Looking At Lineups Ahead Of Camp

A week from today it all begins. No, wait. That isn’t quite correct. Better to say the Bulldogs resume what they started in spring.

Practices for the 2015 season begin next Monday at Mississippi State. It’s a mere technicality to talk of Sunday’s ‘reporting day’ since after all just about the entire roster has been on campus this summer. All summer in most cases.

There are a couple of February signees whose clearance had not been finalized going into this week. Neither case will impact scheming for the season beyond bonus depth, maybe. Otherwise, all the pieces to Coach Dan Mullen’s planning for 2015 are safely accounted for.

So…where will those pieces be placed by September 5? What does the depth chart look like before Mississippi State coaches start arranging and re-arranging what came out of spring camp, and where?

Let’s take a few of our remaining summer days to discuss, debate, and outright guess, huh? Starting today with the area of most often uttered question.

To be fair, offensive line concerns among fans aren’t new. In fact it is a terrific sign of how Mullen has transformed the program in six seasons that Bulldog folk don’t spend their summers speculating about quarterbacks. It has become an article of faith this head coach will put a productive and increasingly a record-setting triggerman under center, which is surely the 2015 case.

Instead it is the center who Dak Prescott will be getting under, or rather behind in this offensive scheme, which demands most MSU attention. And wonder. And yes, worry. But by the end of spring ball there seemed lots less reason to worry. Or even wonder now.

Because after beginning his Bulldog career as a guard, the backup to Gabe Jackson himself in 2013, Jamaal Clayborn has made the transition to center. Made it very well, too, if insider opinion counts. Clayborn wasn’t perfect in spring and was called on the proverbial carpet by Prescott a few times in drills. But he didn’t blink behind the facemask when the All-SEC quarterback talked, either.

Meaning, Clayborn can be a tough kid. Playing-wise he is a kid actually, having been activated as a true freshman. Fans openly questioned that move in 2013, but whether planned or not it now should be to State’s benefit as he has two varsity seasons of experience. Those with sharper eyes for center play suggest in time Clayborn could be a better snapper/blocker than the 46-game starter he’s replacing. Though he doesn’t have Dillon Day’s tattoos, if that matters. He does have a big weightroom rep which does matter.

As for depth, it was interesting in spring when unplanned 2014 redshirt Jocquell Johnson switched to the center. A juco tackle, and a practicing guard in spring ’14 before the health issues he came to campus with forced him to sit the season, he seems to have found his place. In fact that delay in activation could prove Johnson’s best break as it’s given him time to settle in. Plus he can still work at guard if ever needed.

So can Devon Desper since he has practiced over the ball before. His varsity career though has been at guard and brought two starts when he stepped in for Ben Beckwith against both Texas A&M and UT-Martin. State won both times which can only help Desper’s confidence.

Spring had to do him good, too as he began camp first-team right guard and with brief exceptions stayed there. The exceptions were for a couple of procedure flags in a scrimmage or to test other interior line combinations. Otherwise Desper held #1 when camp broke and presumably will be there next Monday.

Staying first-team could be more competitive than expected though. Deion Calhoun was able to redshirt as a true freshman and establish himself as a weight room warrior immediately. There was some speculation he might spend spring at center, but Calhoun stayed a guard and for weeks gave solid work on the second unit. If he is a precocious as many believed, he might end up with the first group this fall. Certainly he’ll be starting in 2016 when he’ll be all of 20 years old.

Left guard is one of the two line jobs carrying-over from 2014. Justin Malone started 12 games, missing one with injury. That was a heckuva better situation than 2013 when as a new starter he went out on opening day. A senior now and in full physical prime this is Malone’s big opportunity to catch the eyes of pro scouts. He certainly has the NFL-sized body and enough of his high school hoops footwork to be a top-notch SEC guard.

If only looking at numbers, depth took a hit with the departure of backup Kent Flowers. Having him back for a third year would be nice insurance of course. But Bulldog fans know by now, line coach John Hevesy’s baseline three guards for two jobs…and a center who can play guard as needed not to mention vice-versa. So State should be fine without injuries.

