"You know, everybody is trying to get a job. And when you get that opportunity to get a job you have to go out there and work hard to get it."
Now, realistically, it is easier for a proven pounder like Saulsberry to tout the virtues of camp competition. Because no matter how this spring squad shakes out big #55 is reasonably assured of a place in the plans. He has started 37 consecutive games after all; the largest portion of those as a guard (either one) but also a full freshman season at tackle.
Yet here he is in the final spring season contending for top Dog at a spot where he's only opened twice. Coach Dan Mullen and Coach John Hevesy want Saulsberry to seize both opportunity and responsibility and fill the sizable hole in the smack-middle of the 2011 line. He's making his current case at center just as everyone forecast based on 2010 example.
And yes, it's also where Saulsberry planned to practice this spring…though after four working days hiking the ball he admits to an odd impression that something is missing. Someone, rather.
"It's kind of felt funny, I'm thinking J.C. is going to be there and coaching me up!" he said, referring of course to three-year starting center J.C. Brignone. "But at the same time it's an experience, you know. When the older guys are gone we just have to take what they gave us and continue to work off that."
Funny feeling aside, if anyone is equipped both physically and emotionally to take center-spot among Bulldog blockers it is Saulsberry. He handled his eight quarters (two starts) there last fall when Brignone was sidelined quite capably. And what more intense test could there have been than handling all the hiking when State went to and won at Florida? In fact some MSU coaches over his previous years have said Saulsberry's best position is center.
"I ain't going to say I'm a natural at that!" Saulsberry demurs. "No! I just go back to the film room, watch the film, see where I messed up at, and work on what I have to work on." And, continue the competing; this critical assignment isn't just being handed him without a challenge after all. Though sophomore backup Sam Watts is limited while rehabbing from winter corrective work, fall redshirt Dillon Day is eager to make his own spring case to move up the depth chart already.
In fact, for all the known quantities on this projected '11 line, Hevesy enjoys keeping the heat on returning starters and veteran backups. It makes everyone involved better, not the least the youngest big bodies such as Day, Damien Robinson, Eric Lawson, Archie Muniz, et.al. They are the physical future of Bulldog football, just like their defensive line counterparts, and accelerating their own development(s) can keep this program on a faster track.
Saulsberry can offer these redshirts his own excellent example. He went from sitting out 2007 as a rookie, to starting all 12 games the next fall at right tackle. Then there is the equally-important angle of keeping quality depth available as needed. Mississippi State not only had a seasoned blocker ready, and able, to step in for Brignone last fall. There was the other, regular rotation at both guard positions; Saulsberry got games going at right guard, then would switch to left-of-center allowing second-fall frosh Gabe Jackson to take a break while Tobias Smith moved in for carefully-scripted snaps.
"And the young guys have to understand that," Saulsberry said. "I mean, I hope that I never go down! But you never know when you might have to come in. A Dillon Day or even Gabe Jackson, everybody has to be ready at any given time." Not just any time, either. Take all the above references to right and left and guards and center, add in tackles…and forget it. The titles, that is. Labels are purely a positioning convenience, not a strict definition in Hevesy's mind.
"You know, you never have a set position on the offensive line. It's always you have to play wherever you have to play," said Saulsberry. "Oh yeah, in the course of a game or in the course of a season, at any time. So you've just got to be ready. It's all the same thing to us."
All that acknowledged, this State spring sees inevitable focus at one defined job. Moving James Carmon from the middle of the defensive line to the left end of the offensive front was expected based on December drills…but still a gamble of sorts. Early results seem encouraging as Carmon, redshirt Blaine Clausell, and mid-year transfer Joey Trapp go at it. Yet this high-profile role remains worth watching as spring grinds on.
Saulsberry, looking at the one line job he has NOT played in a MSU game, is confident Carmon can handle it. "I tell him don't think so much, just do what know to do, if you mess up we'll go back in the film room and we'll correct it there.
"But to me he's got that natural ability to adapt to anything you have to. He's a team play so he doesn't hesitate when you ask him to do something. He's just got to learn how to play and to put everything together."
At this still-early point of spring it does appear the Bulldog front line can and will get everything together, even with Smith sidelined by winter shoulder surgery. That's allowed redshirt Robinson and spring enrollee Nick Redmond to battle for Saulsberry's previous position. While both have much, much, much to learn about life on the line in this league, the physical potential is encouragingly clear. Why, from the first practice day of March observers have noted the impressive size of this spring's squad…even when they reported without pads.
"Yeah, and that's thanks to Coach (Matt) Balis, dealing with us in the off-season making sure that we're in shape and taking care of our bodies," Saulsberry said. Bodies that have developed in so many ways from when he himself arrived way back in summer 2007, too.
"Actually the other day we were in the weightroom and I was looking at people. Like a Johnthan Banks, when he came in he was like a stick, but now his traps are all big and jacked-up. And then he looks at me eye-to-eye at my chest! And you sit there and think we've all really come a long way."
A good way lately, at that. Saulsberry more than most appreciates how many things have changed for the Bulldog-better in just two seasons of Mullen's management. Even as they knock each other around these next three weeks the varsity can still recall that wonderful winning feeling of the year just past. For his part Saulsberry sees it as inspiration for even better Dog days ahead.
"It's not the end, this is only the beginning of a legacy and we want to keep that going."
Mullen and the Bulldogs resume their break-interrupted spring season Thursday afternoon around 4:00, followed by a Friday practice and some Saturday scrimmaging on the practice fields. Camp officially, or at least publicly, concludes April 9 with the Maroon-White Game.