Even better, Malone's reliable play that first month bodes well for the upcoming October and November grind. Much as Mississippi State wants old Dog Smith in each week's starting fivesome, the big kid has done just fine. Even, he said, with the week-to-week uncertainty of whether he or Smith gets first snap.
"It doesn't affect me at all. Because if I'm starting I'll go out there and play the game. If not I'll go in there when my number is called. So I go when I have to go, to help my team win."
As the Bulldogs are winning, and ranked #20 to boot, it must be working well. Maybe even better than expected as far as the front-five is concerned. There's no mystery to Mississippi State's approach at right guard this season. Fifth-year guard Smith may well be the most purely talented veteran of the entire line, but his injury history points to the wisdom of scripting his games. His series. Even his total snaps. As Coach Dan Mullen now admits, playing Smith roughly two-thirds of the snaps against Auburn in week-two came at a price. Because he hasn't played since.
Fortunately he has not needed to either. Malone has stepped right in at right guard and the Dogs kept right on winning.
"The first week they told me they weren't sure if Tobias would start or not, when we're going to put you in," Malone said. "But I never thought about I had to play, both of us were going to playing and we were going to be alternating."
Malone expects the rotation to continue this weekend at Kentucky. Even with a two-game layoff and open date, Mullen is cautious about sticking Smith back into full-time duty just yet. For that matter, some expect Malone to handle the whole job for at least another week. Either way, "We're trying to get Tobias back to 100% so he can go down this eight-game stretch with the SEC teams and everything," Malone said.
"But it gets me experience for the coming years. Rather than having to wait and come in brand-new I'll be a guy that's played instead of someone just getting thrown on the field."
The heck with coming years; Malone is taking care of business already. After all, he did step in for the series Smith didn't in State's SEC victory over Auburn with no discernible difference to the Dog offense.
"Yeah, it's good to know they have that trust in me. To allow me as a freshman to go out there and play a third of a game against Auburn." He's just a little relieved he wasn't asked to start that one. Or for that matter, start State's opener. Though Smith only played a single series against Jackson State, it gave Malone that much time to watch, wait, and just plain settle down before working something like three-plus quarters.
"Because rather than just throwing me in a SEC game--which is pretty much the best conference in the country—and saying you have to go play, it let me get acclimated to what I have to do. The speed of the game and all that other stuff."
Game speed sounds simple, what with all the practicing and scrimmaging Malone got through two Augusts and more so last spring while Smith was recuperating from a 2011 knee injury. Then again some things just can't be simulated by teammates, even those as good as the Bulldog defense.
"Man, that Jackson State game…" Malone shakes his head. "Let's just say I'm glad they were my first game! Because the nerves were going for that one. Coach Hevesy and the rest of the linemen said I looked like a deer in headlights, I looked like I was terrified!"
If Malone was frightened, one wonders how that pair of Tigers felt when the 6-7, 315-pounder fired off the line and took the two of them downfield. Adrenalin or not Malone adapted pretty quickly. Ditto a week later. "I'm less nervous now. The first few games I played was pretty bad, out there it looked like everything was going so fast across from me! But once I calmed down and slowed the game down everything got to be easier and less nerve-wracking."
Left guard Gabe Jackson has been impressed with the new kid on the line. "It's a big plus for us because you can't find too many redshirt freshmen ready to step up for us in that starting role. He's done a good job but he's still improving and getting better every week."
The improvement comes because Malone by no means considers himself a polished product. Not at all. The freshman doesn't just call upon Smith's expertise during games, between series. "I do that every day in practice! How does it look, what did I get wrong, what did I get right, can you help me with some of this other stuff. So it's kind of nice to learn from him."
Well, nice as long as Malone listens to his elder and executes accordingly. Smith has a natural interest in how things are going at right guard after all. "He's told me I better not let him down! He said he's going to come back if I do, so I better not mess-up!
"And me and Gabe work together. Because our jobs are identical, they just go opposite ways. So we really work together. He coaches me on what I need to do, and the times he doesn't know what he did wrong he'll ask me. But he really helps me out all the time."
Malone has noticed that becoming a starter, whatever the reason, has not earned him any extra slack with his position coach Hevesy though. "He treats everybody the same, pretty much! If you do something wrong you'd better watch out! But he'll coach you on what you do wrong and tell you what you do right, so you know what you're doing. He's not just going to yell at you all the time, he's going to tell you what you do wrong so you get better."
Speaking of which, now that Malone has real-game experience to draw from, what does he need to improve upon? Or the entire Bulldog line for that matter? It's nothing really big per Malone, just the technical things which even veterans have to hone daily such as foot and hand placement, timing, steps sequences, and such.
Oh, and the mindset, too.
"Like our coaches tell us, if we go on the field and have to think about what we're doing, there's a problem. At a point it should just become habit, we should already know what we are going to do. And if we should have to check-out we should know what to do then; if not we shouldn't have to think about it."
Malone doesn't waste time each week now thinking about whether he'll start, alternate, or just watch. He's ready for whatever the game brings. And much as he loves being in the middle of things out there, Malone does appreciate watching Smith at work. There were plays against Auburn where the old Dog pancaked and pulled and got downfield as if he'd never missed a day's work. Rust is not an issue, in other words.
"That's Tobias for you," said Malone. "He's one of those guys that no matter how long he is out, no matter what he has to do, he's going to get his job done. And you're not going to know if he's hurt, you're not going to know if anything is wrong. He's just going to go out there and get it done and you're like, wow! he hasn't been out a bit!"
For that matter Malone would welcome Smith appealing for a sixth season, to keep the merry band intact for 2013 if you will. Regardless Malone is just starting to tap into his vast physical potential as a college blocker. "I tell him work on something every day, pick one thing every day to keep getting better at," said junior Jackson.
"They want me to lose a little weight," Malone said. "And work on bending my knees and staying low, so instead of trying to out-muscle people—which I don't know necessarily I could do—I can use my technique to get where I'm supposed to be and get them out of the play."
‘Them' in this week's case being Kentucky. The Wildcat defense hasn't gotten a lot of respect this season and statistically has been mauled equally whether rushing or passing. That doesn't make this a matchup any Dog can overlook. Malone has studied the tape and seen the assignments; he might have to take on a 300-plus-pound nose tackle one snap, or try to stay in front of a quick 272-pounder the next. And there are a pair of senior ends out there who won't be easy to pull on.
Still, "We know their defensive front and know pretty much what to expect from the different looks they give," Malone said optimistically. The real key for Bulldog blocking is attending to their own issues exposed in less-than-dominating games against Troy and South Alabama. No disrespect to those non-conference clubs, Malone said, but…
"We have to work on the way we prepare. Because we found out although we have the talent and all that stuff we have to work on how we prepare. Our technique got sloppy in those games, we didn't concentrate on things because we relied on being able to physically out-power them."