"I thought I got hit, but what happened was I got blocked and hit my head on the ground. It felt like somebody blind-sided me. I think the ground hit me harder than anybody ever has before! I'm starting to feel it now, really." Which is why Brignone was limited in Monday's practice and will not be pushed too hard Tuesday afternoon either. "We don't want to take any chances," Coach Sylvester Croom said.
For his part Brignone is more annoyed that UT safety Berry got away with the ball and a touchdown return to break that game open, than about his own hard landing. His toughness has already been proven this year by how he shook off a practice knee-strain to play every snap against Vanderbilt. But like most Bulldog offensive linemen, he played defense in high school and seeing an opponent with the football had Brignone reverting to prep d-tackle mindset.
"It was a freak play that went their way," he said of the pick-six. "That happens sometimes, that's what football is about and you have to be able to flow with it."
Brignone has certainly proven able to flow with changes himself, on and off the field. The most recent was his move from backup left guard as a 2007 redshirt freshman to starting center. While this switch had been forecast ever since he arrived on campus, and spring practicing showed all the skills needed for the job, it's still been a transition to work through.
"You know, it's only been seven games but it's been a real long road to get everything," Brignone said of the season to-date. "I've had ups and downs, I've had a few bad snaps, it happens when you begin at center. I don't want to make excuses for myself, I'm trying to be the best in the country and that's my goal. I think I'm on my way, I've just got to keep my head straight and try to keep my guys in line."
No pun was intended by the ‘keep head straight' point of course. Keeping the rest of the line in line is the serious bit though. With three new starters up front it's been an up-and-down season in both run- and pass-blocking. So when Croom praised the play at Tennessee of Brignone, as well as young tackles Derek Sherrod and Quentin Saulsberry, it was music to the center's ears. "It's good when Coach gives us praise, and I love the fact that we're getting recognized. Because offensive line doesn't really get recognized as much."
But, Brignone added, "it's tough when you give up five sacks, because people start looking down on you." Watching QB Tyson Lee go down five times at Tennessee, along with the 14 total sacks allowed the previous six games, has hurt the center's feelings almost—almost—as much as the quarterbacks' bodies. No matter what particular player gets beat by the defense, the whole line takes responsibility for every single sack.
"And as a young guy you get to a point sometimes where you think oh, man, we're looking bad. But we have to get past that, we've got to play better and can't beat ourselves. We've got to keep our technique down and do the right things."
ATTACK SACKS: Of the 19 sacks State has been charged with, Lee has absorbed 16; nine in just the last two games. Add in all the scrambles and called-keepers, and it is a lot of hits and hurts for the junior in short order. But as Croom points out it's just a price to how Lee plays the game. "It's when he starts moving around back there and runs the ball," he said.
And, doesn't unload in time to avoid the sack…or at least get a late-hit flag. Because he has the stronger arm but less stature, Lee is directed to throw from both the pocket as well as on straight rollouts or bootlegs where he has more time to gauge the coverage and find a target downfield. QB Wesley Carroll is a stronger, though not quicker, runner, but also has less arm strength. Thus most of his throws are shorter patterns that are airborne before the rush arrives.
It's all a trade-off in what State wants to do offensively at the time, but Lee has drawn the last three starts and is booked to open Saturday's home game with Middle Tennessee State despite the left knee strained early at Tennessee. "We may use Wes in certain situations as needed," Croom said. "Or to give us a spark."
Croom says that for all his obvious mobility, Lee is still likely to take hits for a fundamental reason. "We don't like for our quarterback to get hit at all. But one of the things with Tyson, and this is the reason we didn't play him (as much) early in the season, is even though he's a junior college player this is his first year in the offense; knowing where to go with the football, and do it on time, you can't hold the ball. So there is still a learning curve.
"Wes was way ahead the first half (of the season) in knowing where to go with the football, no question, and probably still is as far as knowing what to do with it. Tyson has as better arm, but as far as knowledge of the offense Wes is still ahead because he's been in it. That's just the learning curve when you bring in a new guy."
YET ANOTHER OPTION: Or, speaking of a new guy, Mississippi State might soon be looking for a different sort of spark from another triggerman. Croom would like to put QB Chris Relf on the field almost as much as the redshirt freshman wants to be on it.
"For the last three weeks we've been looking for a spot to insert him in the game and do some certain things with him, the things that he knows well," Croom said. "We wouldn't ask him to do anything he wasn't comfortable with right now. We feel in certain situations he could help us, we envision some things he can do. But putting him in a situation where he can help us and at the same time not hurt us, that's the thing."
Indeed, the week of the LSU game Croom told reporters that Relf was being prepared to play then. As it turned out Lee got his first college start and played well in a competitive game where there was never any need or promising opportunity to change quarterbacks. The Vanderbilt game was too tight to make such a move, and while Lee was lifted after consecutive interception-return touchdowns at Tennessee veteran Carroll got all the mop-up duty.
Relf did play briefly in the home win against Southeastern Louisiana, his only college action to-date. Might he return to active duty this week? The setting has to be right, Croom insists. Not just for the team as a whole, but for Relf's own good.
"You'd like to be up a touchdown or ten points, you're comfortable with him in there and if a mistake is made it won't kill you." Or equally, kills Relf's confidence. "We just haven't been in that situation to take advantage of that. Because he does have some skills that we would like to take advantage of.
The coach means the physical skills Relf showed at Carver High in Montgomery, Ala. What has delayed development is that Relf actually had rather limited experience as a prep quarterback, and none in a system that prepared him for college-style offense. So when Mississippi State offered the scholarship Relf was instructed, Croom said, it would be two years before anything was expected of him as a quarterback.
"He understands that. We told him that when we brought him in. The guy was a wide receiver, he moved to quarterback his senior year. Physically he is the kind of guy we're looking for; big guy that can run and throw. No question the talent is there." Now it's just a matter of finding the best way to take advantage of those gifts. "There may be a point in insert him," Croom said. "The key is we're at such a fine point we don't want to put him in situations where the ball is turned over, he gets down on himself, and it creates problems."
INJURY UPDATE: Along with Brignone, other Bulldogs being protected in this week's practices are WR Brandon McRae, TE Brandon Henderson, DE Brandon Cooper, and DE Jimmie Holmes. Only the latter was expected to miss Tuesday practice as he recovers from a calf contusion suffered last Wednesday. "He's a lot better than he was going into the game Saturday," Croom said. "It's just precautionary, he'll be able to go."
And as usual HB Anthony Dixon's work-week will be shortened to keep down the wear-and-tear.
Also, three players--starting LG Anthony Strauder, S De'Mon Glanton, and LT Chris Spencer--missed much of Tuesday's practice to take an afternoon exam.