Besides, while he will hopefully redshirt, freshman Michael Story could be seen in a few years as one of Mullen’s smartest signings. He’s not the normal freshman either, having graduated early and gone through spring ball. Going into this camp he’s in backup duty at left guard while third-year soph Jake Thomas is the depth at right side.

The other returning starter is another one of Mullen’s recruits who weren’t well-known at the time. Though in Justin Senior’s case inking a Canadian kid out of prep school who by rights would have been a high school junior at his age was worth wondering about. Safe to say Senior has born-out the wisdom of that scholarship offer.

Senior has a good grip on right tackle after 13 starts as, we always like to remind, a sophomore. He only turned 21 in July so his best is still ahead. And his best could prove very, very good indeed based on 2014 work.

The question at right tackle isn’t who will start but who is Senior’s backup. Which actually could end up relating to events at left tackle. Anyway, in spring it was Damien Robinson using his bonus senior year to try a comeback after the August 2014 knee injury. His work as #2 tackle was sound enough, too.

Still. Lingering if unspoken questions about just how healthy the repaired knee really is leave the backup job presumably there to be taken. Plus, Robinson was running behind Senior already before the injury.

Adding to the intrigue was where touted juco lineman Martinas Rankin spent his spring. Conventional wisdom was he’d step right in at open left tackle. Instead there he was at right tackle on day-one and staying there, mostly alternating with Robinson as #2 man. Even if State has done some, shall we say interesting things with first-year linemen in the past, it’s inconceivable Rankin will redshirt barring injury. Isn’t it?

Only September will show since practices will be closed of course. Still unless scouts were entirely wrong Rankin should be a factor this first fall…shouldn’t he?

Running the transfer at right tackle might actually have been a very encouraging sign of what is happening on the left end. Faster than anyone had a right to expect, tight end Rufus Warren has transformed himself into a capable tackle. Though of course as a blocking tight end he was practically an extra tackle all along; now he simply can’t run pass routes.

He has bulked up to a stout 295 or more depending on the day and hour. If Warren can translate his practice performance into real games, the back-side blocking can be sound with him alongside Malone. It certainly will be a big pairing on the left side of center.

Again, with closed practices only insiders will know if, say, Rankin is taking any left tackle snaps…and gossip is not encouraged by this head coach. Even if he is that’s not necessarily a sign of anything more than Hevesy’s need for three game-ready tackles in two jobs.

Warren’s move was at the expense of junior Cole Carter who backed up departed starter left tackle Blaine Clausell two seasons. And now Carter has his hands full holding off a younger tackle. Both Ronald Cochran and Elgton Jenkins were not exactly high-profile prospects in high school. State saw the frames, the ages, and the potential.

Now both are rewarding the faith by developing faster than some of the better-regarded blockers signed in ’13 and ’14. Jenkins was an under-appreciated spring camp story in fact, jumping from reserve to second-team left tackle by the last two weeks. Cochran had more traffic in front of him at right tackle. But based on the number of snaps he too received the coaching staff has high hopes. Plus, though both were in the mid-280s for spring camp they ought to be packing at least 290 pounds soon.

There is some hope that maybe a practice is opened for media look-in. It would be helpful in seeing, say, where freshmen Darryl Williams and Harrison Moon begin their practice careers. Neither is supposed to play as rookies of course.

That brings up one other offensive line angle for 2015: recruiting. There are only three seniors on this roster (Malone, Warren, Robinson) and a dozen underclassmen. However, suspicion is a couple of those non-seniors will not be around next spring as State needs scholarships to offer in a small-class year.

The popular opinion going into preseason is State’s regular and post seasons will only be as success as the blocking, since most everything else seems in-place for another big year. The opinion is partly correct. Because, there is enough talent and experience for the Bulldogs to have a good season with OK line play.

To have a great season? To have an offense that makes the absolute most of the runners, thrower, and catchers? An offense which lets Prescott be a quarterback against the best opponents rather than having to force plays on his own? Yes, that is where popular opinion is correct. A great season requires a great line.

Tomorrow: Offensive Skill Positions

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