Sweating It Out Until Bulldog Camp Opens

Calling his spring season ‘easy' is entirely relative. And honestly, D.J. Looney would rather have been practicing daily anyway. Knocking helmets with teammates is far more fun than rehabilitating from winter surgery, after all.

Still if anyone is concerned about spring-time rust on this semi-sidelined center, fear not. Looney has been grinding it away over the course of an intense summer and, he says, is almost on-schedule for fall action. "I feel good. I'm probably around 85-90% right now, I expect to be back full when camp starts, maybe the second or third week. But they've done a great job getting me ready."

Ready not just for real practicing, though. When the Bulldog offensive linemen report for their first August session, Looney will be in for some serious position competition. All that spring downtime opened the proverbial door for another, younger lineman to make his own case. That #2 slot on the center depth chart that belonged to Looney all last fall is getting a little crowded now that redshirt freshman Sam Watts is bidding for 2010 playing time.

Is Looney offended? "No, Sam did a great job this spring," he says. "And he's got to get ready to play. You never know who is going to be healthy and he might have to play guard or any position. That's why Coach tells us make sure we know every position."

That comment is worth re-noting. While the 2010 Bulldog offensive line-up will indeed feature the mandatory five labels for center, guards, and tackles, Coach John Hevesy does appreciate variety in roles. Especially at the interior three spots where in a position-pinch the guards and center should be able to alternate. Here Mississippi State does have a head-start of course; J.C. Brignone may well be a Rimington Award nominee and one of the SEC's best centers, but remember he broke in as a Bulldog playing left guard.

Current starting LG Quentin Saulsberry also got in some spring snaps as snapper. And Looney himself could slide to either side of center and fit in quickly. And so it goes with the still-developing Bulldog front wall, where the really encouraging word is that in '10 depth is a greater obsession than settling a starting unit. Progress, they call it.

To Looney though there has been another sort of progress, more intangible perhaps but no less important. His enforced sideline-time in spring allowed opportunity for observation on how these Bulldogs are MSU-melding in their second calendar year with Coach Dan Mullen and staff. And Looney likes what he sees, especially since summer has reinforced his spring impressions.

"We're definitely working hard right now. And we're excited about the season. We know it's going to be tough, we've got probably the hardest schedule in the country again but we're looking forward to it." And why would that be, exactly? Because, Looney explains, the team has seemingly passed through the ‘think can win' phase in rebuilding the program.

"Now we expect to win. Those games last year, the losses we had hurt more because of how much we put in. There are not any games on our schedule that we're saying OK, we might win this one. We expect to win these football games because we're putting the work in."

Admittedly some of this is simply the natural motivational attitude players apply when off-season lifting and running gets to be a grind. Yet Looney, now in his fourth State summer since 2007 arrival, can tell better than most how things have changed whether in the locker room or weight room. Or for that matter around campus and town.

"It's a different feeling. Being year-two we're comfortable, we know what is expected of us, we know the system, we know exactly what our strengths are and our weaknesses are. If we play hard like we should and kick the ball this year, I don't see us getting beat." OK, so maybe the more cautious would shy away from such a stout statement. But then when somebody, or rather bodies, are putting forth the sort of effort demanded of Bulldogs these days only a scrooge-soul would downplay such optimism. Besides, these fellows know better than anyone how far they have come in the last 18 months.

Take, for the most crucial example on this club, the progress of Looney's classmate…and the fellow he hopes to be hiking the ball for this fall. Few appreciate the improvement made by quarterback Chris Relf better than fellow 2007 signee Looney. And he does get asked, often.

"I think Chris knowing that this is his job, and he is the guy, has helped him out so much. Me and Chris came in together and started off together so he's been my quarterback since the very beginning. How comfortable he feels, he got really good towards the end of the spring with his accuracy. He has the leadership role that he's stepped up to. I'm really excited about Chris and think he's going to have a really big year."

For that matter Relf has a big week ahead, since he will be officially speaking for his squad Wednesday at the annual SEC preseason press-fest. This might be the one setting where quarterback and center could swap assignments, as Looney is perhaps the most voluble Dog in the pound where Relf would rather let his play speak for him. Looney, a Birmingham native himself, wouldn't mind being back in his home town Wednesday afternoon to watch his quarterback get swarmed by reporters. "He might get a little flustered!" Looney jokes, before getting serious again.

"I think Chris is going to do great. I really think him knowing this is his job has elevated his game, his people skills, his vocal skills."

Of course what Looney, Relf, and all Dogs are waiting for is the date talking stops and football resumes, with thoughts already turned to August 2 reporting day for fall camp.

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