Low-Key Lineman Has Higher Expectations

Some seniors respond to the pressure of their age to attempt great things for the final season. Others approach the coming, concluding college campaign simply as Bulldog business to take care of. Count Derek Sherrod in the latter category.

Mississippi State's senior tackle says there is no more, or less, added personal intensity to this week before game week than usual over the course of his career. OK, maybe "In a little way," Sherrod admits. Mostly, though, "Like any other year I just come out and try to do my job and help my teammates any way possible. It's just before the year."

If this seems somewhat low-key for any Bulldog here in the general rising excitement for 2010; and especially for a senior with all sorts of great team and personal expectations of the season; well, that is just Sherrod's proven personality. He exemplifies the image of a level-headed lineman, and if his post-practice or pre-game comments aren't the most exciting media material neither is a Sherrod quote likely to be found pinned on any opposing locker room door.

Take this Wednesday evaluation of how the offensive line stands, now that preseason work has transitioned from general practice to preparing for a real game. "Everything is going pretty good," Sherrod said. "We've got a nice, even flow, everybody is going out and working hard each and every practice. The coaches are pushing us pretty hard to get ready for that first game and I think we'll be ready."

Right. No bulletin board fodder there, which sends reporters in search of other blockers and stronger statements.

Yet in his own controlled way, Sherrod's senior demeanor does offer some hints that things are getting a bit electric in the Mississippi State locker room. Or everywhere else, for that matter. In this preseason Sherrod has seen an intensified attitude from all Bulldogs. Naturally this began with the arrival of Dan Mullen, who functions about as far to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum as Sherrod is the other.

Nineteen months later the whole State squad has caught the fever and fervor. According to Sherrod this program has been shoved into fast-forward. "We do everything at a fast pace. In the weightroom, on the field, in the meeting room, everything is aggressive and fast-paced. Whether it's learning, in fundamentals, everything in general."

Most of all, in this August's practices and scrimmaging. Just as important as picking up the pace, though, is having objectives to race after. Sherrod calls it a team on the attack, in every aspect of the game.

"That's just mainly our team mentality. We believe in just attacking and going hard," he says, then smiles. "Even us linemen!" In fact, this may prove to be what pushes Mississippi State ahead at a faster pace. Because when the big boys up front are on the attack, the guys following their lead (blocks) can only kick their game into higher gear. It all begins with how the Bulldogs approach practice, Sherrod says.

"We give every snap our full capabilities. We try to think of each and every snap as the last snap of any game, and just come out and attack it."

This preseason has shown long-sought progress on the offensive front line. Mississippi State returns four veterans who started all dozen '09 games at their positions; left tackle Sherrod, left guard Quentin Saulsberry, center J.C. Brignone, and right tackle Addison Lawrence. Only right guard needed replacing with the graduation of 12-game starter Craig Jenkins. Then again, had Tobias Smith been 100% healthy last fall and even in 2008, he would have found himself starting.

The best non-news from this camp has been lack of such setbacks for the third-fall sophomore, which is encouraging indeed for solidifying the best five-man grouping for opening day. Then again, Mullen noted last week that he and line coach John Hevesy are regularly working with seven linemen for the five jobs. The most interesting case is at left guard, where redshirt freshman Gabe Jackson is now taking a lot of first-team turns in rotation with junior Saulsberry; who himself has a 24-game starting streak going after opening all 12 '08 games at right guard and then all last year on the left side of center. By the way, Brignone also has a 24-start streak to his credit, though one of those was at left guard in '08 at Alabama. Sherrod owns a 22-game starting string going into the senior season.

There remain nine days and six practices to settle who does, and doesn't start on the offensive line against Memphis. Which is a very positive development in the bigger Bulldog picture because this time starter/alternate questions don't signal lack of personnel. They prove Mississippi State is finally developing quality depth in this all-important area. Saulsberry, the man involved with the tightest job competition, confirms this fact.

"All of us are getting real snaps," he says. "Coach still wants to evaluate us. ‘Go get a job' is the first thing he always tells us. Nobody has a sure job until that first day. Coach Hevesy always tells us be prepared, because you never know when your time may come. He said if he can get 11 ready, he wants 11 to be ready."

Eleven ready linemen might be an opening-night stretch, yet the potential for a true two-deep rotation is obvious. For that matter Sherrod sees—so to speak since his back is typically turned from these spots prior to the snap—the same positive points from other offensive areas. Such as the three-way battle at quarterback, or the four-man competition at tailback.

"I don't really feel a difference," he says about quarterbacking. "Coach (Les) Koenning does a great job with each of them, coaching them up and teaching them everything to do and how to take ownership of the huddle. I feel comfortable with any and all of them." And as for the ball-haulers? "Everybody on the offensive line feels confident in each of our running backs. They're going to be a big help for us this year." Oh, and for the record, much as he misses voluble teammate Anthony Dixon, the tackle won't miss worrying about 245 pounds crashing into his back. "That probably will be the only difference!"

Low-key or not, Sherrod knows the clock is ticking and calendar about to turn September. So, does this inspire at least some sense of August urgency?

"Not really, we take it one practice at a time. We believe in getting better little by little. If you do that and never take a step back the sky is the limit."

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