Year-in and year-out SEC programs spend each spring with a lot of focus on the trenches. Mississippi State was no different this spring as Bulldog offensive line coach John Hevesy faced the task of replacing two starters from last year's squad.
Former center J.C. Brignone and left tackle Derek Sherrod have exhausted their eligibility. Rising senior Quentin Saulsberry has previously started at both guard slots and even right tackle earlier in his college career. This spring, Saulsberry moved into Brignone's spot at center.
"Quentin is a leader and his work ethic is so great," said Hevesy. "He doesn't say a lot but everyone knows how hard he works in the weight room and off the field. He is a good leader for this line."
Behind Saulsberry, however, is a lot of inexperience. For much of the spring, redshirt freshman Dillon Day served as the backup. Also expected to add depth at center in the fall will be redshirt sophomore Sam Watts (missed spring due to offseason foot surgery) and redshirt freshman Ben Beckwith, who also worked at left guard this spring.
"Right now if we had to start the season, Quentin would be No. 1 and Dillon would be No. 2," said Hevesy. "And then Sam Watts and Ben Beckwith would fight for that third spot. Ben has done a good job running with the 2's at center and at left guard."
Despite Saulsberry's move to center, the Bulldogs still welcomed back plenty of experience at guard. Redshirt sophomore Gabe Jackson and redshirt junior Tobias Smith both earned starting calls last year at left and right guard. Jackson missed one week of spring ball due to a minor leg injury but returned for the spring game and started at left guard.
Smith missed all of spring following offseason shoulder surgery but he is expected to return to 100 percent by late summer. Also in the mix in Smith's absence this spring was redshirt junior Templeton Hardy. After being buried on the depth chart early in his career, Hardy made big strides this spring and was a mainstay at the No. 1 right guard slot.
"That is where it starts and they are the two most powerful guys," said Hevesy of Jackson and Smith. "And those two and Quentin were all in the rotation at guard and that was good for them.
"And it's helped Templeton being at one spot this spring and we've watched him get better. He's gotten more confidence by focusing on one spot and he's made some good strides."
Other guys also took turns at the guard positions this spring, including Day, redshirt freshman Damien Robinson and juco transfer Joey Trapp.
"The guards will be Gabe, Templeton and then we get Tobias back this summer," said Hevesy. "And Damien Robinson is there now and Dillon Day can also play there. Joey Trapp also moved there so we have five or six guys that can run in there.
"Once we get some confidence in Damien, he may be able to move out to tackle. But he will probably be that fourth guard behind Tobias, Gabe and Templeton this year."
Beckwith also took many reps as the backup left guard this spring. Late in the spring when Jackson was out, Saulsberry moved back to left guard with Day handling center duties and Beckwith serving as the backup center. Despite being a walkon, Hevesy noted Beckwith showed good promise this spring.
"I always thought even when Ben came to camp here he had the ability and the demeanor and mindset to play," said Hevesy. "And he has the attitude to play. Some say the academy kids don't play the competition but it doesn't matter. I don't care where they played at and we want guys that have the attitude and mindset. And Ben has that."
Moving to the tackle slots, yes, the Bulldogs do have to replace an All-SEC player in Sherrod at left tackle. But valuable experience does return at right tackle with senior Addison Lawrence.
Redshirt freshman Archie Muniz was Lawrence's backup this spring while senior James Carmon and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell battled it out in Sherrod's old spot.
"The tackles will be James and Blaine and then Addison and Archie Muniz," said Hevesy. "It's good to have Addison back and he has the experience and is a very smart player. He is a guy that everybody is watching now and he does a good job with the little things and the techniques."
Many eyes were on that left tackle competition this spring and that race went back and forth. Carmon and Clausell both had their share of reps with the first-team offensive line.
"It's a good battle," said Hevesy of the left tackle spot. "The thing with James he that he has only had 14 days of really being at that spot. So it is a change coming from where we was, which was playing about 15 to 20 plays a game to playing 75 plays a game. There is no longer a rotation like he had at defensive tackle and now you get in there and keep rolling.
"And Blaine's doing good. He has an extra year of spring and has that in his favor. But he's gotten better and he'll be alright, too."
During the normal recruiting process, Hevesy always evaluates prospects and has his list of factors that determines where they may line up at the collegiate level. And once on campus, the current group of MSU offensive linemen have seen their share of position changes to find their best possible fit.
"Well it has a lot to do with their footwork," said Hevesy. "Your centers are going to be your most aggressive guys with a lot of smarts. Your guards have to be physical, powerful and able to knock two-technique defensive tackles off the ball. And with tackles, they have to be athletic guys that can move with range and help us in protections. You want those tackles with long arms and leverage."
But as was witnessed this spring, Hevesy wants his linemen to be versatile in case an injury here or there forces some shuffling up front. Overall, Hevesy said it isn't about naming a specific starting five or even a specific second team. The goal is to find the number of guys he can depend on when the 2011 season arrives.
"I will use them all," said Hevesy. "I am not going to walk out of spring and say 'here's my starting lineup'. I just want to walk out of spring knowing who can play and what spots they can play. Do I have five, six, seven or nine or 11 guys that can play? I feel when we get back on August 1st we will know that and know who is ready to play where."