“A bunch of guys are banged-up and injured,” Mullen said Tuesday. “Two of our four senior captains are injured. I don’t know if I’ve had a year with this many injuries on a team.”
However this total Bulldog body count compares to past teams, it is unprecedented that half the captain corps is out. Cornerback Will Redmond’s senior year ended with an October practice injury. Defensive end Ryan Brown played months on a developing stress fracture, and passed on the bowl game to have a screw inserted in hopes of being ready for the NFL draft on time.
But it is a fifth Mississippi State starter whose status is the buzz of bowl camp. Within minutes of beginning the first practice here in Charlotte, junior center Jamaal Clayborn went down with a sprained right ankle. He was seen on crutches Monday at the last chance media had to observe the team.
At Tuesday’s final pre-game media conference, Mullen was non-committal on Clayborn’s status.
“We’ll see. Hopefully he’ll be ready to play tomorrow for the game.”
Clayborn started all dozen regular-season games and in most SEC cases played—technically, made—every snap to Dak Prescott. The All-SEC quarterback is staying optimistic.
“He’s been doing some stuff,” Prescott said today. “They’ve been keeping him active, getting him better, being positive with the time and everything going on. So yeah, there’s a chance.”
There’s also the chance Clayborn can’t start, or go very long if he does. And somebody has had to hike the ball in practices. That role has fallen to senior guard Justin Malone.
“Its been fine,” Prescott said. “Malone has actually practiced center all year long for this situation. It just so happens that we’re going to need it for this time of the year. So we’re ready.”
Malone hasn’t missed a start this senior season at left guard. But, he hasn’t only played that position. When senior Rufus Warren went down in the Missouri game, it was Malone sliding out to left tackle for the whole second half in that victory. Now it looks as if Malone will be taking a step to his right side, and for a bowl start no less.
“I think that’s pretty crazy,” Prescott said. “I know he’s taken snaps at both guard and tackle, so to put him at center? I don’t know how many people in the country have done that this year, play every position on the line. But Justin is going to be ready to go regardless what position he’s at.”
Beyond adjusting one position, this is an offensive line that may not have thrived in 2015 much less dominated. But none can question their resilience. Or ability to make moves in a moment. At least this time Mississippi State had the luxury of three practice days and a walk-through to shuffle Bulldog blocking.
“We’ve been banged up on the offensive line all year long,” Mullen said. “But our guys understand that. We’ve just had that type of year, the next guy-up has got to be ready to go step in and play.”