Lining Up the Summer Football Squad, Part 4

Let’s get right to the obvious. Any and every discussion of 2015’s potential zeroes immediately on a single aspect…and it isn’t quarterbacking, or defense, or even schedule. Popular opinion is practically unanimous Mississippi State will go as far and as high as Bulldog blocking allows.

Surprising? Not really. Acknowledging that only coaches and combatants truly understand offensive line play, much less know what they are trying to do each snap, no expertise is needed to know why the front-five draws such interest. And concern. It is the one area of the 2015 lineup which faces a true rebuild job.

Three Bulldogs have graduated along with their combined 100 career starts out of 140 games played from 2011-14. The entire trio just signed National Football League free agent deals too, so it is much more than mere experience leaving with Ben Beckwith, Blaine Clausell, and Dillon Day. Oh and on top of that, their presumed replacements have only two 2014 starts amongst them and not a whole lot of backup snaps for that matter.

So yes, however blithely the Bulldog staff responds to questions, at least some degree of Dog concern is merited. It’s true that seasoned and great quarterback can make up for much in protection terms. But for the Mississippi State offense to truly thrive and use all available talents requires first-class blocking. Only placekicking creates as much angst among fans, though results there are a heckuva lot simpler to judge.

Now. For the encouraging words. Much as live-game experience and more so SEC action accelerates development, Dan Mullen and staff have been planning for replacing. Spring seemed—again, purely on observation by a non-lineman—reasonably smooth in drills. Scrimmaging exposed issues of course and at times none other than Prescott would pull a blocker aside to talk. Or, the quarterback would simply slap a helmet or two, with literal and figurative authority. Being blockers, they care more for the good opinion of the quarterback than even their position coach. Which says much.

“I expect them to give me as much time as I need,” said Prescott himself. “And to be big-time.”

Working from the established end of things first, 2014 was as much a ‘breakout’ year for Justin Senior as an offensive lineman can have. If no honors came his way, neither did serious criticism. Or flags. Senior was simply steady in his first season starting at right tackle.

Now, steady is just the starting point. He turns 21 in July reminding how young Senior was as a 2012 signee out of prep school. He reported for the junior spring at 295 pounds, fifteen more than last summer. And he is established, apparently still at right tackle though some wondered if the veteran of the group would move to the presumably-vital left tackle job. No, or not yet maybe.

It’s a legitimate suggestion with the return of Damien Robinson, a little ahead of schedule after the August 2014 knee injury which could have ended his career. A five-star signee in 2010, Robinson has never entirely established himself. Moving from tackle, to guard, back to tackle didn’t help, though he also seemed willing to settle for backup status.

Still wiser folk always advise never to write-off a big body entirely. It would certainly make for a fine 2015 story if Robinson proves a late-bloomer and becomes a sixth-year senior force. Based on spring snaps, the chance really may arise because by April Robinson was taking some first-team snaps as Senior stood aside.

Of course the real surprise, if that’s the right word, of spring was Martinas Rankin. Not for his play, but for where he practiced. Rated by some services the country’s top junior college prospect, and a mid-year signee, the signing day assumption was he’d step in immediately to challenge for the open left tackle job. Then when camp began there he was at right tackle, where the returning starter was as well as a sixth-year senior.

Only Coach John Hevesy knows the real score and he ain’t saying on record. But it does appear fair to project that A) Rankin is not in line for redshirting; B) Bulldog right and left tackle is interchangeable and practicing one prepares about as well for the other; C) left tackle in college ball with more emphasis on the run isn’t as definitive as pro passing blind-side blocking; and D) we’re all just guessing here anyway. Which is another way to say, and since August camp is closed, we’ll be waiting for opening day to know what is going on at right and by extension left tackle. Fun, huh?

Jumping to that other end of things, the other spring surprise was how quickly Rufus Warren has transformed himself into a gen-u-wine blocker. Not that big Rufe never bodied-up in his previous life as State’s tight end, almost an extra tackle in itself. But having made the move a year ago Warren—now a solid 295--suddenly seems to be thriving as a full-time left tackle. He’s certainly got the athletic skills to bring to the position even if no longer running pass routes.

Warren’s sudden ascension (it’s interesting to recall that in spring 2014 he practiced at right tackle) to first team comes at the expense of junior Cole Carter, the backup left tackle to Clausell for two years. The competition doesn’t end there, either. In February 2014 more than a few fans wondered if State was ‘reaching’ for more big bodies by signing Elgton Jenkins and Ronald Cochran.

