Mississippi State's starting offensive line is 1,535 pounds of behemoth men who will go a long way in determining the Bulldogs' success in 2011. The unit will be charged with replacing the talent, leadership and experience of Derek Sherrod at left tackle and J.C. Brignone and center, while helping lead what was one of the SEC's most potent ground games last year.
Senior James Carmon, who switched from defensive line, is expected to take Sherrod's spot, and fellow senior Quentin Saulsberry will take over at center, having done so in Brignone's absence at the end of the 2010 season.
Dan Mullen said Saulsberry, along with a few other seniors, has spent a lot of extra time trying to help ease the switch for Carmon. Saulsberry stressed the importance of chemistry and cohesiveness among the unit, saying he believes the offensive line has both at this point.
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Last Tuesday, Carmon said he is finally starting to see the chemistry improve, too.
"The chemistry is going good," he said. "Today, me and Gabe Jackson did something we were supposed to do for a long time, and we didn't ever get it right. But today, we got it right a few times. We got it right down pat, we got it right down pat. It's what we're gonna keep doing. We're gonna keep on grindin'."
Carmon is listed as the co-starter at left tackle on the depth chart with redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell. While the rest of the offensive line has game experience, neither of these two have ever seen a snap in a real game at one of the most important positions on the field. Saulsberry believes the two are steadily improving.
"They're doing real well," Saulsberry said. "I was telling them earlier, they're adapting to the system real well. Coach Mullen always tells us, we've got to buy into the system. We can't just sit around and depend on somebody else to teach us, we've got to take the initiative ourselves."
Carmon appears to be taking that message to heart, saying he has spent extra hours in film study with offensive line coach John Hevesy. Carmon admitted there is one main thing he has to do if he wants to be the starter his coaches and teammates expect him to be.
"Learn plays. Learn plays, learn all the plays, learn all the plays. That's it."
Hevesy had the same message as Saulsberry, saying he can only go over plays with Carmon so much.
"I've been giving them to him," Hevesy said. "I can't drill a hole in his head and pour it in. Once again, I tell him it's muscle memory, it's body movements. I hope he sits in his dorm room tonight going through plays, walking through plays in his head. It's muscle learned."
Carmon is making that effort, saying, "I'm always in my playbook. Every chance I get, in my playbook."
In Saturday's scrimmage at Davis Wade, it was clear Carmon is still struggling on that front. When the defenders ran straight at him, not a soul could get by him. His size, strength and athleticism prevent anyone from over-powering him.
However, the mental side is where the trouble is. On multiple plays, Carmon rushed forward after the snap, only to find himself blocking air and looking around for someone to push. He also struggled when rushers came off the edge, instead of running right at him.
Mullen said he expects Carmon to be the starter when the 2011 season kicks off. However, even Clausell said that if the season started next week, Carmon likely would not be the No. 1 guy.
"I'm gonna have to say me," Clausell said. "Not being cocky, but I've been around the system longer, I know more of the plays. There's still stuff I've got to work on, but I've been around the system longer, and he's still working on a couple things."
Clausell admits he does not have the same physical tools as Carmon, but he believes his mental makeup is better than most.
"I'm that young guy who keeps his composure," Clausell said. "I'm young, I'm not as strong as everybody else. There might be plays where I get beat, but I'm not gonna get down. I'm gonna keep my composure. I'm gonna come back next play, and my mindset is, I'm not gonna let my man beat me. I'm not gonna let him get to the quarterback. I bring that kind of confidence to the table."
When asked about a couple bad snaps out of the shotgun on Saturday, Saulsberry said confidence like Clausell's is more valuable than most realize.
"It teaches us that we've got to keep our composure," he said. "You might have a bad snap in a game, somebody may give up a sack, things may happen in a game, but we've got to keep our composure."
When assessing his progression, Carmon conceded he is often the opposite of Clausell, struggling with the mental side of the game. It is understandable, of course, for a senior who has been playing defense throughout his collegiate career. He said his teammates remind of him that regularly.
"For me right now, it's probably like a two steps forward one step back, because I'll mess up on plays and stuff I know I'm supposed to do," Carmon said. "Sometimes it has me thinking, and when I think, I mess up. When I go balls to the wall, I'm straight, I know what I'm doing.
"My teammates tell me, 'Man, don't get frustrated, because you just came over here. It's springtime, why are you frustrated? You still got seven more months until we even kickoff anything.' They just keep telling me every day, 'Stay humble. You know you got it, you know you're gonna get it, because everybody wants you over here. We want you to be our left tackle.'"
While Mullen has expressed confidence in Carmon as the 2011 starter, Hevesy said, right now, he does not know who the starter will be. However, he does know what he is looking for.
"Everything," he said. "It's exactly what you said, who's gonna be the guy? It's like anything, who's gonna step up and be the starting left tackle. It's no different than the question people had last year, who's going to replace Anthony Dixon? Who's going to replace Derek Sherrod? It might not be a single guy. It might take two of them. Who's the guy that really wants the job, who's going to take it, fundamentally, physically, mentally, every part of what it entails to take the job?"
Despite being locked in a battle with Carmon, Clausell says they still learn from each other.
"We're close. We're good friends. We started talking about doing drills together at each other's house, get each other better. We're closer than anybody else on the offensive line. We look out for each other. We want to help each other get better so we can dominate and control everything that goes on offensive line, become leaders."