So hey, what's one more move? For that matter Saulsberry doesn't see centering as all that different a duty than his prior stints at guard anyway. "It's all the same stuff. The only thing different is I've got a ball in my hand." OK, a rather significant detail, that…
…but the larger point holds. For that matter Saulsberry's varied experiences prove what Coach John Hevesy believes about line life. A good SEC blocker can handle any position, any situation. Though, Hevesy admits, senior Saulsberry is exceptional in this regard.
"You have all the confidence in Quentin no matter what you ask him. He's going to do it as hard as he can and that's all I can ask." ‘All' still being a lot of course, but Saulsberry is up to the opportunity as few linemen are anywhere. Including, Hevesy said, his own prior players. After all, Saulsberry literally can play all five spots—if needed this year he could switch over to left tackle and handle it well. Has Hevesy ever had a player this versatile?
"Markeith Pouncey would be the closest," he said, then recalling another former Gator standout "Carlton Medder was able to play all four positions, Maurice could play three but not four. But in a game, no."
Saulsberry doesn't downplay the demands of becoming a ‘permanent' center now. It's still work and Hevesy has kept up the pressure for improvement. Not to mention set an emotional tone for the entire line. So, "I've got to come out every day with a positive attitude. I might be having a bad day but my attitude has to determine everything for me."
Generally, Saulsberry got good reviews for his emergency center duty last season. He took over for the second half at Houston after starter J.C. Brignone was hurt, played the whole game at Florida, then the first two periods against UAB. If there was a flaw, it was a tendency to low hikes that quarterback Chris Relf had to reach for. Not ideal, though Relf avoided any turnovers.
This, Saulsberry, has been fixed for 2011 and both he and Relf are comfortable as a tandem.
"The chemistry is going good. Chris tells me my ball is always there at his chest. He tells me if my butt is a little too high or not, he always communicates with me and we just try to continue to get better."
As written last month, it was a busy summer for Saulsberry and not just for the usual schoolwork, weight lifting, and conditioning efforts, along with off-season sessions honing his technique with teammates. Saulsberry had the most interesting summer job of all Dogs as an intern with the Starkville Police Department. He is serious about a law enforcement career after football and internship was the first step.
Hevesy thought it was a great idea…at first. "I was fine with him doing it with office work," the coach said. "Then one time he said he was wearing Kevlar the next week. I said, wait a minute…" Later when Saulsberry and cohorts made their usual visits to the Hevesy household wearing the body armor, or talking about assignments to serve warrants around town or even follow a drug-bust team in action, it gave State's hard-nosed line coach some shivers.
"I told them you keep him in the car or truck!" Hevesy grinned, though he certainly wasn't smiling at the time. "That was kind of an eye-opener." Saulsberry has jested as well about wearing the body armor—the heavier version as he had a lighter set for more routine patrols—to practices or even post-games. Seriously, "It was a good experience, it just made me realize what you have to do every day. No matter what your job is, give 100%."
HITTING, OR MISSING? As August winds on and reports of preseason injuries around the country arrive, the annual topic returns: how much contact does a college coach dare risk in camp? For all his new-wave offensive image, Dan Mullen remains very much an old-school coach in how best to prepare a team to play real games. I.E., hit it hard.
Others understandably now take another approach, though few have gone to the extent the Ivy League has of limiting any practice contact. It isn't far-fetched to get Mullen's opinion on this, since in 1996 and '97 he coached wide receivers at Columbia and knows the league.
"I worry about the dangers involved in that," said Mullen, meaning the danger of NOT hitting in practice. "Football is a collision, contact sport. And if you're only going to do that in game week or just in a very short window, or only during games, I think you can put some players at risk. They'd better get used to getting hit, they'd better get used to hitting each other and hitting somebody else. I think there is some danger involved in that."
By the same token, Mullen acknowledges the inevitable risk of losing a player, just as preseason #1 pick Oklahoma did this week with a top linebacker going down. Mississippi State has been fortunate under his management in preseasons so far, though last spring redshirt freshman tailback and very impressive talent Nick Griffin suffered a knee ligament tear. He rehabbing towards, hopefully, late-month clearance to practice.
"We're a tough, physical team," Mullen said, "but we're not silly in how we do it and how we hit and how we have our guys go through contact. But I'd be nervous of saying hey, don't hit anybody at all, let's not put any pads on and not do any of this; and go play a game and see what happens. I'd be nervous of the dangers involved in that."
Speaking of dangers…this preseason's other headline-grabbing injury was not to a player, but a coach. Penn State's Joe Paterno was taken down hard in practice, hurting a shoulder and hip. He is back on the job now.
So, has Mullen had his own sideline scares? Or, scars? "Yeah! John Banks' interception return (2009) against Florida, go check out the sideline and watch big Carl Johnson roll me up. I thought I'd broke my leg in-half there, it swelled up." Mullen joked the Gator offensive linemen was paying him back for leaving the Gators for State, and really thought he might have to coach the last half of that game on crutches.
"That was my worst one. I've seen a lot. I've been laid-out before, I've taken balls off the side of the head." Oh, and to bring this all back around in a nice circle… "John Hevesy got knocked out cold one day, coaching in the Ivy League running the scout team period. A kid ran a crossing route and he didn't see him. I've done that."
The carnage continues this preseason too, as defensive coordinator/line coach Chris Wilson relates about an incident this week. One which put him on the turf, hard.
"It was an inside run, that turned into an outside run," Wilson said. An impromptu option run at that, which Wilson was not very well prepared for as he watched his defenders pursue the play. "Next thing I know, I've got an offensive lineman in front of me…and he ain't backing up! So I got in the best position I know, the fetal position!" Which would have brought a sneer from Wilson's own old college coaches from back in the early 90s at Oklahoma.
But age, or wisdom, have replaced bravado. "If you don't cover anything else, cover the face," he admitted. "It was funny, to say it wasn't funny isn't true."
TAKING TURNS: With practices now closed for the preseason, it will be coaches and players offering any updates to some competitions. Such as, kick return duty, with are not exactly ‘open' since veteran Chad Bumphis is back. But Mullen has made it clear he wants more, younger talents to seize the return job or jobs if possible.
During early-week open drills it was the same group fielding punts, led by Bumphis alternating with Jameon Lewis—the one coaches really seem to hope steps forward—as well as Ricco Sanders and John Banks. Over to the side in mock kickoffs it was LaDarius Perkins, Michael Carr, Josh Robinson, and Derrick Milton.
These kickoffs were just pop-ups from Derek DePasquale and Brian Egan for pure practice in catching, so there were no real returns to judge speed or moves by. Fortunately all fielded every ball cleanly, which freshman Robinson struggled with on opening day of camp. They also had to throw the ball back to the kickers, with Carr showing by far the best arm. A left-handed throw, at that.