Sure, Saulsberry agrees, "It's frustrating at times. But you have to adjust to it. It's the SEC."
Meaning nobody is feeling sorry for Bulldog blockers, their ills and aches and almost weekly shuffles. Least of all their own coach. The last place to seek sympathy these days is John Hevesy's meeting room. Especially after the showing at Georgia.
"To me last week was not very good. That was proven. It's no more than kids have got to learn." Learn both better technique and a more muscular mindset, Hevesy means. He is not downplaying damage to cohesion and efficiency forced by frequent changes, understand.
He is saying…deal with it.
"I mean, if your position is whatever it doesn't take away from compete, play hard, be tough, work. We've got a job to do as an offensive line and a standard to meet we've set here the last two years. What's expected of our group is I have to coach harder, they have to work harder, compete harder, we've got to play harder. Just because a guy is in a new position fundamentals don't change; you're taking steps, punching, competing. That has nothing to do with what position you play."
Even by Hevesy's legendarily gruff standards, this is blunt talk for a group that has been picked on by quality opposition. All things considered they'd held up well with seven sacks allowed the first four games. But Georgia dropped State quarterbacks five times outright, forced them to unload too soon other times, and generally made life miserable. And MSU's core running game barely moved the ball at all.
To their credit, the blockers accepted blame. "It's us five," Saulsberry said. "We have to be the toughest guys out there and we have to set the tone of the game. I don't think we did that, Georgia came out and set the tone."
Hevesy's review reinforced impression with numbers. "I grade our guys on how many times a game our five guys grade out per play. We have to be 65, 70 percent where our five guys grade ‘S' in our system to be successful. We probably had 40% of four S's and one minus. That's going to kill us."
OK, grades are recorded and filed. Now what is the fix? Hevesy explains the paradox of State's situation. "Saturday wasn't on one person at all. The problem is it isn't on one person for the whole game, its one person every play of the game." Which is to say no single substitution or position move will solve things.
What will is keeping the corps together for a few consecutive weeks…and them just plain improving. "But like anything you have to accelerate learning," Hevesy said. "We have six days." Because to him the upcoming UAB game is just as crucial as any SEC contest in developing his Dogs. Maybe more so.
As for outside second-guessing suggestions about how to change or who to move, well, no one will accuse this coach of hewing a politically correct line. "I don't sell insurance, I'm not going to tell a guy how to sell insurance. Like anything it's development," Hevesy said.
"The thing I joke about is when did you start teaching your kid to throw and catch the ball? Two, three? At what point did you teach a kid how to block a three-technique?" Message being, State is taking the tools available on this line-lineup and hammering them into positions week by week by week.
Old Dog Saulsberry is similarly bare-bones about the situation. "Get better," he shrugged when asked a solution. "I told Ferg (DE Sean Ferguson) before the last snap when Georgia took the knee we can't keep our heads down. First of all this is our senior year and we can't let those young guys see us sweat in any kind of way."
If any unit had excuse for sweating it is this o-line. They knew margins for 2011 were already tight, what with replacing two all-star starters at center and left tackle and fitting a converted defensive tackle into the offense. Saulsberry himself began the year in a new position, snapping the ball; got an injury scare of his own at Auburn; spent all but three snaps of two games at his old guard spot; and is now back over the ball. His is the most extreme case of first-half season shuffling, but others have been bouncing around the line as well.
"For me I never know," Saulsberry said. "I might be a guard, I might be a center, I might be a tackle. Maybe a tight end! But at the same time you work hard to adjust to that."
Most recently and notably James Carmon, that former d-tackle moved to blocker for the senior season. To the primo left tackle slot at that. Now after missing ten quarters with a knee sprain he returned to the game and lineup at right guard. Hevesy agreed with the suggestion Carmon was at least functional in the Georgia game.
"He was. But functional is not good enough." Besides, the coach reminded, "The position doesn't change anything. To me it's go out there and fight." This is not a critique of Carmon at all, and Hevesy confirms the wisdom of taking him off the defense for what will be his best shot at a professional future.
"Any move we ever made is not just for the team but for both, where does he excel and to be a great player. To use a 6-6, 320 body ten snaps on defensive line or 70 on o-line, that's going to help the team. To sit on the sideline next to me is a waste."
There clearly is no time to waste getting the next or newest versions of a 2011 line ready for another test. Yet Hevesy makes it clear all positions are evaluated weekly, even daily, and if he decides a guard would upgrade tackle performance or vice-versa then guys will move and that's that. Or, should one of the young blockers prove more prepared in practice week he gets the Saturday start, no debate about it. Within reason, of course.
"Everyone says they want to play as a freshman," Hevesy said. "Here you go big boy, go play! Now I'm going to make sure they're not going to not be shocked, to lose confidence. That's a big thing to me with playing young. The line is between confidence and arrogance. Some young guys have to learn I can do this, but can they do it great?"
That comment speaks volumes about expectations for Bulldog blockers. Injuries, adjustments, moves, whatever, nothing less is accepted but great effort and execution. The last thing Hevesy or Coach Dan Mullen will allow is any emotional slack at this point, much less any excuses. Big boys signed up for this opportunity after all.
"You never know because Coach tells you you're one play away from going in a game," Saulsberry reminds. That's been too true so far this season with redshirt freshmen OC Dillon Day and OT Blaine Clausell thrust into starting jobs ahead of any schedule. Struggles are expected, agreed Hevesy, but no sympathy at all. "Guess what? You've got to learn faster."
"You have to put it on yourself as an o-line," Saulsberry said. "As an offensive lineman in the SEC that's your responsibility, knocking guys off the ball and getting rushing yards. But all eleven have to do their job, I can't blame James or Blaine. All eleven have to do their job."
That ‘all eleven' reflects the larger question of what Mississippi State's entire offensive identity is right now. After a blazing start, the ground game has nearly ground to a halt. In fact at Georgia, on eight of the 12 first downs in the first half State called a pass play. So it isn't as if MSU is beating its helmet against a wall forcing the rush against well-prepared defenses.
"We're going to do whatever we need to win the game, whether that's running the football, throwing the football, tossing it left or right," said Hevesy. "We have to be successful on offense, that's move the ball, move the chains, keep the defense off the field, get in the red zone and score.
"I'm good either way, I just want to win. The identity to me I guess has been running the football; what we need to be and get back to is being fundamentally sound. That is more than anything."
Immediately after the Georgia game Saulsberry mentioned there might have been a perceived lack of urgency related to lingering indecisiveness about roles and goals. "But we have to regroup this week. We're going to watch film, watch the things we messed up on, correct things, and capitalize on the positive we had." And Saulsberry did see some positive points worth building on, whether technical or intangible.
"That's the good thing with a team, when guys don't point the finger at each other and say who is doing this, who is doing that; when they point the finger back at themself and say I've got to do something. That's your positive."
And Saulsberry is positive this offensive line, as well as the offense and entire team, have lots left to play for. No question, struggles against LSU and Georgia have crimped club confidence. But that isn't the season, he said.
"Things like that can determine the game but they don't determine the season. What you have to do as a player is regroup, see what you have wrong and become a better player."