Under Dan Mullen and John Hevesy, Mississippi State’s offensive line has developed a bit of a lineage.
Lessons have been passed on. Freshmen have been initiated by being thrown into the fire while veterans guide them along their way.
As long as the pattern stays alive, Hevesy’s unit will be in good shape. He guides them as their positional coach, but for his maulers up front to have a leader – or leaders – among them is an invaluable benefit.
Fifth-year senior and right guard Tobias Smith is the grandfather of the line. He helped left guard Gabe Jackson, who is now an All-SEC player. Smith and Jackson both helped carry the man between them, sophomore center Dillon Day, when he took the field as a freshman.
“They have really taken leaps, not just steps,” Smith said of Jackson and Day. “They’ve taken leaps to become better players. You can see the development. We’ve got a great coach who’s really developing us an O-line.”
Jackson himself, now a guide for Day and sophomore left tackle Blaine Clausell, was one the big-eyed freshman himself. Lucky for him, he had a first-round draft pick and gritty, senior center on either side of him.
Then, as a sophomore, he quickly had to move from followed to leader when injuries ravaged the line and he was suddenly one of the most experience players.
“He had the luxury two years ago of sitting between Derek Sherrod and J.C. Brignone,” Hevesy said. “He had that as a freshman. Now, he’s sitting between Blaine and Dillon. It’s confidence for those two.”
Even Clausell, the new left tackle, was able to learn from Sherrod when he redshirted, and now from Jackson on the field.
Sherrod, Clausell said, taught him technique. When they started playing on the field together, Jackson then taught him how to study film, how to learn from his mistakes and how to decipher the movements of opposing defenses.
“He’s a great leader,” Clausell said of Jackson. “He’s helped me pick up my confidence. Him and Dillon Day, having them beside me, I have the confidence. It makes you want to play harder, because you know that they’re depending on you also.”
Of course, Jackson doesn’t like to talk about it.
Hevesy himself said Jackson isn’t much of a talker.
“He doesn’t need to talk much,” Hevesy said. “Watch him play.”
But his impact, both when veterans went down around him in 2011 and in 2012 as he leads one of the top rushing offenses in the SEC, remains strong.
“Without him,” Smith said, “I don’t know what we’d do.”
Just as Sherrod and Brignone nurtured a future All-SEC lineman, Jackson does the same for Day. As just like Jackson, Day is moving fast, already raking in the accolades as a redshirt sophomore.
Though, the redshirt year was not easy on the center. Luckily, Jackson was there.
“Gabe’s held my hand ever since I got here,” Day said. “He’s helped me out with a lot of things. When I was going through my first two-a-days, it was a struggle. I talked to him in the van for a couple hours after practice and he just helped me through it. Ever since then, he’s helped me with everything on and off the field.”
Now, to borrow a quote, the student has become the teacher. Or, more specifically, the leader.
“Dillon, he’s a field general for us,” Smith said. “He leads us. Sometimes, I don’t know. I study film, but he sees things in a different way because he’s been with Coach Hevesy one-on-one. It really helps us a lot to have him on the field.”
And that’s how it ought to be, Mullen said. The center is supposed to be the leader of the offensive line.
Not necessarily off the field, he specified, but on the field, in the game, it’s all about Day.
“On game day, he’s the guy,” Mullen said. “He’s making the calls, the apex of the offensive line, it all comes through him. I think he understands that now. I think last year, he was trying to survive on his own. I think he understands the role of his leadership and how important it is.”
And to think, hardly anyone wanted Day.
MSU was his only major offer out of high school, a kid weighing in somewhere around 260 pounds. Nowhere near big enough, Hevesy said, to be an SEC center.
“People’s question on him was his physical size,” Mullen said. “We took a chance on that, and he developed himself into the size on an SEC player. He had the ability on film. That was a certainty. He had the toughness, he had the demeanor, but he was an under-sized guy that has grown and developed. If he still weighed 260 pounds we probably would’ve missed.”
Lucky for Mullen and MSU, they didn’t miss.
“You have to trust your evaluations,” Mullen said.
Over their four years, both the evaluations and the development have worked out for MSU.
MSU’s lineage on the offensive line has been strong, and it appears to still be growing.