Senior Day is still a good ways off but Brignone and the rest of the State summer-squad are feeling the off-season heat. In fact to observe their exertions is to get the idea pre-season is already underway at State. Whether pushing around the iron inside the Holliman Center weightroom or running through prescribed paces on the practice field there is an un-subtle sense of urgency. Sure, some comes from coaching sources…particularly that gruff guy in charge. No Dog wants to finish a workout on the wrong side of Matt Balis.
Yet these days Bulldog players bring their own levels of personal inspiration to weight and conditioning drills. Few more so than Brignone. The senior center works as a man possessed by the idea of what this team can do and thus what he must be doing.
"It's just a fact of getting myself to go and getting it in my own mind. I can go out and run with Balis because he pumps us up, but it's a fact I have to push myself and learn to count on myself."
Mississippi State is definitely counting on Brignone to lead what is shaping up as a pretty solid bunch of blockers. Four of the front five started at their positions and learned both hard SEC lessons as well as what a little success can feel like. There are senior all-star candidates at the critical center and left tackle slots, a tested hand at left guard, a now-seasoned tough guy at right tackle, and a tantalizing talent finally—hopefully—healthy enough to take his rightful place at right guard.
Good stuff indeed. Just not so good as they intend to be when the Bulldogs kick it off on September 4 at Scott Field. Even Brignone, named to the Rimington Award watch list, sees himself as an unfinished product. "I'm still trying to push myself because there are some things I've never been good at," he says.
Thus the stressful summer pace Brignone has set for himself. Happily there is progress being made. "My speed and conditioning have improved a lot." Not that centers have to run thirty, forty yards very often in a game, of course, but with the potential Brignone has seen from Coach Dan Mullen's offense already he wants to be close behind when a Bulldog back or receiver breaks something all the way to the end zone. So he attacks the running/conditioning program this summer as if it were an opposing nose guard.
"That's what I'm trying to change around," he says. "You know, running and all that stuff has never been something I've been able to grasp! But I'm trying to get past it. It's all mental and that's what I'm still working on." Besides, he adds, "That's going to help me next year in the NFL, hopefully, is getting past the mental aspect of ‘oh my god I'm getting tired'. I want to be able to take it to the next level and go until I can't go any more."
Hopefully of course it is the fellows on the other side of the line-of-scrimmage who break down first. To that end Brignone needs more than just speed and endurance, and he's assuredly putting in the weight-work this summer. Which brings up an interesting question: after four years already in college, counting that redshirt season of 2006, is there really much room left for real gains in sheer strength? Wouldn't a guy have just about peaked in that regard by now?
Brignone agrees that at this stage he isn't likely to push his personal max-numbers too much higher, but…"I still gain a little bit," he says. He can squat 640 pounds now and his bench is around 440. "I'm only 22 years old but like you say, my body is getting to the point where I'm kind of leveling out." No, his real strength gains come in other aspects. Even now.
"You know, before Coach Balis got here I could never do a pull-up!" Brignone says. "A lot of people laugh, but now I'm hitting multiples of them. And that makes me feel better because I know one more part of my game is getting better. That's how I look at it."
Maturity gives Brignone another way of seeing some things. As a new pup on campus, coming off a prep career where he was a competitive powerlifter and wrestling champ, he felt obliged to show-off in the weightroom. Now? Let those younger teammates chase the numbers. Though, Brignone admits, the competitive juices are still there somewhere…
"I was messing around with Gabe Jackson, one of my freshmen linemen, and he was telling me he was going to bench 500 before the end of this year. I said I remembered when I first got here I said I wanted to bench 500 before I left! But I said if you do it this year I'll do it this year, so that will be the competition. If I can get a little pumped-up and Coach Balis slaps me in the face a couple of times I might be able to get it!"
But J.C., doesn't Balis operate on an in-your-face basis already? Brignone laughs. "That's usually how a lot of my sets end up anyway! "But I love Balis. He comes to work every day like he should and gets us going no matter what."
Then again Brignone doesn't always need the coach pushing him to greater efforts. There is that special cheering section which visits the practice field some afternoons, wife Blair and daughter Millie Lane. Football really is a family affair for the Brignones these days.
"I do what the coaches want me to do, but I'm trying to incorporate my family. So when I come out here at 4:30, 5:00 with my guys I bring my wife. So she can walk around, get out of the house, stuff like that." Now Dad is sensitive (smart?) enough not to ask Mom to make those 6:00 am sessions Balis schedules certain days. Somebody in the house has to get a little rest sometime after all.
"My wife does me really good, when I have these early mornings and stuff she stays up with Millie. Now she's starting to sleep through the night a little bit. But my wife has been there for me and helping me out, I don't know what I'd do without her." Oh, and lest any believe it's all cheering Pop on, J.C. has made it clear that Blair is also his toughest technical critic after some games. Not even line Coach John Hevesy points out errors as bluntly.
Speaking of his coach, this combination has also proven productive on the field after just one season. Brignone and Hevesy are a fine fit, the center says. "I've really learned football from him. Not just the Xs-and-Os but waaay past that. Understanding defenses and understanding what it takes to really be a center and control everything that's going on. I understand where to tell everybody to go and stuff, but now say I see something else; let's not just run the play but flip it and do something else."
Spoken like a Dog who is up to the challenge of literally directing Mississippi State's line into the coming season. By the way, Brignone is also playing a part in helping develop the other side of the Bulldog trench. He has helped hone a group of good, young defensive tackles for bigger things…and the center surely sees that potential now.
"The speed and the power of our defensive line, I haven't seen that many guys in one group, on one team that I played on. I've played the Dorseys and Colemans but always one or two guys (on the other team); now we've got three or four guys, five even that to me could come out and be all-SEC, could dominate the conference."
Though of course Brignone intends to make the defensive job a little easier by putting up offensive points. Here again his seniority matters because this month he is snapping the ball to a trio of underclassmen; two who have never stepped on a college field in redshirt Tyler Russell and true frosh Dylan Favre. Not surprisingly the center gives veteran Chris Relf the edge, but he is impressed with the entire trio.
"The way our quarterbacks, including Dylan, have been working with us we're bonding as one group. You can see now when one quarterback gets in nothing changes. Used to be where you'd kind of worry about the difference, how you had to block and stuff like that. Now it's we're all on one page, the o-line is going 100 miles an hour and we know the three guys behind us are gonna do their job."
If Brignone purposely mentions the newest kid in camp, well, it is just one old St. Stanislaus High alum looking out for another. "A little bit," Brignone says, "trying to give him a little spotlight!" Though the elder Rock-a-Chaw says the younger is capable of finding the spotlight on his own in time. "I didn't get to play with him because I was a senior when he was in the eighth grade. But I'd love to be able to play with him here, I think he's good enough to play, I don't doubt him."
Besides, there is another sort of ‘kinship' shared here since both are regarded as undersized for their positions. Big deal, shrugs Brignone.
"I tell him he's in the same world I am, I'm a 6-1 center in a 6-3 to 6-8 world; all you are is a 5-11 quarterback in a 6-3 world. So nobody can tell him he can't do it because nobody can tell me I can't do it!"
Besides, the only comments Brignone listens to now are his coaches telling him what to do and his family cheering him on. And he certainly isn't about to let Millie Lane see him slowing down even in this summer heat.
"I might be getting old, but I've still got it!"