Clayborn himself was more amused than offended at that half-joking accusation. “That’s just Chris, he over-exaggerates sometimes! Nah, I’m not a dirty player. I take my job very seriously.”
It’s probably a good indication that Clayborn, stepping up to starting center now, is doing something right on side of the line to have d-tackle Jones calling foul. But as Clayborn has said, when one’s job is to protect Dak Prescott, not many holds are barred.
Flagged, maybe. But not barred. So, “I just get my hands on them and do my job,” said Clayborn.
The final judge of that job is Coach John Hevesy, who is not known as an ‘easy A’ sort of teacher. So far Clayborn appears to be passing…but it’s a long way to opening day. Or the next day for that matter.
“Oh, he’s a great coach,” Clayborn said. “He’s a guy that has a passionate about what he does. So he kind of wears his heart on his sleeve out there. He gets intense.”
The focus on Clayborn will be more than intense this fall. For three seasons Prescott took snaps from Dillon Day. Now a new center will deliver the ball. The pair have had some time together in real games but nothing like what is about to happen.
So, it wasn’t just throwing passes for Prescott during June and July afternoons. He was catching Clayborn’s hikes as well. “He was out there almost every day we were throwing routes,” Prescott said. “Jamaal has a very good work ethic, always wanting to get better. He did that all summer long, our communication is great and we know exactly what each other is thinking, the IDs and everything.”
Jones’ opinion on that partnership is yet to be recorded. But it will be entertaining for sure.
RUNNING LOOSE: As noted in Friday’s feature, RB Brandon Holloway began his college career as a receiver. In time he might have thrived there, too. But his 2014 return to the high school position of running back is the right move.
“Yeah, I like to be in the backfield,” he said. The switch-back is still challenging. Because if competition for wide receiver snaps is tight at Mississippi State these days, running back touches might be even harder to earn. Holloway has one fellow veteran, two redshirts, and a couple of new runners in the meeting room now.
But he still prefers battling for chances as a back, especially because Holloway sees more opportunity in the context of Mullen’s versatile spread-system playbook. “I don’t really mind, I want to do whatever I can to help. So whatever Coach Mullen has planned for us to get it done, that’s fine with me.”
Speaking of plans… Holloway’s 2013 time at receiver showed how Mullen likes using fast wideouts as backs anyway. It’s automatic that at least once a game and usually more often a receiver will zip behind the line of scrimmage on a sweep, an end around, an outright reverse, something to create a mismatch on the edge. It began with Chad Bumphis and continues this season.
Perhaps, with impressive spring freshman Malik Dear, a high school back himself now working at slot receiver? Either way, Holloway appreciates how Mullen can take a back and make a wideout, or vice-versa.
“Yeah, that’s the thing that happens here. But it works out well, as you can see it works for us. We’re going to keep it up.”
SLOTTED IN: Switching Fred Ross to slot receiver is a win/win for the whole corps. It puts an explosive play maker into interior matchups he ought to win, besides a taller target than Jameon Lewis with same speed. And it opens up room on the outside depth chart for more Bulldogs to show their skills.“I feel we’re three-deep at each spot at the receiver positions,” Ross said. “We’re real deep. A lot of guys bring a lot of different things to the spot. So we’re just real deep.”
TRIGGER MEN: Not just at receiver, or at running back. Though only two of them have played a real game, long-time program observers are ready to rate this the deepest group of Bulldog quarterbacks since, when? The late ‘80s maybe when Todd Jordan, Sleepy Robinson, Tony Shell, Eric Underwood, and Handy Campbell were pictured together on a Dawgs’ Bite cover? Or a year later when Greg Plump replaced the problematic Campbell? Five of those would start State games in time.
Fast forward to today. Obviously there is none in that honorable older group to compare individually with Dak Prescott. Though, had Robinson not been lost four games into ’92 there might be another SEC Championship on State’s account. And Jordan was first-team All-SEC, as a punter.
Now, the foursome currently behind Prescott. Only Damian Williams has played, and he’s won SEC games already. Having lost time in spring to a pectoral tear though he’s fallen behind redshirt Nick Fitzgerald as #2. And all who watch Fitzgerald any length of practice time come away impressed. Not just with the freshman’s talents and his ease of transition to this level; but also for how Mullen spotted this one-year high school starter and signed him up.
Elijah Staley is still not 100% by his own admission after having a knee issue addressed. The Bulldog mind boggles though what with his sheer raw abilities Staley might have been in high school had he both focused on football as well as played in a better system. Though the name rings some sour bells around here, it’s impossible not to think ‘Newton’ watching Staley do his stuff even at this limited rate.
