Tobias being Smith, the senior teammate Jackson—and for that matter everyone else inside and outside the Mississippi State locker room—hopes to have lined up at the other guard position. The right guard position, since Jackson expects to make his 27th-straight start at left guard sometime after 6:00 pm on September 1. Not only has the Liberty, Miss., native opened every game of the past two campaigns, in this stretch he started for the winning team 16 times out of 26.
Coincidence? Not likely.
And somebody has noticed, because for all the obscurity Jackson might play in as an interior lineman he finds himself nominated for some pretty impressive honors. Such as pre-season All-SEC by various magazine and online outlets. Or even better for the Lombardi Award given to the top blocker in college football. Or best of all the Outland which goes to the top lineman, offense or defense.
So instead of selecting someone with statistics to accompany corneraback Johnthan Banks and quarterback Tyler Russell, it was veteran blocker Jackson that Coach Dan Mullen chose to also represent the Bulldogs for hundreds of media members. Many hundreds.
"It's exciting. Real exciting," grinned Jackson. "When Coach Mullen came in he was like how do you feel about having somebody from Liberty, from Maben, and from Meridian coming to Media Days? He was joking about getting on TV, I said well it's a big thing." Well, most anything would be big compared to the hometown.
"Yeah, we literally have two red lights and a stop sign, and that's it! I'm not downgrading my city but it is what it is!" Actually calling Liberty a ‘city' is an upgrade to most minds. But just as he's done wearing the #61 uniform, Jackson handled over two hours of media grilling with aplomb. Line coach John Hevesy would likely have graded Gabe a Champion for his interview work.
"I was told by the end I'd get real good at it because I'd be answering pretty much the same questions," said Jackson. To which he had the same good answer. "I feel like it's going to be a big year for all of us on the offensive line as a whole"
Smith, coming off a September 2011 knee injury and surgery, his third major setback at State, was a popular topic today. Because anyone who saw State in 2010 when Smith played half-games, every game at right guard in rotation with Jackson and Quentin Saulsberry, knows what he can do. Jackson does better than anyone. "He's pretty much the heartbeat of the offensive line," he said of Smith, and not just in talent terms.
"I mean, it's just his presence. When we're around him he's always motivating us. Just his presence makes a big difference." Well then, maybe when not playing Smith can serve as an assistant to Hevesy? "I ain't going to say that because I can't see him being a coach, especially playing with him! I'd like for him to be playing with me. He's been working out, doing squats, running. He'll be ready to play this year."
Jackson is ready to play right now, eager to get the season going. What he saw in spring practices has the blocker that much more excited about what the 2012 offense is capable of. In no way does Jackson downplay the graduations of record-setting runner Vick Ballard, and play-making quarterback Chris Relf. For Jackson's first two seasons this pair effectively defined Mississippi State's gameplan of run-option offense with a strong physical flavor.
But today in Hoover, he was spreading—so to speak—a different word. No, Mullen isn't going 180-Dog degrees away from what took the team to consecutive winning seasons and bowl victories. But an adjustment is underway in both where the football is supposed to go, and how it is expected to get there.
"Just more of a different approach," Jackson explained. "Somewhat the same game plan but not we're just going to pound the ball, pound the ball. We're running some outside, inside, then we throw it. Not getting set on just anchoring down and saying we're going to smash-mouth. We have to do different things because we have a different style quarterback."
Ahhh, yes, the quarterback. Russell's presence at Media Day was just the latest affirmation of his ascendency to starting position and the responsibility. Speaking for the team today was the next step, Jackson agreed.
"He's always been the one to do things right and work hard. But now he's taking a role to be more of a vocal leader and demanding things happen." And come September, of making things happen. With Russell's strengths tilted towards reading coverages and calling plays, the offensive naturally will take that tack…without getting too finesse, said Jackson.
"We're just mixing it up instead of running it straight down the middle or expecting the quarterback to make yards." Right, related to that, blocking for Russell is a bit different than for Relf, to which end Jackson reports more emphasis by Hevesy this off-season on footwork drills and protection moves. Which gets back to the day's most frequent question about the line's ability to keep Russell rocking while the ground game remains rolling.
"It's just us playing together and not being like one contractor. Working together and understanding different techniques and what the play is supposed to be meant for, and stuff like that. Just playing as a unit together." Bland, maybe, but what else does one expect of a lineman?
Then again, the Liberty lad is not at all dull of costume. In fact, some teammates call him the club's best-dressed Bulldog…though Banks was teasing today about how hard it is for 300-pounders to find fitting suits. "You can't wear just anything, it can't be too loose or too tight!" Jackson agreed. But he also acknowledges that he does care how he dresses for road trips and, now, media appearances.
"Oh yeah, I like to dress fresh. I was thinking about what I'd wear for a while, I started over-thinking and getting ahead of myself! I had to slow down and keep it kind of basic." No, in case any wonder; Jackson did not consult his position coach. "Nah. Because he'd have been like just find something and don't try to do too much! I like what I've got on."
He's liking his new status as ranking veteran on the line, at least in consistency. Smith is older by a year but has played just 18 games. Fortunately the two guards are well-matched not just in abilities but leadership attitudes. And they have to fill a big void there with Saulsberry's graduation.
In fact, Jackson said it was Q who he turned to on bad days. "Now its like OK, who do I turn to now? I have to be the one somebody comes and talks to now, me being an older guy. So I have to accept that role and find the confidence. I've gotten used to it."
"It has hit me, towards the end of the spring I was like man, time is going on! It's hit me now! I was used to J.C. Brignone and Derek Sherrod pushing me when I was a freshman starting out with everything. But I remember when J.C. and Derek were leaving, they were telling me I had to be that guy.
"And the definition they had of ‘that guy' is working hard and everybody looking up to you. So at first I was like ahhhh, I don't know about it. But I understand what they were saying now."
Which is why Jackson has such high expectations of his line, his team, and himself in 2012.