"I always start from left to right so I'll start with the left offensive tackle.
"If we had to start today, our starting left tackle would be Michael Brown. He really had a good spring. I like his attitude and how he works. He really has made great strides. He's made great strides mentally as far as picking up the offense. He came in here after six ballgames last year and performed very, very well in-season after not getting a lot of reps. He's a great kid who gives us a force to be reckon with on the left side.
"Right now, if we went out there today, his backup would be Mark Melichar, a young man out of Birmingham. We redshirted him last year as a true freshman. He really has a tremendous upside. He's a character guy who is very smart, has a great work ethic and has a great attitude. He will work and do everything he is supposed to. He does have to get stronger and make the normal development that all freshmen do, but we like what we see, so far.
"Our starting left guard right now would be Anthony Strauder. I think Anthony is about to come into his own as an SEC player. His work ethic has been good. I see a kid that is motivated. He's a great student who is also a good athlete. He's either graduated or about to graduate and he's still got two years left to play. Since he's been at Mississippi State for three years, he's spent a tremendous amount of time in the class room to get his degree early. Anthony, if he continues to make the development that he's made so far, will have an opportunity to play professional football, just like Mike Brown will.
"Today, if we had to put a backup in behind Anthony, it would probably be J. C. Brignone. J.C. got hurt before he ever got a scrimmage snap in the spring. But we really like his size, his toughness, his strength and we like a lot of things about his athleticism. We really thought, during the course of the spring, that he was about to make a jump. He got about eight practices and things were really clicking for him, but right before the first scrimmage he hurt his shoulder and was out for the rest of the spring. That hurt as far as his development was concerned, but I feel good enough about him to believe we have a good offensive lineman with him.
"I feel good about Royce Blackledge. If we started today, he would be our starting center. He got almost every snap a year ago at the center position. And I feel he made good improvement during the course of the spring. And he's a fifth-year senior who is tough and is a great character guy. He hurt his ankle during the Alabama game in the third or fourth play of the game and didn't miss a beat. So, he's got some toughness and grit that we really like.
He wasn't really that highly thought of coming out of high school, but you told me after you had been here a little while that you thought he would become a player. And he has. Do you take special pride in seeing a player like that achieve what he has?
"When we got here he was a true freshman who weighed about 260 pounds. But I saw an old boy that had character, toughness and was smart. And even though he wasn't quite big enough, when you see those three things you know he has a chance. And, in a lot of ways, Mark Melichar is the same way. It takes awhile. You don't just throw a guy out there and say he's going to be an offensive lineman. You have to develop those kids. And Royce Blackledge has developed in Coach Croom's system and has become a player. And that has not surprised me, because I felt all along that he would be a pretty good player."
Who is Royce's backup?
"I feel really good about John Carpenter as his backup. I think you have a tough ole boy who wants to be a good player. And he's developed his strength. He's another one of those guys who, when they make normal development, you bring them along. He's right on schedule. And we feel like if we need to throw him in the game just to give Royce a rest or whatever, we really feel good about him going into the ballgame.
"I also feel good about our third center, Chris Spencer. He needs to lose a little bit of weight, but he does some really good things at the center position. While he needs to lose a little weight and get a little stronger, when we threw him in at center and left him there, we saw things happening for him. I think he will be a good player."
What were some things you liked about him?
"I saw him being more comfortable at the position. We had moved Chris from tackle to guard to center and back to tackle to guard to center. It's not his fault, it's our fault. But we were trying to find that niche for him. Now, we plug him in and hopefully he'll continue to develop and work hard."
Who will start on the right side?
"If we started today, J.D. Hamilton would be our right guard. He's a tremendously strong guy; probably one of the stronger guys that I have ever coached. And he's a tough guy. He got quite a few reps at the guard position. He's also a guy, if something happened to a tackle, you would feel good about using him at tackle because he's got SEC reps at that position. If he ever learns to use his hands the way they need to be used, then we will be in great shape with him. But he's got to learn to use his hands better. And he's better than he's ever been at that, but it's just something that was never developed until he got here."
What do you mean by having to develop his hands?