For his part Ross is excited about the quarterback corps he’s working with. Yes, Prescott is in a class by himself both on and off the practice field. “Dak’s going to be Dak. He’s a great quarterback and getting better with his reads. It’s just Dak, man!”
“The young guys have been doing great. Nick Fitzgerald has been doing a good job, Damian Williams, Nick Tiano, they’ve all been progressing each and every day.”
Working five passers is keeping quarterbacks Coach Brian Johnson busy this month. Especially the redshirts and rookies. “All those guys have a little bit different motion, we have to coach them all differently but once we understand what to do and how to get it done it’s usually a pretty smooth transition.”
BIG BULLDOG ARM: All have heard reports of Staley’s arm strength. Some have seen it first hand, and not merely when he’s throwing practice passes or firing scrimmage strikes downfield.
There were days last spring where the redshirt freshman found himself assigned to special teams, on the punt squad. Not as a blocker, certainly not as a kicker. No, Staley was told to heave the ball long and high for punt return practices. His arm produced much more distance with about the same hang time as anything a real punter could kick.
So, exactly how far can Staley throw a football? “Man, I don’t know!,” he said, but added “I’ve gotten a lot stronger.” Which has to be a scary thought for Bulldog receivers who thought his passes were arriving fast and hard enough already. Yes, classmate Fitzgerald has a pretty stout arm of his own as is being recounted by receivers.
Staley, he’s at another level entirely. And he’s not shy about showing off.
“There was a day I was standing on the 50-yard line (outside Seal Complex) and was trying to hit the weightroom. I came like an inch short! But I feel I can throw the ball forever.”
WATCHING THE PUPS PLAY: He’s worked long and hard to reach first-team stature. Now OLB Zachary Jackson finds himself still having to give his best practice efforts to stay on top.
Because that good list of linebackers, inside and outside, Jackson competed with in spring ball just got longer. And better. Jackson isn’t worried about his position, if only because he has the longest tenure of the entire corps as a senior.
“It’s good, the more depth we have the better we’re going to play,” Jackson said. “Because you aren’t like man, I’ve got to stay in here for seven plays… You can go hard for four plays and knowing Dez comes in it’s not going to be a drop off.”
Dez as in Dezmond Harris, the sophomore who was OLB Beniquez Brown’s backup last season until a November knee injury. A bad one. But Harris has battled back and seems ahead of his recovery schedule, to where he’s prepping for the season opener the same as everyone else.
It is interesting how Jackson now talks of Harris as his replacement (note: this isn’t any indication that there will be a set rotation on defense like last season, just substitution as needed). Because when Harris went out last year true frosh J.T. Gray stepped in spelling Benny Brown. Now apparently Harris is shifting to Jackson’s side. Maybe.
Regardless, Jackson welcomes Harris back to action. And this won’t impact Gray’s opportunities now as a true soph, either. The smaller ‘backer has shown senior Jackson good stuff, leading with…
“Effort. I like effort and the little spunk he’s got about him. Running from sideline to sideline, making plays he ain’t supposed to make, never giving up on the ball carrier, always doing technique Coach (Manny Diaz) is telling him to.”
So then, what about two other touted linebackers? Of course Gerri Green has been here a year now, having redshirted. But Green could easily have done what Gray did last season and not even with need of injury, that’s how talented the kid is.
“Gerri is going to be another B-Mac,” Jackson flatly predicted. “He’s got a good leadership role, he runs to the ball, he takes coaching.” Then there is the star of the defensive signing class, Leo Lewis. “His still spinning a little bit. But the most positive thing about him, he’ll hit. As long as you’ll hit coach can teach all the other stuff to him.”
GOT THE ITCH: He knew Manny Diaz by reputation and some recruiting contact back in the first tour. Now that they’ve had a spring to make closer acquaintance, linebacker Richie Brown has hit it off with his coach/coordinator. Just like his fellow veterans.
“Us that have been here obviously understand more what he wants,” Brown said. “We’re kind of at a point now we’re getting into the details, the specifics. He’s an awesome coach and his philosophy is really helping us.”
And pray tell, what would that philosophy be? Do we really have to ask?
“He gets a little itchy if he can’t blitz,” Brown smiled. “He does like to blitz. He’s an aggressive guy, he doesn’t like to sit back and take anything. It’s fine with me, I like to blitz. I think it’s going to be fun.”