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NCF Nation: Quentin Saulsberry

Vick Ballard isn’t sugarcoating anything.

He looks at the first two weeks of the season, compares them to what he’s seen lately from the Mississippi State Bulldogs offense, and sees a significant difference.

“We just aren’t executing like we normally have,” the senior running back said.

"It’s real frustrating because we’re the type of offense that can put up at least 40 points (a game). It’s real frustrating.”

The Bulldogs had one of the nation’s best offenses through the first two weeks of the season, averaging 588 yards in the first two games, but that was against lowly Memphis and an Auburn team that sports the SEC’s worst defense.

Against LSU and Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs averaged just 267 yards and combined for 32 points after racking up 93 in the first two games.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Dan Mullen
Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRECoach Dan Mullen says the Bulldogs must execute on offense.
There has been a missed block here and a blown assignment there. A botched route blows up a play and a poor read sets the drive back.

Mississippi State enters its game against Georgia with a 2-2 record. More importantly, the Bulldogs are 0-2 in conference play. Expectations were much higher for this team coming into the season, but the offensive stall has some second-guessing the Bulldogs.

Two conference losses likely put a West championship out of reach, but Ballard said this team is still upbeat. The offense is confident. This team was in the exact same situation last year heading into the Georgia game. Mississippi State won that game and went on a six-game winning streak, eventually making a January bowl.

“Everyone wants to go undefeated,“ Ballard said. “We lost those two games, but the fact that we were in the same situation last year gives us confidence for the next couple of games.”

If this team wants to repeat last year’s success, the offense has to get back on track. Ballard and head coach Dan Mullen said it starts with the little things.

It’s about getting back to the basics for the Bulldogs. Mullen runs a physical spread offense because of the bruising running style of Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf. Mullen not only wants to spread you out and make you attack all 11 players, but he wants you to grind or the Bulldogs will pop you in the mouth.

That pop hasn’t been there the last couple of weeks, with Ballard getting 38 and 68 yards in games and Relf getting 30 rushing yards on 25 carries. The physicality we saw earlier from the Bulldogs isn’t there and it hurts this potent attack.

Another reason for the Bulldogs' shortcomings on offense has been the offensive line shuffle. First, starting left tackle James Carmon went down with a knee injury against Auburn, shoving freshman Blaine Clausell into the starting role.

With junior right guard Tobias Smith out for the year after suffering a knee injury against LSU, Carmon, who returned this week and worked all over the offensive line, or senior Quentin Saulsberry could get the nod at his spot. Redshirt freshman Dillon Day is expected to continue to start at center.

That means there are two freshmen on this offensive line and youth here is always a concern in the SEC. Mullen said that makes it even more important communication issues get fixed and plays know exactly when and where to be on the field, as minute mistakes can create enormous problems and that’s what the offense has dealt with in the past two weeks.

“One guy off gets you out of rhythm in the offense and it kind of really slows you down,” Mullen said. “Every time we’ve been taking shots early in the season we’ve been hitting them down the field. We’ve been just off the fingertips the last two weeks. Those issues can really start to compound, one after the other, where you don’t get into a good rhythm on offense.

“When you’re going forward and backward, forward and backward, with guys making some mistakes and not executing cleanly you get out of that rhythm and you don’t put up those huge numbers that you are when you’re in great rhythm.”

No one would blame Mullen for getting awfully close to pressing the panic button after an 0-2 start, but isn’t. In fact, he’s not ready to change much of anything offensively. He just wants to little things corrected.

“We’re not changing a whole lot of what we do because we’re not far off from where we want to be,” he said. “We have to be cleaner and execute better.”
Mississippi State's Quentin Saulsberry spent the summer working as an intern in the Starkville Police Department.

Yes, he's already had more than a few teammates hit him up trying to get some help with speeding tickets. No, he didn't dare go there for obvious reasons.

[+] EnlargeQuentin Saulsberry
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMIThe Bulldogs are looking to Quentin Saulsberry to anchor their offensive line.
"Plus, I didn't have that kind of clout," Saulsberry joked.

On the field this fall, it figures to be a different story.

The 6-2, 305-pound senior will be one of the mainstays of Mississippi State's offensive line and will start out at center. It's the fourth different position he's played up front for the Bulldogs. He started most of last season at right guard, but also filled in at center when J.C. Brignone was out for two games.

Two seasons ago, Saulsberry started all 12 games at left guard. And as a redshirt freshman in 2008, he started all 12 games at right tackle.

"I've played everywhere and am ready to do that again this season if that's what it takes," Saulsberry said. "My job is to be a leader for the young guys, answer their questions and be an example. I don't care where that is -- center, guard or tackle."

Saulsberry's leadership will be vital this season, which is one of the reasons the Bulldogs are moving him to the middle of the offensive line. Gone are All-America left tackle Derek Sherrod and Brignone, who anchored the middle of Mississippi State's line the last three seasons at center.

"We've got to make sure we're good students of the game in the offensive line, and a lot of that is on me," Saulsberry said. "Knowing what to do and how to do it is one thing. But when you know why you're doing certain things, that's when you play faster and the game slows down."

Running the football has been Mississippi State's forte each of the past two seasons, and Saulsberry thinks that will again be the case in 2011. One of the key battles up front during preseason camp, which opened Thursday, will be at left tackle where redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell and senior James Carmon will vie for the starting job. Carmon moves over from defensive tackle, while the 6-7 Clausell has bulked up close to 300 pounds.

"We sort of look at what we do on offense up front as being part of the defense," Saulsberry said. "We play defense, too, and that's by running the ball, keeping our offense on the field and keeping the ball out of the opposite players' hands."