"You have to be able to get them on the (defensive) guy. And it's not as simple as you think. When I think about hands, I think about a loaded hand. What is a loaded hand? A loaded hand is when you have your thumb above the elbow. Anytime the thumb is below the elbow you have an unloaded hand. And when the thumb is above the elbow you want it to be pointed up. When you have that, then that means the elbow is down. Now, you have an opportunity to keep your hands close together and get them inside to the breast plate of the defender. When you get your hands inside of the defender. you have the advantage. But many times what a kid will do is allow his elbows to go out and his thumb will be pointed inside. Now, you have an unloaded hand that is of no use. What you want to do is get them to keep their thumbs up and their elbows down. And that is something that J.D. has really struggled with. He either does that or they are behind him and he reaches down and drops his hands on the first step. Then, he has a lot of area that he has exposed. And no one is quick enough to offset that. You want three points of contact at the same time; hat and hands. What happens with J.D. right now is his hat makes contact, but his hands are still down by his side."
It looks like doing that would be simple to do.
"It's not, though. It's no different than anything else. Some people have great feet and some people don't. Some people have great hands and some people don't. I remember having Quentin Saulsberry in camp. The one thing that stood out about him when he was at camp is he is a natural hand athlete. He's a natural. For some reason, his hands are automatically loaded. He's got quick hands and uses them well."
Who is J.D.'s backup?
"His backup would be Michael Gates if we played today. He needs to drop a little weight, not much, probably from 8 to 15 pounds. He's got a lot of natural pop in his hips. Football is starting to come to him. He's one of those players who didn't play a lot of high school football and then he got thrown into the fray as a true freshman due to our needs. Obviously, he needed a redshirt year, but he wasn't able to get one. But I look for great things out of him this year because he's got the ability. We just have to help him to feel more comfortable as a football player."
Who are your left tackles?
"If we started today, Craig Jenkins would be the starting right tackle. He's another one of those guys who probably needs to drop from 13 to 15 pounds. And he should be able to do that. He's a tremendous run-blocker, but has struggled in pass-protection. And that's something that he really has to work on if we are to be as effective as we would like to be in the passing game. He's got tremendous smarts. As a redshirt freshman last year, he started 12 games and did a yeoman's job.
"Roland Terry would be his backup today. This will his fourth year and it's time for him to step up and play. It's time for him to make a contribution not only on the practice field, but in the stadium as well. Hopefully, fall camp will allow us to feel good about throwing him in the ballgames. And we want to play him and all the other backup guys. And we want to play them early in the season. Hopefully, we will be able to do that."
You and the other coaches signed a really good group of high school offensive linemen. What are your thoughts about them?
"First of all, you certainly hope they are everything that we hope they are. But I always tell people this, when you are a freshman in the SEC, it's not if you hit the wall and go splat, it's when you hit the wall and go splat. You are going to hit the wall. There is going to come a time in camp with the grind and speed of the game and just the way we practice that they won't be used to. And there is no way to prepare them for it except by going out there and experiencing it. So, the key is after they hit that wall how quickly they rebound.
"But when you look at this group, I have great, great expectations out of Derek Sherrod. We really feel like we could have looked all over the United States of America and even Mars and we wouldn't have been able to find a better prospect on the offensive line than Derek Sherrod. And he was only 30 miles away from Starkville. We had him in camp and never have I had one in camp that I thought had as big of an upside as Derek Sherrod. It's just a question as to how quickly he adapts to the new terminology and the speed of the game. He's not had a Titus Brown or an Avery Hannibal rushing him at Caledonia. Does he have the ability to block that type player? Oh yeah, no question; it's just how quickly he does it.
"I look at D.J. Looney. D.J. comes from a heck of a program in Birmingham. He's a tremendous person and player. Hopefully, we will be able to redshirt him.
"We really like the kid from Pensacola, Florida, Dakota Merritt. He's got an upside. You are looking at a guy who is 6-6, 300 pounds who can run.
"Addison Lawrence is a guy who played tight end during his high school career. So, he may have the biggest jump of the group. I saw him catch a 70-yard pass so I know he has the athleticism, but he's going to have to grow into that position physically and mentally.
"Colton Jenkins is another guy who has a chance to be a good player. But like all the rest he's just a freshman and will have to develop.
"We have great, great expectations out of this group. I think one of the things they will need to do early in camp is bond with each other and be the best they can be as quickly as they can."
This is the fourth installment of a ten-part installment with all the Mississippi State football coaches.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.