One of the biggest questions for Mississippi State entering the season – the offensive line – will face its biggest test of the young campaign on Saturday – the Auburn defensive line.
Led by senior ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford, who had 14 tackles and three sacks as a pair against Clemson, the Tiger line is deep, and most importantly, fast.
“The one thing they do is they get off the ball and they get off the ball fast,” Bulldog offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “They’ve got some good speed.”
So much speed, in fact, Dan Mullen has been creating “mismatches” in practice to try and simulate what his team will face on Saturday afternoon.
What those mismatches are we can only guess, but he wants his tackles – who are both entering their first year as starters – to be prepared for the onslaught this weekend.
Appropriately, it was last year against Auburn on The Plains when left tackle Blaine Clausell was unexpectedly thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman.
He’s come a long way since then.
“[I’ve got] a more confident mindset,” Clausell said. “I’ve matured a little bit.”
He’s also gained some weight. The good kind, for an offensive lineman, and he says he’s more powerful now.
On the other side of the line, junior college transfer Charles Siddoway got both his first start and his first action for MSU last Saturday, grading out in the ballpark of 80 percent, according to Hevesy.
The offensive line coach said he was pleased with both tackles overall, saying it was just little things they needed to improve on.
In particular, Hevesy said he was glad to get so many new linemen – tackles and guards alike – some action on Saturday before facing the big test against Auburn this weekend
“They all got a chance to not just play in a game, but get in that game atmosphere, get it under their belt,” Hevesy said. “Between hearing the crowd noise, hearing the cadence, everything that’s involved in a game, the intensity of it.”
Also important, Hevesy said, was the urgency of a game. In practice, you can mess up, hear a whistle blown, and then get a do-over. Not so in a game, Hevesy says, which was an important lesson for his somewhat-inexperienced line.
Between Clausell and Siddoway at tackle, Tobias Smith returning from injury at guard and having a sophomore at center in Dillon Day, youth is somewhat noticeable on the offensive line.
That said, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik isn’t too preoccupied with MSU’s “youth,” nor is he trying to exploit it with his two big-time pass-rushers on the edge.
“I wouldn’t get too caught up in the youth and inexperience of those guys,” Chizik said on the SEC teleconference. “They’re very big and very athletic.”
It’s that athleticism, perhaps more than anything, that will aid the Bulldog linemen against such a speedy front on Saturday.
As Hevesy said, this isn’t a line you can push around. MSU’s young pups will have to be fundamentally sound.
Luckily, Clausell thinks they will be. While he recognizes the talent the Tigers have at end, he’s plenty confident.
“They’re fast and they’re pretty good players,” Clausell said. “It’s gonna test our footwork and how we play, our technique.”
If the Auburn pass-rush is all it’s cracked up to be, a few pieces of MSU’s offense may prove to be vital.
Tyler Russell, while not known as the mobile quarterback Chris Relf was, has shown an ability to move in the pocket and evade the rush, which will be important. A pair of his targets may be of great help to him, as well, if near-300-pound linemen are threatening to put him into the ground.
Running back LaDarius Perkins, who has shown an aptitude as a receiver, may be able to provide Russell with a safe outlet not too far from the pocket, but at least far enough to be out of the range of Lemonier and Ford.
Then, of course, sixth-year senior tight end Marcus Green, who caught a Russell pass for a touchdown against JSU, ought to be a reliable security blanket for his quarterback in the middle of the field.
However, against an Auburn defense which gave up 300-plus yards rushing both to Clemson last week and to MSU last season, Russell may be better off handing it to Perkins or any other of the myriad of options the Bulldogs have in the backfield.