That's a fact. This week State is 6th in SEC sacks-allowed, but that's just one out of 5th place and solidly in the league's top-half. As noted an infinite upgrade from 2008 when Bulldog passers ran for their lives far too often. And of course better blocking has played no small part in RB Anthony Dixon going from a 700-yard junior season to his second 1,000-yard campaign. Not that Lawrence and his fellow line-Dogs are strutting around just yet; a touchdown-less night against Alabama still grates.
"I mean, I'm a little let-down," the true soph tackle said. "I think we could have done a lot better. But it's our first year in the offense and we're still learning. We came up close in a lot of games and that's kind of tough." Tough, true, but hopefully these down-and-dirty Dogs can also appreciate the appreciation they're receiving for progress made.
Lawrence could be Exhibit-A for how, and why, Bulldog blocking has improved. He's a true sophomore, having been forced into freshman action first as a special-team protector and then as an extra ‘tight end' to help a struggling unit all last season. Ideally he would have redshirted but '08 was far from ideal all around. Still that exposure to game-speed helped give Lawrence a head-start on winning a regular job this fall, and here he is: an every-game starter at right tackle.
"It was a surprise. I wasn't expecting that but it was good to contribute to the team," he said. "It's still exciting, a new experience."
Lawrence might equally add, a new physique. Nobody would have called him a little guy out of Magnolia Heights High; but since his freshman season Lawrence has packed twenty more pounds on his 6-4 frame. "Yeah, I've been consistently 295," he said. "I haven't lost in the season, I've held on thank God!" With at least an accompanying nod of course to Coach Matt Balis who carries a lesser deity's authority when it comes to building up the Bulldogs each off-season.
Nor can Lawrence's own labors to bulk up be overlooked. Now he said it's time to take advantage of the bigger, stronger body by refining all aspects of his game.
"I think I get better every week. My footwork, my hands, stuff like that. Just the little things are getting a lot better. I've got the size now so if I can shore-up my technique. I think I get better weekly. I've got the speed, I just have to work on my strength and power and stuff like that. And the mental aspect of the games is where I think I need to pick it up."
No one doubts that will come in time given how quickly Lawrence has already progressed. He's shown toughness of mind and body alike this first full year on the job. For that matter so has the whole starting unit, though it's not as if they had much choice. Quality is still unproven in most backup slots and what little rotation State planned has been set back. Such as the iffy ankle that kept expected starting RG Tobias Smith sidelined most of this season.
Fortunately for State in general and Lawrence in particular veteran Craig Jenkins has taken care of right guard all season. Having an old hand at his left side has worked out well. "Craig's doing a great job, we work really well together and I feel confident beside him," Lawrence said. "And that helps a lot, having confidence with the people you're playing beside."
Now Lawrence and other underclassmen would love to reward Jenkins and fellow upperclassmen for their long labors with a holiday bowl trip. "We definitely want to send our seniors off, and the young guys are going to start something." Which it appears is already underway, really, as four of the starting five return as 2010 veterans with presumably-upgraded depth behind. So the future of Bulldog blocking looks most promising based on how much ground has been gained under new management.
So there are encouraging words coming from all quarters…save one. Lawrence said Coach John Hevesy hasn't exactly gushed with praises this fall.
"Not really. He's scared to compliment us, he says, because as soon as he does we're going to mess up."
STATE STYLING: Related to Lawrence's weight, he actually has cost himself a few ounces since summer by trimming that mane. Big hair is a family thing of sorts, as Lawrence let his grow and go for a year here before finally cutting it this year. Now it's freshman brother Cameron who proudly wears the hair. For how long, though? "All the coaches have been on him hard since I cut mine!" Addison reports. "But I don't know if he is."
RUNNING FOR RECORDS: There's just one real rushing record left for Anthony Dixon to chase: the season yardage mark of 1,383 set by James Johnson in 1998. Through nine games this fall Dixon has 1,082 yards. Of course ‘JJ' had 13 games to get there, while Dixon cost himself one chance with a season-opening suspension. Still the senior has two regular-season contests to get there.
"I don't know how much that is but it'd be great!" Dixon said of the season standard, which he's 301 yards shy of. "I guess it's another one of those dreams-come-true I've been saying all year." And it's true, Dixon does not keep up with his specific statistics; family, friends, and his media relations director are quite happy to take care of the accounting. Three hundred yards in two games is a whole lot of running and obviously the game's flow will determine just how many chances there are. Dixon is averaging 120.2 per-game as of this week, second-best in the SEC.
And of course he already owns the season and single-game rushing marks, not to mention the more impressive touchdown records (rushing and total both). Dreams indeed are coming true for Boobie. "And that's what it's been, no lie, it's been that all year. Every time I break a record it's a dream-come-true. When I first came here I said I wanted to be the man that did that, just from a competition standpoint to give me something to strive for."
So there are still standards to keep Dixon striving as his college career runs out. And obviously carrying the ball and the Bulldogs into a bowl game would make that season-record much more reachable. Dixon also needs 145 yards to earn top-ten status in SEC rushing history, though he's already there in scoring. So even if Boobie lets others keep up with his numbers and records, he knows every handoff is his chance to write more history.
Besides, "I think my life would get kind of boring if I didn't make goals when I woke up every morning. It gives me a reason to wake up with a bounce and get through the day! It's really just another opportunity for me. I've got another game to play and I think I can make it happen on any defense. So I'm just happy I've got another opportunity to show what I can do and do what I love to do."
TAKING TURNS: Mississippi State ran 57 official offensive snaps in the Alabama game, and QB Chris Relf handled 14 of them. It was the most game-action for the sophomore since his mid-season suspension, as the offensive staff increasingly finds situations that suit his skills and experience. Running the football, primarily, and Relf had 18 yards on six official carries which includes unintended runs though he didn't take a sack.
Neither did he get off many throws either; just three in fact with two incompleted and one intercepted. But a deep strike to WR O'Neal Wilder at the goal line showed what these young Dogs can be capable of with just a bit more practice and opportunity. Taking away his 7-of-10 day against Jackson State, Relf is 8-of-19 passing this year with 138 yards with three picks and no scores.
"That's the main thing I try to work at in practice, is my throwing," Relf said after Tuesday's practice. Hauling the ball, now, that's in fine shape already with a 6.1 average gain and 301 yards for the year; second on the squad only to Dixon in fact. There's never been any question about Relf's arm strength, and his accuracy is clearly improving to match. Where he trails senior and starting QB Tyson Lee is recognizing defenses, both at the line and on the move, and deciding where the ball needs to go. There are still some concerns about Relf's precision making routine handoffs, too, though his option-work shows that on the run he can read and react. He even took a few snaps in the last game truly under-center and not just in the direct-set that all but signals a run is coming.
Relf gets encouragement from a key member of the Bulldog backfield. "Even before he was suspended Chris' confidence was high," said Dixon. "It might have made him a little hungrier, losing that time. But coming into the season you could tell his confidence was high, he started doing more talking in the huddle than ever; he was trying to lead drills. I could tell his attitude changed about football, could see the way he was moving and just fighting in the drills he was a different player."
Nor is Relf bothered by the quarterback rotation. "I think it's good for the offense right now," he said, adding there are no tensions between starter and alternate. "Me and Tyson are real good buddies, it's the same."