When Dan Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy arrived in Starkville by way of the University of Florida they had a lot of work to do. Fortunately, there were several pieces to work with as they had a future first-round pick at left tackle in Derek Sherrod and a strong center of the line with J.C. Brignone. They hit the recruiting trails and found a gem in guard Gabe Jackson who has turned in to an All-SEC player since arriving on campus.
Years of injuries and lack of experience has led to a struggle up front but this season they feel like the depth is finally up to SEC speed. The five starting offensive lineman came in with a collective 96 starts between them. Jackson has started every game of his career and is currently tied for second nationally in active starts (40). The experience helped them early on in the contest against Oklahoma State last week, but miscues and silly mistakes caused them to give up three sacks and the offense was unable to consistently move the ball or put a touchdown on the board.
"I think we did alright," Jackson said of the offense in game one. "We lost the game so we kind of took it upon ourselves. We just have to bounce back and do better. We had some drives that we got going and did pretty good but didn't finish at the end so we have to keep working on that."
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"I felt a little disappointed, but I knew over the course of the game you're going to have highs and lows," Jackson said of the offense. "I tried not to let it bother me."
Jackson is the apparent leader of the offensive line and has been the last three seasons for MSU. He's been listed as one of the top guard prospects in the country for next year's draft and has held his own against some of the best that the world has to offer when facing defensive lineman in the SEC.
"You have to come to work every day to keep getting better," Jackson said of his work ethic. "If you stay the same somebody is going to pass you up. So you have to keep getting better, stop being lazy and be the best that you can be."
His leadership role now takes a big jump with a new quarterback this week as Tyler Russell goes down with a concussion in last week's ball game and Dak Prescott comes into the starting lineup. For the senior guard, it will be different but he's adjusted well.
"Every day you get used to it more," Jackson said of the transition of quarterbacks. "We're used to talent and depth being in the huddle every day so it's not like a foreign voice to me. We just have to get ready at practice every day and get used to hearing him."
So the offensive line is used to Prescott by now after working on situations with him in each of the last two years. A spot that they can't seem to get a player comfortable with is right guard. For the last three or four seasons, Tobias Smith has been in and out of the right guard position with a large amount of injuries. Widely known as possibly the team's most talented lineman, Smith was granted a sixth year of eligibility but has remained in a coaching capacity instead of in shoulder pads.
State coaches felt comfortable with the insertion of athletic big man Justin Malone and he had been performing well on Saturday before going down with an injury that could sideline him for this week's action. Bulldog fans aren't sure who replaces Malone, but Jackson is sure about his two options.
"I feel pretty confident in the guys that are going to be coming in to step up. They're going to be ready to go also so it's nothing big. I believe he's going to be alright. Whoever is playing, whether it's Damien Robinson or Ben Beckwith; either one of them can step up and play that spot. We'll be fine."
The leader of the offensive line will have to dig down deep in his junior season and prove the rest of the country wrong about his offensive line. The most talented line since 2010, this year's edition seems ready to do just that. Jackson has more business to take care of before he heads to play on Sundays.