In 2010 Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson experienced some rarity for young offensive linemen in the rugged Southeastern Conference. Jackson drew double-digit starting nods last fall at left guard and also managed to recover a fumble in the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown. But that was last year, said Jackson, and this spring began a whole new challenge for him - keeping his starting job.
"You can't every let up and you have to keep the same routine," said the 6-foot-4 and 310-pound Jackson. "Going hard all the time is what got me to where I was last year and where I am today. In spring ball you learn to pick your rhythm back up and keep on moving forward."
With that year of experience now under his belt, Jackson has a "more natural" feeling now at left guard. He did suffer a minor leg injury last week in spring drills but has served notice it is his spot to lose at left guard.
"A lot of things come more natural to me now," said Jackson, a former Amite (Miss.) County standout. "Things like understanding the game more and understanding defenses and our offensive schemes. With last year's experience, it helps you to understand why we do certain things on the offensive line and our purpose for doing them."
Yet with all underclassmen, Jackson is not quite there just yet. This offseason and spring, Jackson has focused on his weaknesses and to catch up certain areas with his strengths in the trenches.
"The run game is coming easier to me now," said Jackson. "But I still have to keep working on that and also improve my pass protections. Those protections are hard schemes to get down but I am working on them every day - on and off the field."
As spring ball officially ends today for the Bulldogs, Jackson and his O-line mates look for better fortune, health-wise, in the fall. Along with Jackson missing some time this spring, another starting guard in Tobias Smith has missed the entire spring after rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery.
In Smith's absence, however, redshirt junior Templeton Hardy has filled in nicely at right guard and worked with the first-team offense. Smith is expected to be 100 percent later in the summer and give the Bulldogs a nice shot in the arm in August's two-a-days.
"Getting Tobias back makes us a whole lot better," said Jackson. "To me, he is one of the hardest-working guys we have on the team. He is a guy that pushes me and keeps me going. He competes so hard and pushes everybody. But Templeton has done well and stepped up and showed he is a guy we can depend on, too."
Looking even more ahead to 2011, the Bulldogs' front line will enter the schedule without a pair of familiar faces at left tackle (Derek Sherrod) and center (J.C. Brignone). With both former Bulldogs now graduated, Jackson noted it was time for others to fill the void and keep heading in a positive direction.
"I think we will be pretty good again," said Jackson. "We lost some great guys that were great leaders on and off the field. But we have other guys that are capable of filling their shoes and stepping up. You are always going to lose guys and that is part of college football. So those leadership qualities and snaps fall on someone else's shoulders. And then you keep on pushing on and never lose sight of the team's goals."