Mississippi State led the SEC in time of possession last season and was second to Auburn in rushing, averaging 214.8 yards per game on the ground.

Saulsberry said the nine-win season a year ago was "just a little taste." He said the Bulldogs expect to be in the SEC championship game this season, something they've done only one other time (1998).

"You always want to go beyond where people think you can," Saulsberry said. "And, really, you want to go beyond where you think you can. You never stop pushing."
The big uglies up front on the offensive side are our focus today. There are some quality veterans out there, but teams all across the league are looking to replace some quality linemen in the trenches.

Here's how we see the league stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBarrett Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBarrett Jones has been one of the mainstays of Alabama's offensive line the past two seasons.
1. Alabama: Four of Alabama’s five linemen from a year ago return, making this one of the team’s strongest units. The returners have combined for more than 70 starts at Alabama. Barrett Jones is the star of the show. The junior has been the Tide’s starting right guard each of the past two seasons, but took reps at left tackle and could be asked to move. William Vlachos is back at center and could be the best at his position in the league. Fellow starters D.J. Flucker and Chance Warmack are back and took reps at left tackle this spring.

2. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ offense isn’t getting much respect this offseason, but its offensive line returns All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Seven of Ole Miss’ linemen started two or more games each on the offensive line in 2010. Last season, the Rebels were first in the league in sacks allowed, giving up just 14. Alex Washington should stay at left guard after starting eight games there and A.J. Hawkins will likely get the nod at center after playing eight games there as well. Arkansas transfer Matt Hall will compete for time at center.

3. LSU: Joseph Barksdale might be gone, but the Tigers have a very talented group of linemen returning. Tackle Alex Hurst seems primed to be a star in the league and senior Josh Dworaczky is arguably the Tigers’ top lineman with 25 career starts. Patrick Lonergan is solid at center, while T-Bob Hebert is valuable at both center and guard. Sophomore Chris Faulk has the tough assignment of replacing Barksdale, but made quite the impression on his coaches this spring.

4. Kentucky: The Wildcats return four starters on their line. Right guard Larry Warford headlines the group after gaining second-team All-SEC honors a year ago. Kentucky also returns two-year starter Stuart Hines at left guard and Matt Smith at center, who was solid in his first year there. Left tackle Chandler Burden missed spring practice, but is expected back by fall practice. Finding a suitable right tackle is the next step for Kentucky.

5. Tennessee: This group could be one of the most impressive units for the Volunteers this season. It’s deeper and more experienced in Derek Dooley’s second year and he was very pleased with its performance this spring. Junior Dallas Thomas is solid at left tackle, and sophomore Ja’Wuan James really came on strong in his first year and is one of the top linemen in the SEC. James Stone also returns at center. The surprise of the group was true freshman Marcus Jackson, who held down the left guard spot for most of the spring.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs must replace All-American left tackle Derek Sherrod, but most of the line is somewhat on point. Center Quentin Saulsberry will anchor the line and is versatile enough to play just about every position on the line. Left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Addison Lawrence return and the Bulldogs will have junior Tobias Smith lining up at right guard. Blaine Clausell and James Carmon, who moved from defensive tackle, will compete at left tackle.

7. Georgia: This was supposed to be one of the strongest offensive line units in the league, but the Bulldogs lost tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a season-ending knee injury this spring and fellow tackle A.J. Harmon transferred. Georgia’s most-reliable options are Cordy Glenn, who moved from guard to left tackle and Ben Jones at center. Kenarious Gates is at left guard, but he’s athletic enough to play tackle if needed. Former defensive lineman Justin Anderson will start off at right tackle. Right guard is the next area of business and the depth all around is a problem.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have questions here, but there is talent across the line. Rokevious Watkins is one of the most talented guards in the league and he’ll be assisted by returning starter at center T.J. Johnson. Senior Kyle Nunn has made strides at left tackle and redshirt freshman A.J. Cann took over duties at left guard this spring. Still, the younger linemen will be counted on to contribute this fall.

9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks must replace three starters on the offensive line. Center Travis Swanson and left guard Alvin Bailey are the only returning starters. Just a sophomore, Bailey impressed his coaches last season and will be one of the top linemen in the league this fall. After that, the Hogs will have to turn to youth for help. True freshman Brey Cook could be thrust into the starting role at right tackle, while sophomore Anthony Oden could get the job at left tackle.

10. Florida: Florida’s offensive line struggled throughout the 2010 season -- and that was with a senior-laden group. This fall, the Gators will start over with a ton of inexperience. Right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Xavier Nixon are the only returning starters. Halapio struggled at times last season and Nixon battled injuries. Florida’s line spent most of the spring in the infirmary, so little is known about the overall talent. Freshman Chaz Green left spring as the starter at left tackle, Jonotthan Harrison will battle former Notre Dame lineman Dan Wenger at center. He transferred in after spring, but has health concerns.

11. Auburn: The Tigers will go from having one of the top offensive line groups in the country to having a major work in progress in 2011. Senior Brandon Mosley is the lone returning starter, and while he was solid on Auburn’s line last season, he came from junior college as a defensive end/tight end. The good news is that tackle A.J. Greene should be fine this fall after sustaining a season-ending leg injury last year. The rest of Auburn’s linemen are very young and inexperienced. Don’t expect many redshirts from this group.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores might return all five starters, but this unit had trouble keeping things together last year. The offense needs this group to improve mightily. Wesley Johnson is Vanderbilt’s best option, despite only being a sophomore at left tackle. There will be size on the right side, with 300-plus pounders Kyle Fischer and Ryan Seymour over there. Simply put, this unit has the experience, but it requires a lot of improvement.

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