That is a bold prediction for preseason, but one Justin Malone and all Bulldog blockers mean to make fact. Maybe they aren’t exactly insulted at suggestions this Mississippi State season will rise or fall on offensive line performance. Maybe they are inspired.
“We want to make the statement we’re not the question mark of our team,” Malone said. “Because everybody has been saying that. They know Dak and the receivers. They know Beniquez and all of that. But the offensive line is the big question because we lost three starters and have two starters back, and don’t have that experience.”
Left guard Malone is one of the two returned starters along with right tackle Justin Senior. Though, right guard Devon Desper did start two Bulldog wins last fall. For that matter the others who’ve moved up into the projected first-line, center Jamaal Clayborn and left tackle Rufus Warren, do have a fair number of live snaps to their credit, too.</p>
Still. Mississippi State is replacing people who from 2011-14 accounted for 113 combined starts. Not games, starts. This is a tall task for Coach John Hevesy under any circumstance. Add in the abundance of runners, throwers, receivers ready to make plays and score points, and no wonder questions rise and spotlights fall on the big Dogs.
Malone’s response? “The offensive line is going to be as good as we want to be.”
Responsibility rests on Malone, who ought be reaching his playing prime now as a fifth-year senior. It hasn’t been a smooth ride though, especially when he went down in the 2013 opener with a major foot injury. So Malone has just 15 starts in four seasons; junior Senior has 14 starts himself.
This merely means more motivation. Plus, this is Malone’s year to catch the eye of scouts. “To get where I want to be there’s no staying the same. You just have to get better each day, each rep, each practice, each game.”
The potential is obvious. “I’m big!” Malone joked. Basketball-big too, and that reminds that in high school he was a genuine hardcourt prospect with footwork and agility to match the muscle. By the way, he is wise enough to have avoided pick-up play for a long time because little good can happen when football players try to show old skill at hoops.
Besides, “I’m not built to run up-and-down the court. I’m built to hit people.”
The basic physics are scary. For his listed 320-pound size on the 6-7 frame, “I’m not slow,” he said. “I’m actually faster, more athletic than I was.” Malone has good footwork for a big man, but good is never good enough with Hevesy or in the SEC so that is emphasized daily. So is use of hands, legal and, well, you know…
Malone said he does have his plus points. “Oh yeah, I have a lot of them. It’s just working on them to make my weak points my strong points and make my strong points stronger.”
Because for the next four-plus months Malone has to be a true strength to an offensive line under re-construction. This is as much in the mind as at point of contact, too. Malone said he has improved understanding of Mississippi State schemes both for himself and for the rest of the blocking bunch.
“Let’s face it, last year I had two three-year starters in Dillon (Day) and Blaine (Clausell). So I have to learn more, be able to accomplish more,” Malone said.
If reminders of lost standouts resurrects questions about Bulldog blocking, Malone downplays such natural concerns. “We have all the people in place,” he said. “Senior, Rufus, Jamaal, Devon. We have everything in place to be a great offensive line. We just have to gel more together. And we can’t have any bad days.”
That’s the baseline: No bad days for these Dogs. Or as Malone said, “We can’t miss a beat from last year.”