players think of leaving early, especially with the program on the verge of bigger things. Not this coach.
"I encourage them to do it. When you have the relationship that I think we have with our players, open communication with all of them, it's great. If Quentin's comes back and says he's going in the first round I'm going to tell him to go, we'll worry about his degree later! But that's too good of an opportunity to turn down. And it's good for them to see where they are right now."
WORKING WEEKEND: Mississippi State put in a full two-hour practice Saturday, the second date of true Gator Bowl preparations. By Mullen's schedule this was a ‘Tuesday' practice, the heaviest working day of any Bulldog game week.
"It was good. I liked the intensity that we had and the focus, the attention was all what we were looking for." The effort was also up to standards, particularly from the veterans who had been given lighter duties during the first week of bowl camp. Mullen said they had no problem getting right back up to practice speed despite the relative layoff.
"A lot of the guys that have been resting are the mature guys, guys that have played a lot of football. So they have the maturity and they were ready to go. I don't think it was a big adjustment." In fact, the down-time looked to have done these Dogs good as far as returning to work with an almost pre-season pace.
"We should be as fresh and as fast and as healthy as we've been in a long time. Hopefully we stay that way. They get about five days off for Christmas right there so we should be fresh when we get to the bowl again." Though, Mullen added, a couple of old Dogs may be running some risk of bringing extra baggage to Jacksonville. Such as quarterback Chris Relf; it was helpful for him to rest his sore hamstring and other bumps and bruises, but the coach wonders if his starter took a little too much license of late.
"I think he ate a couple too many training tables during this break so we have to get him back in shape, he needs to lose a pound or two and watch what he eats over Christmas break!"
State has three more practices before that break, and Mullen said today everything is right on game prep schedule.
"We'll have everything done before we leave. It's how I've always done it in the past to prepare for a bowl, practice like a game-week. So next Tuesday will be our Thursday practice, when we leave that field we're ready to go play the game. We just get to go do it all again in Jacksonville."
MAKING A STATE-MENT: Because the Bulldogs will be flying to Jacksonville they won't be able to see some billboards now gracing the state's borders featuring their coach, hand outstretched in victory towards the text ‘Welcome to our STATE'. These billboards greet drivers entering Mississippi and offer the rather obvious message of who is top Dog in this state.
"I like it, it's good marketing," Mullen said. "It's important, we are Mississippi State and we represent the state of Mississippi beyond the football field. Like I tell our guys, we don't just play for the name on the back of the jersey, you're also playing for the name on the front of your jersey. So it's important for us to represent the state of Mississippi well."
Well and good…but how does the coach feel about having his face up in such public display? "Iiiiii don't care about that," Mullen said, before grinning. "It depends on who you talk to! Here in Mississippi it's kind of cool. My friends at home? I'll get some interesting side-cracks on me about that!"
PILING UP POINTS: The Bulldog Club announced today that members who bought Gator Bowl tickets will receive an extra boost of two priority points for each ducat purchased. The maximum increase is twenty points. These points are used in calculating the member's donor level for future ticket consideration.
One $60 bowl ticket earns two points, which normally requires a $100 Club donation. Fans who have already purchased can be awarded up to 20 points for ten tickets previously obtained.
There are a limited number of tickets available, after Mississippi State students did not purchase their full stock. Those tickets and the points increase are only available through the MSU ticket office for donors who want to add to their point total. Tickets can be ordered at 888-GO-DAWGS or the MSU athletics website. They will be for pickup at EverBank Field will-call.