By April ’15 both these lightly-rated recruits were making some noise, and not just on the third team where most redshirts spend their first spring. Jenkins jumped to the second unit mid-way of camp and Cochran was getting some second-team snaps at both left and right tackles. It’s still very, very early in their development to claim they will eventually prove ‘steals’ signees…but it’s not too soon to suggest it, either.

Those two starts by a leading replacement? Both belong to Devon Desper, who filled in at right guard for Beckwith due to another player’s suspension (Texas A&M) and injury (UT-Martin). State won both times. Desper was first-team the first day of spring and never lost ground, or not until jumping snap counts twice in a Scott Field scrimmage in the first half. Sent to the sideline, he was back with the #1s for the second half and made no more such mistakes.

The point being Desper is counted on to make the transition from backup to starter right on junior year schedule. Except, he has a real challenger. There was some pre-camp thought Deion Calhoun, the team’s weight room warrior, would get a look at center. Instead the redshirt frosh stayed at guard, right guard, and pushed Desper hard.

Here is where the obligatory reminder must be made, that in State’s system three guards—along with two centers and three tackles—must always be available. Calhoun seems establishing his claim to third in the group now and with benefit of maturing it’s not out of the picture the 19-year-old could be top-two by September. Certainly by next spring.

Justin Malone is at the other end of a college career and the other guard, where he started a dozen junior-year games. This was after missing all but a quarter of 2013, remember, and deny it as he would full strength was a real question at times. Now? He’s old, established, and ready for the big senior season all expect at left guard. This is after all his money-year and with a big campaign Malone can trump his ’14 elders by being drafted.

As for fans and writers, they only notice guards when drawing flags or getting beat. Everyone, every snap, notices the center. Day certainly was easy to notice with the long blonde locks and vivid tattoos. And, for being a pretty good SEC center as well. Of course league refs had an eye out for Day also and it showed in a suspension along with other warnings.

The most colorful member of the 2014 line is departed. Nobody knows if Jamaal Clayborn will be as eye-catching in the same ways. All that matters is can the true junior and former guard become as high or even higher profile a hiker? Again only his coach and quarterback can really say how Clayborn is progressing at center.

But a former MSU defensive line coach who came for a clinic in April commented very favorably on Clayborn without prompting, and that’s a very good sign. So is the trimmed and toned 320 pounds he packs and a the weightroom reputation. Now, if Clayborn can stay calm and deliver the ball cleanly to Prescott in real games, who really cares about hair and ink?

There was another spring surprise-of-sorts with Jocquell Johnson working all camp at backup center. A December ’13 signee and spring ’14 enrollee, Johnson came to senior college after a short season at juco tackle and immediately practiced at guard. Not for long, as health issues carried over from JC slowed him so much a redshirt resulted.

The unplanned delay could have been Johnson’s best break. Not only has he been able to settle in to senior college life at a more relaxed pace, it’s given his coach time to find a primary position at center. This doesn’t mean Johnson can’t or won’t end up at guard again, since again those are supposed to be interchangeable at State.

If they played most any other area on the team, 2015 would be a make-or-break sort of year for three blockers in mid-years; junior tackle Carter and sophomore guards Jake Thomas and Kent Flowers. Higher-rated recruits than, say, Jenkins and Cochran, their development hasn’t been as quick. But neither were they all pushed too fast with multi-year starters ahead of them all.

Meaning, while this should be their time to rise up, it isn’t as if State is counting on them to be first-rank blockers just yet. Also remember that mid-way of 2013 many wondered if Clausell would ever make the jump. That November, he did…proof again why linemen just can’t be evaluated like any other position(s).

This said, keep an eye on the youngest pup in the line-pound. True freshman and early-enrollee Michael Story came to recruiting-ranker’s attention somewhat late in high school and that proved great for Mississippi State. Bulldog coaches noticed him before almost anyone else, courted him well, and now have an in-state talent safely on campus to develop over time. Maybe not a lot of time, either, if initial impressions are accurate.

Besides, as was proven by Clayborn in 2013, this is a program willing to put a raw rookie on the field if he’s ready and able.

Next week: Defensive Line, Linebackers, and Defensive Backs

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