Mississippi State’s offensive line, to hear them explain it, is still a work in progress. But the work, they do believe, is nearly finished as the progress portion of the equation has taken some quick leaps.
When offensive line coach John Hevesy had to replace three starters off last year’s team, he was confident they’d be fine from a talent perspective. The issue was experience, being the starter as opposed to the backup, developing communication and chemistry and becoming comfortable with change as it comes from opposing defenses.
“We can get better,” Hevesy said. “The communication was one of the biggest things as a whole we need to get better with.”
They can get better, but to a certain degree he already thinks they have. Left tackle Rufus Warren said he’s improved even from the first game against Southern Miss to the second against LSU. Within that second game itself, MSU’s offense line performed far better in the second half compared to the first, an indication of improvements over time periods both long and short.
“We didn’t know what LSU was going to do,” Warren said of the first half playing against a team who had its season-opener canceled the week before. “They gave us a few things we didn’t see. We came out in the second half and we adjusted well and I got comfortable playing and got my jitters out of me … We were communicating well … We started going fast and the whole tempo thing is what caught LSU off-guard and we were able to score.”
Adjustments were a part of it, but more than anything it was the confidence, getting rid of the jitters, as Warren put it. The idea applied to new starters and old starters alike, as it’s a full starting five that has to mesh together, not just five individuals doing whatever they please.
Hevesy offered one play from Justin Senior as an example. A junior right tackle, Senior is a returning starter. He had an impressive 2014 campaign and knows what he’s doing. But, perhaps because it was a new group around him or maybe because he was just nervous for the first home game, he made an uncharacteristic mistake on Saturday.
On one third-and-ten play, Senior looked up and saw LSU’s defense just standing around. In situations such as those, linemen are supposed to just sit back and let the pressure come to them. Instead, Senior jumped at the closest defender to him and the play was basically over it before it had even started.
“He knows it,” Hevesy said. “It’s just in the heat of the battle, he jumped it and knew it immediately.”
A similar situation popped up on film on another of MSU’s third downs. Four out of the five offensive linemen had correctly identified the change LSU’s defense was making. Those four knew what to do, where to go, who to block and how to block them.
“And one,” Hevesy said, “was kind of like, ‘Oh crap.’”
And one is all it takes, unfortunately, as the Tigers made the stop. It’s situations like those that both frustrate and encourage the line. On the one hand, mistakes are frustrating. On the other, those are correctable. As players and coaches alike have said, it’s an easily identified problem: communication. Talk more, and better, and they think they’ll be just fine.
The goal, Hevesy said, is for everything they practiced in the spring, everything they studied in the summer and everything they were drilled on in fall camp to come naturally in the throes of competition. As Hevesy put it, those things need to be in the mental bank and ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
His starting five is getting there in that regard, but they’re to the point now where they’ve had experience and repetitions. They have to start cashing in the work they’ve done.
“As I said after the game, the learning experience has to stop,” Hevesy said. “It’s got to stop being a learning experience. It’s got to be ‘I know.’”
If Warren is right, it looks like Hevesy may get his wish. Early problems against LSU, Warren believes, came from linemen thinking too much. Too much thinking leads to messing up practiced technique, making calls too late and missing cues that should be second-nature.
At halftime, the offensive linemen met as a group, went over their issues, and both as a unit and as an entire team, they took a collective breath and relaxed. They calmed down, played loose and for the first time all year, looked like the strong group they expected themselves to be before the season began.
MSU’s offense roared back to life in the second quarter, looking at times unstoppable in the fourth quarter as State’s defense had a performance to match their offensive counterparts. The loss was disappointing, but the Bulldogs are encouraged going forward. They believe they finally got their groove back. They just ran out of time Saturday.
“Now, we do know how good we are,” Warenn said. “Now, when we have to take it to the next level, playing Northwestern State can be a clean-up game for the offensive line, and Auburn and Texas A&M the week after that we just have to hit our strong points.”