Malone Takes Measure Of Tackle Tasks

Given the tension regarding preseason injuries, it was worth asking Justin Malone about the ice pack strapped to the left hand and wrist. He wasn’t on the MASH list or anything now was he? “I’m good! It comes with the job.”

But which job? Because with the 2014 Mississippi State season fast approaching, this big Bulldog blocker finds himself drawing dual duty in drills. Not just for versatility or depth or the regular reasons; Malone now is a leading candidate at two positions.

Injury to the only really experienced right tackle on the roster has dragged Malone a step over from right guard to try his skills at the end of the offensive line. It had been discussed all summer and projected in camp, but not until Damien Robinson was officially ruled out for the years with knee injury did Malone get that call. “(Tuesday) was really my first day rotating at tackle,” he said.

“I’ve been playing guard for most of camp. So we’re really going to keep going from today and see how I did and where they’re going to put me.”

If the transition came a little later in preseason than was projected, well, there were good reasons. Coach John Hevesy had a goodly number of tackles to try out for the only true ‘open’ job on the offensive line from 2013. A maturing Justin Senior (see feature posted Wednesday), the fast adjustment by tight end Rufus Warren, and the development of soph Cole Carter gave enough big bodies to push and even make serious challenges to Robinson’s first-team status. Coach Dan Mullen did refer to Robinson as a ‘starter’ early in the week but the contest was realistically close to call.

Now with the fifth-year senior sidelined for the duration, speculation becomes fact for Malone. Not that he is celebrating. “It’s hard, because I do live with Damian,” Malone said. “He’s been one of my best friends since I got here. So it’s hard losing somebody like that.”

Even harder maybe is so suddenly being put in a position to take that same, ummm, position. Seriously, when Malone comes in from practice now it can’t be easy talking about the day’s work in a spot Robinson occupied. The trick is recognizing that this is football, and kickoff won’t wait.

“It stinks, but it happens,” Malone said. “I just sit there and talk to him, he doesn’t necessarily want to talk about his injury. So I’ll talk about helping move into our apartment the other day, just talking, joking around, just being us. You don’t want to dwell on the bad things, you want to make everything look better.”

And meanwhile get better working at tackle. Malone certainly looks the part at 6-7 and 320 pounds, but up to now his Bulldog career has been at guard. Where, obviously, he has the tools to perform because a year ago this time Malone was the #1 right guard and readying to start the season there. He did, but didn’t get to finish it.

Or the first game as a foot injury put Malone on the sidelines himself the rest of the schedule and most of 2014 spring too. So he certainly can empathize with his roommate in this area. Fortunately Malone reports no lingering issues nor rust from the lengthy layoff. Just the opposite in fact.

“I’m bigger, I’m faster, I’m stronger. Everything is just all around better for me. I move better, I think better, I see the game more clearly. So it helps me as I go out there to practice and into the season to see the game and react to the game and do what I need to do to help my team.” Sure, but isn’t there just a leeeeetle dab of doubt about returning to the wars?

“No, when I went out Coach Hevesy and I had this talk, we were going to have to keep you around the team and keep you positive. So it came more as last year went on me mentally training myself rather than me being down. I had to mentally prepare myself for what I had to do this coming year and next year and any I play after that. You know what you have to do, just go do it.”

Up to now Malone figured to be doing it at one of the guard slots, though there were no guarantees here either with senior Ben Beckwith and gifted true soph Jamaal Clayborn right there too. Malone appreciates the need for three reliable guards each game, he just naturally would rather be one of the top two. And may yet because this tackle task may end up temporary.

Or, not. Hevesy won’t poll his meeting room about who should be trusted to start anywhere for another week after all. So days of good competition remain ahead and Malone affirms the ‘good’ part. Starter, rotation, backup, whatever, experience shows the value in lots of qualified linemen.

“Football is a physical game. It happens. It comes with the job, people are going to get hurt,” says Malone who absolutely should know whereof he speaks. “Some seriously, some not so seriously. So you’re going to have to learn how to manage what you have. You have to play multiple positions, like I’m working with tackle and guard; Ben works with both guards and center; Jamaal worked with both guards last year.”

“You’re going to have to be able to move to each place, you’re not going say ‘this is my spot’. You’re going to have to be able to play everything that you need to play, everything that they want you to play so you can win some games.”

Or better, win a lot of games. It’s no secret what can turn Mississippi State from a solid SEC squad to a genuine conference contender this year is first-class blocking. The more freedom QB Dak Prescott enjoys, the more he can use his own expanding skills as well as those of Mullen’s best all-around collection of runners and receivers. Thus Malone is preparing to perform whichever position he’s assigned.

“They’re very similar, except as a guard you’re going to be hitting bigger guys that are not quite as fast. They’re bigger, stronger, so more than likely they’ll try to hit me. A tackle, they’re faster, they weigh 250, 260 sometimes less than that. So they’ll try to run around me, they don’t want to get hit directly by me. It’s just going to be the difference pace I have to move at each positon.”

Other good news is whoever comprise the first five Bulldog blockers on opening day, they should not have to pace themselves on the field as before. Though no SEC roster ever is satisfied with the total list of linemen, Mississippi State goes into 2014 better stocked than before. And that, Malone said, is going to help as much as Hevesy’s demands everyone be groomed at various positions.

“Because we don’t have to sit there and just grind the same people all the time. You get to switch in people, you can move people around, you can do everything to get people a break. So the depth that we’re developing and the way that we play as an offensive line is going to help as the season wears on and the wear and strain gets to our bodies. So you can just move around more people.”

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