Hemphill, Bulldog Backs Hitting Camp Hard

No, there isn't a roped-off ring. Or ring announcer, as much fun as that would add, much less any card girls. And each ‘round' lasts just a few fast seconds. But in that short span the action is as intense and probably more entertaining than anything seen on pay-per-view, as Bulldog backs and ‘backers go at each other in drills. With a winner, according to Sylvester Hemphill.

"Coach Knox has started this thing where every day is like a boxing match," the veteran fullback reports. "The champ, you know, he has the belt."

Nope, no real belt either. It's imaginary or virtual or whatever. Still there is no doubt that when running backs coach Greg Knox blows the whistle to stop these matchups somebody has won. And, lost. Just as in a real Mississippi State game where the stakes are a whole lot higher for the rushing linebacker and blocking running back.

Pass-pro, as Hemphill said, has turned into one of the entertaining periods of preseason. It was already competitive since nobody wants to get beat or get blocked of course. But with Knox now naming a daily winner, wellllll…the fun quotient just increased. Along with the aggravation for guys like Hemphill who take professional pride in protection only to see a linebacker walk away with the ‘belt'.

Which as of Wednesday belonged to OLB Matt Wells. "Right now Matt has it, and everybody is trying to beat him," Hemphill said. "We kind of struggled today." Not for lack of trying, and in fact the fullback says Wells is his own favorite personal matchup, the most fun fellow to try blocking. Maybe that is because the one-time safety packs 215 pounds or twenty less than Hemphill brings to the ring. Or drill rather.

It's something of another matter, now, when some of those bigger ‘backers get their running start. Love him as a teammate, Hemphill hates squaring off with Cameron Lawrence. It's a good test to be sure, and a great matchup of two strong, experienced, and determined Dogs. If one beats the other it has to be that guy got a jump of some sort because there's nothing either don't know about the assignment.

Still…Hemphill says he hates most blocking Lawrence, though the ‘hate' is said with a smile. "Because you never know which way he's going to spin. And he's physical to so I'd have to say he's the hardest person to block." By the way, when speaking of physical it's hard to overlook—literally—a specimen like Benardrick McKinney. "Oh, he's tough too," Hemphill agrees, as McKinney is built like a defensive end and has those long arms.

Blocking dominates any conversation with Hemphill, or his cohort Adrian Marcus, because basically that is what they do. Coach Dan Mullen's spread system certainly includes fullbacks, and the head man has an open fondness for fellows who will stick their skull into any assigned spot no matter who or what is ahead. But as far as hauling the ball, that seems a definite downward trend in MSU play calling.

"You have to know your role," Hemphill said. "You never know how many snaps you're going to get but when you get your snaps you need to go 100%. So you just try to go as hard as you can."

Hemphill had no carries in 2012 but did get one pass thrown his way while starting five games and playing in all 13. For that matter he hasn't missed a game in his three varsity seasons. Cohort Adrian Marcus has also worked every game for two years since, like Hemphill, walking-on. That's an irony of sorts as, since William Shumpert went on medical status, there are no scholarship fullbacks on this roster. That is likely a reflection of how spread-type offenses are headed with all the direct snapping and single-back sets to make room for multiple receivers.

But when you need one, absolutely nothing can replace a good blocking back with hard head and stout heart. Hemphill has found his plays in the book already this preseason. "Definitely downhill plays where we're trying to block a ‘backer to free a running back. Short yardage. That's pretty much all I can think of." Well, including a few passing plays for his position.

"We've got a couple of flat routes that's mostly on short yardage, like third and two, fourth and one. Flare outs and that's pretty much it." Though as he said, given the chance it will be the 100% or more invested by State fullbacks.

That is the good news for their teammates who do touch the football more often. An old Dog like Hemphill knows a thing or three about stuffing tacklers so tail- and half-backs can find open room for the running. He also understands the wisdom of ‘scouting' these guys in preseason for little tendencies which might produce big gains at game-time.

"You definitely have to know your backs and what kind of runners they are," Hemphill said. So, what types are they?

"LaDarius Perkins is a quick guy, you don't have to stay on your block as long because by the time you hit them Perk is gone. Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Derrick Milton are more bigger pounders, so you're going to have to stick on your block longer. Then again if you happen to miss your block they can break a tackle. So, either way."

Of course fans who don't know the numbers yet might look at those aforementioned four and think the guy wearing 34 is another fullback. Robinson does look the part, being relatively short and assuredly stout with an upper body that shouts ‘blocking back'. That he might be the best mix of speed, moves, and strength in the quartet is a revelation to many, but not Hemphill.

"Josh, you might not think running back but when you see him with the ball he's real explosive. He knows how to get low and break tackles, I think that's his best attribute." Though as Hemphill notes those younger two runners, the redshirts, are still picking up on finer points of play. Such as his own specialty of blocking, which halfbacks have to do too.

"They're coming along pretty good but they still struggle with some things. By the time the season gets here they'll be OK." As for the preseason competition for opening-week status, Hemphill snorts at the notion of any teams order right now.

"We have a depth chart because you have to have one! Somebody is going to be first, somebody is going to be second, somebody is going to be third!"

The only pecking order Hemphill and his fellow seniors care that much about is where Mississippi State finishes the 2012 season. He was not signed but otherwise is just as much a part of Mullen's first Bulldog class back in 2009. So Hemphill is qualified to comment on just how this program has progressed, and what they see ahead.

"I mean, when Coach Mullen first came in I think he had high expectations. But now I think the players believe more. We have high expectations for ourselves and every day we're just coming out to get better."

For now though, there's that belt up for daily grabs and Hemphill would love to wear it. So to speak. "It's not real, but we still try to take it away!"

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