Lost amongst arguments over billboards and discussions over paying players at SEC Media Days was the fact that Mississippi State has to replace a four-year starter and first-round NFL Draft pick at left tackle in 2011.
The storyline was hashed and rehashed throughout the spring, but MSU head coach Dan Mullen believes it's about to heat up again when fall training camp starts on Aug. 4.
The candidates: 6-foot-7, 295-pound redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell and 6-foot-7, 320-pound senior and converted defensive tackle James Carmon who arrived on campus last summer from junior college and played on the defensive side in 2010.
In Mullen's words, both have had only a short time with expectations of being "the guy," knowing that one of them will be the new starter. That time as "the guy" was 15 spring practices.
"They can almost double that before we have to play, so we expect to see a big jump in their improvement during training camp," Mullen said in reference to the 29 practices MSU will have between now and the season-opener against Memphis.
Those practices also give Mullen time to figure out who the starter is going to be, as both are learning as they go.
Senior running back Vick Ballard summed up the competition well.
"I tell both of them, 'It's gonna be either you or you,'" Ballard accurately said. "There's no other way of looking at it, so one of them has to step up. I try to push them as much as I can myself. I know we're gonna have to depend on them a lot.
"I got confidence in them."
Mullen said the competition is about more than finding a starter, though. Just as important, Mullen says, is finding his third tackle. Last year's first-man-in backup tackle, Phillip Freeman, graduated along with Derek Sherrod.
Whoever isn't starting at left tackle is the first backup at both left and right tackle, making him just as important, Mullen says.
In reference to Sherrod, though, Mullen said the worst thing he or is his coaches can do is compare Clausell or Carmon to the former Bulldog star. No one, Mullen said, is going to be Sherrod and that is fine.
"So what you have to do is really look at those players' strengths," Mullen said. "The inexperience is the question. We have to find out what their strengths are going to be in the 29 practices, training camp, really early on in the season. We're going to need both those guys to play for us."
Senior quarterback Chris Relf, like Ballard, is not sure who gets the job, but said he is confident in whoever it may be.
"I have no worries because I know those guys are gonna work hard," Relf said. "I know James Carmon, he switched over from defense. He's a pretty big guy, so he should be pretty good. Blaine Clausell is pretty good. They're two good, hard workers."
Relf's non-traditional style will benefit whoever starts, too, Relf said. As a mobile quarterback and experienced senior, Relf believes he can make up for a lack of experience at left tackle.
"I think it'll help them a lot," Relf said. "When they see me running, hopefully they'll run and go block. It's about me back there. I just gotta feel that pressure."
Relf then noted the same thing Mullen has repeated. The starters at the other four spots on the offensive line are all returning starters, and center Quentin Saulsberry has started at four different positions in his four season at MSU.
For Mullen, that experience lessens the sting of losing Sherrod.
"I don't think it will hold us back because we're going to build our offense around the players that we have," Mullen said. "The worst thing you can do as a coach is say, 'You're going to step in and replace Derek Sherrod, who is a first-round draft pick in the NFL.' I wish I had 85 first-round draft picks on my team. But, you know, no team has that."
In addition to experience on the rest of the line, Relf said a veteran backfield will make the transition easier, as well.
The Bulldogs return their top four rushers in Ballard, Relf, sophomore running back LaDarius Perkins and senior running back Robert Elliott. Both Relf and Mullen believe depth in backfield behind whichever left tackle is on the field will take some of the pressure off the inexperienced players vying for the spot.
As Mullen has said, he is less concerned with who gets the starting gig, as both will see significant time. He just hopes that both Carmon and Clausell are ready for action.
"We need both of them to be ready to play for us," Mullen said. "That's the focus."