The thing is, it's been a long time since Mississippi State had even this degree of depth across the entire offensive front. Bulldog blocking has been able to survive, even thrive, with bare-minimum manpower such as in 2007 and 2010 when both A) there was top-tier talent present, and B) injuries didn't interfere. But 2011 reminded exactly how narrow were MSU's margins as one serious injury and one lesser setback rippled through the whole line and entire season.
Now here in summer time, Coach Dan Mullen and staff are cautiously confident about the fall outlook. So are the Bulldogs themselves. "We lost some of our leaders last year but that is not going to stop us one bit," said sophomore center Dillon Day.
The lost leaders Day referred to were guard/center Quentin Saulsberry and right tackle Addison Lawrence, with four varsity seasons each and a combined 76 consecutive game starts between them. Their graduation, along with one-year left tackle James Carmon, are why most of the pre-season questions—not just on offense, but the entire '12 team—are aimed at the front line.
Tellingly though, Hevesy is not showing any summer stresses. Not even when the coach acknowledges that he goes into preseason practices without an absolutely established first five.
"The only guys I project to be starters as of now is Gabe and Dillon Day just because they have played the most snaps at their positions," Hevesy said. "The next in experience is probably Blaine Clausell. After that, they are all young, so they will fight it out during the summer and fall camp."
Such seeming lack of off-season concern might actually be evidence of confidence among the coaches that there are the right pieces already here, needing only to be picked and placed. That is certainly the optimistic view, based largely on one area of definite progress by the program. Mullen and Hevesy have been obsessed with building up numbers in this area and their efforts are paying off. There are no less than 15 scholarship linemen on the summer roster along with some capable walk-ons who've been around a season or two too.
In fact, coaching confidence in how this roster has improved was reflected back in February when just two high school lineman prospects were signed. In recent years that would have been reckless; now State can afford to be just a bit choosier with such recruiting. Of course over the winter Mullen had already brought in a couple of junior college blockers and another prep school prospect.
A year ago at this time young Day expected to get any fall action in late-game relief of supposed starter Saulsberry. Three weeks into the season though the then-redshirt found himself hiking full-time. Day said he worked hard to prepare to play, but "In my mind it was like ‘I'm not going to be out there'." Then all of a sudden he was. Inevitably SEC defenses came after the new kid over the ball, and Day did take his lumps. But he also graded out champion in three games and scored 31 knockdown blocks as all his hard-won experience paid off.
That should be all the more true now that Day is already a SEC veteran ahead of schedule. "So you have a lot more weight on your shoulders. I don't want to let anyone down, I want to be the best I can be."
Day's confidence held strong even when his coaches went out and signed a junior college center. Nothing has changed yet on the depth chart, per Hevesy. "At the center position we have Dillon as our starter with Ben Beckwith as the backup. Dylan Holley came in during the spring and got a lot of reps there. He and Ben will be the second guy in depending on how fall camp goes."
Beckwith is an excellent example of what a willing walk-on with ability and patience can achieve. Because he spent his spring working at guard much more than center and is very much in the mix there, too. Hevesy is confident how these two positions are shaping up again…with one extremely important ‘if'.
"Inside it will be Gabe Jackson, Tobias Smith, when he gets healthy, Ben Beckwith who had a really good spring, and Justin Malone." The great big if is, of course, Smith. Recognized by all as Mississippi State's most gifted blocker, the senior has endured enough injury setbacks for three careers. Between ankles, both, and knee surgeries he has played in only 18 games and missed the other 20 in 2009-11. This doesn't even count sitting out all 2008 when he was clearly going to play as a true freshman before the first bad break.
The knee injury struck midway of game-three last fall. Smith might have practiced in spring but was held out both for precaution and because he knows the plays well enough. Center Day dreams of having the best Bulldog lined up to his right all this fall. "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."
Otherwise Day can expect to have either sophomore Beckwith or redshirt freshman Justin Malone at right guard based on spring camp. Malone is an amazing athlete at his 6-7, 315 or so size and key to coming years. "Justin made some strides this past spring," Hevesy said. "He will need to make some more great strides to make sure we have four really good guards going into the fall." That would count junior left guard Jackson, suddenly the ranking veteran of this entire line. In fact there are only three seniors on the roster, and one of these—second left guard Templeton Hardy—finally has shown signs he is ready to make some real season contributions.
There isn't a lot of age at either tackle spot either, nor a ton of starting experience. Third-year sophomore Clausell opened four games in the first half of the season at left tackle and is better for the experience as a result. He's also over 300 pounds now as that long frame fills out with maturity. And speaking of size, at the opposite end fellow soph Damien Robinson made the most of a spring move back to tackle. He began camp first team and is still there now.
"Damien took a great step forward," Hevesy said. "We played him at guard the first one-and-a-half to two years he was here. This spring we put him at tackle because he is such a long guy. He is a 6-foot-7, 325 pound kid. So, he fits better at tackle."
By the same token, juco all-American Charles Siddoway was signed in December to play this fall, at tackle. He isn't there just to push Robinson and Clausell, though Hevesy certainly welcomes a higher level of camp competition compared to previous seasons.
"Siddoway made great progress from Day 1 to day 15 in the spring. He has played junior college so he has been in college games. He has game experience. It's not here but it's game experience." And nothing develops a blocker like real experience, maybe moreso than any other college position including quarterback. Linemen have to take lumps before they really know how to return the favor.
Along that line, talented youngster Archie Muniz got a little reserve experience last season but had to miss the bowl game after a knee procedure. So backup Joey Trapp spent all sping at tackle, usually the left one though there were camp days the lefts and rights would swap ends entirely just to get comfortable either way. Daniel Knox had the luxury of redshirting.
Back to MSU math. "At the tackle position I want three or four players. We have Damien Robinson, Charles Siddoway and Blaine Clausell who stepped up in the spring. The one other one we have coming back in fall camp is Archie Muniz, who is coming back from an injury."
Factor in as many guards and a pair of centers, and Mississippi State's practical preparation roster is on the higher end of Hevesy's eight-to-ten formula. He can comfortably await August for the next phase, of picking a pecking order at all five positions. Somehow it will add up by opening night.