It's a legitimate competition, too. Through seven games Wilson and staff have gone with a variety of front sets, whether using four true down-linemen as base or a trio of big Dogs and extra linebacker, and so on. There has been just one sure starter: senior Josh Boyd has begun every game at tackle, either one of or the only one depending on sets. Sophomore Kaleb Eulls also owns seven starts but three have been as a tackle and the last four at his '11 position of big end.
So, everyone else on the lineman roster knows starts and snaps are there for the winning. Especially now at the second interior-tackle spot, Wilson said.
"It's practice, and matchups. It's a combination of both. Who practices well, and who matches-up the best. Guys understand we're going to do what is best for the team, for that week, and whoever gives us the best chance of winning the football game is who we're going to use."
Typically that has been either senior Dewayne Cherrington, the 330-pounder who does an admirable job filling any middle; or soph P.J. Jones, after returning from his September suspension. This month Jones has shown why Coach Dan Mullen activated him as a true '11 freshman, speeding-up the interior action in contrast. Eulls still takes a few turns as a tackle-type too but thanks to big Curtis Virges, Jones, and Cherrington he's been free to focus on his ideal end role.
Even better from Wilson's point of view is how newer and much younger linemen are getting up to college game speed. True frosh Quay Evans and, when healthy and activated, Nick James make Mississippi State legitimately three-deep. "The thing that is neat to see is the talent level," Wilson said. "They're talented guys. But you can't teach experience, and that's what they are gaining by the moment."
Some of that experience has to come the admittedly hard way. Which Wilson takes great pains and maybe even a little pleasure in pointing out to his troops during unit meetings. The video of their mistakes can be entertaining and instructive at the same time, eh?
"Absolutely. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words. There's nothing like a picture, especially with you in it!" Fortunately for Mississippi State, the guys coordinator and line coach Wilson is working with have become quicker studies as this season progresses. And them with it. Particularly so the second and third rotations Wilson increasingly relies upon, because he can.
"They're improving. Obviously they're not as clean as you'd like because you can't teach experience. But I know those fresh legs help that guy who has been in there forty snaps, and there's not a drop-off."
Wilson was able to work some fresher legs into the third and fourth quarters last week, once State had taken total control of Middle Tennessee. The challenge will obviously be much, much greater this weekend against Alabama and the premier offensive line in the SEC…the nation even. In a paradoxical way, though, those bad-play shots of prior games might be of best use in preparing for the Crimson Tide. Call it playing to their pride, not wanting to get shown-up for all the world to witness.
"So it's been great, and those guys really want to be good players," Wilson said. "So now to see themselves in critical situations I think it's more meaningful." And it is surely more enjoyable taking a stance in the trenches rather than standing by You Know Who, watching. The key is proving worthy to that coach in preceding days.
"As a coach your only friend is the bench!" said Wilson. "So when you've got competition from teammates and in that locker room it motivates everybody to play at that high level. That competition makes practices better and makes meetings better. It makes everything better. I think that is when you know your program is growing."
Of course there is only competition if the bodies are there for competing with. Here Wilson has the game-day carrot to go with a practice stick because, after all, a rotation needs rotate-ors. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Wilson and staff have felt free to shuttle substitutes in and out regularly in recent wins. The result is a happier and healthier starting squad even if it means giving up some snaps and stats.
"The biggest thing you notice is the experienced young guys, more depth, the availability to play more than 14-15 guys," said Wilson. "You're playing anywhere from 25 to 28 guys in a game. Those reps matter and it really motivates our players they're not just practicing to practice, that they are going to have opportunities to go out and play on Saturday."
GRAND OLD AUTRY: One of Wilson's Dog sure to play Saturday is Denico Autry. The junior defensive end has four starts through his seven games as a transfer, and while the numbers have not matched what Autry was used to compiling in junior college ball the progress is apparent.
"It's just playing with technique and getting used to the feel of things," said Autry. "I was, how you say, curious to see what it was like to play in big-time games, the stadium, the crowd. But now all of that is coming and I'm putting it all together. I've been trying to get my technique better and see where it goes from there."
Wilson has a good idea where Autry is headed. "It's game seven and he's really getting comfortable in our system and understanding the expectations and standards. So the thing about Denico, as long as he stays the course and works he's going to be an exceptional player for us."
Now 18 total tackles and a pair of sacks might not make exceptional numbers in many defensive systems. But as noted, the Bulldog defense increasingly relies on rotations. So to get on the stat sheet means making the most of any and all snaps.
Not, Autry insists, that he looks at post-game stat pages. "Nah, I don't worry about that stuff. I just go home and get in bed, get up Sunday and go back to work." What matters to Autry is whether he walks off the field believing he's done the job. "Yeah, you can feel it," he says, calling a good game "A couple of tackles, a couple of sacks."
Sacks were few and far-between for the Bulldogs in the first half of the season. It wasn't lack of pressure, as the strong interception stats show. Still getting a hand on the passer would be, well, handy in coming games against better SEC opposition. Especially this Saturday, seeing how Alabama's offense just does not turn the ball over or for that matter in-complete many passes.
"They're well-disciplined, they don't make mental mistakes," said Autry, adding the game goal is to force such gaffes anyway. Especially by pressuring the passer, something few can do. "He's sitting behind that big offensive line, we've got to get to him. It's very important, that's what we've been working on all week. Everybody has to come with it, we talk about it a lot in the meeting room."
And Autry has a feeling the defensive front is just now finding its form. "Oh yeah, we've been feeding off each other, we're very competitive. And I guess we just love to win!"
Winning is becoming a lovely habit for this 7-0 squad, which challenges top-ranked Alabama for first in the Western Division. It's what Mullen has promised his players they could and would play for as the program developed. The coach is also reminding how any road to Atlanta literally and figuratively means getting through this week's opponent. One which recruited Autry out of junior college, in fact. So he might have been wearing home team colors this week rather than the road uniform.
"They tried pretty hard. But I guess I didn't see myself fitting in over there. I'm more, I hate to say it, but I'm more of an underdog guy, I don't want to just ride with the high dog and all that." Well, nobody is riding higher than the Tide these days. Still Autry believes this squad can rise to the same level.
"We've got seniors stepping up, telling us what we have to do and keeping everybody motivated. And I think it's going to be a great night."