A New Day For Bulldog Center

A year ago he was asking older hands what to do. Suddenly, and surprisingly, Dillon Day now finds he is the old hand, the only SEC-seasoned center on the spring roster. "I guess you're right, I didn't even think about that!" he mused. "But yeah, you're right!"

Now the trick for this sophomore is to prove himself again as the right man in the middle of Mississippi State's offense. After a dozen games last redshirt freshman season over the ball, eight of them as the starter, Day is big part of this rebuilding project for the Bulldog offensive line.

Exactly how big, by the way? Officially listed last fall at 285 pounds, Day said he can't recall what his real playing number was. "But I'm at 298 right now which is a good weight. And I lost some body fat so that's a good deal. I feel a lot better." Not just that but looks a good bit better too. In fact it is hard to tell from November to now that he has even added anything…which is precisely the plan. "Balis!" is all Day needs say in that regard.

While strength coach Matt Balis has been building up the body since Day arrived in summer 2010, the offensive staff has focused on the mind and mentality of snapping a squad into action. It's a good thing his development was accelerated a bit, too, because in his second September at Mississippi State the call came to take over.

Not in relief, as would be expected; as the starter. When right guard Tobias Smith went down Quentin Saulsberry, the guard/center groomed specifically to hike full-time in '10, had to step over. And Day step in. Under such conditions the redshirt acquitted himself well, grading out ‘champion' in three regular season games and scoring 31 knockdown blocks. Five of those were against Louisiana Tech…not really surprising for a West Monroe, La., native, eh?

Now here Day is in April, the lone experienced center in camp. Ready or not, as they say, but Day said he is prepared for the promotion. "If you don't have confidence you're not going to do good. That's in anything you do. But especially out here, so I come out and practice with confidence every day.

"I guess last spring I was in the second string spot so I was doing everything hard, but in my mind it was like "I'm not going to be out there". So you have a lot more weight on your shoulders this spring. I don't want to let anyone down, I want to be the best I can be."

Day has certainly bettered himself in the space of twelve months. Observers last spring recall the new kid at center for a series of high hikes during the first couple of practice weeks, which fair or not left an image in many minds. Never mind Day hadn't a hitch during the spring game itself or that he was a stable snapper in preseason, the only way to answer questions was do it under SEC pressure.

And, Day did. Funny thing about meeting original expectations though; somebody is always raising that bar for a new season. Day isn't worried though coming into a new football year.

"I guess I fully understand all the plays now. It's like the first spring I was trying to get my plays down. Now I'm trying to work on my technique and doing everything else." The difference is, a still-young Day is doing that work from another, older perspective. He's taken his knocks from the best in the SEC, which means of course the best in college football. "Yeah, they can't do much else that I haven't seen!" he said.

"You fully understand it, because you've seen what is going to go out there. You know why you're going to do this, because they are going to do this. It's like you know everything a lot better now."

Not to be overlooked is how much better the center knows that guy he is hiking to. In a sense both Day and Tyler Russell were tossed into win-or-lose life a little ahead of schedules. It meant some inevitable lumps in that first real season together but now comes the payoff in a tested working tandem.

"Tyler is an awesome quarterback," said Day. "He makes the reads every time, when the blitz comes he sees it and gets us full-slotted so we don't have any trouble. He's an awesome reader and that makes our job easier." Ahhh, but in Mississippi State's scheme of things the center has his own reading to do. It's kind of interesting to have a sophomore barking orders to others this spring, for sure.

"You have to. And I've got it all down. I know everything I have to do, and now I'm working on the defensive stage. I'm trying to learn what they're doing more. Because I know basically what they're doing, but I'm trying to get more in-depth so I can completely know what is going on." Such as last week when the Dog defense unveiled various packages for short yardages, goal line, third-down, and all-out blitzing. Day and the offense held their own often as not, an encouraging sign given how State hopes to expand the play selection come fall.

Now at this point it needs noting, a third-fall soph is still young for SEC starting status but not unusual on this spring's offensive line. The only really ‘old' guy around right now is left guard Gabe Jackson, and he's a fourth-year junior. No seniors are seen in the first unit and just one is in the two-deep. Well, with one absolutely vital exception: Smith, the elder State-sman of the squad, who is staying out of contact following September knee surgery.

Day speaks for all when he hopes Tobias is back full-strength by summer and ready for pre-season. "Man, that would be crazy. I didn't get to play with him but a couple of times, in the Auburn game ten or 15 snaps and that was about it. He's controlling out there, too, he's a real smart guy and so that would be very powerful.

"Gabe is out there helping us out and is a big part, and when Tobias comes back that will be another big part." Speaking of ‘big' one need only check the size to Day's right these days, with freshman Justin Malone or walk-on Ben Beckwith filling Smith's spot in the interim and Damien Robinson returning to tackle. This is where Day's game experience counts as he helps true frosh Malone work through his own first spring at State.

"Justin is picking it up, he has a little ways to go. But he's learning everything and he just has to come up to speed." Meanwhile Robinson is being pushed by heralded juco transfer Charles Siddoway, who could also end up battling Blaine Clausell over at left tackle. He was signed to start, after all, at one end of the line or the other.

For that matter, Coach Dan Mullen covered some depth-bases on signing day by inking another juco, Gulf Coast CC center Dylan Holley. The new guy has squared off with Day every practice date and the results ought to be positive for the entire line. Right?

"Exactly," Day agreed. "That is another thing I look at. I mean, I'm always challenging myself, but you can't get the full effect of it unless someone is trying to compete for your position like right there. So that helps a lot, it motivates you a lot more." By the way, speculation that Day could find himself at guard this year don't rattle him a bit. After all, he was a standout tackle in high school and made a move once already in college.

"I'll play whatever they want me to play and give it all I've got. That's all I can say about that!"

But not all Day will say about his expectations for Bulldog blocking in 2012. Obviously there are a lot of pieces still to fall into the best places. And what happens here on the front line will determine whether Russell and company can take advantage of all the nifty running, throwing, and catching that they've shown so far in spring practices and scrimmages. It's a heavy load to throw on some young shoulder pads, to be sure.

It's also something Day accepts, just as he has the demand to become a tone-setter at this sophomore stage. It just comes with the center's job, he said.

"You have to be the guy they turn to. We lost some of our leaders last year but that is not going to stop us one bit."

Mississippi State resumes practicing Tuesday afternoon following a short Easter break, and has Thursday afternoon and Friday evening sessions also scheduled this week.

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