Gabriel O'Neal - "I started very early. I played YMCA football when I was about seven. I actually played every sport all through high school. I just got a great opportunity to play football here, so that's why I'm here."
Gene: You were also a very good student in high school weren't you? And did it carry over to college as well?
O'Neal - "Yeah, I'm pretty good. Yeah, and it carried over to college, too. My freshman year I had a 4.0. And I'm still in the three-point range."
Gene: How did you wind up such a good student?
O'Neal - "My mom always stayed on me. She said don't take football as the only thing because you have to have that education for your life after football. You can't depend on football for everything, so I just took advantage of that and got my school work done."
Melissa: Royce, what are your career plans after Mississippi State?
Royce Blackledge - "I recently graduated with a degree in Management Construction and Land Development. And I'm currently working on my masters in Industrial Technology. Plus, I'm engaged to Alana Walters who is from back home in Laurel. She just finished school. We are going to see how the whole football thing works out - if it's meant to be or if it's not. If not, then I'll just go to work. Either way, I'll be happy."
Melissa: Do you want to play pro ball?
Blackledge - "I would like to have a shot at it if it's meant to be. If it's not, then that's ok, too. I came up here to get a degree and that's what I got. Hopefully, it will give me more job opportunities and allow me to get a decent job."
Gene: Royce, what kind of job are you looking for?
Blackledge - "Anything in construction. That's always been an interest of mine. So, hopefully, I will be able to do some construction estimating or be a project manager. Or scheduling projects. Things like that."
Gene: Kyle, you know I have my sources. I've heard you actually wanted to play basketball? Were you a point guard or center (asked tongue in cheek. Drew laughs from everybody)?
Kyle Love - "I played center in high school."
Gene: So, how did you wind up playing football instead of basketball?
Love - "Basketball was my first love. But after I got older and in a higher level in high school I realized I wasn't tall enough to play basketball. So, that kind of drew me away from it."
Gene: You were tall width-wise but not height-wise? (said with tongue in cheek)
Love - "Yeah, I was tall that way, not the other way (laugh)."
Gene: Did you completely give it up or continue playing?
Love - "Yeah, I kept playing basketball, but I was more focused on football because I realized that I had the opportunity to go and get a scholarship to play football. So, I kept putting everything into football and went on with it."
Gene: When did you realize that you were going to get an opportunity to get a college football scholarship?
Love - "It was like after my 10th grade year that I really realized it. My 9th grade year, when I got there, I was a big guy. So, scouts were already looking at me. They were asking my coach what year was I. They were kind of disappointed because they found out that I was only a freshman. So, right after my 10th grade year I realized that I had a chance. I went to combines and camps and that kind of helped me realize it, too."
Melissa: Coach Sylvester Croom talks about character and discipline, which this team has an abundance of. Now that you are here, how has Coach Croom helped you continue to improve yourself as a person?
Love - "When we got here, Coach Croom really helped us develop our skills, socially, on and off the field. He helps us out any way that he can. He's really a great guy. "
Melissa: How great is the pressure to know your faces are the faces of MSU and you always have to do the right thing? How difficult is that pressure to bear?
O'Neal - "Being a football player you are a big guy on campus, a lot of people speak to you. You know a lot of faces around here, so you have to show respect to people off the field as well as on the field. If a person comes up to you and says, 'hey, how are you doing,' you can't be like, 'I don't know you.' In so many places you are like the face of the Bulldogs, you are a target, so you have to stay out of trouble. If you get into any little thing the newspapers are going to find out about it. Somebody will find out about it. So, you have to stay focused and stay out of trouble and be a role model."
Gene: But that's almost like saying that you can't be a kid, a regular student.
O'Neal - "It's all in being a younger adult. You have to mature as you go. You can't always be a kid and play around, joke and take things for granted. To me, college football is more a professional sport anyway, like a business. So, you have to conduct yourself like it's a business."
Gene: Isn't that tough to do, though?
