Blackledge Prepares To Take Center Stage

It's probably not as much fun and certainly not as fascinating a way to spend hot afternoons as, say, running and throwing and catching. But Royce Blackledge isn't jealous of what those teammates are doing after the day's round of summer workouts.

Because nobody does nothin' with the football until it leaves his big right hand. At least not on days when Mississippi State's center joins quarterback Mike Henig and other offensive ‘skill' personnel. "I take snaps with Mike every Tuesday and Thursday," Blackledge says. "Shotgun and under the center, we work on that all summer."

No, it's not as glamorous as throwing spirals and pulling in passes. Still State fans should be pleased that this pair of sophomores are honing the most basic and important handoff in the game. After, of course, spending a hard, hot hour lifting, running, and sweating through this Bulldog summer.

"It's pretty tough," Blackledge admits, "but all of us have to work hard."

Because there is a long, hard season in store for Bulldogs, and for Blackledge as he steps into the center of a developing offensive line. With the graduation of Chris McNeil, third-year soph Blackledge assumes the key position. He was actually expecting to spend 2005 as the backup, and indeed did get to hike a few balls in late-game relief.

But mostly Blackledge practiced and then played his hold prep position of guard, starting on the right side of center the last six games. Now he's both a full-time center and on top of the depth chart after a solid spring.

"I like center. It's more challenging and I like that. I like them both, I played a lot of guard last year and feel good there. But I feel good about the center position also." Happily, the offensive coaching staff feels just as good giving the Sandersville native first touch of the football on every offensive play.

"I like it," Blackledge says. "I like being responsible, I think I can handle that. A lot of people don't, they feel it's a lot of responsibility. But I feel good about it. In high school I never played center, it was a big change for me, but it's something that I've gotten used to. I'm still working hard at getting good." No sooner does he talk about getting good than Omarr Conner wanders by and laughs at the interview-ee. "He's going to be good, too!" Blackledge laughs at Conner as the wide receiver raises both arms and cackles his agreement.

For guys to be laughing and joking on a typical mid-June afternoon, preparing to head outside where a short summer shower has cranked the humidity to bathwater levels, is a good gauge of Bulldog attitudes these days. Blackledge even shrugs off the prospect of putting in some agility drills after the weight workout. "Everybody is getting in shape," he says.

Then again it might be easier for the young center to smile since he is in a somewhat unique situation. Besides lifting and conditioning, most MSU linemen are either trying to trim off pounds or just maintain their weight. Not Blackledge…he is still putting on a few pounds, by orders.

"I'm gradually getting there," says a guy who reported to State out of Northeast Jones High School at a skinny 264 pounds. Now he's just a pound shy of his 295 target. "I've had to put on weight and it's been a gradual process. But it's come on. I'm eating all I can eat!" Yep, while line-mates settle for a salad Blackledge can risk grabbing an extra portion…or two.

It's not all football stuff this summer. Blackledge is taking the full semester load with course in business calculus and real estate evaluation. Not that it's too hard to evaluate the properties in his corner of Jones County, as a fellow Free Stater notes. "Well, my major is management, construction, and land development. So there's a lot of developing that needs to be done. Rebuilding, too, from there south, especially on the Coast. So I think there are a lot of job opportunities there."

For the next three years though Blackledge intends to make the most of his opportunity to snap the Mississippi State offense in motion. He can't take his job for granted either, as redshirt Johnny Carpenter isn't of a mind to just watch his elder have all the fun. "Johnny is a good athlete he's got a mean streak in him," Blackledge says. "He's going to be a good backup for us." At which he grins again. "I ain't giving it up to him!"

So these summer afternoons spent hiking to Henig are a step in the process of Blackledge becoming a good college center, and part of a Bulldog blocking corps whose best days are ahead.

"We're still young but we're getting older and more experienced and it's going to work out for us."

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