The Hinges – No. 1: The offensive line

Over the next several weeks here on the HailState Beat, we’ll be running a new football-related series each week, a series of series, if you will. We finish this week with The Hinges: counting down the top five people, places or things that Mississippi State’s season will hinge on.

No. 1 in The Hinges: The offensive line

We’ve written about the breakout year Tyler Russell is supposed to have. Word-after-word has been typed in reference to Mississippi State’s five senior receivers and the rising stars joining their ranks. Not one mention of the running back position has gone by without a foray into an explanation of the tremendous depth and talent the Bulldogs have at the position.

But, it’s all for nothing if the offensive line can’t block, protect and maul the way it’s supposed to.

Football is all about the lines. The line of scrimmage is where everything starts and, ultimately, it’s where games are won. MSU knows it has a strong defensive side, backed up by a small army of talented linebackers and defensive backs. But the offensive side is where the question remains. The Bulldog defense has been strong every year since Dan Mullen got to town, while struggles on offense have often held MSU back from winning even more games.

This year, if the offense can produce like many are expecting, it could be the difference between good and great for Mullen’s team.

But again, if the offensive line struggles, the entire offense struggles, as we often saw last year when the group suffered through injuries.

Photo credit: AL.com

Tobias Smith against Auburn

Gone are seniors James Carmon, Addison Lawrence and Quentin Saulsberry, all in the NFL now, but the overall depth, as well the talent of the starting five, should improve in 2012

As a freshman last year, Blaine Clausell was forced into action at left tackle when Carmon injured his knee, and the results were mixed. It may not have been ideal, but the experience should aid him this fall. Gabe Jackson is as good as they come at left guard, an All-SEC selection at the end of his sophomore season last year. Dillon Day at center, like Clausell, was relied upon earlier than most would have expected after Tobias Smith was lost for the season and Saulsberry moved to right guard. The trial by fire was tough, but he performed admirably and enters his sophomore season with considerable experience.

Then, we get to right guard. Smith’s spot. Back in the beginning of the summer, Mullen, speaking on the Our State tour, said the key to the offensive line, and thusly the offense, was Smith returning to form, recovering from injury and holding down his spot on the offensive line. I couldn’t agree more with the head coach.

Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith are very capable backups, but Smith has been one of the best linemen on the team when he’s healthy. In a group without any other seniors, Smith is the experienced leader the unit needs, and his presence is particularly important on the right side of the line.

Clausell, Jackson and Day form a strong trio on the left end of the line, but right tackle remains very unsettled, with junior college transfer Charles Siddoway and sophomore Damien Robinson battling for the starting spot. Both have great size, but neither has tremendous experience. If Smith isn’t himself, the right side of the line will be a bit greener than Mullen and his staff likely feel comfortable with.

With Chris Relf as a mobile quarterback and Vick Ballard pounding the ball as the running back, issues on the line were easier to mask the last couple of seasons. However, in a more pass-oriented offense with a pocket quarterback in Russell, a single miscue on the offensive line will be noticed by anyone watching the game.

Mullen finally has the combination of talent at the skill positions to run an offense that can put up some big and probably record-breaking numbers, but if the big guys up front don’t jell and become the blockers everyone wants them to be, it could be a frustrating year for MSU’s offense.

The potential is there for the offensive line. If Smith comes back healthy and dominant, if Day and Clausell build on their experience as freshmen, if someone emerges between Siddoway and Robinson and if Jackson just keeps doing Jackson things, then Russell will be a happy QB.

But until we see it, the season hinges on the offensive line.

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