Blackledge - "They told us since we've been here it's like living in a fish bowl. So, everywhere we go somebody is watching, whether it's a little kid or somebody else. You go into a restaurant, little kids who don't even know who you are can pick you out as a football play. So, like Gabe said, you have to keep your head on straight. When somebody (on the team) gets in trouble, they look at the whole football team. They don't just look at you. So, you have to keep your head on straight and always do the right thing. And a lot of times that's tough to do when you are on a college campus because there are a lot of activities going on that are hard to turn away from. But you have to be a man about it and not do those things."
Melissa: Do you take the freshmen when they first come in and tell them what kind of things you expect from them when they are on campus and in town?
Blackledge - "Yeah, you just about have to or they won't know right from wrong."
Gene: Considering you are almost like being in a fish bowl, is it fun being a football player off the field?
Love - "Yeah, it's fun - it has its ups and down, but it's fun."
Blackledge - "It is fun. We have a great time. We can hang out with each other, have cookouts and do things together. We still go out and have a good time with each other."
Melissa: Are you guys setting a pattern for all future players to live by when they get here?
Love - "Yeah, we have left a pattern because everybody that comes in from now on will now know how to act on and off the field. It doesn't matter where they are, they will know how to act. They will hang out with us and see the pattern we set."
Melissa: Does that pattern stem from the head coach?
O'Neal - "Yeah, if your head guy sets those rules and he's living by them, he's walking that same walk that he's preaching to you, you think if he can do it, we can do it, too. When that standard is set, the guys who come in will know that's what the coaches and older players expect so I'm got to live up to those standards."
Melissa: This team of players seems to be closer to each other than in years past. Am I correct in saying that?
Blackledge - "That's right. I don't think the players were as close to each other. I guess everybody kind of did their own thing. But we are like a family now. I can call any of the guys on the team for anything I need and I'm sure they would be there. And I would do the same thing for them."
Gene: Kyle, describe Royce as a player.
Love - "Royce is a great football player. He's made a great difference between last year and this year. He blocked great last year, but this year he's blocked even better. I believe he can make it to the League because he has good hands, good feet, and once he gets those clamps on you it's hard to get him off of you."
Gene: Royce, describe Gabe as a football player?
Blackledge - "I think the best word to describe Gabe is he is a winner on and off the field. You know what you are going to get out of him every week that we play a game and when he's off the field. Gabe is not going to get into any trouble. He's going to represent the university well."
Gene: Gabe, describe Kyle as a player?
O'Neal - "I would describe Kyle as an up-and-coming star. He is a very good young guy. When he first got here, he was a little overweight and didn't get along with the coaches very well. Since then, he's turned into a great guy. He's making a lot of plays and he's getting excited. I'm really happy to see the young guys like him excel and be the best they can."
Gene: Kyle, it took you a little time adjust to the coaches. Is that normal for a young guy just coming from high school?
Love - "That is normal because coming out of high school, you are used to the coaches from high school. So, you have to get used to the new coaches in college. When I first got here, I had to learn how to deal with these coaches. And I did that."
Gene: How long did that take?
Love - "It didn't take that long. It took some time, but not that long. But I'm used to them now."
Melissa: Now, for my one football question. A loss like we had against West Virginia, how will that affect our game against Kentucky?
O'Neal - "Coach (Ellis) Johnson showed us a great stat yesterday. The first quarter we gave up 221 yards on defense. In the second quarter, they had negative 3, the third quarter they had 25, the fourth quarter they had 75. So, if we just come out and don't make the little mental mistakes and just put a complete game together, imagine what we could do. Actually, we are giving the opposition everything they get off of turnovers and penalties, things like that. We just have to do the little things and continue to work."
Gene: What would going to a bowl game mean to you two seniors?
Blackledge - "Going to a bowl game would mean the world to me. This is my fifth year here and we haven't won over three ballgames a year since I've been here. And we are sitting 4-4 with four ballgames left. We can win them all, but just to pull two wins out get that number six, the magic number."
O'Neal - "Guys who have been here longer than I have, guys like Royce, Dezmond (Sherrod), (Eric) Butler, J-Hub (Jason Husband); they've been through the struggles the whole time. We all look at it as our one last chance to do it. Imagine if we make a bowl game. Nobody has experienced that around here. The fans would be excited. The coaches and players would be excited. It would be great."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.