Malone, First Line Seeks Spring Consistency

He doesn’t have to practice perfectly, much as Justin Malone wants to grade-out 100%. The Bulldog guard sets more basic spring goals. “I can’t have bad days. I can’t go backwards. I just have to keep going forward and get better every day.”

Which explains so much about what goes on within an offensive line during spring practices. That, most any day where things don’t go badly can count as a win. It makes sense. Because if the blocking doesn’t do wrong, the rest of the offense has its chance to do right.

Of course only Justin Malone and his coach can really say whether he is getting better daily. Or the entire offensive line for that matter. At least this junior veteran is up-beat about the spring situation in general, and his standing at left guard in particular.

“I feel it’s been good. The 1s are 1s for a reason.”

Malone is a returning #1. He started 11 of his 12 games last season, and would presumably have started all 2013 if not for the game-one leg muscle injury that sidelined Malone the rest of the way. It should startle a few fans, too, hearing now Malone now ranks as the most experienced lineman on the entire Mississippi State roster. Not the oldest, just the most experienced in starts and snaps.

Along with returning-starter standing, Malone now finds himself expected to set a standard. “It’s been going well. We’ve got a lot of young guys here that need to learn. I’m the old guy, so I have to help them learn and do what I’ve got to do so they’re ready for fall camp.”

So then. Does Malone feel any extra burden or whatever from being the ‘old guy’ up front?

“No!” he laughed. “It’s the same thing as always. We’ve got to get together as a group because we’re one of the only units on the field that has to work together as five men. So we have to get together and create a chemistry that we’re working on and doing everything we’ve got to do so we can all be on the same page in a game.”

Well, he’s certainly got coach-speak covered. Now how about the example Malone and right tackle Justin Senior are told to set?

“We all mess-up, but we set ourselves apart by doing certain things. And we’re going to make everybody try harder. Once everybody can play we’ll have a two-deep and a three-deep and people we can rotate in. So if somebody gets hurt, if somebody breaks a shoe, they can just go in and play.”

One obvious good news item of spring is lack of injuries on the line regardless of unit. Does that make lack of changes to the first-team good news, too? Again only the coaches know for sure. What even a reporter can see is the benefit of spring consistency. With three starting jobs to re-fill it would be in the offense’s best interest to develop a best unit before everyone exits for summer.

And if there’s a single spot of attention it must be center. The news here is how true junior Jamaal Clayborn has transitioned from backup guard to first-team snapper. As left guard Malone should have as clear a vantage point to judge the results as anyone else, right?

“Jamaal is doing well. It’s new for him. He wasn’t a center for the last couple of years so he has to get used to being the first guy to be touched.” That interesting observation does emphasize the challenge for a first-time center who up to now waited for someone else to set everyone else in motion. No longer.

Clayborn now hikes the ball and then takes the initial contact, practically simultaneously. “Because that shade-nose or somebody is going to be right in his face,” Malone said. “So he has to get used to snapping the ball and getting his hands up and moving his feet, and getting them right there.”

Malone believes Clayborn is adjusting just fine and performs beyond his sheer age in the system. One reason too; this is the strongest Bulldog of them all. “Yes! Yes! There’s no doubt about it,” said Malone. “I just look over and like, I wish I could do that. Unfortunately I’m not that strong, I’m strong in certain areas but he’s just all-around a monster.”

Claiming the first fivesome is ‘set’ is stretching things. Still the group of Senior, Devon Desper, Clayborn, Malone, and Rufus Warren should go into summer as 1s. That shifts interest to the second squad and who might be poised to make a pre-season move. And, to just plain general depth everywhere.

Which is also a way of asking about Malone’s responsibility to develop others. Like, say, true freshman and spring enrollee guard Michael Story?

“Michael Story, I like him. When he first got here, he’s stiff, he couldn’t get in his stance, it’s just hard for him to do certain things. But he’ll go in there and throw himself into a block, he’ll go hard, he’ll try. And Coach Hevesy even noticed, ‘I like that, you’ve been here three months and you’re 17 year old and you’re listening’.”

What of juco transfer tackle Martinas Rankin, also enrolled a semester early? “Same thing with Martinas, he goes and sees his coach in his office, he learns and gets better. Other young guys like Deion (Calhoun) and them are progressing and getting better and trying to listen to coaching.”

Yes, including coaching from peers. Which gets back to striving for perfection just to produce real progress. Or as Malone puts it, don’t have bad days and the good days will ultimately come.

“It’s just you’ve got to do it continuously. You can’t do like ‘Oh, I’ve got it today’ then mess up tomorrow. Or mess up today and I’ll get it tomorrow. You have to keep building each day.”

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